The 18 best small cruise ships sailing the world

Heidi Sarna

In a world where gigantic megaships draw all the attention, I've always found small ships to be the best.

I've sailed on more than 125 cruise ships of all sizes, but my favorites have never been the big "floating resorts."

I'm drawn to the intimacy and instant community that develops between a small number of passengers and crew cruising together. I enjoy the serenity of small-ship cruising, with no lines to wait in or crowds to contend with on board.

I also gravitate to the off-beat itineraries small ships offer because they focus on unusual and remote places that only small vessels can access.

Who needs the bustling Caribbean when you can explore Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean; lesser-known Greek Islands like Skopelos and Skiathos; French Polynesia; or the Galapagos Islands?

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People often ask me which are the best small ship cruises, and that question is difficult to answer.

The new high-tech expedition ships, outfitted with the latest hardware and design touches, are incredibly appealing. However, I also adore certain older small ships for their heritage and atmosphere.

Of course, the best small ship for you may depend on where you wish to sail and whether you're looking for a relaxing yacht-like experience or a rugged adventure.

If you're like me and find that bigger isn't always better, this list is for you. Here are 18 of the world's best ocean-going small cruise ships, both older and new. Each carries fewer than 400 passengers and all are ideal for your next intimately sized travel adventure.

Lindblad Expeditions: National Geographic Resolution and National Geographic Endurance

best small cruise lines

How small? 128 passengers. Best for: Gadget-loving adventurers.

Lindblad Expeditions has been a leader in small-ship expedition cruising since 1966 when company founder Lars-Eric Lindblad pioneered expeditions to Antarctica, Easter Island and the Galapagos.

Today, the line's fleet of small ships explores nearly the entire planet, always with an impressive lineup of experts and photographers along for the ride.

Lindblad's newest 128-passenger ships, National Geographic Resolution (2021) and National Geographic Endurance (2020), were built for hard-core exploration in the polar regions they call home.

They sport a striking X-bow design (an inverted ship bow design for fuel efficiency), a polar class rating of PC 5 Category A (a notch above most Antarctica cruise ships), and a dynamic positioning system that keeps the ships hovering quietly in place.

Passengers can utilize each ship's fleet of Zodiacs and kayaks and stash of snowshoes and cross-country skis that aid in exploration.

High-tech toys, such as a remotely operated vehicle and underwater video camera, hydrophone, remote-controlled aerial camera and video microscope, allow guests to view footage of undersea life wherever the ships may be.

The ships also feature a gym, yoga studio, spa, ocean-view saunas, library and two dining venues. On deck, two infinity hot tubs offer amazing views.

All cabins are outward-facing (and 12 are single cabins, a rarity) with an "expedition command center" that includes a tablet, multiple electrical and USB outlets, a TV, a barometer and a National Geographic Atlas.

Cruise fare covers wine and spirits, excursions and excursion gear.

Related: These are the best Antarctica cruise ships

SeaDream Yacht Club: SeaDream I and II

best small cruise lines

How small? 112 passengers. Best for: Yacht enthusiasts seeking the sun.

SeaDream Yacht Club 's 40-year-old ships may not be new, but they're still some of the prettiest classic luxury yachts afloat. Suites don't have balconies. However, they're spacious, recently refurbished, and feature wood details that evoke a classic nautical feel.

What the ships lack in modern touches, they make up for in experience and service. The food is excellent and served both on the romantic outdoor decks and inside the cozy restaurant.

The line's iconic weekly beach barbecue on a remote stretch of sand, complete with Champagne and caviar in the surf, is a cruise highlight on all itineraries. An open bar contributes to the social atmosphere on board, and watersports from a stern marina when conditions are right are a great perk for active travelers.

The SeaDream twins winter in the Caribbean and summer in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Scandinavia.

Related: Why it's easier to meet new people on a smaller cruise ship

Sea Cloud Cruises: Sea Cloud I

best small cruise lines

How small? 64 passengers. Best for: History buffs and sailing ship lovers.

The one-of-a-kind, four-masted Sea Cloud was originally commissioned as a private luxury yacht by multi-millionaire Wall Street titan E. F. Hutton in 1931. Hutton's extravagant heiress and businesswoman wife, Marjorie Merriweather Post, oversaw the ship's interior design, outfitting it in marble, mahogany and gold-plated fixtures.

After passing through various owners, Sea Cloud I has spent the last several decades offering casually elegant windjammer cruises to old-ship lovers from Europe and North America.

Passengers choose from 10 original cabins, including Post's own suite with its Louis XIV–style bed and nightstands, marble fireplace and bathroom, chandeliers and intricate moldings.

Sea Cloud winters in the Caribbean and summers in Mediterranean, visiting the Greek Islands, Italy and the Canary Islands.

Related: Big vs small cruise ships: Which will I like better?

UnCruise Adventures: Wilderness Legacy

best small cruise lines

How small? 90 passengers. Best for: Sporty cruisers who love quirky ships.

Constructed in 1983, UnCruise Adventures ' Wilderness Legacy is truly a one-of-a-kind quirky ship. Its throw-back style exterior harkens back to a 20th-century steamboat.

The ship attracts a loyal fan base thanks to its roomy size and cabins that open onto covered promenade decks (rather than a central interior corridor). It even features a hot tub on deck and an elevator, a rarity on older small adventure ships like this.

The portable, custom-made "sea dragon" platform at the stern makes for easy access to kayaking, paddleboarding and swimming, activities popular with UnCruise's sporty fans. The adventurous can also enjoy hiking, bushwhacking and cycling in some ports.

Fares include everything from wine, beer and spirits to daily excursions.

The largest ship in the UnCruise fleet and built for coastal cruising, Wilderness Legacy spends its time in Alaska's Inside Passage and Glacier Bay National Park, as well as on the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Related: The best Alaska cruises for every type of traveler

Star Clippers: Royal Clipper

best small cruise lines

How small? 227 passengers. Best for: Sailing enthusiasts with a penchant for the past.

Star Clippers' handsome five-masted tall ship Royal Clipper is considered the largest square rigger in service. Modeled after the great 1902 German clipper Preussen, the ship is a real throwback, with lots of wood and brass features and nautical-style elements.

Royal Clipper also has impressive modern niceties for a ship of its size, including three small pools and an aft marina for easy access to complimentary water sports. It also offers a small gym and spa.

In the winter, Royal Clipper island hops around the Caribbean, sailing round trip from Barbados to some of the lesser-known islands. During the summer, it cruises the Mediterranean along the French and Italian rivieras and explores the coast of Croatia and the Canary Islands.

Windstar Cruises: Wind Star and Wind Spirit

best small cruise lines

How small? 148 passengers. Best for: Romantics and foodies.

Windstar Cruises ' 148-passenger four-masted motorized yachts are beloved for their upscale yet casual sailing vibe and great food in partnership with the James Beard Foundation.

Standing on deck when the sails are unfurled is one of the more romantic moments you'll likely experience on any ship.

The expansive wooden sun decks on Wind Star and Wind Spirit make you want to be on topside as much as possible to enjoy the yachting life. Each has multiple dining options, both indoor and on deck, including a weekly barbecue on deck under the stars.

Both have a stern marina for easy access to water sports like kayaking and paddle boarding.

The cozy cabins aren't huge, but they are well-appointed with wood details and nautical flair. Suites are a combination of two cabins.

Windstar offers both cruise-only and all-inclusive fares. You can build an a la carte vacation or pay upfront for an easy trip that includes an open bar, unlimited Wi-Fi and included crew gratuities.

Wind Spirit is stationed in the islands of French Polynesia, sailing year-round out of Tahiti through February 2024. Wind Star is its globe-trotting sister, focusing mostly on the Greek Islands in the summer and Costa Rica and Panama in the winter.

Related: The 2 classes of Windstar ships, explained

Ponant: L'Austral

best small cruise lines

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 264 passengers (200 in Antarctica). Best for: Chic Francophile foodies.

Ponant has been busy launching six new ships in its impressive Explorers series. However, L'Austral (with sister ships Le Boreal, Le Soleal and Le Lyrial) is my favorite ship in the fleet.

Why? L'Austral is the ideal size for a small ship — intimate but still large enough for amenities such as a gym, spa and show lounge.

Its gorgeous tiered stern decks feature a lovely outdoor pool area at the back of Deck 6 with a perfect stretch of deck for sunbathing and scenery watching and an open-air bar above for stunning views.

With Ponant's French pedigree, it's not surprising that food is a cut above, especially the desserts, cheeses and wine. I had the best chocolate mousse of my life on L'Austral. Dine outdoors on the pool deck or in the elegant indoor restaurant. Enhance your evening with complimentary wine (mostly French), Charles Heidsieck Champagne, beer and spirits.

L'Austral explores both polar regions and spends time in the Mediterranean, cruising along the coast of Croatia and around the smaller, less touristy Greek Islands like Amorgos, Milos and Delos.

Emerald Cruises: Emerald Azzurra

best small cruise lines

How small? ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­100 passengers. Best for: Travelers seeking intimate luxury.

Emerald Cruises' new Emerald Azzurra (and soon-to-debut sister Emerald Sakara) is one of the smallest luxury cruise ships afloat and a good choice for travelers who want something more intimate than what Silversea or Seabourn offer.

The ship's six gleaming white-tiered decks sport a futuristic pyramid-like profile that turns heads when it arrives in port.

Emerald Azzurra features a watersports platform at the stern for convenient access to kayaking, paddle boarding, snorkeling and riding SEABOBs (electric underwater scooter-like jet skis). Inside, you can avail of a small gym and spa.

Choose from open-air and indoor dining for your meals. Wine and spirits are included, so take advantage of two impressive outdoor spots for a drink and stunning views — the Sky Bar at the top of the ship and the chic infinity pool at the stern of Deck 3, adjacent to a lounge and cafe.

Itineraries focus on the Mediterranean during the summer, with mostly one- to two-week cruises that call on ports along the coasts of Croatia, Albania, Italy, France, Turkey and the Greek Islands. It spends the winters in the Caribbean.

Explore these destinations in depth with included excursions.

Scenic Cruises: Scenic Eclipse

best small cruise lines

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 228 passengers (200 in polar regions). Best for: Design fans with wanderlust.

An impressively kitted-out expedition ship, Scenic Eclipse has an ice-strengthened hull with a C6 rating suited for polar cruising, including navigating the Northwest Passage. High-tech features include a GPS dynamic positioning system to maintain a location without dropping anchor.

The Australia-based line's debut into ocean cruising had Scenic Eclipse drawing attention with impressive additions like a pair of six-passenger helicopters and a five-passenger submarine (both offered at an additional cost), as well as kayaks, zodiacs and e-bikes. (Sister Scenic Eclipse II is set to debut soon.)

The ship's sleek angled silhouette makes for a handsome profile. The eye-catching interior is sophisticated, with a stark black, gray and beige color palette, lovely wood details, white Carrara marble surfaces and bold art.

Passengers can enjoy a relatively large spa and fitness area, plus multiple dining venues, including Asian, Japanese, French and Continental restaurants. Wine and spirits are included in the fare.

While small luxury ships typically have fancy owners' suites, the pair of top accommodations on Scenic Eclipse is on another level. Each measures over 2,000 square feet with a huge forward-facing teak-lined terrace, complete with a large whirlpool tub.

Scenic Eclipse cruises to nearly every corner of the world, including French Polynesia and the Pacific Islands, Australia, the Indonesian archipelago and Antarctica. The cruise fare includes excursions.

Related: These cruises cost $30,000 and have no set itinerary. Here's what to expect

Silversea Cruises: Silver Endeavour

best small cruise lines

How small? ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­200 passengers. Best for: Intrepid travelers who demand the utmost luxury.

Silversea Cruises is a pro at luxury small-ship cruising — the line has been at it for more than 30 years. With Silver Endeavour, it achieves the perfect mix of ultra-luxury surroundings with tough-as-nails expedition hardware for its focus on polar cruising.

On board, many rooms are veranda suites measuring 356 square feet (including a private balcony), all with marble baths. The largest Grand and Owner's suites are massive multi-room affairs with huge private verandas. The passenger-to-crew ratio is one-to-one; service is excellent.

For dining, there are four main restaurants, including an Italian and a French-inspired venue. The Grill is an eatery enclosed in floor-to-ceiling glass for the best views in the house.

There's an impressive spa, salon and gym with panoramic ocean views and several lounges for drinks (always included) and lectures.

Near the well-stocked library is the Expedition Study, where the 20-member expedition team is accessible for questions. Outdoor deck space includes the forward-facing bow area with an outdoor hot tub.

With its PC6 ice-class rating, Silver Endeavour spends November through April in Antarctica and the rest of the year in the Arctic, including Greenland, Arctic Canada, Iceland and Norway. Excursions are always complimentary.

Related: The best luxury cruise lines for elegance and exclusivity

Seabourn: Seabourn Venture

best small cruise lines

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 264 passengers. Best for: Travelers with high standards for luxury and special itineraries.

Seabourn 's new Seabourn Venture (and upcoming sister Seabourn Pursuit) are on par with Silver Endeavour and Scenic Eclipse when it comes to pairing top-of-the-line luxury and pampering with incredible itineraries.

