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 comparison.

First, a bit of a primer on who we are: Our crew of cruise specialists at AdventureSmith Explorations have over 50 years combined experience working on, planning and selling small ship and yacht cruises. Our definitions are based on our experience of ship size and its correlation to accessing remote areas and getting off the ship. Our comparisons below show the differences between adventure yachts (40 passengers or less), expedition ships (200 passengers or less) and cruise ships (200-5,000+ passengers) in an assortment of relevant cruising categories. Review this small ship cruise vs big ship cruise comparison to learn if small ship adventure cruising is right for you.

A small ship sitting directly in front of a big cruise ship in the water

Compare the differences between big and authentically small ships with this guide.

adventure yacht next to expedition ship next to cruise ship
staterooms adventure yacht

Focus of Cruise

Adventure Yacht

The main focus of a yacht cruise is to get off the ship exploring on guided shore walks and sea kayaks, with extensive opportunities away from ports. Visit the smallest towns that better represent a region’s culture and experience the solitude of wilderness. The schedule is often improvised based on clients’ interests.

Expedition Ship

Expedition ship cruising is directed outward, with a focus on firsthand experience in the destination. Visit smaller ports and enjoy a flexible schedule that allows time to cruise close to shore in search of whales and wildlife. Like-minded guests and many active offerings make fellow passengers friends.

Cruise Ship

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. Due to restrictions, permitting and the design of the ship, guests only go ashore in ports.

Atmosphere

dining adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

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

Expedition Ship

Casual and up-close cruising emphasizing an appreciation of nature, history and culture. Expedition ships offer a relaxed atmosphere for those seeking a meaningful connection to the region and like-minded fellow travelers.

Cruise Ship

Similar to a Las Vegas-style resort with shopping, shows, nightclubs, casinos and swimming pools, cruise ships have an exciting atmosphere with lots of action. There is little connection with the sea or your surroundings outside of the ship.

dining adventure yacht

Staterooms

Adventure Yacht

Varies by yacht from luxury to simple. Generally smaller cabins, many with portholes. Some yachts have shared bathrooms. However with the activity level of adventure yachts, not much time is spent in cabins.

Expedition Ship

Similar size and layout of a large ship. Many cabins are located on the observation deck for wildlife viewing right outside your window and some even offer personal balconies in each cabin.

Cruise Ship

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

dining adventure yacht

Dining

Adventure Yacht

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. On some yachts, guests can catch a fish and have it cooked to order.

Expedition Ship

Healthy and hearty regional cuisine 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.

Cruise Ship

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.

Sea Lion vs. Silversea

Service

service adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

Luxury yachts offer five-star service while family-run yachts are like a floating B&B, some with even gardens on deck! Local crews and guides, with extensive experience in the region, become your personal ambassador to the region.

Expedition Ship

Personalized service with high crew to passenger ratio. By the end of the cruise guests are on a first name basis with the captain and entire crew. Expedition ships also often offer exemplary guides.

Cruise Ship

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

Amenities

amenities adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

Everything about a yacht is smaller including the bathrooms, hallways, dining rooms and observation decks. This is made up for by more time off the yacht and the intimate connection created with crew and fellow passengers.

Expedition Ship

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

Cruise Ship

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

Itinerary

itinerary

Adventure Yacht

Itinerary often not set until cruise departs or free to change so the captain can base the trip on the interests of passengers. These yachts cruise close to shore, visit small settlements and often anchor in quiet coves overnight.

Expedition Ship

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.

Cruise Ship

Typical itineraries are designed to highlight popular ports on a fixed schedule. Big ships are often cruising at night and docked in port during the day. Cruises in deep-water channels far from shore.

Entertainment

entertainment adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

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 sunset.

Expedition Ship

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

Cruise Ship

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

Shore Excursions

shore excursions adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

Guided hiking, kayaking and small craft explorations are included, with passengers in it together or in small groups experiencing the solitude. Some port excursions but these trips often visit towns too small for tours. 

Expedition Ship

Port excursions often included in price. Smaller group tours offering small scale, authentic cultural experiences with no waiting. Wilderness activities like hikes, kayaking, Zodiac tours and snorkeling are often available, with varied options for multiple interests on ship.

Cruise Ship

Can only stop in the largest ports and most often cost extra. Often large crowded bus tours.

Families

families adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

Dedicated family departures and programs similar to expedition 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.


Expedition Ship

Designated family departures mean families with kids of similar ages travel together. Onboard and off-vessel activities are keep younger travelers engaged and bring families together. These cruises often feature educational components on local nature, wildlife and culture. Best for travelers 6 and older.

Cruise Ship

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

Transfers

transfers adventure yacht

Adventure Yacht

Varies by vessel, but personalized transfers or airport pickups are commonly included.


Expedition Ship

Varies by ship, but often includes airport pickup on day of embarkation and disembarkation, and occasional options to extend your trip on land with the group.

Cruise Ship

Guests are on their own or must pay extra for a transfer to or from the ship.

Did you decide which type of ship is best for you? Here at AdventureSmith Explorations we specialize in expedition ships and adventure yachts, supporting people to get off the boat and out exploring the wilderness they are traveling through, whether it’s by kayak, stand-up paddleboarding, snorkeling or hiking. If you are interested in learning more about small ships please read our How to Choose Your Small Ship Cruise.


This post on small ships vs big ships was originally published in January 2013. Our team of experts have since updated the content to reflect any changes and add new graphics; our most recent update occurred August 2018.