Cruising in Alaska – Big Ship vs Small Ship

What cruising means to you?

Tour takes us out of our comfort zones and inspires us to check, taste and try a new worlds. It constantly challenges us, not only to adapt to and explore new surroundings, but also to engage with different persons, to embrace new things as they come and to share new and relevant experiences with playmate and loved ones.


Once you’ve chosen your itinerary, choosing the right ship is the most important factor in ensuring you get the vacation you’re looking for. Cruise ships in Alaska range from small adventure ships to resort-style mega ships, with the cruise experience varying greatly depending on the type of ship you select. There are casual cruises and luxury cruises; educational tours where you attend lectures and tours where you attend music reviews; adventure cruises where hiking, kayaking and exploring remote areas are the main activities; and resort-style cruises where aquatherapy and mud baths are the order of the day.

You need to decide what overall cruise experience you want. Itinerary and type of cruise are even more important than price. After all, what bargain is a party cruise if you’re looking for some quiet time? Your fantasy vacation could be someone else’s nightmare, and vice versa.

Unlike the Caribbean, which generally attracts people who want to relax in the sun, people who want to spend all their time diving and snorkeling, and people who want to party until the cows come home, visitors to Alaska usually all have a different Goal: They want to experience Alaska’s glaciers, forests, wildlife, and other natural wonders. The cruise lines all recognize this, so almost any option you choose will give you opportunities to see what you came for. So the most important question is how you want to see those sights. Do you want to be at the waterline and see them from the deck of an adventure ship, or do you want to see them from a warm lounge or, even better, from your own private veranda?

Large ships operating in Alaska vary in size and scope, and include everything from a classic cruise ship to very, very large and truly new mega ships. All offer a comfortable cruising experience, with virtual armies of service agents overseeing your well-being and ship stabilizers ensuring smooth sailing.

The size of these ships may keep Alaska’s wildlife at bay (you’ll probably need binoculars to spot the whales), but they offer plenty of deck space and comfortable lounge chairs to sit in while taking in the beautiful mountain views and the glaciers and drink a cup of coffee or cocoa. Because of their deeper draft, the big ships can’t get as close to the sights as the smaller ships, and they can’t visit the more pristine fjords, coves and constrictions. However, the more powerful engines on these ships allow them to visit more ports on each trip – generally popular ports where your ship can be one of many and where souvenir shopping is a main attraction. Some of the less massive ships in this category can also visit alternative ports away from the typical tourist crowds.

Regardless of the port size, the major cruise lines place great emphasis on shore excursions, allowing you to better explore different aspects of Alaska: wildlife, native culture, and so on. It is a must to disperse passengers to different locations on these coastal trips. When 2,000 passengers disembark in a small Alaskan town, much of the atmosphere disappears out the window — on particularly busy days, when several ships are docked, there may be more cruise passengers on the ground than locals. Due to the number of people involved, disembarkation can be a lengthy process.

The megaships, which carry more than 2,000 passengers, look and feel like floating resorts. They are big on glitter, offer tons of activities, attract many families (and, especially in Alaska, many seniors), offer many public spaces (including upscale casinos and fully equipped gyms), and offer a wide variety of dining and entertainment options, and although they usually have one or two formal nights per trip, the atmosphere is generally casual. The Alaska ships in the Carnival, Celebrity, Princess and Royal Caribbean fleets all fit into this category, as do most Alaska ships in the Holland America and Norwegian fleets.

Just as large cruise ships are usually for people who want all the amenities of the resort, small or alternative ships are best suited for those who prefer a casual, crowd-free cruise experience that gives passengers the chance to experience Alaska’s natural environment. get to know up close and personal and wildlife.

Their smaller size allows these vessels, which carry fewer than 150 passengers, to go to places larger vessels cannot reach, such as narrow fjords, uninhabited islands and smaller ports mainly geared towards small fishing vessels. Because of their shallow draft (the amount of ship below the waterline), they can sniff up to sheer cliffs, bird colonies, bobbing icebergs and waterfalls that you can literally touch. Also, marine animals aren’t that intimidated by these ships, so you can have a pretty close encounter with a humpback whale or see other marine mammals bobbing in the ship’s wake. The decks of these ships are also closer to the waterline, giving passengers a more intimate view than from the high decks of the large cruise ships. Some of these ships make daily stops in ports, such as the larger ships, and some avoid ports almost entirely and explore natural areas instead. They also have the flexibility to change their itineraries as the opportunity arises, for example to go where whales have been sighted, and to stay for a while once they have made a sighting.

The alternative ship experience comes with a sense of adventure, although it is usually a gentle adventure rather than a rough one, offering a generally casual cruising experience: there are no dress up evenings, the food can be prepared quite simply, and because there are so few public spaces to choose from – usually just one or two small lounges – camaraderie develops more quickly between passengers on these ships than aboard larger ships, which can be as anonymous as a major city. The cabins on these ships do not usually offer a TV or telephone and are usually very small and in some cases downright Spartan. Meals are generally served in single open seating (meaning no seats are allocated) and there is usually no dress code.

None of these ships offer exercise or spa facilities like you’ll find on the big ships – your best exercise bet is usually a brisk walk on the deck after dinner – but can offset this by offering more active opportunities outside of the ship, such as hiking fishing, crabbing or kayaking (on three of the Glacier Bay Tours and Cruises ships, aft launch pads even allow you to kayak from the ship). The alternate ships will also provide more frequent expert lectures on Alaska-specific topics such as marine biology, history, Native culture, and other intellectual pursuits.

There are no stabilizers on most of these smaller vessels, and the ride can be bumpy in open water – which isn’t much of a problem on Inside Passage routes, as most of the cruising area is protected from sea waves. They are also difficult for travelers with disabilities as only three (Cruise West’s Spirit of ’98 and Spirit of Oceanus and Clipper’s Clipper Odyssey) have elevators. And the alternative companies don’t offer specific activities or facilities for children, although you will find a few families on some of these ships.


Why is cruising good for you?

Travelling relieves stress and boosts mental health

Travelling has the ability to take you out of stressant and into new enviroment and experiences and this can reset your body and mind. Even planning a adventure can have an fantastic effect on the body – it boosts happiness and feels rewarding.

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