Elegant interiors include a main restaurant, several lounges and bars where drinks are all included, a plush lecture hall, a cafe for coffee and snacks, and spacious balcony suites that start from 355 square feet (including the balcony).

The windowed fitness center and spa area includes an ocean-view sauna and the infinity pool at the back of Deck 5 boasts killer views.

Not just a pretty ship, Seabourn Venture is tough, built to PC6 Polar Class standards for a focus on expedition cruising in the polar regions. The ship carries two submarines, as well as a fleet of double sea kayaks and 24 Zodiacs that can accommodate all guests at once.

Seabourn's large expedition team leads daily complimentary excursions, such as Zodiac sightseeing tours, shore walks, hikes, snorkeling and kayak outings. Also, accomplished guest lecturers give onboard talks.

Like Silver Endeavour, Seabourn Venture will spend the year in the polar regions, with long repositioning cruises in between, such as a 51-day Antarctica, Atlantic and Northwest Africa voyage from Buenos Aires to Malaga, Spain.

Related: The 5 best destinations you can visit on a Seabourn cruise ship

Atlas Ocean Voyages: World Navigator

best small cruise lines

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 196 passengers. Best for: Travelers craving luxury and lots of open deck space.

World Navigator is a deluxe expedition ship sporting a 1B Ice Class-certified hull and the latest technologies, such as a GPS-based dynamic position system to minimize movement and noise.

Multiple dining options include the main restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating overlooking the ship's wake and a steakhouse on the Lido Deck. For cocktails, head to either of two piano bars, the Dome Observation Lounge or the Atlas Lounge, just outside the lecture theatre.

The Atlas Ocean Voyages ship has terrific outdoor spots for remarkable views (not hogged by a helipad or stern and aft suite balconies), including a close-to-the-water spot on Deck 5 forward and a "secret" arc of deck on Deck 6 aft.

You can also take in the scenery from the ship's shallow pool and two adjacent hot tubs.

Don't miss the spa, even if you don't book a massage. It features an appealing seating area facing the sea and an ocean-view sauna. Walkers and joggers keep fit on the top-of-ship track.

World Navigator's itineraries focus on the polar regions, but the ship visits Europe and the Canary Islands while repositioning.

Landings and Zodiac safaris are included on Antarctica cruises, but excursions are not included on other itineraries. All non-polar cruises offered from April through October are called Epicurean Expeditions (with one complimentary wine- or food-focused experience per cruise).

American Queen Voyages: Ocean Victory

best small cruise lines

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­How small? 186 passengers. Best for: In-depth Alaska cruises for nature lovers.

Newcomer Ocean Victory is large for a small cruise ship, which allows it to offer more on its Alaska expeditions.

Its sizable expedition team, which can number 18 on select voyages, comprises seasoned authorities in a wide range of fields, such as geology, whale communications and photography. Team members lead complimentary excursions on sea kayaks and 18 Zodiacs so passengers can experience glaciers, icebergs and wildlife up close.

In place of an observation bow with direct views of the water, as many similar ships offer, Victory has a pair of viewing platforms on each side of the ship, thanks to its distinctive X-bow design. These platforms are cantilevered directly over the water for great views of bergy bits and potential marine life.

The American Queen Voyages ship offers three dining venues, plus multiple bars and lounges (drinks are included in your fare).

Like any good expedition ship, Ocean Victory has one lounge dedicated to lectures with large flat screens to view presentations. You'll find an ocean-view fitness center, a small spa and an outdoor pool with two hot tubs.

Ocean Victory's 11- and 12-night Alaska cruises depart between May and September. The ship sails between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sitka, Alaska. It visits destinations such as Frederick Sound, Endicott Arm, Tracy Arm, the Waterfall Coast (Gut Bay), Misty Fjords National Monument and Fiordland (Kynoch Inlet) in Canada's Inside Passage.

Your fare includes a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay.

In winter, Ocean Victory sails in Antarctica for Albatros Expeditions.

Related: Looking for nature and adventure on an Alaska cruise? Choose a smaller ship

Swan Hellenic: SH Vega

best small cruise lines

How small? 152 passengers. Best for: Cruisers looking for unique itineraries including Africa and South America.

Swan Hellenic's compact, well-laid-out SH Vega is built for expedition cruising with a PC5 ice-strengthened hull.

The interior has a contemporary, Scandinavian-inspired low-key design ethos. SH Vega is nearly identical to its younger sister, Minerva. The third, slightly larger sibling Diana is set to debut in May.

When returning from a frigid Antarctica excursion, you will appreciate the fireplaces (yes, that's right) built into the walls of all cabins. They're electric but quite realistic, with flames and crackling sounds.

When the weather's good, skip the main restaurant and eat at the buffet, which is set up at the back of Deck 7, adjacent to the attractive (and heated) infinity swimming pool. Vega also has a small gym and a spa with an ocean-view sauna.

The expansive Observation Lounge takes up most of Deck 7 and is the spot for expedition lectures. Thirteen Zodiacs and eight kayaks take guests on water adventures and ashore.

Don't miss the little observation point called the Swan's Nest all the way forward on Deck 6. You play out your Jack and Rose fantasies there.

SH Vega cruises the Arctic region (visiting Greenland, Iceland and northern Canada), South America, the coast of Africa (including South Africa, Namibia and Angola) and the Antarctic Peninsula.

Cruise fare includes a one-night pre-cruise hotel stay and one excursion in each port.

Viking Cruises: Viking Octantis

best small cruise lines

How small? 378 passengers. Best for: Expedition cruisers with an academic bent.

Among the larger ships on our list, Viking 's new 378-passenger Viking Octantis (along with sister Viking Polaris) was designed to explore the polar regions with some pretty cool features, including a large two-level garage called the Hangar.

Inside are not only Zodiacs and kayaks but a pair of six-passenger submarines and military-grade speed used to shuttle cruisers on excursions.

The ship is equipped for scientific inquiry with a remote-controlled underwater robot, baited underwater camera and a FerryBox system for collecting water samples, which you can view under a microscope in the ship's science lab. Weather balloons are released on every cruise to capture info on temperature, humidity and wind speed.

For decidedly less academic pursuits, Viking Octantis has a fitness center and a spa that includes a lovely indoor pool with sea views, plus a sauna, snow grotto (with snowflakes descending gently from the ceiling through chilled air) and outdoor spa tub.

Four dining options include Manfredi's Italian and several attractive lounges, such as the windowed Aula auditorium for lectures.

Viking Octantis spends part of the year in Antarctica and the rest of the year cruising the Great Lakes and Canada, with a handful of repositioning cruises in between.

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Royal Clipper named Best Small Cruise Ship

USA TODAY 10Best Readers' Choice Awards logo

Best Small Ship (2022) July 22, 2022

These small cruise ships prove bigger isn't always better. These 10 cruise ships and yachts, each with a passenger capacity of under 1,000, can get to smaller ports inaccessible to larger ships and offer a more social atmosphere where it’s easier to get to know your fellow guests. 

The top 10 winners in the category Best Small Cruise Ship are as follows:

Wind Surf

No. 10: Wind Surf - Windstar Cruises

The 310-passenger flagship vessel from Windstar Cruises looks and feels impressive. A recent renovation brings new finishes and furnishings onboard. Guests are greeted with fresh flowers and fruit in their staterooms, and amenities like welcome cocktails, a fitness center, nightly port talks and complimentary water sports equipment.

Seabourn Ovation

No. 9: Seabourn Ovation - Seabourn Cruise Line

Seabourn Ovation, sister ship to Seabourn Encore, is the newest addition to the fleet. This 600-passenger ship attracts passengers with its inclusive cruise fares that even include unlimited caviar. Dining options abound, including alfresco dining at Earth & Ocean at The Patio. The ship also comes outfitted with high-speed internet—the only one in the fleet.

Viking Jupiter

No. 8: Viking Jupiter - Viking Ocean Cruises

Built in 2019, Viking Jupiter accommodates only 930 guests. Like her popular Viking sister ships, Jupiter features a spacious spa, several dining venues, an intimate jazz lounge, two cinemas, pool with retractable roof and a sports deck.

Seabourn Encore

No. 7: Seabourn Encore - Seabourn Cruise Line

The ultra-luxury Seabourn Encore features 300 suites for 600 passengers with all the amenities of Seabourn’s Odyssey-class ships. New additions to Encore include a VIP area on the top deck, a wellness program and two new restaurants, The Grill by Thomas Keller and Sushi.

Viking Sea

No. 6: Viking Sea - Viking Ocean Cruises

The 930-guest Viking Sea was built in 2016 as the second oceangoing vessel in the Viking fleet. Itineraries are destination focused, but onboard, passengers enjoy an inclusive experience with all-veranda staterooms, plenty of public spaces to spread out, excellent alternative dining options and top-notch service.

Viking Sky

No. 5: Viking Sky - Viking Ocean Cruises

The 930-passenger Viking Sky feels more like a resort than a cruise ship, thanks to its all-veranda staterooms, tasteful decorations and elegant public spaces for reading, relaxing or socializing. Little extras, like numerous USB ports, ocean-facing lounge chairs on the pool deck and floor-to-ceiling windows in most venues, make for a comfortable sailing experience.

Azamara Journey

No. 4: Azamara Journey - Azamara

Azamara Club Cruises describes the Azamara Journey as “a luxurious boutique hotel at sea.” With a capacity of less than 700 passengers, this intimate vessel is packed with modern amenities, including a large number of suites, a spa, fitness center, pool and several restaurants, bars and lounges.

Viking Orion

No. 3: Viking Orion - Viking Ocean Cruises

The new 930-guest Viking Orion offers all-veranda staterooms with amenities like free wifi, flatscreen TVs and heated bathroom floors. It’s also the first ship in the fleet to feature a high-tech planetarium in a 26-seat dome theater.

American Constitution

No. 2: American Constitution - American Cruise Lines

Carrying just 175 passengers, the American Constitution was designed to navigate the U.S. East Coast’s inland coastal waterways. The vessel offers large staterooms, spacious lounges, observation decks, and private balconies in many cabins with detail to elegance. Complimentary Wi-Fi, a fitness room, a grand dining room, a sundeck, and a putting green are some of the many amenities available.

Royal Clipper

No. 1: Royal Clipper - Star Clippers

Designed after the tall ship Preussen, the Royal Clipper is the world’s largest full-rigged sailing ship, complete with 42 sails. The vessel carries just 227 guests with luxurious accommodations and modern amenities like three swimming pools, relaxed dining and a marina platform for water sports. Passengers can even don a harness and climb the mast to a crow nest.

A panel of experts partnered with 10Best editors to pick the initial 20 nominees, and the top 10 winners were determined by popular vote.

Congratulations to all these winning cruise ships!

About 10Best Readers' Choice Awards

Nominees are submitted by a panel of experts. 10Best editors narrow the field to select the final set of nominees for the Readers’ Choice Awards. Readers can vote once per category, per day. For any questions or comments, please read the FAQ or email USA TODAY 10Best .

The Experts

Don and heidi bucolo.

Don and Heidi Bucolo

Don and Heidi Bucolo are the husband and wife team...   Read More

Don and Heidi Bucolo are the husband and wife team behind . Their love for cruising began after taking their first cruise together back in 2007. Having spent over 180 days at sea on more than 30 cruises with various cruise brands, they have learned a thing or two about planning and executing the perfect cruise vacation. The couple was voted as one of Porthole Cruise 's Top 10 Cruise Influencers and is featured in the new book  Cruising Interrupted . You can find them on the web and social media sharing detailed cruise ship reviews, port guides, packing tips and planning tips to help travelers "sea the world, one port at a time."

Don and Heidi Bucolo

Jason Leppert

Jason Leppert

Jason Leppert is a San Diego-based cruising expert...   Read More

Jason Leppert is a San Diego-based cruising expert with more than 140 sailings under his belt and a fresh, millennial perspective on the industry. He has been cruising since before he was two years old, thanks to his parents’ shared passion for traveling and their desire to experience all journeys together as a family. Now, he regularly sails and writes “he said, she said” cruise columns with his wife Heidi. He is the founding editor of Popular Cruising , producer of the successful Popular Cruising YouTube channel  and Cruise Editor for TravelAge West.

Jason Leppert

Ming Tappin

Ming Tappin

Residing in New Brunswick, Canada, Ming has been...   Read More

Residing in New Brunswick, Canada, Ming has been in the cruise industry since 1994. Ming spent over 20 years in the retail travel sector, working with travel agencies in marketing initiatives, cruise training, and promoting cruise vacations to their clients. In 2015, Ming created  Your Cruise Coach  and transitioned into travel writing, preaching the merits of cruising via her partnerships with Canadian and American travel trade publications as well as consumer media outlets. An avid cruiser since 1991, Ming has sailed on over 70 cruises and has experienced over 25 ocean, river, and expedition cruise lines combined.

