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A Guide To Navigating Types of Cruises

October 1, 2023
- By Edge of Wonder Travels Unlimited

Cruising has come a long way…

Go back just a couple of decades and most people thought cruises were things that only retired elderly people and honeymooners did. Just watch the classic comedy “Out to Sea” with Walter Matthau & Jack Lemmon to see these old cruise stereotypes in action.

The cruising industry did a great job of shifting that mindset with a concerted and deliberate marketing effort plus making loads of changes to their ships to update them, improve the entertainment, and appeal more to families and a younger demographic. Bravo. Now today, if all you see are ads on TV, you might think that every cruise is just a party on the high seas complete with waterparks, rock-climbing walls and countless other treasures waiting to be explored!

While there are ships that fit that description, there are actually quite a few different types of cruises out there…and it’s definitely not a “one size fits all”.

So the question becomes, with so many cruising options, is there one for you? And if so, how on earth does one choose?

With that in mind, we thought we’d take a moment to give you all a quick overview of the types of cruises, the basic differences between them, and help you start thinking about which might be the best fit!

1. Large Ship Cruises

Also called “mass-market cruises” these are the big ones you usually think of. Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, Holland America, Cunard, Princess, and even Disney fall into this category.

Naturally there’s even a ranking among these big lines – for example, Disney – while large – is kind of in a class all by itself which you might bucket Royal Caribbean with Carnival. Norwegian is somewhere in the middle, followed by Holland America and the Princess is kind of the cream of the mass-market cruise ship crop (behind Disney). This order is fairly objective with some people preferring one line to another, but by and large, they all have similar amenities, stateroom types, shore excursions, itineraries, and pricing.

That said, they are GREAT for families – no matter what age range your kids are in, there’s something for everyone on most of these lines. The one exception possibly being Holland America which doesn’t have quite as much to offer in terms of kids clubs, etc. so they are a great alternative for solo adults, couples, or older travelers.

There are always sales, specials, and last minute deals for the big lines on nearly every itinerary they offer. As you might imagine, Disney is the priciest of the bunch, but hey – it’s Disney. ????

2. Mid-Sized Luxury Cruise Ships

Mid-sized luxury cruise ships are exactly what it sounds like. They are focused more on a luxury experience and have scaled down size-wise to be not too big but not too small.

Examples of cruise lines that fall into this bucket would be AzamaraSilverseaOceaniaCrystalRegent Seven SeasSeabourn, and Viking Ocean.

The mid-sized ship are kind of the best of both worlds – you don’t get lost in the crowd, but you also feel like there’s plenty of variety. Being smaller ships averaging anywhere from 450 to 1,000-ish passengers, they generally aren’t geared for families with children, so you usually won’t encounter them. They also are starting to move from the bargain bin into a luxury feel and experience – better service, better food, more intimate experiences, and take more of an immersive approach to destinations.

One of the best things that kick in with the mid-sized luxury ships is their inclusiveness. They tend to have a lot more inclusions on the front-end in their fares. For example, most will include gratuities, drinks (alcoholic & otherwise), and even some include shore excursions.

Below is a quick overview of each of these lines…

3. Small Luxury Cruise Ships

Take a mid-sized luxury cruise, shrink it down, increase the crew-to-passenger ratio, and you’ll end up with a small luxury cruise.

These cruise lines include WindstarSeaDreams Yacht Club, Ponant, and Paul Gauguin. These ships generally hold between 150 and 400 passengers. Service levels are also amazing and they really focus on keeping a high crew-to-passenger ratio and finding ways to create an extraordinary experience. They also have a lot more included in their fares as well (similar to the mid-sized luxury category ships).

You kind of have to keep in mind that these ships ARE smaller which means you’re not going to get giant Broadway-caliber productions, but you’re generally spending so much more time doing things on-shore than on the ship, I’ve never found myself missing the bigger entertainment options.

What I’ve found with these cruises is that there’s more of a exclusive feel to them… It’s almost like a friend of a friend is a billionaire and invited you to take a cruise on their private yacht. Not a bad experience to settle into for a week or more!

4. Adventure / Expedition Cruise Ships

There are a few cruise lines that crossover into the Adventure or Expedition cruise category, and some that exclusively offer these types of experiences.

This type of cruise experience involves smaller ships generally and much more interactive, adventurous itineraries and remote destinations. The ships are smaller (200-ish vs. 2000 passengers) so, like the small luxury ships, are able to dock in smaller ports.

Cruise lines that play heavily in this space are Lindblad ExpeditionsAustralisZegrahm, Quark, and UnCruise Adventures. There are others, of course, but usually these are the companies that first come to mind. Other cruise lines that have begun offering a more up-scale expedition ships since generally the expedition space has always been a little more, shall we say, “rustic”. Now, you can jump onboard a Silversea Expedition ship (or Ponant or an Abercrombie & Kent package) to go out to Antarctica or the Galapagos, for example.

You’ll see a much heavier focus as well on education about your destination. So rather than trying to dazzle you with lounge music singers, they’ll offer lectures by some of the best naturalists or experts in the area you’re traveling to. Lindblad, for instance, partners with National Geographic, so it’s not usual to have a NatGeo photographer onboard to help you hone your wildlife and landscape photo shooting skills.

Being partial to adventure personally, expedition cruises are definitely be at the top of our list for the experience and about as close as one can get to feeling like a true explorer!

5. River Cruise Ships

Not really sure a river cruise needs an explanation! Thanks to Viking’s concerted marketing efforts a number of years ago, the world suddenly became aware of this really unique way of traveling through a country (or countries) without having to actually go out to sea.

The main river cruise lines we love are AmaWaterwaysViking RiverUniworld, and Avalon. There are also some expedition river cruises run by companies like  Aqua Expeditions.

The river cruise ships really are the smallest of the bunch with passenger counts ranging anywhere from super-intimate 40 to a comfortable 150-200. Similar to expedition cruises that way, they’re much smaller ships, but that’s primarily because they also navigate much smaller waters. Imagine a Princess cruise trying to make it down the Rhine. Yeah, that’s not going to happen!

One of fun things about river cruises is the theme approach a lot of them take. Food & Wine, Beer, Music, Art, History… Pick your favorite hobby, past time, or interest and there’s probably a river cruise for that!

Photo courtesy of Windstar Cruises

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