Alaska Cruise Pictures: Big Ship vs. Small Ship

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    With so many cruise options in Alaska, you have a lot to consider before you book. Do you want to soak up the scenery from an elevated vantage point on your ship's topmost deck or from a kayak, where you're close enough to touch a glacier? Do you prefer to stick to the major ports or venture off the beaten path to smaller villages? Onboard, are you looking for plentiful activities day and night, a quiet respite or a chance to learn more about the destination?

    The size of your ship will be one of the biggest factors in how you experience Alaska. As they say, size matters. But how do you know whether to go big or small?

    Your first step is to weigh the pros and cons. To give you an idea of what to expect, we've compared big mainstream ships with small expedition ships in nine categories. Based on our experiences onboard the 4,028-passenger Norwegian Jewel and Un-Cruise Adventures' 88-passenger S.S. Legacy, we'll highlight the differences in entertainment, dining options, ports and more.

    Editor's Note: S.S. Legacy no longer sails in Alaska, however Un-Cruise Adventures continues to offer Alaska itineraries on other ships within its fleet.

    --By Gina Kramer, Associate Editor, and Dori Saltzman, Editor

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    Embarkation: Big Ship

    Getting on and off a big ship is definitely a complicated process. Waits can last upwards of an hour (or more on a bad day), though on our cruise it took just 20 minutes from entering the terminal to getting on the ship. Be prepared for crewmembers to greet your first steps onto the ship with applause, dancing and happy exclamations of "welcome!" Getting off at the end of your cruise also is quite a process, involving packing your bag the night before, assigned departure times and the suitcase shuffle that comes as you seek out your bags among hundreds of others in the port's luggage-claim area.

    Photo: Cruise Critic member mpcaruth

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    Embarkation: Small Ship

    Rather than waiting to board in a stuffy terminal, passengers on S.S. Legacy gather in a conference hall, striking up conversations with soon-to-be friends. From there, crewmembers introduce themselves before escorting everyone to the ship. Disembarkation is handled in a similar fashion. Passengers spend the last few hours in the lounge, chatting with their new friends before leaving. During the cruise, crewmembers keep track of passengers in port with a magnet chart labeled by cabin number.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Safety Drill: Big Ship

    The safety drill (aka muster drill) on a big ship is a somewhat long, drawn-out process -- it's not easy to assemble thousands of people at the same time. Thankfully, few major cruise lines require passengers to bring their life jackets with them, but finding your meeting point and waiting for the captain's speech and life-jacket demo still takes upwards of 30 minutes. People always complain because the event eats into much-needed vacation time. Quick tip: Get to your muster location early if you want any chance of getting a seat.

    Photo: Cruise Critic member mpcaruth

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    Safety Drill: Small Ship

    The safety drill onboard S.S. Legacy was quick, informative and fun -- the latter pretty much unheard of on big ships. Crewmembers might even infuse comedy into the otherwise serious 10-minute demonstration before passengers (lifejackets in hand) are escorted to the designated "in case of an emergency" meeting place. On our sailing, people were not only eager to listen but also seemed to enjoy the drill. Naturally, the smaller passenger count onboard makes the whole process a breeze.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Cabins: Big Ship

    If where you lay your head is important to you, selecting a big ship for your Alaska sailing will provide the largest assortment of cabin choices. These ships offer an array of choices: windowless rooms, cabins for one, staterooms with balconies of all sizes, spa-themed suites and two-level duplex suites. More than just a place to sleep, you'll also find modern amenities in your big-ship cabin, such as mini-bars, tea/coffee makers and flat-screen TVs.

    Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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    Cabins: Small Ship

    Small ship cabins, in general, are much smaller and more bare bones than those on big ships. But they compensate with functionality, a cozy atmosphere and more personal service than you'd find on a typical mega-liner. Each cabin on S.S. Legacy is stocked with binoculars and warm fleece blankets for romantic cuddle dates on the deck, and storage drawers under the beds make for clever space savers.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Food: Big Ship

    It's all about options when it comes to dining on a big cruise ship in Alaska. You might find more than one restaurant on a smaller ship, but on our 2,376-passenger ship, we could dine at more than 10 eateries, about a quarter of which were included in our cruise fare. Fancy a steakhouse? Italian or Japanese? There are options 24 hours a day and restaurants to suit most tastes. Even if you never venture past the two main dining rooms, there are always about 10 starters and 15 entrees to choose from.

    Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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    Food: Small Ship

    Freshly caught delicacies are the norm on an Un-Cruise voyage in Alaska -- both during meals and cocktail hour. Because most small ships only have one or two dining venues, they emphasize regional variety. On S.S. Legacy, having one galley made it easier for crewmembers to retrieve items in port and accommodate special requests and diets. Even the bar is open to custom-prepared concoctions.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Onboard Activities: Big Ship

    Zumba, trivia, circus workshops, line-dance classes, scavenger hunts. Deciding what to do with your time on a big-ship cruise is no easy task; there are just too many options. Daily fun on Norwegian Jewel, for instance, included whisky tastings, bingo and "Deal or No Deal" games, packed port shopping talks and enough spa sales pitches, dance classes, art lectures, auctions, trivia sessions and sports deck fun to keep you busy for hours.

    Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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    Onboard Activities: Small Ship

    Because there's not much to explore on small ships, daily activities are geared toward enrichment. On S.S. Legacy, classes like rope tying and napkin folding were offered in moderate doses. And interactive lectures offered insight on certain ports. Passengers also had the option to play cards in the ship's designated poker room (complete with view windows and a whiskey bar) or participate in trivia games.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Entertainment: Big Ship

    If you crave excitement and stimulation and have any worries about getting bored at night on your cruise to Alaska, a big ship is probably the right choice for you. Nighttime activities include music in one or more lounges, gambling in the casino and late-night karaoke. And that doesn't include the big stage shows; we saw musical revues, a magician/comedian and a stunning aerial act.

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    Entertainment: Small Ship

    On a small ship, you're essentially trading the bells and whistles of a big ship (more dining options, Broadway-caliber entertainment, lively pool deck, etc.) for a more intimate experience. Evenings can be a downer if you're a night owl or prefer a variety of options after dinner. Most passengers on S.S. Legacy (like other small ships) hit the sack early, making exceptions for special events, such as open mic night. Those wishing to stay up and savor the night -- or everlasting sunset during Alaskan summers -- have few options, mainly chatting at the bar over a few custom-made cocktails or heading up to the top deck for a hot tub session.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Ports: Big Ship

    The ports you can visit on a cruise to Alaska is determined by the size of your ship. Big ships can only maneuver in larger bays, so typical ports of call include Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau and Sitka. On the plus side, these frequently visited ports provide the largest selection of touring options for all interests and activity levels. Not as much fun is sharing the port with the hordes of cruise passengers from other ships.

    Photo: Ruth Peterkin/Shutterstock

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    Ports: Small Ship

    Small ships call at the same ports as big ships, in addition to less-trafficked small towns that pride themselves on history, culture and shops not owned by the cruise lines. These "off the beaten path" towns offer a unique perspective on Alaska; you can meet residents, enjoy solitary nature walks and spot Alaskan wildlife up close.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Pool Deck: Big Ship

    A pool deck is probably not the most important feature for an Alaska cruise; cool, rainy days outnumber warm and sunny ones, after all. But there's just something about a water slide and a few hot tubs that elevate your experience while on vacation -- and occasionally people use them. While you might find a hot tub on a small ship, you won't see a water slide and large pool. On most big ships, you'll also find extra seating for the buffet, a full bar and a barbecue on the pool deck. A few even boast full-sized movie screens.

    Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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    Pool Deck: Small Ship

    Sun decks on small ships are a far cry from those on mainstream lines. You won't find swimming pools, and you'll seldom find hot tubs; we were lucky to have two onboard. S.S. Legacy's top deck is also where the "fitness center" can be found. It's a tiny outdoor space with two elliptical machines, two stationary bikes, yoga mats and weights.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Shop: Big Ship

    Forgot your toothbrush? Want to buy an Alaska magnet? Craving M&M's? On a big ship, chances are the ship's retail stores have what you're looking for. Whether you're on a ship with three to five smaller shops each dedicated to different wares or one giant shop with a little bit of everything, big ship shops offer jewelry, clothing, perfume or makeup, toiletries, snacks, cruise line-branded items, destination souvenirs, duty free alcohol and cigarettes and more.

    Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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    Shop: Small Ship

    One corner of the lounge onboard S.S. Legacy is dedicated to showcasing Un-Cruise logo items and other knick-knacks like a CD of songs produced by the ship's multi-talented captain. Beware: If you realize after unpacking that you forgot to bring a toothbrush, you might be out of luck until you can get to a pharmacy in port.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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    Target Passenger: Big Ship

    Families with kids (of all ages), multigenerational groups and those who get bored easily should choose a big cruise ship for their Alaska vacation. The larger the ship, the more likely everyone can find something to keep them busy and entertained. Those with trouble getting around may also find a big ship easier to navigate because they tend to be more wheelchair and scooter friendly.

    Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

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    Target Passenger: Small Ship

    Active travelers ranging in age between 30s and 60s make up the bulk of passengers onboard small, expedition-style ships. You will see the occasional family with kids or 70-something, depending on the line, ship and itinerary. There are no facilities onboard to entertain little ones, but the excursions can be a lot of fun for teens. Passengers in wheelchairs also should be wary. Small ships generally lack elevators, and their itineraries involve land transfers via Zodiac rafts or walks over rugged terrain. But if you've got an adventurous spirit or are looking to try something new, an Alaska expedition on a small ship may be right up your alley.

    Photo: Gina Kramer, Associate Editor

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