Ming Tappin

Sherry Laskin

Sherry Laskin

Sherry hasn’t set foot on an airplane in more than...   Read More

Sherry hasn’t set foot on an airplane in more than 25 years.  Instead, she relies on cruise ships, river ships, trains and road trips to travel the world.  In that time, she’s been on more cruises than she can count and includes her solo cruise and travel adventures on her website, .  Her articles have been published in major newspapers and magazines - in print and online.  During a year and a half of living in Alaska, Sherry has cruised and spent time at every port in the Last Frontier except for Nome.  She’s become an avid transatlantic cruiser since 2005, as that is the only way for her to get to Europe without flying. Sherry hopes to inspire and encourage her readers to travel slow and travel solo, experience new cuisines and cultures. 

Sherry Laskin

Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith

Catherine Smith, Readers' Choice Awards...   Read More

Catherine Smith, Readers' Choice Awards Production Manager and Social Media Director for USA TODAY 10Best, has a special interest in unique culinary experiences and  off-the-beaten-path adventures. Catherine is the founder of  Her Bags Were Packed  where she focuses on helping  women release emotional baggage through solo travel and self-discovery.

Catherine Smith

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5 Best Small Ship Cruise Lines

best small cruise lines

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best small cruise lines

Cruises are amazing, but sometimes mega cruise ships can leave you feeling like cattle being herded through long lines at the buffet and at port debarkation. Smaller ship cruising is where it’s at — if you can afford it, that is. More intimate ships not only translate to fewer fellow passengers, but it also means you can visit lesser-known ports. Plus, you’re less likely to get lost on the way back to your room.

As part of our Best of Travel Awards, TravelAwaits readers nominated and voted on their favorite small ship cruise lines. Here are the results!

Viking Expedition Ship in Antarctica

1. Viking Cruises (Winner)

Viking Cruises is quite popular with our readers. Not only did the line top this category, but it also took home the gold for best Mediterranean cruise line . There’s plenty to love about this small ship cruise line. Viking does not allow kids under 18, does not have casinos or umbrella drinks, does not allow smoking on board, and doesn’t have formal nights to get gussied up for.

What Viking does offer is an  onshore excursion  in every port,  regional cuisine , and Wi-Fi. Luxe accommodations feature king-size beds, large showers, heated bathroom floors, private verandas, 24-hour room service, and more.

Touted as the “thinking person’s cruise line,” Viking also offers  culturally enriching  programs such as guest lecturers, resident historians, regional performance arts such as traditional Greek dancing, an onboard cooking school, and more.

“The team at Viking Cruises will make your stay so wonderful you won’t want to go home. Guests are often so pleased with their trips that they use their onboard discount to book a future Viking Cruise before they depart,” says  TravelAwaits  writer Judy Freeman. Read more about why she loves this cruise line in her article,  How To Make The Most Of Your Viking Cruise Vacation . And if you decide to book a Viking cruise, here are  five important things to do to prepare for it .

Windstar sailboat in St. Lucia

2. Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises is pretty pricey, but veteran cruiser Melody Pittman says it is worth it . Windstar small cruise ships host anywhere from 148 to 342 guests, allowing them to reach ports you may not see on other itineraries, including Tahiti, Kobe, Bordeaux, and  Honfleur .

Plus, Windstar is the official cruise line of the  James Beard Foundation , so you know you’re in for a culinary treat. Many of the high-end foods are locally sourced and specialty restaurants are included in your cruise fare. Read about Pittman’s favorite dishes from her voyage on the Star Legend . There’s also 24-hour room service and unlimited ice cream!

From scuba diving to visiting private islands, a wide range of shore excursions are available. Windstar also offers custom tours which can range from a solo trip to a carefully curated excursion for your group to see the sights with your own English-speaking guide. There are also culinary shore excursions!

Celebrity Constellation in the Bay of Kotor

3. Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Cruises’ 12 main vessels carry about 2,000-3,000 passengers each, but they are still much smaller than, say, a Royal Caribbean cruise liner. Generally, the bigger the Celebrity ship, the newer it is and the more amenities it will have. Its older Millennium Class ships are more intimate.

A few tiny ships, which carry 16 to 100 passengers apiece, are based in the Galápagos, including the Celebrity Flora . This luxury mega-yacht features all-suite accommodations, two chef-inspired restaurants, and an optional glamping experience where you can sleep under the stars.

tiny Silversea Cruise Ship in the Indian Ocean

4. Silversea Cruises

Known for award-winning entertainment, butler service, and 24-hour gourmet dining, Silversea Cruises goes above and beyond all-inclusive and chauffeurs guests from their house to the airport and back. Airfare and pre-and post-cruise hotel nights are included, too!

In addition to iconic destinations, Silversea goes to off-the-beaten-track ports that only small ships can reach. Enjoy a complimentary shore excursion every day or customize your own. Silversea also offers expeditions to remote regions like Antarctica.

Enjoy butler service in every suite and a staff-to-guest ratio of nearly one to one. Champagne, wine, beer, and premium spirits are on the house, and tips are included, too!

pool area on Seaborn Cruise Line ship

5. Seabourn Cruise Line

Seabourn Cruise Line’s young, modern fleet boasts of the highest space-per-guest ratios in the industry. Intimate ships mean Seabourn can visit everything from marquee ports to hidden harbors where larger ships cannot go. Plus, with nearly one staff member per guest, the crew is able to remember guests’ names. All of the luxuriously appointed suites are oceanfront and come with a Personal Suite Host and Suite Attendant who can do anything from drawing you a bubble bath to assisting in arranging an in-suite cocktail party. Tipping is not required or expected and premium wine, champagne, and spirits, are included.

Related Reading:

  • 7 Best Caribbean Cruise Lines Our Readers Love
  • 7 Best Mediterranean Cruise Lines Our Readers Love
  • My 6 All-Time Favorite Cruises From A Self-Proclaimed Cruise Fanatic

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Best small-ship cruises

best small cruise lines

Jeannine Williamson

Thursday August 18 2022, 17:54pm

If the idea of sailing with thousands of other passengers doesn’t float your boat there are plenty of alternatives for waterborne holidays. Small ocean ships and river vessels carry a couple of hundred guests, or even fewer. Seagoing ships can reach tiny ports that are inaccessible to their larger counterparts, while river vessels take you deep into the heart of a country with one or more stops daily. You will also get really personal service with the staff remembering your name — and favourite cocktail — by day two. Here’s our guide to some of the best small-ship cruises departing late in 2022 and in 2023.

Main photo: the 34-guest MV Lady Eleganza sails on Croatian cruise from Dubrovnik

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Our travel journalism is written and edited by independent experts to inform, inspire and advise our readers about the best choices for your holidays. We also feature properties and itineraries from a specially selected list of trusted operators. These buttons and adverts are clearly signposted, and provide direct links through to external sites. If you click and buy a product, we may earn revenue.

1. The Danube with Avalon Waterways

If you’re short on time you can still embark on a trip that’s big on sights. Avalon Waterways offers mini-breaks that pack in plenty of highlights on the Danube, including three capital cities. The beds on the 164-passenger Avalon Envision even face the river, so you won’t miss a thing if you squeeze in a daytime rest. As well as sailing between the Hungarian and Austrian cities of Budapest and Vienna , there’s also a visit to the compact Slovakian capital Bratislava, where cool street art rubs shoulders with traditional coffee shops.  

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2. The Mediterranean with Emerald Yacht Cruises

Sail through the Mediterranean in style on Emerald Yacht Cruises’ sleek 100-passenger ship Emerald Sakara. The cruise from Athens to Dubrovnik begins with the bucket-list experience of sailing through the narrow and high-sided Corinth Canal that connects the Adriatic and Aegean seas. Get a real taste of Greece at a cookery class and sample mussels in Sarande, regarded as the capital of the Albanian Riviera. You’ll also visit Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionian islands which played a starring role in the film Captain Corelli’s Mandolin .

3. Galapagos Islands with Aqua Expeditions

The astonishingly biodiverse volcanic archipelago off Ecuador is a bucket-list destination with a price to match, but nothing comes close, in every sense. Animals and birds have no fear of humans, so you’ll snorkel alongside playful sea lions, tropical penguins and turtles, and on-shore expeditions capture incredible close-up shots of dragon-like golden iguanas, blue-footed boobies and giant tortoises. Equally intimate is Aqua Expeditions’ sophisticated super yacht, Aqua Mare, which carries just 16 guests and an equal number of crew, with two naturalist guides.

The Galapagos islands is the destination for one of the best small-ship cruises

  • Best Galapagos cruises

4. Venice with Uniworld

This luxury river cruise is bookended by the two legendary Italian cities of Milan and Venice . Spend two nights in a stylish Milan hotel before an extra-special week aboard the sumptuous SS La Venezia. On the round-trip Venice sailing you’ll get a privileged look at the Doge’s Palace before the crowds arrive, and experience an after-hours tour inside St Mark’s Basilica. As Italy is renowned for its food and wine, tempting excursions also include lunch at a vineyard renowned for its Valpolicella wine, and a fun pasta-making workshop.

The SS La Venezia provides one of the best small-ship cruises

5. Costa Rica with Star Clippers

After a gap of almost ten years, the tall ship line Star Clippers is returning to the wildlife-rich rainforests , sugar-white beaches and craggy volcanic landscapes of Costa Rica . The 170-passenger, four-mast Star Clipper sails under wind power whenever possible, adding a thrilling extra dimension to the experience. A seven-night getaway will take you along the lush Pacific coastline to the white beach playground of Costa Rica’s paradise island Isla Tortuga.

6. Florida and South Carolina with American Cruise Lines

It might be famous for theme parks with lazy rivers, but did you know you can take a real river cruise through Florida ? The 3,000-mile Intracoastal Waterway hugs the coast from New Jersey to Texas and some of America’s most historic cities line its banks. Sail along the network of bays, rivers and canals from Jacksonville, Florida, to Charleston, South Carolina, on American Cruise Lines’ 100-passenger American Star. You’ll explore the quaint Victorian seaport of Fernandina Beach on Amelia Island, opulent antebellum houses and poignant Civil War sites.

American Star heads to Florida on one of the best small-ship cruises

  • The best cruise lines in the world

7. The Great Lakes with American Queen Voyages

On a sailing from Chicago to Toronto you’ll travel across the expanse of all five Great Lakes — Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario — on American Queen Voyages’ cosy 202-guest Ocean Voyager. See the thundering falls from a very different perspective at the underground tunnel experience at Niagara Parks Power Station. On Lake Erie, keep an eye out for Bessie, said to be a distant cousin of Scottish Nessie, of whom there have been numerous reported sightings over the years.

Ocean Voyager goes to the Great Lakes on one of the best small-ship cruises

8. Scotland with European Waterways

Prefer to cruise closer to home with like-minded shipmates? Then take a leisurely hotel barge cruise through Scotland on the 12-passenger Spirit of Scotland. With decor that evokes the traditional steamers that sailed the lochs of Scotland in the 19th century, it has the feel of a floating house party as you cruise through the Highlands between Banavie and Muirtown. Cuisine is traditional Scottish fare — think salmon, game and seafood. Highlights along the way include a private tasting at a whisky distillery and a falconry display on the banks of Loch Ness.

9. France with Scenic

Scenic offers a refined taste of France on a Bordeaux round-trip itinerary that meanders along the Garonne River. Swish cabins on the 149-guest Scenic Diamond all come with butler service and shore tours feature an exclusive classical concert in a chateau. Destinations read like a wine list; Saint-Emilion, Medoc and Cognac, with plenty of tastings along the way. There’s also the chance to sample truffles in Cadillac and hone your culinary skills at an on-board cookery lesson. Offset the indulgences on guided cycle and walking tours.

The Scenic Diamond goes to France on one of the best small-ship cruises

10. Seychelles with Variety Cruises

A world away from the large resorts usually associated with the Indian Ocean archipelago, this cruise provides a floating taste of these paradise islands away from the crowds. Moving somewhere new each day, you could meet 100-year-old giant tortoises, see protected birds unafraid of visitors and wander around 22-acre Moyenne Island to discover an extraordinary story of treasure, pirates and Englishman Brendon Grimshaw, who bought the island for £8,000. Back on board, you can swim, kayak and paddleboard from the marine platform on Pegasus, where up to 44 guests mingle with the crew and are treated as family members rather than passengers.

See the Seychelles on Pegasus

Take me there

Inspired to book your next cruise? Here are the best ocean cruising options with  Imagine Cruising  and  Marella ; as well as the best river cruising options with  Avalon Waterways .

best small cruise lines

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Storylines mv narrative, orient express silenseas, ms utopia residences, ocean residences my njord, clydebuilt ms dark island, ms titanic 2, aranui aramana, ocean albatros, ecoventura mv evolve galapagos, mv janssonius, ocean odyssey, sylvia earle, island escape yacht, sea cloud spirit, review of small cruise lines.

Small ship cruise deals offer expedition-style travel in some of the most pristine regions of the world. Most of these deals are all-inclusive packages that include pre- and post-cruise hotels, all transfers (including domestic flights), and often even both international flights to and from the destination country.

