Many times we get requests from people who are tired of the lines, crowds, and formality of the larger cruise lines, namely those holding more than 2,000 passengers. While we normally choose these lines because it is the mass market that we sell to, I do admit to sometimes feeling as if we are cattle herded into the chute. Royal Caribbean’s newest ship, set to debut in December 2009, will have the capacity of over 5,400 passengers, and that does not count the crew! While the ship is huge, there are some people who would consider that number of passengers as just too many fellow travelers.
For this article let’s look at ships with a guest capacity of 500 or less (Princess has three ships that they call small, holding from 670 to 710 passengers).
Small ships come in many classifications: such as expedition cruising, coastal and river cruising, sailing ships, soft-adventure cruises, freighter and barge cruises. Because of their smaller size, these ships can get into smaller ports that are often gems as far as experiencing the native culture.
One example that comes to mind is Petersburg, Alaska. It is a small fishing port that retains much of the Norwegian heritage of its founders. It is located in the Wrangle Narrows of Alaska’s Inside Passage, and the mainstream larger cruise lines just don’t fit.
Small ships can also get closer to shore for wildlife viewing. You’re not going to see a bear when your large ship is several miles off shore. Many small ships are equipped with inflatable Zodiacs, which can get you “up close and personal” with whales, sea otters and seals. Indeed the emphasis on small ships is more toward outdoor activities, nature and wilderness exploration. There is often a naturalist on board and your evening “entertainment” is his lecture and slide show. No Broadway production shows or poker tournaments on these ships. The food is usually very good, often specializing in local cuisine, always fresh, and there is no assigned seating. There is also only one seating and no room service. You won’t find a grill by the pool, pizza or ice cream parlors or a place to buy your espresso mochachino latte.
Most of the small ships are not suitable for families. There are no quad cabins or children’s programs. Often there is no TV in your room, much less Wi-Fi service.
Then there’s the “ride.” There are no stabilizers on these small ships, and when they get in the open seas, like the Gulf of Alaska, they do bob around a little.
Most do not have a doctor or nurse on board should you get seasick or worse, but since they sail close to land, they can put you off for any medical treatment needed.
Cabins are simple, and there usually is not a large choice of cabin style, so if you’re the penthouse type, you won’t find any on the small ships. Very few small ships are equipped with elevators, or have handicap cabins and are decidedly not wheelchair friendly. Also, there are not a lot of activities to fill your day, since the emphasis is on the world beyond the ship.
So where can you go on a small ship? Destinations are almost endless. You can do the Great Lakes, the East Coast Inland Passage from Baltimore to Charleston or Jacksonville, Chesapeake Bay, St. Lawrence Seaway, the New England coast from Bar Harbor to Providence, Florida’s Lake George to St. Augustine and New York’s Hudson River. While the Mississippi paddle wheelers are no longer sailing, there are now barge cruises on the Mississippi and it’s tributaries, the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Illinois rivers as well as the inter-coastal waterway from New Orleans to Post Isabel, Texas. Cruise West does the Columbia and Snake Rivers, Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Panama Canal and Costa Rica, the South Pacific from Guam to Tahiti, Grand Asia from Japan to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Danang, and Haiphong, and Alaska from Vancouver as far as the Arctic Circle and the Russian Far East. Then there are the many river cruise companies, which cover almost all of Europe, Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, and the Yangtze in China. Of course there are optional excursions to great land destinations from these river cruises, like Beijing, Xian, and Alaska’s Denali National Park.
The biggest advantage to small ship cruising: the personalized treatment you receive from the staff, who will know your name and preferences within a few days. The atmosphere is casual and intimate. Think bed and breakfast versus mega resort.
The biggest disadvantage: the price. Why are small ship cruises so expensive? Despite their size, large ships are often more fuel-efficient. It costs almost as much to push a small ship through the water as a large ship. The fees that the ship pays for docking in a port of call are the same, regardless of the size. But on a small ship you have fewer people to divide that cost into. Many of the small ships are American flagged, which means that they have to pay their American staff the prevailing wage. And, if you have ever cruised before, you know the pitfalls to your wallet that exist on large ships: the casino, the spa treatments, the photographs, the bingo games, the art auctions, and the shore excursions. Remember that on many small ships, like Cruise West, and the many river cruise companies, the shore excursions are included in the cruise price.
So whether you want a sailing ship cruise, where you actually become part of the crew, or more of an expedition experience, a coastal, river, barge, or Great Lakes cruise, or even a freighter cruise (now that’s really roughing it), we can find the cruise and destination to fulfill your expectations. Stop in at Cruise Port Travel, 408 S. Beeline Highway, open Monday through Friday, or call (928) 472-7878 or toll free 877-949-7678 for accredited assistance in planning your next great adventure.