Sizing up cruises
M y wife Joan and I went for a cruise from New Zealand to Australia on the Star Princess in January. When we got on board in Auckland, the Star Princess was the biggest passenger ship in the world. By the time we got off in Sydney it was only the second biggest, because during our cruise the Queen Mary 2 made its maiden voyage.
Our ship was 951 feet long and holds 2,600 passengers and 1,150 crew members. Even though the Queen Mary 2 is 181 feet longer, it holds only 20 more passengers. The difference is made up with amenities including more bars ” 14 instead of just 8 ” and more expensive suites, at up to $37,499 per cruise.
Travel writers fawned all over the new ship, saying over and over again that bigger is automatically better. They’re wrong. Bigger is only better if you are looking for a big ship. There are advantages to every size ship. What you really want is a vacation that matches your taste.
I’ve been on ships as small as 199 passengers, which also have advantages.
Big ships have lots of activities and the food tends to be fancier. But at the same time, on a big ship you are dealing with crowds most of the time in confined spaces. The Star Princess is like a city of 3,750 people, most of whom are adults. If you meet someone interesting you may never see that person again.
We found that the smaller the ship, the more friends you make. Ships as small as 200 to 300 passengers tend to be used for packages that include almost all of your activities in the price of the cruise. When we took a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow, all of the excellent tours of each city we visited were part of the package, so we did everything with everyone else at no extra cost, spending a lot of time with many of the same people.
Another surprise is that smaller ships may have bigger staterooms. We did a trip a few years ago on the Tropicale, one of Carnival’s oldest and smallest ships at the time of our cruise ” about 1,400 people including the crew. It had bigger rooms because they weren’t trying to squeeze as many people onto the ships as they do on the newer mega-liners.
It also had more on-board activities than the Star Princess, which holds more than twice as many people.
Big ships like Carnival and Princess charge extra for all land tours. The two places you absolutely want to go on very small ships are Antarctica and the Arctic. In both places you travel ashore by Zodiacs ” inflatable boats powered by outboard motors. So only a small number of passengers can go to shore on big cruise ships and it is very expensive. Everyone goes to shore on the small ships as many as three or four times a day and the cost is part of the package.
The other big difference between most big and small ships is that the small ships usually have lots of educational lectures on subjects pertaining to the trip like penguins in the Antarctic and the history of Russia on Russian River Cruises. Big ships may have one or two lectures available about the area you are sailing to, but only a few. What they have instead is Las Vegas type shows and lots of lounges where you can dance the night away.
And only big ships have something that may be very important to some passengers ” AA meetings. But they won’t be called “AA,” or “Alcoholics Anonymous”; instead they will be called something like “Friends of Bill W” on the schedule of activities.
Journalist Nick Isenberg lives in Glenwood Springs.
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