What is a small ship cruise?

We define a small ship cruise as any passenger vessel carrying 300 passengers or less. QuirkyCruise organizes its small-ship coverage into five types of small ship cruises that ply the waterways of the world: coastal, expedition, oceangoing, river and sailing ships.

Coastal Ships: Perhaps the hardest category to pin down, coastal ships cruise in open waters, but usually stay close to land so they may call at numerous ports and islands, and enter bays, canals, lakes, and rivers. Examples are the Norwegian coastal service linking many towns and cities facing the North Sea, and US-flag coastal ships plying between the New England Islands, the Intracoastal Waterway and Alaska’s Inside Passage. The Croatian coast (Mediterranean) and the islands of Japan make excellent coastal cruising itineraries.

Expedition Ships: These have a distinctive learning element and bring to mind a sense of adventure whether it’s visiting remote peoples in the South Pacific or plying the Upper Amazon; looking for rare birds and exotic animals along Australia’s Kimberley Coast or in Central America; cruising amongst amazing, and often colorful, ice formations in Antarctica; and encountering dramatic landscapes in Patagonia. Trained experts give talks aboard and lead active outings ashore.

Oceangoing Ships: Designed for the open seas, travel between continents or from the mainland to islands well out to sea, oceangoing ships also offer port-rich cruises such as between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean or from Great Britain to Baltic Sea ports. Some oceangoing ships are also used for expedition itineraries.

River Vessels: Easy to identify, they offer a hugely popular means to get into the interior of a country or continent. As a matter of course, river boats may also ply canals and cross bays and lakes to cover many hundreds of island water miles. Europe, Asia, and North America offer the most diverse opportunities for river cruising, while South America brings to mind the Amazon and its numerous tributaries, and Africa the Nile but not much else of any great popularity.

Sailing Ships: This group comes under a broad umbrella, from the sails providing the main means of propulsion, to using wind power when the conditions are ideal, or as window dressing with the principal push coming from diesel engines. Sailing ships of all three variations have a majesty and beauty all their own. Most are found amongst islands in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and in the South Pacific and Indonesia, with repositioning transoceanic crossings such as between Europe and the Caribbean drawing the most ardent sailors.

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Why should I take a small-ship cruise?

The fundamental advantages of small ships are being able to travel with a small group, often with similar focused goals; to be able to go to places the big ships cannot reach and land passengers such as in Antarctica, a small port in Southeast Alaska, the coast of France or South Pacific island. You are having a shared experience and will after a few days feel a bond to many of the other passengers. According to our limit of 300, all sailing ships are considered small as are almost every riverboat and expedition vessel. Here’s more on the kinds of ships we cover.

The world is your oyster, so go open it.

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Can I bring my young children on a small-ship cruise?

Most small-ship cruises are not geared at all to children under about age 10; and others are not suitable for older kids either due to there not being playrooms, activities, kids menus, and often not TVs or reliable WiFi, not to mention the smaller space of the ship itself. That said, there ARE some small-ship cruises are that are wonderful for families with kids in the 10 to 18 year old range, including cruises in the Galapagos, Caribbean, Alaska, Antarctica, and the Greek Isles. During the summers and holiday weeks like Christmas, there will be more children traveling with their families and some lines offer special kids’ programming during those times, including Lindblad Expeditions, Celebrity Xpeditions, Un-Cruise, and others. On Europe’s rivers, some lines also offer special family departures, including lines like Uniworld and AMA Waterways.

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What if I have mobility problems on a small ship?

Some small ships are less likely to have elevators or at least service to all decks. Often the ships anchor in remote locations, and passengers must embark into launches and Zodiacs that may involve gangways with steps down into and up out the transfer craft. Getting ashore may be stepping onto embankment, a beach, even into shallow water. Check with the line to see if there is extra assistance for going ashore and if the ship and transfers are not ADA accessible.

Almost all ships now are forthright with how much walking there will be on excursions, how level or not, how uneven under foot, and if wheelchair access is available.

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Will airfare costs be higher for getting to small ships?

