Choosing the Right Ship - Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Berlitz Cruising & Cruise Ships 2017 (Berlitz Cruise Guide) (2016)

Choosing the Right Ship

What’s the difference between large and small ships? Are new ships better than older ones? Here is the latest to make sure you select the right ship on which to sail away.

There’s something to suit virtually all tastes when it comes to which ship to choose. Ships are measured (not weighed) in gross tonnage (GT) and come in four principal size categories:

Large resort ships: for 2,001-6,500 passengers

(typically measure 50,000-220,000 gross tonnage).

Think: double-decker bus (with some seats that are better than others).

Mid-size ships: for 751-2,000 passengers

(typically 25,000-50,000 gross tonnage).

Think: long-distance coach (comfortable seats).

Small ships: for 251-750 passengers

(typically 5,000-25,000 gross tonnage).

Think: mini-van (some are executive types; some are more mainstream).

Boutique ships: 50-250 passengers

(typically 1,000-5,000 gross tonnage).

Think: private car (luxury, mid-range, or compact).


Small luxury ship Silver Cloud.

Silversea Cruises


For an idea of the amount of the space around you (I call it the ‘crowd factor’), check the ‘Passenger space ratio’ given for each ship in the listings section (gross tonnage divided by the number of passengers, based on two lower beds per cabin, plus single-occupancy cabins).

Passenger space ratio:

50 and above is outstanding

30 to 50 is very spacious

20 to 30 is not very spacious

10 to 20 is high density

10 or below is extremely cramped


Snacking at sea aboard Celebrity Constellation.

Celebrity Cruises/Steve Beaudet

Large resort ships (2,001-6,500 passengers)

Choose a large resort ship if you like being with lots of other people in a bustling big-city environment, you enjoy being sociable, and you want to have plenty of entertainment and dining (well, eating) options. These balcony-rich ships provide a well-packaged standard or premium vacation, usually in a seven-day cruise. It is the interaction between passengers and crew that determines the quality of the onboard experience.

Large resort ships have extensive facilities and programs for families with children of all ages. But if you meet someone on the first day and want to see them again, make sure you appoint a very specific place and time - apart from the size of the ship, they may be at a different meal seating. These ships have a highly structured array of activities and passenger participation events each day, together with large entertainment venues, and the most lavish production shows at sea.

It is the standard of service, entertainment, lecture programs, level of communication, and finesse in dining services that really can move these ships into high rating categories, but they must be exceptional to do so. Choose higher-priced suite accommodation and the service improves. In other words: pay more, get more.

Large resort ships are highly programmed. It is difficult, for example, to go swimming in the late evening - the decks are cleaned and pools are often netted over by 6pm. Having Champagne delivered to outdoor hot tubs late at night is virtually impossible. They have lost the flexibility for which cruise ships were once known, becoming victims of company ‘policy’ and insurance regulations. There can be a feeling of ‘conveyor-belt’ cruising, with cultural offerings scarcely extending beyond rap, rock, alcohol, and gambling.

Mid-size ships (751-2,000 passengers)

These suit the smaller ports of the Aegean and Mediterranean, and are more maneuverable than larger ships. Several operate around-the-world cruises and other long-distance itineraries to exotic destinations not really feasible aboard many small ships or large resort ships.

There is a big difference in the amount of space available. Accommodation varies from large ‘penthouse suites’ complete with butler service to tiny interior (no-view) cabins. These ships will generally be more stable at sea than ‘small ships,’ due to their increased size and draft. They provide more facilities, more entertainment, and more dining options. There is some entertainment and more structured activities than aboard small ships, but less than aboard large resort ships.

Small ships (251-750 passengers) and boutique ships (50-250 passengers)

Choose a small or boutique ship for an intimate cruise experience and a small number of passengers. Some of the world’s most exclusive cruise ships belong in this group - but so do most of the coastal vessels with basic, unpretentious amenities, sail-cruise ships, and the expedition-style cruise vessels that take passengers to see natural wonders.


An illustrated nature talk aboard National Geographic Explorer.

Lindblad/Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson

Select this size of ship if you don’t need much entertainment, large resort ship facilities, gambling casinos, several restaurants, and if you don’t like to wait in lines for anything. If you want to swim in the late evening, or have Champagne in the hot tub at midnight, it’s easier aboard boutique or small ships than aboard larger ships, where more rigid programs lead to inflexible, passenger-unfriendly thinking.


Casual lunch aboard a large resort ship.


What about age?

A ship that’s over 10 years old is now considered old. However, its quality depends on the level of maintenance it has received, and whether it has operated on short or longer cruises - short cruises get more passenger throughput and wear and tear. Many passengers like older ships, as they tend to have fewer synthetic materials in their interior decor. It’s inevitable that most of the older tonnage won’t match the latest high-tech hardware, but today’s ships aren’t built with the same loving care as in the past.

Most cruise advertising you’ll see revolves around the newer, larger ships, but some older ships have much to offer if you don’t want the latest trendy facilities and city high street feel. Indeed, some of the older, smaller ships have adequate facilities, tend to have more character, and provide a more relaxing vacation experience than the go-go-go contemporary ships, where you’re just one of a large crowd.


Formal dining aboard Cunard’s Queen Victoria.

Cunard Line

Newer ships (under 10 years old): advantages

Newer ships typically incorporate the latest in high-tech electronic equipment in advanced ship design and construction; they also meet the latest safety and operating regulations.