Small ship cruise travel is the best (often the only) way to explore more exotic vacation destinations. You won't find much in the way of theater productions or casinos, but that leaves room for educational pursuits. Small ships commonly organize enrichment seminars on everything - from local culture to photography. Sometimes local performers (historians, dancers, and musicians) are welcome on board to entertain.

Small Cruise Lines - CruiseMapper

Small ships go into the smaller ports - often inaccessible for big-sized vessels . This allows "expedition travelers" to experience the local people, culture and traditions of the destinations, and not only the tourist areas. This "intimate travel" experience includes viewing the wildlife up close, getting to know the crew and forming a bond with fellow passengers. Small ships, by definition, are with a way smaller passenger capacity , so you'll likely meet the same people over and over on a daily basis.

Still, the biggest advantage of small-ship vacations is flexibility. Booking availability is usually great, so picking your departure date is easier. Not to forget the choice of unique itineraries on which are navigated the world's most pristine destinations, including narrow fjords, remote islands, even inland waterways.

Small-ship cruising experiences don't include traditional for large liners amenities - like multiple dining venues, grand-style shows, kids programming. However, enjoying a personalized vacation while cruising the world on a "boat" is usually not recommended for first-timers and in the same time is best for affluent and more active travelers - as the money must not be an issue.

Small cruise lines

This is a list of the world's most popular small-ship cruise companies. Again, there should be also added river shipping companies, the largest among which are Viking , Uniworld , Avalon Waterways , AmaWaterways , CroisiEurope , Emerald Waterways , Scylla , Luftner-Amadeus .

Alaskan Dream Cruises ( fleet , is Allen family-owned company (founded 1970) operating Inside Passage itineraries - wilderness adventures on small-sized expedition ships. Its ships also visit exclusive ports of call in Alaska, including native-owned lands and a private island. Cruise prices are around USD 600 pp per night.

Aurora Expeditions ( fleet , is among the pioneers of polar expedition cruising, as well as a leading adventure travel company on the Australian market. The company was established in 1991 by Greg Mortimer (one of the first Australians to climb Mt Everest without oxygen) and his wife Margaret Mortimer. The company initially specialized in small-group cruises to Antarctica. In 2008 it was sold and the new owners started expedition voyages in Norway's Svalbard Islands , Russia's Far East, Greenland, PNG-Papua New Guinea, and South America (on Amazon River). In 2014 were inaugurated Alaskan Inside Passage itineraries and also launched land-river-sea expeditions in Ecuador (northwestern South America). In 2015 was launched an African cruisetour with a luxury safari cruise on Chobe River (Botswana). For polar operations, Aurora Expeditions charters ice-strengthened Russian research ships.

Coral Expeditions ( fleet , is among the best for South Pacific Islands cruises. Each vessel has a high-speed tender boat and Zodiacs for landings.

International Expeditions (TUI-owned) and Metropolitan Touring are among the best choices for Galapagos Islands. Metropolitan Touring's Galapagos ships are larger compared to most of the yachts deployed in this region.

"Island Windjammers" owns sailing ships on Caribbean island itineraries year-round.

Variety Cruises ( fleet ) owns superyachts (motorized and sailing) and operates in the Mediterranean Sea, West Africa, Indian Ocean, Central America.

Katarina Line (Croatia-based) also operates as an international travel booking agency for other lines. Katarina owns around 40 small-sized ships and yachts in the region of Adriatic Sea (Dalmatian Coast). Each of the ships can be fully chartered.

"Peregrine Adventures" is among the best lines in Antarctica. The itineraries are with regular roundtrip departures from Argentina (Ushuaia) and Chile (Punta Arenas), with a duration between 8 and 20 days. Among the visited destinations are Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula, Drake Passage, Falkland Islands, South Sandwich Islands. Deals are inclusive of hotels and all transfers. Fly cruise deals include departures from Buenos Aires. International flights are not included in the fares.

Noble Caledonia ( fleet , UK-based) operates chartered riverboats and owns two ships.

Quasar Expeditions ( is another major player on the luxury Galapagos cruising market. The company provides professional naturalists, and most of the tours (kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, walking, hiking) are included in the fares.

"Aggressor Fleet" owns an impressive number of smaller luxury yachts and operates in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Galapagos, Southeast Asia, Red Sea, Maldives, also in the South Pacific Ocean.

G Adventures ( is a Galapagos cruise line brand. In July 2017, it acquired the UK-based company Swan Hellenic. G-Adventures restarted Swan Hellenic's operations in 2018. The company owns the MS Expedition (ice-strengthened vessel).

"Pearl Seas Cruises" operates in USA (Great Lakes), Canada (Canadian Maritimes) and also in the Caribbean. On January 23, 2017, started the first cruise to Cuba from Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale Florida). The 10-day itinerary visited Havana plus other Cuban ports. In 2017, the 210-passenger ship Pearl Mist had 11 voyages from Fort Lauderdale to Cuba (January through April), plus more scheduled for winter season 2017-2018.

The following companies have their individual pages at CruiseMapper. Each of them provides top-quality, small ship cruising experiences on comparably larger vessels.

  • American Cruise Lines is famous for having large paddlewheel ships deployed on the US rivers Mississippi, Snake and Columbia. Other ACL ships cruise in Alaska also along the East Coast USA and Canada, Hudson River, and on Florida inland waterways.
  • Grand Circle Cruise Line owns riverboats (operating in Europe and Asia) and also ocean ships. Its deals are inclusive of all tours, onboard lectures, local gourmet food specialties.
  • Hurtigruten , along with its regular (year-round operated) Norwegian coastal itineraries also operates in the regions of the European Arctic and Antarctica. Unique tours in Europe offered by Hurtigruten are Northern Lights, Spitsbergen, polar circle landings (Greenland).
  • Lindblad Expeditions has an exclusive partnership with National Geographic. The experience features wildlife watching on kayaks and Zodiacs, and complimentary tours lead by National Geographic naturalists.
  • Quark Expeditions is the leading Antarctica cruise line.
  • SeaDream Yacht Club has two superyachts operating in the Mediterranean (summer) and Caribbean (winter). Deals are fully all-inclusive.
  • Silversea Expeditions operates a small fleet cruising in Alaska, Asia, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, Galapagos. Deals are fully all-inclusive.
  • Star Clippers owns tall-sailing ships (clippers) and operates in the Caribbean and Europe (Mediterranean). Deals are inclusive of marina-based sports (kayaking, wind sailing, waterskiing).
  • Windstar Cruises provides some of the best "top luxury" products on the small cruising market. All boats are relatively bigger and with aft marina platforms.
  • Un-Cruise Adventures is among the best Alaskan small-ship lines. During winter, its boats are repositioned to Hawaii, Baja Mexico, USA Northwest Coast. The steamer SS Legacy is cruising in the USA, on Snake and Columbia rivers.
  • Oceanwide Expeditions ( operates ice-strengthened ships in Antarctica and the European Arctic.

Itinerary of Small Cruise Lines

Since small ship cruising deals are mainly provided by riverboats, you can also see an extensive list of river cruise lines ships at CruiseMapper's River Cruises hub. CruiseMapper is tracking cruises on rivers in Europe, USA, Russia, and Asia as both itineraries and prices. It additionally provides lines reviews, along with information on major inland waterways and best-rated river travel destinations around the world.

Below you can see destination-grouped lists of small cruise ships. All ship links (in the "Fleet" section) provide information on itineraries, prices, deck plans and cabins, general vessel details, a concise history, as well as live AIS current position ship tracking.

In this survey, we use all Silversea 's official YouTube video releases. Each of those is add-free and will give you a "real-life" review of the destination's highlights, and professionally presented information on the small cruising experience it provides.

Galapagos Islands

Most of the listed here ships are actually big yachts and all can be full-chartered.

  • Celebrity Xploration
  • Celebrity Xperience
  • Celebrity Xpedition
  • Celebrity Flora
  • Encantada (yacht)
  • Estrella del Mar
  • MV Evolution (G10)
  • Galapagos Aggressor II
  • Galapagos Aggressor III
  • Galapagos Grand Odyssey
  • Galapagos Legend
  • Galapagos Odyssey
  • Galapagos Voyager
  • National Geographic Endeavour
  • National Geographic Endeavour 2
  • National Geographic Islander
  • Queen of Galapagos
  • mv Santa Cruz 2
  • Silver Galapagos
  • Silver Origin
  • Treasures of Galapagos (catamaran)

South America (Antarctica and Patagonia)

Among Antarctica's most popular itinerary destinations are Ushuaia , Cape Horn , Elephant Island , Paulet Island , Paradise Harbor. Longer itineraries also visit the Falkland Islands .

  • Evangelistas
  • Grigoriy Mikheev
  • MV Hondius, MV Ortelius, MV Plancius
  • Marina Svetaeva
  • Ocean Adventurer, Ocean Diamond, Ocean Endeavour, Ocean Nova
  • mv Polar Star
  • Sea Explorer
  • Silver Explorer
  • Stella Australis, Ventus Australis

European and Russian Arctic

The Earth's Arctic region includes the Arctic Ocean and territories of 8 countries (Russia, Canada, USA, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland). Arctic expedition itineraries are operated almost year-round (excluding winter months).

  • Russian icebreaker ships
  • Akademik Shokalskiy
  • Lyubov Orlova
  • Professor Molchanov
  • Professor Multanovsky
  • MS Expedition
  • MS Spitsbergen
  • National Geographic Explorer
  • Noorderlicht
  • Ocean Diamond
  • Ocean Endeavour
  • Polar Pioneer
  • Rembrandt van Rijn
  • Sea Adventurer
  • Sea Endurance
  • Sarfaq Ittuk

Hawaii and Alaska

Among the most operated Alaskan small ship cruising destinations are Inside Passage, Glacier Bay , Skagway , Juneau , Seward , Sitka , Ketchikan (Revillagigedo Island) , Homer , Kodiak Island .

Hawaii small cruises visit the islands of Hawaii (ports Hilo and Kailua-Kona ), Kauai , Oahu , Maui (ports Kahului and Lahaina , and Kona. Most itineraries are roundtrips from Honolulu.

  • Admiralty Dream
  • Alaskan Dream
  • American Spirit
  • Baranof Dream
  • Chichagof Dream
  • MV Misty Fjord
  • Kona Aggressor II
  • Island Odyssey
  • Island Roamer
  • National Geographic Sea Bird
  • National Geographic Sea Lion
  • Safari Endeavour
  • Safari Explorer
  • Safari Quest
  • Wilderness Adventurer
  • Wilderness Discoverer
  • Wilderness Explorer

Mediterranean Sea

Europe's Mediterranean is among the largest market for small ship travel. Featured destinations in this region are French Riviera, Italian Riviera, Greek Isles, Dalmatian Coast (Adriatic).

  • Star Clippers ships
  • Aegean Odyssey
  • Aegean Paradise
  • ms Berlin (FTI)
  • Club Med 2 (sail ship)
  • La Belle de l’Adriatique
  • Royal Eleganza
  • Serenissima
  • Variety Voyager

The UK and Baltic Sea

Europe's Baltic region is most attractive for the opportunities to visit Russia and Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Finland). Among the world's most popular destinations here are Norwegian Fjords and St Petersburg. The UK (British Isles) itineraries visit ports in England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. This region features over 6000 isles.

  • Deutschland
  • Hebridean Princess
  • Hebridean Sky
  • Lord of the Glens
  • Sea Cloud 1, Sea Cloud 2

East Coast USA and Canada

New England is comprised of six US states along the Atlantic coast. Smaller ships here often sail on inland waterways as well.

  • ACL-American Cruise Line fleet
  • AQV-American Queen Voyages/AQSC fleet
  • Grande Caribe, Grande Mariner

Caribbean and Bermuda

Caribbean small ship cruise itineraries visit popular island destinations, as well as mainland ports in Mexico, the USA, South America. Among the most visited destinations are the Bahamas, Grand Turk Island , Jamaica, Barbados , Grand Cayman Island , St Kitts Island , St Maarten Island , St Lucia Island, Aruba Island , Curacao Island , Roatan Island , US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, also ports and inland waterways in Florida (USA).

  • Belize Aggressor 3
  • Cayman Aggressor 4
  • Carib Dancer
  • Diamant (schooner)
  • MV Clio (Tere Moana)
  • Okeanos Aggressor
  • Sagitta (sail ship)
  • Safari Voyager
  • Sun Dancer II
  • Turks and Caicos Aggressor 2
  • Vela (sail ship)
  • Wind Dancer

South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand

The South Pacific Ocean as travel destination includes the archipelagos of Oceania (Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia), Australia and New Zealand. Among the most visited in this region are the islands of Fiji, Tahiti, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, New Caledonia, Solomon Islands, Tasmania, the Great Barrier Reef .

  • Andaman Explorer
  • Caledonian Sky
  • Coral Expeditions 1
  • Coral Expeditions 2
  • Fiji Princess
  • Island Dancer 2
  • Island Passage
  • Kimberley Quest 2
  • National Geographic Orion
  • Oceanic Discoverer
  • Paul Gauguin
  • Reef Endeavour
  • Silver Discoverer
  • Solway Lass
  • Spirit of Enderby
  • Wind Spirit (sail ship)

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The Best Small Cruises in the USA

best small cruise lines

Olympic Wilderness and San Juan Islands: Adventure Life

Ship: Wilderness Discoverer With a passenger capacity of 76, this small ship has the ability to explore the shallow inlets and passages of the West coast. Each room abroad the ship has an outside-facing window and TV that broadcasts highlights from the day's journey. A hot tub, sauna and small gym are also available.

