A ship's size -- and not necessarily its cruise line -- is one of the most important factors you'll need to weigh when choosing a cruise to suit your lifestyle and vacationing preferences.
Size is the biggest single factor in determining the number of passengers you'll share the ship with, the amount of activities and amenities offered onboard, the overall ambience of the ship and the level of luxury available throughout the ship. Moreover, the size of a cruise ship can also have an effect on the price of its sailings and the average age of its passengers.
To make it more confusing, a cruise line can have ships of all sizes in its fleet -- and even large, mainstream lines have smaller, cozier ships.
To make your planning process easier, we've broken down ship sizes into five categories and outlined some of the commonalities, so you can get a better feel for which ship size is right for you.
Mega-ships are the biggest and newest of the big ships, generally offering the most restaurants, entertainment venues and accommodation categories in a cruise line's fleet. You'll find the cool innovations you see on a cruise line's TV commercials, the Broadway shows, enormous water slides and expansive kids' facilities.
The downside to mega-ships is that you're likely to encounter queues, and you'll often have to do more planning and make advance reservations in order to get into all the shows, restaurants and other limited-space experiences you want to enjoy. However, many modern cruise ships have good flow, so you won't always feel like you're vacationing in intimate quarters with 6,000 other people. Watch your budget: More onboard attractions can often lead to more extra-fee options, and these ships typically tout the highest base cruise fares, as well.
Mega-ships are also more likely to offer exclusive venues to suite passengers, as well as priority seating in common venues or the ability to jump lines for these cruisers. This can be a pro or con, depending on what type of cabin you've booked.
The largest ships are also limited in terms of which ports can accommodate their size. Mega-ships generally stick to greatest-hits itineraries, with many stationed in the Caribbean.
Large ships are similar to mega-ships, but aren't quite so over the top. They are also packed with restaurants, cabin categories and activities -- but perhaps not as many or not as cutting-edge as with the mega-ships. You'll still have plenty of choices, with ships to accommodate families, couples, seniors and a wide variety of vacation styles and interests. Deals can be more plentiful on large ships than mega-ships, simply because they're no longer the most sought-after vessels in a fleet.
For some lines, like Carnival and Royal Caribbean, large ships are not the newest but might have gotten newer amenities in a refurb; for others, like Celebrity and Holland America, these ships are the biggest and newest. You'll find these ships sailing around the world to the main cruise regions.
This size of ship offers a bit of mix. For most of the big-ship lines, the midsized ships are their oldest and smallest. They're a mixed bag because some will have been refurbished with updated decor and new restaurants or attractions, but the size of the ship is a limiting factor as to how much can be added. You'll find fewer cabin category options and fancy suites, more modest kids' clubs and fewer specialty restaurants.
These older ships might be beloved by some, but they are often among the cheaper cruise options. They might be deployed to smaller U.S. homeports (like Charleston), or sent on the more exotic itineraries that don't draw as big crowds. Some are Panamax-sized and can sail through the original Panama Canal locks.
On the other hand, for more premium, midsized lines, like Holland America and Celebrity, 2,100-passenger ships don't feel as different from their newer fleetmates, with standard amenities found across the fleet. Disney's smallest ships are also this size, and they're certainly not lacking for entertainment and kid facilities. Regardless of line, with this size of ship, it's especially important to read reviews and look at which amenities a particular ship has because there will be a lot of variation, even within a fleet.
Once you come to small-mid ships, you're starting to look at more upscale -- and therefore expensive -- cruise ships. This category contains the smaller, older Holland America ships (those that sail world cruises and the most exotic itineraries), brand-new ships from the larger ultra-premium lines like Oceania and Viking.
These vessels feel like miniature versions of the midsized and larger cruise ships. They still offer multiple restaurants, various lounges and different cabin categories, and the ship will feel big. With the higher-end lines, it might be because the ship has a high space-to-passenger ratio, with fewer guests on a larger (tonnage-wise) vessel.
Small-mid ships sail a wide range of itineraries, and the more upscale ones will offer more fare inclusions (such as complimentary drinks, Wi-Fi or specialty dining). The ships have a more intimate, less anonymous ambiance and tend to cater to an older clientele. You will find either no or very small kids clubs.
Small oceangoing cruise ships are squarely in the luxury camp, with prices to match their high levels of service, fare inclusions, gourmet dining and spacious suites. Other small ships include sailing yachts, riverboats and expedition vessels -- which are also priced higher than large ships, either because they're high-end or offer specialized experiences (or both). With fewer passengers, embarkation is a breeze and queues are few, though you still might have to book early for specialty restaurant and small-group tours.
As with small-mid ships, passengers tend to be well off and well-traveled, with higher percentages of seniors and retirees. Ships are not designed to be kid-friendly, with no dedicated facilities and only some sparse programming during school breaks. Entertainment options for adults are limited, and generally don't share the wow factor of shows on larger ships. Loyal passengers are content with more low-key activities, such as chatting over drinks, playing trivia or reading by the pool.
Small ships are the most nimble, so they can travel to remote areas (like the Arctic or South Pacific) or smaller ports in popular cruise regions like Europe and the Caribbean. Expect longer itineraries on average without a lot of homeporting and repeat ports. Because cabins are limited, these ships can sell out quickly, especially on sought-after sailings, so the best prices and perks packages are usually offered early.