Many new ships have ‘pod’ propulsion systems, which have replaced conventional propeller shafts, propellers, and rudders, with the result that there is little or no vibration, and greater fuel efficiency.

Although the trade-off is debatable, more recent ships have been built with more space given over to the interior public rooms, and less to the exterior promenade deck - this is fine for traveling to destinations where the weather is less predictable, but not so great for sunbathing.

Newer ships have design advantages as well, including: a shallower draft, which makes it easier for them to enter and leave ports; bow and stern thrusters, so they seldom require tug assistance in many ports, which reduces operating costs; and many have the latest submersible lifeboats, creating a safer operating environment.

Newer ships (under 10 years old): disadvantages

Because of their shallow draft, these ships can roll, even when there’s the slightest puff of wind. Recent design changes also mean that newer ships have thin hulls and do not withstand the bangs and dents as well as older, more heavily plated vessels.

The interior decor is made mostly from synthetic materials, due to stringent regulations, and could cause problems for passengers sensitive to such materials. The cabin windows are usually completely sealed, instead of portholes that can be opened. Most egregiously, newer ships almost always have toilets of the powerful vacuum suction, which I like to call the ‘barking dog’ type, due to the noise they make when flushed.

Advantages and disadvantages of large resort ships



They have the widest range of public rooms and facilities, often a walk-around promenade deck outdoors, and more space (but more passengers).

The itineraries may be limited by ship size, and there may be tender ports where you need to take a number, sit in a lounge, and wait … and wait.

They generally have more dining options.

Room-service breakfast is not generally available on the day of disembarkation.

The newest ships have state-of-the-art electronic interactive entertainment facilities - good if you like computers and high-tech gadgetry.

They are floating hotels - but with many announcements - and many items cost extra. They are like retail parks surrounded by cabins.

There are more facilities and activities for people of all ages, particularly for families with children.

Finding your way around the ship can be frustrating, and signage is often confusing.

Children of all ages will have a whale of a time.

There will be a lack of available elevators at peak times.

They generally sail well in open seas in bad weather.

You may have to use a sign-up sheet to use gym equipment such as treadmills or exercise bikes.

Announcements could be in several languages.

The restaurant service staff is trained to provide fast service, so it’s almost impossible to dine in leisurely fashion.

The large choice of rooms is likely to mean a large range of price points.

Food may well be bland - cooking for 5,000 is not quite the same as cooking for a dinner party of eight.

There will be a huge variety of passengers on board - great for socializing.

Telephoning room service can be frustrating, particularly in ships with automatic telephone answering systems.

There is a wide choice of shopping opportunities for clothing, watches, and jewelry.

There will be lots of lines to wait in: for embarkation, reception, elevators, buffet meals, shore excursions, security checkpoint, and disembarkation.

The newest ships have large spas with numerous exercise and body pampering facilities.

In the early evening, the deckchairs are taken away, or strapped up so they can’t be used.

More outdoor aqua park facilities.

The in-cabin music aboard the latest ships is supplied through the television set; it may be impossible to turn off the picture while listening.

Larger casino and gaming facilities.

Some large resort ships have only two main passenger stairways.

Advantages and disadvantages of mid-size ships



They are neither too large, nor too small; their size and facilities often strike a happy balance.

Few have large showlounges for large-scale production shows, so entertainment tends to be more of the cabaret variety.

It is easy to find one’s way around.

They don’t offer as wide a range of public rooms and facilities as the large resort ships.

They generally sail well in bad weather, being neither high-sided like the large resort ships, nor of too shallow draft like some of the small ships.

Most activities will be geared to couples, and single travellers might feel left out.

Lines seldom form, except for ships approaching 1,600 passengers.

Aboard some ships bathrooms may be small and cramped.

They appear more like traditional ships than most of the larger vessels, which tend to be more ‘boxy’ in shape and profile.

Fewer opportunities for social gatherings.

Advantages and disadvantages of small ships/boutique ships



Most provide ‘open seating’ in the dining room; this means that you can sit with whomever you wish, whenever you wish, for all meals.

They don’t have the bulk, length, or beam to sail well in open seas in inclement weather conditions.

They provide a totally unstructured lifestyle, offering a level of service not found aboard most of the larger ships, and no - or almost no - announcements.

They don’t have the range of public rooms or open spaces that the large resort ships can provide.

They are at their best in warm-weather areas.

Options for entertainment are more limited than on larger ships.

They are capable of offering true culinary excellence, with fresh foods cooked to order.

The cost - this is the upper end of the market, and doesn’t come cheap.

They’re more like small inns than mega-resorts.

The size of cabin bathrooms (particularly the shower enclosures) is often disappointing.

It’s easy to find your way around, and signage is usually clear and concise.

The range of shore excursion opportunities is more limited.

Provide an ‘open bridge’ policy, allowing passengers to visit the navigation bridge when safe to do so.

Swimming pools will be very small; in fact, they are more like ‘dip’ pools.

Some small ships have a hydraulic marina water-sports platform at the stern and carry equipment such as jet skis and scuba/snorkeling gear.

Many of the smaller ships do not have balcony cabins, simply because the accommodation decks are too close to the waterline.

They can visit the more off-beat ports of call that larger ships can’t.

When the ship is at anchor, going ashore is easy and speedy, with a continuous tender service and no lines. Access to these less-crowded ports means more