Adventure Cruise News

Small Ship vs Big Ship - What is the Difference?

by Todd Smith

When many people hear about cruising, they instantly think of big cruise ships.  Many travelers and travel agents are not aware that small ships even exist. To answer general questions about the differences between small ships and big ships, we have created the following scomparison. We are small ship cruise specialists with over 50 years combined experience working on, planning and selling small ship and yacht cruises. Review our small ship cruise vs big ship cruise comparison to learn if small ship adventure cruising is right for you. 

Small Ship vs Big Ship Comparison


Cruise Ship

Small Ship

Adventure Yacht

# of passengers

250-5000 passengers

150 passengers or less

40 passengers or less

Cruise focus

Traditional large ship cruises are focused inward.  The ship itself is the attraction while the destination is secondary. Picture a floating resort, cruising mostly at night, between popular port towns. Go ashore only in ports. 

Small ship cruising is directed outward, with a focus on first hand experience in the destination. Visit smaller ports that better represent a regions authentic culture.  A flexible schedule allows time to cruise close to shore in search of whales and wildlife.  Some cruises explore off the ship by small craft, on guided shore hikes and sea kayaking.

The main focus of a yacht cruise is to get off the yacht exploring up close on guided shore walks and sea kayaking.  Extensive opportunities to get off the yacht while away from ports. Visit the smallest towns and experience the solitude of wilderness.  Improvised schedule is based on client interests.


Similar to a Las Vegas style resort with shopping, shows, night clubs, casino's and swimming pools. Exciting atmosphere with lots of action. Little connection with the sea or your surroundings.

Up close and casual cruising emphasizing an appreciation of nature, history and culture. Relaxed atmosphere for those seeking a meaningful connection to the region and like minded travelers.

Up close and active cruising with hiking and kayaking right from the yacht.  Fun, almost family-like atmosphere, where you explore at your own pace. Peaceful evenings anchored in quite solitude. 


Much like a standard hotel room.  Expect to pay an upgrade for ocean views or balcony.

Similar size and layout of large ship.  Many cabins located on observation deck for wildlife viewing right outside your door.

Varies by yacht from luxury to simple. Generally smaller cabins, most with portholes. Some yachts have shared bathrooms. 


Many dining options including formal tuxedo dinners, midnight buffets, specialty restaurants, fast food and room service.  Expect assigned seating at a specific hour for ocean view restaurants.

Healthy and hearty regional cruising served in a casual style.  Choose from a limited menu and sit where you wish in an ocean view dining room. Expect four star quality and plenty to eat. 

Meals are an intimate affair at one or two tables for everyone. Luxury yachts have an executive chef while family yachts share delicious local recipes.  Catch a fish and have it cooked to order. 


Typical hotel service. Often long lines for dining or to disembark the ship.  Must make reservations for dinner, shows and shore excursions.

Personalized service with high crew to passenger ratio. By the end of the cruise you will be on a first name basis with the captain and entire crew.

Luxury yachts offer five star service while family yachts are like a floating B&B. Local crews, with extensive experience in the region, become your personal ambassador to the region.


Almost anything you can imagine from hair salons and spas to golf simulators and waterslides. With ten or more decks you are on a city at sea. 

Small ships have plenty of common space including the lounge, bar, library, dining room and multiple observation decks.  Many small ships have a spa and fitness center. 

Everything about a yacht is smaller including the bathrooms, hallways, dining rooms and observation decks. They make up for it by spending more time off the yacht. 


Typical itineraries designed to highlight popular ports on a fixed schedule.  Often cruising at night and in port during the day.  Stays in deep water channels far from shore. 

Cruise close to shore on flexible itineraries designed to take advantage of unexpected sightings.  May feature smaller, more authentic ports and shore landings in remote locations. Cruising highlights during the day. 

Itinerary often not set until cruise departs so the captain can base the trip on the interests of passengers.  Cruise close to shore, visit small settlements, and anchor in quite coves overnight.


There is endless entertainment aboard big ships. Movie theaters, swimming pools, casino's, shows, arcades etc. keep cruisers occupied. There is little, if any, information about the region in which you are cruising. 

Programs led by naturalists, historians and on board experts enhance your understanding of the region through narrative, lectures and discussions. Cruise close to shore and explore even closer on small craft excursions.

Naturalist guides lead daily off vessel activities including shore walks and sea kayaking.  After an active day of exploration enjoy the solitude of wilderness while relaxing on deck watching the sun set.

Shore Excursions

Only in largest ports.  Always cost extra.  Often large crowded bus tours.

Port excursions often included in price. Smaller group tours with no waiting.  Some wilderness activities.

Guided hiking, kayaking and small craft explorations included.  Some port excursions but many towns too small for tours.  


Lots of kid friendly activities including day care, babysitting, water parks, recreation rooms and arcades, movie theaters and kids camps.  Kids activities often designed to give parents free time. No minimum age. 

Designated family departures mean families with kids of similar ages travel together.  On board programs and off vessel activities designed to keep younger travelers engaged, and bring families together. Often feature educational components highlighting local nature, wildlife and culture. Best for travelers 6 and older.

Dedicated family departures and programs similar to small ships with even more time off the boat.   Yachts are the perfect platform for private family cruises, family charters or family reunions. Best for travelers 6 and older.  Private charters accommodate kids of any age.   


On your own or pay extra for a transfer to or from the ship.

Included airport pickup on day of embarkation and disembarkation.

Varies by vessel.  Personalized transfers or airport pickups. 


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