Highlights: Sailing from Seattle, Washington , the Wilderness Discoverer hits Pacific Northwest hotspots like Olympic National Park, three of the San Juan Islands and Deception Pass State Park. During the seven-night voyage, adventurers have the chance to kayak through a protected bay off of Sucia Islanda, (population four) bird watch for puffins on National Wildlife Refuge, Protection Island, and hike through the rainforest in the Olympic Mountains. The third day is reserved for “Captains Choice,” a day for the Captain to choose a course through the San Juans and surprise guests with whatever the sea might have to offer that day. 

San Diego, California to Vancouver: Silversea

Ship : Silver Explorer The Silver Explorer has space for 130 passengers and a fleet of zodiacs for adventuring. The two dining options onboard offer fresh regional dishes. There is also an outdoor bar, and two lounges to relax and sightsee in. 

Highlights:  The 11 day cruise embarks from  San Diego, California and winds along the western coast of the US through Oregon, Washington and the San Juan Islands before ending in Vancouver, Canada. The tour is unique in that it stops in Monterey and San Francisco, where guests have the option to disembark and explore beachside towns like Pebble Beach  and  Carmel-By-The-Sea in addition to San Francisco must-sees such as the Haight Ashbury and Fisherman’s Wharf. The cruise past Port Angeles and Olympia along the Washington Coast offers the perfect opportunity to kick back on the deck and scan for eagles, seals and maybe even the rare killer whale.

Seattle to Juneau: UnCruise Adventures

Ship:  Variety  Passengers riding with UnCruise Adventures may find themselves abroad one of six vessels. None of them hold more than 80 passengers and all are equipped with adventure equipment such as paddle boards, kayaks, and wetsuits. They're even outfitted with yoga mats if you want to practice your downward dogs at sea.

Highlights:  This 12-day journey through Alaska and Canada’s inside passages sails out of Seattle, Washington and takes guests right into the forested islands of the San Juans. Stops along the way to the disembark point in Juneau, Alaska include Ketchikan the “salmon capital of the world” and home to the world’s largest collection of standing totem poles, as well as the glacial valleys of Misty Fjords National Monument. Wildlife sightings are a daily occurrence; adventurers have the chance to spot orca and humpback whales going through Stephens Passage and black bears and minks along the shore throughout Alaska.

Baja California: Lindblad Expeditions

 Ship: National Geographic Sea Bird or Sea Lion The newly redone twin vessels both hold 62 passengers in 31 outside-facing cabins. Each has a sundeck and open bow for maximum wildlife viewing. 

Highlights:  Lindblad Expeditions partners with National Geographic to take guests out and experience the world’s seas and beaches with the experts. This particular expedition leaves from La Paz, California and ventures along the entire Baja peninsula. The main attraction is the opportunity to spot and interact with gray whales. The Lindblad company is the only one of its kind allowed to enter the whale birthing lagoons, and during a two-day stop at Laguna San Ignacio, guests explore the waters on traditional boats known as pangas, and observe and photograph mothers and calves in their natural habitats. The majority of the trip is spent island hopping in the Sea of Cortez, stopping for hikes, and snorkeling off of the beaches. 

Hawaiian Seascapes: Adventure Life

Ship: Safari Explorer This luxurious 60-guest craft has an onboard wine library and spa area with hot tub, sauna and yoga classes. Every room comes equipped with heated floors as well as amenities like bathrobes and binoculars (a cruise must-have).

Highlights: An 8-day mix of culture, wildlife and outdoor adventure, the Safari Explorer takes guests from Moloka’I Island through Hawaii’s countless coves and beaches before ending at Kawaihae Harbor on the Big Island . The first day of the journey guests have the option of taking lessons in traditional practices like poi making, and taro patches or hiking through waterfalls in the Halawa Valley. From there, a cruise through the Humpback National Marine Sanctuary offers a chance to spot dolphins and whales. Each day is filled with opportunities to snorkel, paddleboard and swim through the islands.

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The Best Cruise Ships in the World: The Gold List 2023

By CNT Editors

Best Cruise Ships in the World The Gold List 2023

Consider the Gold List the answer to the question our editors get asked more than any other: What are your favorite places to stay? Our 29th annual collection, passionately selected by our international team, reveals which seaside resort we return to every August and the cruise ship that gets everything right. Now all you have to do is pick the experience that’s right for you—and get traveling.

See the full Gold List here .

Windstar Cruises Sea Breeze ship

Windstar Cruises – Star Breeze

On a cloudless night in the Caribbean , my husband and I left our nicely done-up contemporary suite on the 312-passenger  Star Breeze, heading to the open deck to gaze at the stars. He started humming “My Girl.” Twirling ensued. We had lots of room for our private dance, as this all-suite yacht recently underwent an unusual redo, cut in half with an 84-foot midsection added. The result: more deck space, additional suites, a new yoga studio, and other perks. We sipped cocktails while soaking in the new glass-fronted pool, then stuffed ourselves on chicken confit with chorizo and mussels, and Spanish wine, at a tapas restaurant headed by chef Anthony Sasso, who has Michelin-star creds. He’s a welcome addition to Windstar Cruises ’ impressive culinary lineup—as the official cruise line of The James Beard Foundation. This unfussy, friendly yacht delivers fine accouterments—so spontaneous romantic interludes are icing on the excellent cake.  Seven-night sails from $1999 per person. —Fran Golden

Regent Splendor Seven Seas

Regent Seven Seas Cruises – Seven Seas Splendor

All eyes are glued to the instructor, who is passionately demonstrating how to fry tomato fritters to maximum crispness. You follow along and flip your own in the ship’s sleek Culinary Arts Kitchen; your reward is a perfectly browned flavor bomb. This is just one little moment, among hundreds, that add up to an unforgettable journey aboard this ultra-luxe all-suite, all-balcony 750-passenger ship, on which even the smallest accommodations feel roomy. Considered touches are everywhere, like the handpicked rose petals used in the facial treatments at the spa. There’s always something happening at the Constellation Theater—musical revues or cabaret numbers—but the best show in  Splendor ’s house is late-night stargazing at the stern end.  Seven-night sails from $4,999 per person. —Janice Wald Henderson

Ponant Le Commandant Charcot

Ponant – Le Commandant Charcot

Leave it to Ponant to up the ante with the unveiling of  Le Commandant Charcot . The French cruise brand’s first Polar Explorer, she is kitted out with some superlative technology that promises minimal impact on the environment alongside a suite of exclusive offerings, from a promenade deck that has benches heated by recycled energy to a fine dining restaurant created in partnership with Alain Ducasse. The ship herself is a joy to experience: The public spaces are layered with custom-made furnishings—some with book-filled shelves and black-and-white photographs of the polar regions—and the staterooms are polished bolt-holes with tactile natural materials, curvilinear walls and ceilings, and concealed lighting that creates a warm ambiance. Spend your days hiking snow-dusted landscapes dotted with snoring sea lions and a cacophony of emperor penguins; hang out by the heated indoor pool with a fresh juice from the detox bar; or simply while away your day in the light-filled Observatory Deck while vast bright blue icebergs float silently past the panoramic windows. Eleven-night cruises from $19,450 per person. —Lauren Ho

Seabourn Odyssey ship

Seabourn – Seabourn Odyssey

Take it from me: After a week of white-glove service, spacious marble bathtubs, and on-demand in-suite caviar and Champagne, it will be hard to leave this 11-deck liner behind. But even though it has all the trappings of extreme luxury, the ship doesn’t take itself too seriously. Just head to the marina on deck 2, where kayaks, inner tubes, and banana boats beckon when the ship anchors for a breezy afternoon between select Caribbean ports. In Roseau, Dominica , be sure to follow my lead and sign up for the Seven Waterfalls Canyoning afternoon. Back on board, The Grill by Thomas Keller reaches the height of glamour with its tableside Caesar salad. But my personal favorite spot is the hidden hot tub at the bow. The views across the cerulean blues won’t disappoint.  Seven-day sailings from $3,500 per person. —Madison Flager

Silversea Silver Origin lounge

Silversea Cruises – Silver Origin

Squalls on San Cristóbal, the easternmost island in the Galápagos, meant my fellow guests and I couldn’t reach the  Silver Origin until dusk, after a full day of travel that had begun in Quito . By then, the crisp white lines of the ship’s eight decks had transformed into a mere frame for the windows’ reflected drama of the cloud-flecked sunset over calm Pacific waters. It looked like a sanctuary, and that’s what it proved to be, unfailingly, throughout our weeklong voyage. 

Returning from an adventure among the blue-footed boobies and sea lions, we would be greeted with a smile from Juan Altamirano, my ship’s hotel director, and a drink that always seemed to be what we needed right then: a perfect hot chocolate or a fragrant canelazo, a traditional drink from the Ecuadoran Highlands made with cinnamon and cloves. Once aboard, we found an avowedly unostentatious style of luxury: A comfortably expensive atmosphere of low-slung seating and a palette of beige and taupe and cream, with lots of brassy accents; generous deck space for leisurely alfresco lunches; 51 cozy suites, each of which comes with a balcony and a butler; a hardworking little gym and a spa with a terrific masseuse; a stargazing platform that is also a prime vantage point for those epic Galápagos sunsets, not to mention the occasional dolphin sighting or distant lava flow.

What the  Silver Origin never does is divert guests’ attention from the true star of the show: The Galápagos themselves. Perhaps its greatest asset is its deeply knowledgeable, deeply passionate expedition guides, who take you onto these strange and wonderful islands via the Zodiacs—always using a sailor’s grip!—to share their expertise about the archipelago’s creatures, landscape, ecology, and history. Back on board, after the day’s adventures are done, they dress up before delivering surprisingly engaging lectures about the islands, accompanied by cocktails and addictive bar snacks. Then it’s off to dinner, perhaps a soak in the hot tub on an upper deck, a group sing-along with the piano player, and bed, before another island experience the next day. Throughout it all, the ship grounds its guests, never seeking to be an end in itself but rather a lens through which to view and understand one of the most extraordinary places on Earth.  Seven-day sailings from $11,500 per person. —Jesse Ashlock

Terrace on cruise ship

Viking – Viking Octantis

There are few travel experiences that rival sitting in a Norwegian badestamp (hot tub) as Antarctic air pricks your skin, glaciers looming just 100 feet away. On the  Viking Octantis , though, that’s the offer—Nordic design and sensibilities, aboard a brand-new expedition ship built to chart waters like the Drake Passage. There may be plenty of ways to visit the seventh continent these days, but Viking’s new ship (which has a twin: the  Viking Polaris ) and Antarctic Explorer itinerary make even the most well-traveled feel like students again. Journeying from the southernmost tip of Argentina and down the Antarctic Peninsula, lean over the bow with a pair of binoculars and expect a naturalist to appear beside you, identifying gentoo penguins porpoising in the ship’s wake; in the Living Room each evening, the sound of live piano in the air, lusekofte-sweater-donning marine biologists confer with guests at the bar. Here, luxury means rubbing shoulders with a smart set of travelers as you reach for salmon-topped smørrebrød at Mamsen’s between continent landings, or browse the ship-spanning library, curated by London bookstore Heywood Hill and Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute for a great read—or pad from the badestamp to the sauna, in pure disbelief at where you are.  Eight-night sails from $5,995 per person. —Megan Spurrell

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Lindblad Expeditions – National Geographic Endurance

It’s not an easy journey to Antarctica, but this 126-passenger ship makes it exceedingly comfortable for its guests. Named after Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s historic vessel,  National Geographic Endurance is designed for rugged polar expeditions in icy and rough seas. But inside, it’s all luxury hotel. Airy Scandinavian design permeates the sophisticated ship, with copious windows and outdoor space in public areas and plush cabins—most include balconies with hammocks. (Temperatures can be surprisingly mild, so the outdoor decks are the best places to see soaring seabirds, breaching whales, and towering icebergs.) Amenities are robust for a small ship, from a spa to a science hub to the world’s first permanent polar art exhibition, dedicated to climate change. Off the ship, days are spent hiking across dramatic landscapes or zipping between icebergs in Zodiacs. On the ship, they’re filled with fine dining (C. Greens, named for Shackleton’s expedition cook, is a knockout), engaging lectures from naturalists and historians, and a few brief moments to enjoy the infinity-edge hot tubs on the top deck.  14-day sailing to Antarctica from $15,380 per person. —Stefanie Waldek

Oceania Cruises Riviera

Oceania Cruises – Riviera

Maybe it’s the solo time with the artist in residence that inspires your inner Édouard Manet. (Consider yourself lucky if it’s Graham Denison, a charismatic Brit.) Or the glorious Culinary Discovery Tours where you escape sweltering Ephesus’s crowds and watch local cooks prepare signature Turkish cuisine before you dine, in the garden of a village restaurant, on a lunch that revives palate and soul. Certainly it’s  Riviera ’s dazzling cuisine; chefs at seven complimentary restaurants wow daily, brandishing lobster like it’s hamburger meat. The optional upgrades are also worth every penny—the Dom Pérignon six-course pairing extravaganza, for example, proves priceless; who knew seared Wagyu beef sashimi with sautéed arugula, blood orange-soya jus, and caviar perlita hums with a 2004 rosé?  Riviera  red-carpet delivers countless exceptional touches, like the concert-hall-worthy classical string quartet that plays during afternoon tea. The December 2022 dry dock unveiled more glam, modern public venues, and cool new accommodations with roomier baths—all the better for reveling in Bulgari toiletries. Surely you think deck-party line dancing is silly, but dang, everyone’s unselfconscious joy is so contagious, you will join in.  Seven-night sails from $1,499 per person. —Janice Wald Henderson

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The 11 Best Luxury Cruise Lines, According to T+L's Experts

These luxury cruise lines offer stunning suites, fine dining, and exceptional itineraries.