No, not with destinations and port embarkations shared by big and small ships; but yes for remote locations such as flying to the tippy tip of South America for a cruise to the Falklands, Antarctica and South Georgia; where charter flights are used in conjunction with regular international flights; and where you must fly inland from major gateways such as Bangkok or Singapore to a destination in Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar.

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Should I expect to pay more per diem for a small ship cruise that a mainstream large ship?

Yes, in most cases, but the amounts will vary and be less of a gap with some river cruise lines. Large ships, and large ship fleets, by their nature offer tremendous economies of scale, including purchasing food, supplies and fuel in bulk. They often offer low rates because once aboard the passengers will be encouraged to spend for shore excursions, shipboard shopping, casino gambling, drink packages, spa treatments, Internet, and eating in extra tariff restaurants. Watch out or you can easily spend as much daily as your per diem cruise fare.

While the answer to what’s included is all over the map, small ships often include all shore excursions in the basic fare, especially expedition ships and river cruises. Extra tariff restaurants are usually not part of the scene, nor are a casino and shopping, apart from a small selection of items connected to your destinations. Many riverboats lines, and some oceangoing ships too, offer complimentary beer wine, soft drinks at lunch and dinner.

You are paying for certain exclusivity with a small passenger list, often visiting places not accessible to large ships, while on expedition cruises, there are expenses for the expert staff carried, the high-tech equipment used for going ashore and then sharing the findings back on board, and being able to be entirely self-sufficient in remote cruising locales.

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What’s the food like? Will I be able to experiment and eat like a native? If I am wary of food that is too exotic, spicy or heavy, will I enjoy meals that I am used to at home?

Small ships have small galleys and food storage facilities, so while the top lines will offer quality and creatively, they may not offer great variety at individual meals. At you move down the luxury scale, creativity may begin to fall by the wayside, while quality should remain. The principal nationalities of the passengers will have a lot to do with the menus. A ship that is geared to multinationals will offer variety, so there is likely to be a wide choice for the food experimenters, and at least a small selection of the familiar for the timid. Ships that cater to English speakers will be more like home. Some of the riverboat operators cater largely to North Americans and the food will reflect that thrust, so those looking for a varied culinary experience may want to go elsewhere.

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Will there will be foreigners aboard and different languages blasted over the ship’s speaker system?

There are small ships that cater exclusively to North American passengers such as some river cruise lines, and others in all our categories, that cater to English-speaking passengers where there may be Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, and passengers whose first language may not be English but who are perfectly comfortable with it. In those cases, the language aboard and ashore will be English only. Some small ships may cater to an international group, but it is likely that there will be only two languages used: for example English and German or English and French.

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What’s the entertainment? I like something to happen after dinner.

On a small oceangoing ship or riverboat cruising Europe, a pianist may travel with the ship, and local musicians may board in ports when the ship is docked for the evening.

Expedition cruises mix special interest talks with entertainment, the latter a video that was shot that same day of what you experienced or one that shows what creatures may be lurking underwater. On riverboats, you are often docked in the evening, so you can walk ashore and visit the town. There may be a concert, opera, dance event or festival on.

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I’m shy and not very social, how will I get on with small-ship togetherness?

On a big ship, you can hide, find isolation in your cabin, the corner of a public room, and maybe snag a table for two. On a small ship, but not a tiny ship, you probably can retreat to your cabin, may be able to find a quiet space, but at meals you are likely to share a table with others; and as you probably have come for the same reason they have, you are likely to find other compatible, and reserved types.

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I am social and like meeting new people, is a small ship for me?

There’s an excellent chance that your small-ship cruise mates will have at least some of your interests, then with a small ship seriously dedicated to giving you a rich cultural experience on a Mediterranean cruise or an expedition-style adventure in the Arctic or Antarctica, your ship has come in. The cruise becomes a shared experience when ashore, in the Zodiacs, at the special interest talks and at open seating meals.

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Will I feel hemmed in on a small ship?

The lounges and bars will appear intimate rather than spacious and not as numerous as on larger ships. Then consider that the passenger counts — most all our listings will fall below 300, and depending on the ship you chose, even less — so the size of interior spaces, and even the number, fit the passenger capacity. Soaring atriums and vast show lounges are not part of the small-ship experience.

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