Look at enough websites and brochures, and cruise ships tend to become a blur of happy people at sea, dining and playing. But the reality is that cruising brings together several travel experiences — sightseeing usually in multiple destinations, lounging, dining, dancing, being entertained and on and on.
Which line you choose will shape your vacation. Your budget will be a factor, of course, but so should the size of the ship. Think about what you want from the trip and about your travel preferences.
Large cruise ships are the most likely to have crowds and waits at bottlenecks, such as the main dining room at dinner and boarding at the end of a day in port, but they also offer the most variety. They will have lots of restaurants, activities and entertainment.
When it comes to dining, the behemoths — which carry from 2,000 to 6,000 passengers — resemble floating cities. Royal Caribbean's newest, the 4,180-passenger Quantum of the Seas (and its soon-to-launch sister, Anthem of the Seas) has a whopping 18 restaurants. The choices are as diverse as a "food truck" serving hot dogs, an Italian spot with house-made pasta, a health-focused restaurant and a modern gastro pub.
They aren't the only ones with volume: Norwegian Cruise Line's 4,500-passenger Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway have 21 complimentary restaurants and for-a-fee places,
Princess Cruises' new 3,560-passenger Regal Princess and Royal Princess have 16 outlets, including a pizzeria, a steakhouse and a raw bar. There's also pub lunch fare and even ploughman's lunches, the traditional British fare that highlights breads and cheeses.
Cunard's 2,620-passenger Queen Mary 2 also offers pub lunches, complete with room-temperature beer and fish and chips, and guests will also find tea service with live music, impressive scones and real clotted cream.
These ships also offer room service as well as casual buffet-style dining at every meal — with stations offering lots of choices — for those times a quick meal rather than table service is more appealing.
For travelers who crave variety — or who are traveling with a diverse group of family members and/or friends whose preferences and stats vary — the multitude of choices is a real win in dining and in entertainment. These mega ships have pools, of course, but also water parks, fitness facilities and spas. You'll find cool amusement-park-style games and rides, such as Ferris wheels, ropes courses and zip lines.
At night, there are just as many options, including comedy acts, Broadway-style musicals, dance performances, nightclubs and pubs with beer and sometimes games, although not darts for safety reasons.
Medium-sized ships — from about 950 to 2,000 passengers — have fewer dining and entertainment options, although that doesn't mean they lack quality. Crystal Cruises' Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony, which can accommodate about 1,000 passengers each, have restaurants by Piero Selvaggio of Valentino and Nobu Matsuhisa of Nobu. The activities also tend to feel a bit more intimate: For example, the line has a partnership with the Magic Castle, Hollywood's private magicians' club, and presents a Magic Castle at Sea performance on sailings.
Oceania Cruises' 1,250-passenger Marina and Riviera also have a smaller number of high-quality specialty restaurants. On these ships, you'll find Jacques (a Lyonnais-style restaurant with a rotisserie and a cheese cart) and Red Ginger (a pan-Asian restaurant) as well as La Reserve, an intimate space that serves wine-pairing dinners.
Small ships — from just 100 passengers to a little more than 900 passengers — tend to have the fewest options. These cruises also tend to be more social and passengers usually take time to get to know one another.
On SeaDream's two 112-passenger ships, passengers go on unscheduled visits to beach bars in the Caribbean, and scheduled Champagne and caviar parties in the surf in the Mediterranean.
Small ships can get into ports that large ships can't. This means the smaller-sized vessels may be able to visit tiny islands and cities that have more modestly sized ports. They usually can get closer to the action in many ports, which eliminates long taxi rides or shuttle buses to city centers.
One important caveat about small ships: The intimacy and personal attention may be appealing, but if you're an introvert, get bored easily or you're on a honeymoon or other romantic trip, small-ship cruises may not, like small-town life, be right for you.
Cruise Tip of the Week
For a cozy sail, consider a river cruise
River cruise ships, at 200 passengers and under, foster a growing sense of community as the sailing progresses. They're great for people who love conversation, playing cards and games, reading and watching the scenery go by, but they're not for those who prefer the plentiful options of a cruise ship.