Meena Thiruvengadam is a lifelong traveler and veteran journalist who has visited more than 50 countries across six continents. Her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal , Departures , TripSavvy , and other publications.

best small cruise lines

Cruising is back — and you might even say it's better than ever. "Vacations at sea are suddenly one of the biggest things in travel," Travel + Leisure cruise expert Paul Brady reported recently, as summer air travel is looking progressively messier but the cruise industry continues to stabilize post-pandemic. For those looking to plan a cruise, whether it's a last-minute trip for the summer or a 2024 around-the-world cruise , we've narrowed down the best luxury cruise lines to ferry you to some of the world's most mesmerizing destinations in comfort. Here, our favorite luxury cruise lines in the world.

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

When this luxury cruise line says it's all-inclusive, it's not overstating. Everything from shore excursions, Wi-Fi, and laundry to gratuities, top-shelf liquor, and business-class international flights are included with Regent Seven Seas Cruises ' fares. While each luxurious suite features ocean views, nothing beats the view from the epic 4,000-square-foot, two-bedroom Regent Suite, which has two wraparound balconies, three walk-in closets, two Picasso lithographs, and a grand piano.

For the best in-suite views, book a room at the back of the ship, Kelly Cochrane, executive chef of Regent Seven Seas Cruises tells T+L.

Oceania Cruises

Oceania Cruises has just seven ships, but the debut of the brand-new Oceania Vista catapults this cruise line into the luxury division. The cruise line's relatively new Go Local shore excursions for small groups bring travelers to under-the-radar destinations , T+L contributing editor and long-time cruiser Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon reported recently. Her 2022 cruise on Riviera included 70 excursions "from canoeing Croatia’s Cetina River to cooking classes in Athens."

If you've ever dreamed of having your own butler, Silversea is the luxury cruise line for you. In fact, Silversea's butlers take white-glove service to a whole new level — they'll handle your laundry with more care than you do, scour port towns to find your favorite tastes of home, and even help you pack and unpack your suitcase. Further, Silversea's new culinary program, nicknamed S.A.L.T. (for Sea and Land Taste), brings the taste of destinations on board through cooking classes. Of course, there's no need to cook for yourself aboard a Silversea ship, as each one features several restaurants with multi-course menus to whet your appetite every night.

Viking Cruises

Viking Cruises is a river and ocean cruise line that recently added expedition sailings and the Great Lakes trips to its repertoire. "T+L readers rave about the consistency of Viking's vessels and their Scandinavian design," cruise expert Fran Golden reported when Viking once again topped T+L's World's Best Awards last year. Viking came in at No. 1 in T+L's best mid-size ship category and river cruise category. Golden said the WBA Hall of Fame honoree's 50 river "longships" are "light-filled floating boutique hotels."

Laureen Robert / Courtesy of Ponant

French luxury cruise line Ponant aims to make passengers feel as if they're traveling on their own private yachts. Guests enjoy Ladurée macarons, Veuve Clicquot Champagne, and luxurious Hermès bath products on board. Each of the company's ships features an onboard spa with massage cabins and either a Turkish bath or sauna. Ponant's luxurious small ships sail to remote destinations like Antarctica, incorporating once-in-a-lifetime experiences such as eclipse spotting from the edge of the earth. The company also partners with Smithsonian and Disney on certain sailings.

Seabourn cruises to all seven continents, and most recently launched Seabourn Venture, "marking the first time the Carnival Corporation–owned luxury cruise line will offer adventurous sailings on an expedition ship built for extreme environments," Brady reported . (The sibling ship to Venture , Seabourn Pursuit arrives later this year.) The World's Best Award-winning cruise line has all-suite ships and "is known for its onboard service and over-the-top food including complimentary caviar and Thomas Keller steakhouses on ships such as the  Seabourn Ovation, " Brady said.

Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises ' luxury small ships call on 150 ports throughout Europe, Central America, the Caribbean, and the South Pacific, and there's no way you'll go hungry on the journey. Exquisite onboard menus have been designed by acclaimed chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants. (You'll have to pay extra for alcohol, but all meals and a Windstar signature onboard barbecue — a feast of whole suckling pig, shrimp brochette, and more — are included.) The cruise line is not only a T+L World's Best Awards Hall of Fame honoree , it has a "long-standing partnership with the James Beard Foundation," Brady reported , and regularly brings chefs on board for culinary-focused sailings. Yes, chef.

Courtesy of Scenic Luxury Cruises & Tours

Whether it's a river or an ocean you want to cruise, Scenic can take you there in style. The luxury cruise line operates river cruises in Europe and Asia, while ocean cruises on Scenic Eclipse (and the forthcoming Scenic Eclipse II ) can take guests to Antarctica, the Arctic, Australia, South America, and Greenland, among other coveted destinations. On board, you'll find fine dining, expansive spas and fitness facilities, and butler service.

Cunard Line

Jonathan Atkin / Courtesy of Cunard Line

This British luxury cruise line is known for its transatlantic service, which also transports pets between its headquarters in Southampton, England, and New York City. Cunard operates three ships with a fourth in the works, though only the Queen Mary 2 sails the transatlantic route. It's a cruise line that takes formality seriously; white-gloved waiters serve afternoon tea each day at 3:30 p.m. State rooms include 24-hour room service and evening turndown service with chocolates. Don't forget your tux, the gala nights are black tie.

Paul Gauguin Cruises

Roger Paperno / Courtesy of Paul Gauguin Cruises

Paul Gauguin Cruises operates just one ship, but it is exquisite, hosting 330 guests and sailing only in the South Pacific to destinations like Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, and the Cook Islands. The ship is small enough to access private ports at remote beaches and take travelers well off the beaten path. Named the best small-ship ocean cruise line in T+L's 2022 World's Best Awards, Golden said the line is known for Tahitian-inspired massage techniques in the onboard spa and noted that cruisers particularly love the wonderful staff.

Celebrity Cruises

Steve Dunlop / Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Cruises ' new Edge Series ships are taking things up a notch. Celebrity's signature Iconic Suites on board the Celebrity Edge and Apex offer panoramic views from above the ship's bridge; each suite boasts more than 2,500 square feet of space, including expansive 690-square-foot terraces, and comes with two bedrooms and two bathrooms. Celebrity Beyond , which debuted in 2022, accommodates 3,260 guests has 32 bars and restaurants, like Le Voyage by chef Daniel Boulud, and two-story villas on board. Beyond 's sibling ship, Ascent , will be delivered later this year.

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Travel Daily

SeaDream Yacht Club Named Best Small and Romantic Cruise Ship

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Guest Writers are not employed, compensated or governed by TD, opinions and statements are from the specific writer directly

best small cruise lines

The World Cruise Awards are internationally recognised for celebrating the world’s most extraordinary cruise experiences. A worldwide vote of cruise experts, media, and customers decides each award.

“This exceptional achievement is a source of tremendous pride for the entire team.” These awards show our ongoing commitment to offering our guests unforgettable, romantic, and unique cruise experiences,” said Andreas Brynestad of SeaDream Yacht Club.

SeaDream Yacht Club is family-owned and operated and offers distinct yachting adventures in the Caribbean, Europe, and the Mediterranean aboard two small, newly upgraded yachts. Guests can enjoy superior service, unique all-inclusive cuisine experiences, and included activities such as water sports directly from the yachts, thanks to a 1-1 crew-to-guest ratio.

Both boats have been named best-in-class in the cruise industry by the independent World Cruise Awards:

World’s Best Small Cruise Ship 2023: SeaDream II

SeaDream Yacht Club Named Best Small and Romantic Cruise Ship

The “World’s Best Small Cruise Ship” award underscores SeaDream’s commitment to delivering intimate and personalized travel experiences. With boutique-sized ships designed for exclusivity, SeaDream has consistently offered a level of luxury and service that is unmatched in the industry.

World’s Best Cruise Ship for Romance 2023: SeaDream I

SeaDream Yacht Club Named Best Small and Romantic Cruise Ship

The award for “World’s Best Cruise Ship for Romance” recognises SeaDream’s dedication to creating an atmosphere of love and connection on board their yachts. SeaDream’s cruises provide the perfect backdrop for couples to celebrate their love, whether it’s a romantic getaway or a honeymoon voyage.

“As cruise ships grow, we see a demand for more unique and personalised experiences.” “Being recognised as the best of the best in the travel industry yet again underlines our commitment to excellence and innovation in the travel industry,” Brynestad said.

The World Cruise Awards is the latest in a long line of awards and rankings that have placed SeaDream Yacht Club, its yachts, crew, and service at the pinnacle of the cruise industry. SeaDream Yacht Club was ranked and voted #1 Best Boutique Cruise Line and #1 Best Small Yachting Company in the United States in 2023. Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice Awards, Winner Small Ships in the 2023 Condé Nast Readers’ Choice Awards,’s Best Honeymoon Cruise Lines of 2023, and more.

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From Virgin Voyages to Carnival: These 10 cruises are worth the money, travelers say


When it comes to a cruise vacation, it's all aboard. An October survey from Condé Nast Traveler  revealed that 47% of people said they would be interested in setting sail on a ship.

A study by the Cruise Lines International Association also found that traveling by cruise is becoming one of the fastest-growing tourism sectors.

In October, U.S. News and World Report published its 2023 ranking of the best cruises for the money. The report ranked the top ships out of 17 of the most popular ocean cruise lines and gave them a rating of one through five.

U.S. News and World Report ranked the cruise lines based on the following factors:

  • Average overall rating
  • Average nightly pricing on a scale of one to five
  • Value-added benefits included in the base fare, such as prepaid gratuities, free onboard Wi-Fi access, etc.

Virgin Voyages is worth the money, travelers say

Overall rating: 4.39

Created by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, Virgin Voyages ranked as the best cruise line for the money.

The adults-only cruise has three ships in the fleet, with a fourth debuting in 2024. Virgin Voyages stands out thanks to its free Wi-Fi access onboard, over 20 dining venues, unlimited group workouts and all essential drinks, which include sodas, drip coffee, water and more.

All Virgin Voyage ships are nearly identical and feature similar layouts, according to the U.S. News and World Report. The cruise line offers sailings to the Caribbean, Europe and the South Pacific and has ports in Miami, Puerto Rico, Spain and more.

According to Bloomberg , rates start at $1,550 per double-occupancy cabin.

Top 10 cruise lines that are worth the money

  • Virgin Voyages
  • Celebrity Cruises
  • Princess Cruises
  • Royal Caribbean International
  • Holland America Line
  • MSC Cruises
  • Carnival Cruise Line
  • Norwegian Cruise Line
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  • Costa Cruises

Celebrity Cruises is the No. 2 cruise line that is worth the money, according to travelers. It has an overall rating of 4.36.

The line has 16 ships and stops in Asia, the Caribbean, Europe and more. Each ship carries approximately one crew member for every two passengers, according to the report.

Voyages range anywhere from three to 18 nights. Since late 2020, Celebrity Cruises has included free Wi-Fi, unlimited drinks and daily gratuities in its base fare .

Princess Cruises ranked as the No. 3 cruise line for the money, with an overall rating of 4.02.

It is the fifth largest cruise line in the world with 17 ships and trips that last between two and 116 days. It sails to popular destinations in Europe, the Caribbean, Alaska and more.

Princess Cruises has approximately one crew member for every two or three passengers, according to the report.

As an homage to its Hollywood debut on the 1977 TV series, "The Love Boat," Princess Cruises offers versatile itineraries like "Movies Under the Stars" poolside screenings and their takes on "The Voice," "Deal or No Deal" and more.

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10 Best Cruise Lines When Traveling With Your Multigenerational Family

Posted: November 2, 2023 | Last updated: November 6, 2023

Extended family groups are excited about reconnecting and sharing memorable moments together, making multigenerational vacations one of this year’s leading travel trends. These three-generation trips offer incredible opportunities for bonding, creating new traditions, and enjoying unforgettable experiences with loved ones.

