Quirky Cruise
May 8, 2017

Small Ships Vs Big Ships in Alaska

By Ted Scull.

Over the years, I have made six trips to Alaska, five of them by ship and one by car. The waterborne voyages north to Alaska have been via a large cruise ship, twice by the Alaska Marine Highway and twice by small ships taking less than 100 passengers. The Inside Passage en route to the 49th state is a scenic wonder, bracketed by steep cliffs, high mountains snowcapped most of the year, narrow waterways providing deep routes into the interior, and isolated settlements, for some, the only access may be by boat. The scenery on the voyage north may be appreciated from any size ship. However, enjoying the sight of wildlife in the sea and on land is altogether another matter once you are in Alaska.

Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska

Serenity at the bow, heading north to Alaska. * Photo: Ted Scull

The benefits of taking a small ship cruise in Alaska are pretty overwhelming, but decide for yourself if small trumps big:


  • Whales and dolphins are likely in these waters, and the big ships must stay well away from a pod of whales, while a small ship, much less threatening and more maneuverable, can quietly move closer allowing passengers standing one or two decks above the sea to observe them at close range without disturbing them. Dolphins may follow just off the bow and you can often look straight down at them.
  • A small ship’s itinerary is usually more relaxed, so the captain has more time allowed for finding wildlife and staying with it.
  • When wildlife is spotted ashore, small ships with shallow drafts can edge up to slumbering sea lions lounging along the shoreline, while a deeper draft ship has to remain well away.
  • Such proximity provides a major thrill and small groups can more easily keep the silence allowing an undisturbed observance of sea lions interacting with each other. Bears are another sight to watch out for from the decks of a small ship.
  • I have been able to get great pictures without a telephoto lens.

Close up to lounging sea lions at the entrance to Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull


  • Some Alaskan glaciers are located at the far end of narrow fjords, hence big ships can sail up only so close and still be able to turn around.
  • A small ship has much more room to maneuver, and if a large piece of glacial ice should calve, you will feel the wave that it creates.
  • In Glacier Bay, mornings are set aside for the large ships, and the number each day is limited, while the small ships have the morning to get close to wildlife near the entrance to Glacier Bay and maybe sail into a narrow bay where more wildlife is located.
  • Then in the afternoon, they have the glaciers to themselves or perhaps with another small ship.
  • Captains often speak to each other so they choose not to follow exactly the same itinerary. In addition, they may exchange wildlife information.

Close to Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay. * Photo: Ted Scull


  • Some Alaskan towns have just a few thousand inhabitants, some even less, so a massive cruise ship may have a larger population aboard than ashore.
  • Either the passengers and crew inundate the town or simply do not call at all, while one with just 50 to 100 on board will be able to go ashore, more easily blend in, meet people on the street, and if a performance is planned, see it at a local meeting hall, gym or theater.
  • When visiting Petersburg, Alaska with strong Norwegian ties a couple of years ago, for instance, the locals demonstrated their culture using ancestral musical instruments and dancing. The town is also one of the richest fishing ports in the world, and its citizens are proud to describe their life at sea and fleet maintenance. It was easily done with a small group and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
  • From a small ship, you may be able to go directly into the ship’s own Zodiacs for a wildlife excursion to a nearby island or to a landing almost anywhere for a hike ashore, no docking facilities needed. The big ships on the other hand will probably have you join a local land operator who first has to get you to the wildlife site by bus.
  • Both large and small ships call at tiny Skagway, for example, and there’s no avoiding the tourist crowds in the streets, though other parts of the visit will feel saner for small ship cruisers. On the Yukon and White Pass trains, the small ships offer a single reserved coach for its passengers, and similarly, other excursions won’t entail mustering groups of hundreds.

Peaceful evening port call at Glacier Bay Lodge. * Photo: Ted Scull


  • The National Park Service is often hired by the cruise line to come aboard, give a talk or be out on deck to identify wildlife and answer questions. On a big ship, the commentary may have to be given over a loud speaker while on a small vessel, passengers gather round and have a personal chat.
  • The small ships will also often carry their own naturalist staff who are also available throughout the day.
  • If the weather turns nasty keeping you inside, the big ships will have many more on board diversions such as bars, musical entertainment, movies, shopping, gym, spa and where permitted, casino gambling.
  • The small ships offer solitude: a naturalist lecture, film, maybe a small gym and spa and perhaps the best chance you will ever get to read that book that has been sitting by your bedside.

Up close and personal with a National Park Service guide. * Photo: Ted Scull


  • While the big ships usually have cheaper fares, shore tours are extra and can be quite expensive in Alaska, while many small ships have excursions included in the fare and that helps narrow the gap. They may also offer optional trips, such as flightseeing, for a charge.
  • There is no question that the big ships offering economies of scale, and with 2,000-5,000 passengers, they can charge less than a ship carrying just one hundred or fewer. If considering both, make sure you compare what is included up front to give you a fair appraisal.

While Alaska on any size vessel is a supremely worthwhile trip, we’re personally besotted with seeing Alaska on a small ship. Whatever you choose, happy cruising!

Free to join the first mate in the wheelhouse. * Photo: Ted Scull


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