Multigenerational groups vary in age, interests, budgets, and vacation styles. The key is to find a trip the whole family will love. Cruises offer something for everyone and they’re a great way for generations to explore the world and make lifelong memories together. Daily itineraries are flexible, allowing family members to enjoy the trip at their own pace.

There are cruise lines to fit every family’s preferences. Multigenerational families can choose from amenity-rich megaships, upscale mid-sized vessels, ultra-luxurious smaller ships, and expedition ships built to explore the world’s most remote destinations.

Here are 10 of the best ocean-going cruise lines for your multigenerational family vacation, listed in alphabetical order. 

1. Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line has long been a leader in family-friendly voyages. The cruise line is seeing strong demand for its brand of family cruising and it’s popular with multigenerational families and reunion groups seeking nonstop fun. Carnival Cruise Line caters to all ages with a wide variety of experiences, including complimentary programs for kids and teens, an extensive array of restaurants, immersive entertainment, family-friendly shore excursions, adult-oriented attractions, and fun-filled activities the whole family can enjoy together.

Carnival Cruise Line’s voyages sail from 14 U.S. homeports, making it easy for families to reach their cruise. Ships in Carnival’s fleet are family-pleasing playgrounds featuring thrilling top-deck attractions like the massive WaterWorks water park, ropes courses, and BOLT — the fastest roller coaster at sea. Carnival’s exclusive Seuss at Sea activities, family comedy shows, and Family Feud Live entertainment programs are fun for parents, kids, and grandparents alike. Family Harbor, a family-focused accommodations area complete with the private Family Harbor Lounge, is an excellent option for multigenerational groups sailing on Carnival’s Vista and Excel class ships.

2. Celebrity Cruises 

Celebrity Cruises offers an upscale cruising experience for multigenerational families with an emphasis on memorable experiences, innovative features, stylish venues, outstanding dining and entertainment, and indulgent spas. Celebrity Cruises offers a variety of accommodations perfect for multigenerational groups, including family veranda staterooms and luxurious suites in The Retreat — an exclusive enclave available on select ships. Family-friendly programs and activities are scheduled throughout each cruise, including hot glass classes and movie nights under the stars.

Multigenerational vacationers will appreciate the cruise line’s family-friendly shore excursions and enriching programs for younger guests: Camp At Sea for children 3–12 and the Teen Club for teens. Celebrity Cruises partnered with top companies to create its award-winning Camp at Sea program focusing on four main categories of interest: Art, Recreation, Culinary, and S.T.E.M. Celebrity’s fully customizable youth program is based solely on participants’ interests, with over 500 activities available as well as fun-filled teen events. Celebrity Cruises has also been certified as an Autism Friendly Cruise Line by Autism of the Seas. 

3. Disney Cruise Line 

Disney Cruise Line’s magical voyages feature immersive storytelling, beloved Disney characters, cinematic dining experiences, and imaginative family entertainment. The cruise line is well-known for creating unforgettable experiences for families on its ships, with exceptional programs and Disney-themed venues all ages can enjoy together. Disney Cruise Line ships feature outstanding rotational dining, sought-after Disney character interactions, incredible kids’ and teens’ clubs, adult-exclusive areas, family-friendly staterooms, and world-class entertainment.

Disney Cruise Line’s sailings are ideal for multigenerational families . Adults and kids bond during family-focused shore excursions and full-day adventures designed to bring family members together. Out-of-this-world family experiences and boatloads of fun also await on board. On Disney Wish , generations can enjoy interactive meals at the first Frozen and Marvel-themed dining venues at sea. Take a splash-filled ride on the AquaMouse water coaster and have extraordinary space-hopping experiences in innovative Star Wars-themed areas for adults and kids. Disney Cruise Line’s next ship, Disney Treasure , will feature a whole new world of memorable attractions as well. Multigenerational families can make their Port Canaveral-based voyages even more enchanting by adding a convenient land package at nearby Walt Disney World.

4. Holland America Line

Great multigenerational vacations merge the interests of several generations while also providing attractions each can enjoy separately. Holland America Line’s award-winning premium class ships provide something special for every age group and interest, making it a superb choice for multigenerational family vacationers. The line’s upscale, midsize vessels feature outstanding restaurants, fantastic performances and live music clubs, culinary and enrichment programs, fun family activities, swimming pools, and Kids Club youth programs and venues for kids and teens.

Holland America Line offers a robust array of itineraries with a wide variety of memorable shore excursions and destination-rich programming. Alaska and Caribbean itineraries are particularly popular with multigenerational family groups . The cruise line is passionate about culinary excellence and its Culinary Council chefs create outstanding regionally inspired cuisine for guests to enjoy. Accommodations on Holland America Line’s ships include spacious family-friendly staterooms, connecting cabins, and suites well-suited for multigenerational groups. Families will also appreciate the line’s outstanding reunion package and “Kids Cruise Free” deals. 

5. Lindblad Expeditions 

Lindblad Expeditions delivers exceptional small-ship expedition experiences for multigenerational travelers seeking the trip of a lifetime. Multigenerational travel has long been popular with Lindblad Expeditions guests, particularly on their Galápagos and Alaska itineraries. Lindblad Expeditions’ exclusive National Geographic Global Explorers program for kids and teens under 18 is offered on sailings in both of those destinations, as well as on exciting voyages in Baja California and Antarctica. Ships vary in size, ranging between 28 and 148 guests.

Immersive journeys with Lindblad Expeditions allow multigenerational families to reconnect, learn about the world, and share priceless experiences. Lindblad Expeditions finds it’s often the grandparents who plan multigenerational trips to celebrate major milestones or treat their family to a bucket-list adventure. The cruise line offers special savings on select departures for children and multigenerational families traveling as a group.

6. Norwegian Cruise Line 

Norwegian Cruise Line is an excellent option for multigenerational families seeking an unstructured resort-style cruise vacation with extensive dining choices, show-stopping entertainment, and exciting activities for the whole family. Multigenerational groups can enjoy a multitude of casual and specialty restaurants, exhilarating attractions like multi-level go-kart race tracks and open-air laser tag arenas, complimentary Splash Academy youth programs for tots through teens, and stellar Broadway-style performances and entertainment for all ages.

Multigenerational families can choose from a wide range of accommodations on Norwegian Cruise Line , including family staterooms and stunning suites in The Haven by Norwegian — an exclusive ship-within-a-ship for family members seeking a higher-end cruise experience. Special offers make multigenerational family cruises even more wallet-friendly, including free third and fourth guests on select sailings and a variety of discounts for groups booking five or more staterooms. 

7. Paul Gauguin Cruises 

The idyllic South Pacific region tops bucket lists for many multigenerational travelers. Paul Gauguin Cruises offers award-winning luxury small-ship voyages perfect for making lifelong memories in this enchanting destination. The all-inclusive cruises aboard the intimate m/s Paul Gauguin provide unparalleled opportunities for family bonding while enjoying unforgettable experiences in Tahiti, French Polynesia, Fiji, and beyond. Paul Gauguin itineraries make island-hopping easy, allowing multigenerational families to reconnect and effortlessly explore five or more spectacular isles at their own pace.

Voyages aboard The Gauguin are exceptional for multigenerational families wishing to celebrate and see the world together. The ship accommodates 330 guests and features outstanding culinary experiences in three restaurants, spacious overwater staterooms and suites, a specially designed shipboard watersports marina, engaging entertainment and enrichment programs, and an excellent spa. The ship’s fantastic local Tahitian cultural ambassadors bring the Polynesian culture to life and the service on board is extraordinary. Paul Gauguin Cruises’ complimentary Moana Explorer Program , created in partnership with Te mana o te moana , provides daily naturalist-led activities and adventures for children ages 7–15 on select sailings.

8. Princess Cruises 

Princess Cruises offers enriching voyages of discovery that all generations can enjoy together. The cruise line offers a classic sailing experience focusing on fabulous cuisine, entertainment, relaxation, and immersive adventures. Multigenerational vacations are popular on Princess Cruises . The cruise line has increased the number of family suites on board to accommodate family and multigenerational guests. Alaska and European itineraries are ideal for multigenerational summer sailings, while Caribbean cruises and Mexico voyages are top choices during the winter.

Grandparents, parents, and grandkids look forward to memories together on multigenerational family cruise vacations . With its award-winning technology, the Princess MedallionClass experience makes it convenient for family members to stay connected on board, arrange dining preferences, and select activities everyone will enjoy. Fun-filled family activities include Movies Under the Stars, game nights, Broadway-style shows, top-deck stargazing at sea, pool time, and playing together on the sports deck. Princess Cruises also features Camp Discovery Youth Center programs for kids and teens, Discovery and Animal Planet small-group shore excursions, and exceptional specialty restaurants perfect for celebrating milestone family events.

9. Royal Caribbean International 

Multigenerational families can enjoy epic vacations and make lifelong memories on Royal Caribbean International sailings. The family-friendly cruise line’s fleet is packed with thrilling water parks and fun zones, top-notch entertainment, action-filled Adventure Ocean youth and teen programs, an outstanding array of palate-pleasing dining venues, cool neighborhoods, and amazing accommodations for families. Royal Caribbean offers an extensive range of cruise itineraries perfect for making memories together.

Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas and Icon of the Seas are the world’s two largest cruise ships. These floating mega-resorts are designed to deliver incredible family and multigenerational group vacations for all ages. Royal Caribbean’s new Icon of the Seas will feature more family accommodation options, the largest water park at sea, and a first-of-its-kind Surfside neighborhood designed just for families.

10. The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection 

An ultra-luxury yachting experience awaits multigenerational families sailing with The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection . The cruise line entered the market last year with its first of three custom-built luxury yachts — the 298-passenger Evrima . Voyages aboard The Ritz-Carlton Collection’s intimate yachts offer multigenerational families a wealth of shipboard programs, exceptional dining experiences, luxurious suites, immersive entertainment, and personalized service. On these luxury sailings, multigenerational groups with younger children or older family members can easily explore multiple destinations in comfort and create treasured memories together.Families are welcome aboard The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and the fun-filled Ritz Kids program for children ages 4–12 is available in its own dedicated space year round. The enriching activities program offers three fee-based sessions daily, with enhanced programming during holidays and summer months. With its iconic brand, The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection’s yachting experiences are attracting luxury travelers and families who are new to cruising. The line estimates that over 50 percent of guests are first-time cruisers and more than 75 percent of bookings include a Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program member.

This article originally appeared on TravelAwaits

Royal Caribbean International

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I've been on 6 cruise ships — here's how they compare and the one I would recommend

  • Since 2021, I've spent at least one night on six ships, all with different cruise lines.
  • These companies, including Margaritaville and Royal Caribbean, target a variety of demographics.
  • They each have their pros and cons , but Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas is my favorite.

Insider Today

Throughout the past two years, I've spent at least one night on six ships, all with different cruise lines. While they've all varied in prices and target demographics, one has stood out as my clear favorite.

By no means do I love cruises — the shows can be tacky, the food can be mediocre, and I'm easily bored. If I weren't a travel reporter, I'd probably never board these floating resorts. But duty calls, and since 2021 I've been invited to several nonrevenue media sailings or overnighters with cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Oceania, and Norwegian.

While I've been unsurprisingly critical of some cruise ships, others have won me over. Let's take a closer look at the six ships I've been on and the one I'd recommend.

Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Apex: trendy but boring

In late 2021, I boarded the new $1 billion Celebrity Apex for its two-night naming ceremony. At the time, I hadn't been on a cruise in more than 10 years. (As a kid with parents who liked cruises, I remember disliking them.)

The Apex wasn't designed for "zillennials" like me. Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the cruise line's former CEO, told Insider at the time that Celebrity targeted Gen X customers . Despite this disconnect, the Apex had some of the best-designed and -decorated spaces I've seen on a ship.

Places such as Eden (a restaurant, bar, and entertainment venue) were attractive and trendy, while the Rooftop Garden looked just the way its name promised. Even the outdoor lounges and frequently overlooked atrium were more exciting than most ships' — the latter had a martini bar that sat under the glow of an LED chandelier.

While my 243-square-foot Infinite Veranda stateroom had some dull decor, the natural light from the large wall of windows made my tiny cabin feel large.

Where these spaces shined, the dining didn't: I wasn't wowed by any of my meals, including my dinner at Le Petit Chef . Here, overhead projectors displayed an animated storyline on the dining table. But this gimmick wasn't enough to overshadow the disappointingly mediocre food.

Ultimately, I faced the same dilemma I remembered as a child: boredom. While the theater was grand, I wasn't wowed by the nighttime show. And as I said at the time, I could wade around the pool only so many times and eat and drink so much. While I loved the design of spaces such as the Magic Carpet, an outdoor extension that moves vertically between decks, I couldn't spend all day staring at it.

If I were here on a weeklong vacation, I'd be twiddling my thumbs by day three.

Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Prima: fun with a great food hall

In October 2022, I was invited on the four-night inaugural sailing for the $1.1 billion Norwegian Prima . It was the first time I had ever enjoyed being on a cruise.

Four nights is long for a cynic like me. But to my surprise, I was consistently entertained by the Prima's long list of amenities , including modern dartboards, a VR arcade, a mini-golf course, and a thrilling free-fall dry slide. These activities — along with the outdoor game court and go-kart track — could've kept me entertained for another day or two at sea.

My 230-square-foot balcony stateroom was also well-designed and modern: I appreciated the roomy bathroom, storage options, and contemporary feel. But the bedding was mediocre, the balcony was tiny, and the "mural" behind the bed and couch was a tacky eyesore.

On the plus side, the Prima had my favorite dining venue of all six ships: an 11-restaurant food hall with tableside tablet ordering systems. Instead of going to a buffet to pick at heat-lamp-fresh leftovers, this concept gave hungry travelers such as me a convenient way to try Indian curries and Singaporean-inspired noodles in one sitting.

But the greatest shock of all was the enjoyable nighttime entertainment, specifically Norwegian's rendition of the Broadway-approved "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical" and "The Price Is Right Live." I found myself giggling throughout the latter.

This, combined with the fun activities and food options, made sailing on the Prima an entertaining experience that I would consider booking again.

Royal Caribbean International's Wonder of the Seas: overstimulating and packed with activities

After boarding the Wonder of the Seas in December 2022, I think Royal Caribbean's big bet on mega cruise ships is paying off. My two-night sailing on the world's biggest cruise ship just wasn't enough time to test all of the ship's amenities.

At its massive size, there was plenty of room for "neighborhoods," such as a boardwalk, a park, an outdoor entertainment center with activities such as a zipline, and a colorful pool deck with water slides. Several of these spaces looked more like those of an amusement park than a cruise liner.

The list of Wonder of the Seas' amenities , which included some I'd never seen on a ship before, seemed endless. If it managed to overwhelm me for two nights, I'm sure it'd keep any family booked and busy.

From an ice-skating show to an exhilarating outdoor swim, dive, and dance performance, the entertainment options were also diverse. The former was a bore — I left early. But the dramatics and coordination of the latter made it the most impressive cruise-ship show I've ever seen.

Onto the negatives — to start, the food quality wasn't consistent. While my buffet and dinner meals at Hooked Seafood were satisfactory, the dry and flavorless fried chicken at the new-to-brand Mason Jar was disappointing.

My balcony stateroom was also a massive letdown. Sure, it had all the essentials , large storage units, and a clothesline in the shower. But the bathroom wouldn't be comfortable for two people, water splashed out of the sink basin whenever I washed my hands, and the bland decor was a stark contrast from the sensory overload of the rest of the ship. The stateroom looked more utilitarian than it did fun.

Margaritaville at Sea's Paradise: cheap and quick

The Margaritaville empire's nascent cruise line exclusively operates two-night round-trip sailings like clockwork from Palm Beach, Florida, to Freeport, Bahamas. It's a great cruise for budget travelers — most of these dates can be booked for well under $200 a person, including some at $50.

But Margaritaville at Sea's attraction ends at its eye-catching fares. When I attended the ship's one-night inaugural sailing in May 2022, I realized travelers get what they pay for: a very old ship. Before it adopted Jimmy Buffetts' branding , Margaritaville at Sea was the budget operator Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, and the Paradise was its 30-year-old flagship Grand Classica vessel.

Sure, the vessel had some references to Buffett in the names of its venues, signage, and wall art. But besides that and a handful of new decor (shown above), it didn't seem as if the ship had undergone a massive cosmetic overhaul to align with the Margaritaville brand.

Instead, the Paradise looked out of style and place compared with other properties in the hospitality giant's portfolio. And when I tried to use the public restroom on the pool deck, the flush almost fell off its mount.

Similarly, instead of an immersive Margaritaville accommodation with beach-cottage-like decor, my 176-square-foot oceanview stateroom was bare and looked as old as the original song. While functional, the dark lines in my bathroom shower looked dirty, while the yellowish walls and wood accents made my cabin feel outdated and unkempt.

On the plus side, my meal at JWB Prime Steakhouse might have been one of the best steakhouse dinners I've ever had. But guests have to pay extra to eat there.

The cruise line has since spent millions of dollars updating areas such as the staterooms and adding amenities such as a pickleball court. I haven't boarded the ship since this refresh. But my first experience has left me so cynical that I don't plan on giving it a second try. I'm not sure a few million dollars is enough to fix its " Spirit Airlines of the Sea " reputation.

Explora Journeys' Explora I: luxurious, expensive, and boring

MSC Group's new Explora Journeys is a growing luxury-cruise brand you probably haven't heard of. I spent one night on its first $560 million Explora I ship in October while it was docked in New York City, and I think the new brand made a great first attempt at breaking into the luxury market.

While my ocean terrace suite was the smallest cabin on the ship, it was more luxurious than any hotel I've paid for. My cabin's walk-in closet, welcome bottle of Veuve Clicquot, Dyson hairdryer, and balcony daybed won me over. But the cheapest itinerary in 2024 comes out to $500 a day per person — it's up to you if you think these little luxuries justify this steep price.

Like the Wonder of the Seas, there were spaces aboard the ship that looked nothing like an average cruise vessel. Instead of a typical atrium, upscale stores such as Rolex and Cartier surrounded what looked like a hotel bar. And instead of a large central pool deck, the Explora I had four smaller pools, including an infinity pool and one under a retractable glass roof.

At its price, it's fair to expect luxury food. The thinly sliced wagyu at the pan-Asian Sakura was one of the best dishes I've had on a ship. But I preferred my own baked miso cod to the one I was served.

Luckily, the ship didn't have any splashy "production-style shows" for me to turn my nose up at. But once again, I'm not sure how much time I can spend in the spa or at the outdoor gym before I'm bored. So, while I appreciated the rows of cabanas and modern lounges, I think a weeklong vacation on the Explora I would be too quiet for me.

Oceania Cruises' Vista: upscale but boring

In late September, I spent one night on Oceania Cruises' Vista while it was docked in New York City. I think the new ship is a great option for mature travelers who are interested in higher-end cruises but don't want to pay for the likes of Regent Seven Seas.

For a food-focused cruise line, my dinner in the Grand Dining Room had luxurious options such as monkfish and caviar. But in retrospect, it was memorable only because of the ingredients, not the taste. Unfortunately, my lobster didn't beat the comforts of Norwegian Prima's food hall or the wagyu from Explora.

Appropriately for a premium cruise ship, my veranda stateroom was lined with one of the largest balconies I've ever had. And small details such as designated cup holders in the bathroom, a complimentary beverage station, and Bulgari toiletries made it stand out from any veranda cabin on a mass-market cruise ship.

Like my accommodations, the Vista's common spaces, such as the library lounge, had an upscale flair. Even the circular daybed-lined pool deck was more elevated and modern than the typical cruise-ship pool surrounded by generic lounge chairs. And while there were no water slides or arcades, there was a large putting green and walking track.

Unsurprisingly, I did not enjoy the cringy "Headliners'' evening song-and-dance show. And because I had limited time on the ship, I didn't get to experience activities such as cooking or art classes. This might have made a difference — but in the end, I again found the ship to be too calm for my liking.

The verdict: Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas is my favorite

While I appreciated the upscale qualities of Explora and Oceania's vessels, I couldn't imagine spending more than three days on either ship. Similarly, while Margaritaville at Sea Paradise's cheap costs are enticing, I don't plan to sail on it again.

My favorite cruise liners are the ones with engaging activities and creative spaces that don't look like those of a typical ship. The Wonder of the Seas executed all of this — more than the Norwegian Prima — perfectly, enough to make me overlook the sore spots of my stateroom and mediocre meal. Because of this, it's the one ship I'll continue recommending to most cruise fans.

But that doesn't mean it has to be your favorite. If your priority is a cheap, quick-and-dirty getaway, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise is great. If you want something luxurious but don't want to spend too much, try the Oceania Vista — or the Explora I if you really want to ball out. And if you're traveling with children, Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas and the Norwegian Prima are great options. The latter two are the only ones I'd consider booking again.

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The biggest cruise ships keep getting bigger and it's splitting the industry in 2

  • New cruise brands are launching smaller, luxury ships geared toward wealthy travelers. 
  • They're a far cry from the 7,000-passenger mega-ships with water parks and concert venues.
  • Large cruises are a "cash cow" for operators but experts say smaller ships have distinct long-term advantages. 

Insider Today

Every year it seems a new world's largest cruise ship is crowned.

Royal Caribbean's upcoming almost 10,000-person Icon of the Seas will be the next to claim this title. While it won't debut until 2024, it's already generated plenty of buzz. The cruise line saw its largest booking day ever when it opened reservations for the ship in October 2022, before construction was even completed. Since then, Royal Caribbean has repeatedly lauded it as the "best-selling product in its history."

But not everyone is a fan of the floating amusement park . When images of the Icon circulated online, social media users described the vessel with far less flattering terms (among them: "human lasagne," a "monstrosity," and "hell on water"), proving mega-ships aren't all travelers' cup of tea.

To fill this void, several new cruise lines are taking an underdog strategy of building smaller luxury vessels

Over the last few years, high-end resort brands like the Ritz-Carlton , Four Seasons , and Aman have announced plans to enter the cruise — or as they call it, the "yacht" — market. And it's safe to say they won't be participating in the mega-ship race: Aman says its vessel will have 50 cabins while Ritz-Carlton's second ship is set to sail in 2024 with just 224 suites.

Shipping giant MSC Group is also taking a similar downsized yet upscale approach with its new luxury cruise brand Explora Journeys with the 461-suite Explora 1 it launched in 2023. To compare, the largest MSC Cruises ship has 2,626 cabins.

This surge in small-ship brands has split the cruise industry's newest offerings into two distinct categories, with different target customers and business models.

"In general, smaller vessels are better for travels where you spend more time in the port cities and explore things outside the ship, whereas the mega ships are more geared towards having lots of entertainment within the ship," Per Stenius, a client director at Finnish consulting firm Reddal, which specializes in the maritime industry, told Insider.

Small cruises, or large "yachts," appeal to wealthy travelers

While giant ships are a short-term "cash cow" for operators, small cruise liners have advantages over their larger counterparts that give them a leg up in the long run, Stenius said, especially when it comes to attracting affluent travelers.

"The smaller ships are able to focus more on the itinerary," he told Insider, adding that cruises with more staff and fewer guests can also offer higher-end customer service.

Wealthy travelers who have never cruised before may also gravitate toward smaller ships for their first trip, especially if it's with a recognizable brand name like the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton.

New-to-cruise is an important demographic to win over: In order to keep up with projected capacity forecasts, the industry needs to convince 4 million people to take their first cruise by 2025 , according to Cruise Lines International Association, a trade organization that represents cruise lines.

Michael Ungerer, Explora Journeys' CEO, doesn't picture other vessels as his company's competition. Instead, he says Explora is contending with luxury resort hotels like the Belmonts, Amans, and Rosewoods.

"We think there is an opportunity to establish a luxury holiday brand, which is a boutique-style resort on the water," he said.

Smaller ships are better positioned to meet sustainability goals

Mega-ships may be popular among some passengers, but the ports they're visiting aren't always fans . Concerns of overcrowding and pollution have led cities across the US and Europe to place restrictions on cruise tourism and in some cases, enforce caps on the number of daily cruise visitors.

Port infrastructure poses a challenge to large ships, even in places without cruise bans. Several of the new mega-ships are too big to fit into some ports, requiring passengers to take smaller boats called tenders to shore. On ships that carry thousands of guests, this can be a logistical difficulty.

With worldwide port access no longer guaranteed, major cruise companies are snapping up private islands in the Bahamas to develop into exclusive resorts for visiting passengers.

"They have to compensate for the fact that they can't go into certain cities by creating their own entertainment centers to take these ships," Stenius said. "But of course that's not a game you can play forever."

Large ships also come with large carbon footprints . As the industry moves toward net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (a target set by the International Maritime Organization), mega-ships will have a harder time meeting those requirements than smaller vessels, Stenius said.

Giant cruise ships have more opportunities for increased revenue but can ice out some travelers

Royal Caribbean didn't set out to intentionally build the next world's biggest cruise ship , Jay Schneider, Royal Caribbean's Chief Product Innovation Officer, told Insider in 2022. Instead, he says the company prioritized adding onboard experiences that go beyond the average " dinner and a show" cruise . But as its "wishlist" of amenities grew, so did its need for increased revenue. Meeting this demand then required adding more cabins, and subsequently, square footage for necessary spaces like dining rooms.

"As you go through the evolution of our strategy, you quickly grow into bigger ships," Schneider said. This approach has helped industry heavy hitters rake in even more cash: The more cruise lines add enticing pay-to-play amenities to their giant vessels, the more onboard revenue is generated.

"Mega ships tend to be more family-oriented with activities like water slides and bumper cars. But some tourists like a 'more quiet' vacation experience," Patrick Scholes, a leisure analyst at Truist Securities, told Insider in an email, noting that he thinks Royal Caribbean will continue to build giant ships following the Icon's success.

But as travelers' expectations and sustainability restrictions evolve at the same time, only time will tell if these little guys or the giant floating cities will win over travelers' wallets.

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Watch: The world's largest cruise ship landed in Miami — here's what it's like on board

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