Cruise comparisons: How to choose the right cruise ship

The port in St. Johns, Antigua

The port in St. Johns, Antigua

Want to maximize your vacation time by visiting a number of places, but hate the idea of arranging transportation, hotels, and constantly packing and unpacking? Then the world of cruising is for you. Yup, you’ll get to see multiple ports on the same trip, your meals are usually all taken care of, and you just might even have an on-board butler to unpack your bag!

Cruising is a $40+ billion industry, with ships of all shapes and sizes carrying over 22 million passengers per year around the globe. With all that demand comes a lot of options—so how do you choose the right cruise ship for your getaway? Here are some cruise comparisons for some of the most common options, along with the pros and cons of each.

Ocean Cruise

There’s a lot of ocean out there, and that means countless choices when it comes to the cruise ships serving those open waters. From hopping around Caribbean islands to crossing the Atlantic, meandering through the Mediterranean or circling the South Pacific, the huge ocean liners serve some incredible destinations.

A cruise ship docked in Antigua.

A cruise ship docked in Antigua.

Mega boats are often referred to as floating hotels, as they can host thousands of people at a time and have a dizzying amount of amenities. Spas, casinos, theatres, full gyms, waterslides and zip lines are just some of the features found on board, along with multiple restaurants, shopping, and perks like breakfast in bed.

The typical ocean cruise holds anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 passengers, with an itinerary that usually includes one new port each day (unless it’s a trans-Atlantic cruise, or the ship needs a bit longer than a day to reach the next stop). You’ll have the chance to disembark when you dock, but usually it’s only for about half a day before it’s time to get going again. Cruise lines have many different excursions available in each new location, but it comes at a cost: approximately $100 USD per person depending on the activity.

RELATED: How to save money on your cruise

The infinity pool on a Viking Cruise ship

The infinity pool on a Viking Cruise ship

Breakfast and lunch are usually buffet style, while a gourmet, multi-course dinner is served in a more formal dining room with assigned seating times at shared tables. While basics like water and juice are provided, there are extra charges for soda and alcohol which can add up quickly if you’re not careful. While passengers are allowed to bring a couple of bottles of liquor on board with them, the crew will usually hold on to any additional bottles purchased in a port then give them back to you the night before disembarkation.

There’s definitely no shortage of things to keep guests entertained on a mega ship, and along with the aforementioned amenities there are also things like kids club areas, nightly performances and guest speakers. Between all that and the large pool area on the top deck, you don’t ever actually need to leave the ship!

The pool area on Viking Star

The pool area on Viking Star

Pros:

  • Usually less expensive than cruises on smaller ships
  • Lots of activities and amenities on board
  • Good atmosphere
  • Nice variety of dining options
  • Many excursions available (fees apply)
  • A great view of ports from the top deck

Cons:

  • Can get seasick
  • Usually not all-inclusive, so extra costs can add up quickly
  • May have to pay extra for internet access (which will likely be slow)
  • Not much of a personal feel, as there are so many guests
  • Usually limited on time spent in port
  • Staterooms can be small

River Cruise

Primarily serving Europe as well as some parts of Egypt and Asia, river cruising is a more intimate way to explore compared to an ocean liner, and usually has the benefit of docking close to the centre of town which means more time to explore, and gorgeous views along the way.

A Viking River Cruise

A Viking River Cruise

There are countless itineraries available, heading from Holland all the way down to northern Portugal, along the Danube River through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, and even up to Russia. Some stay in one country such as Egypt, Myanmar or France, while others criss-cross the continent.

River cruise ships only hold a couple hundred guests, so staff and guests get to know everyone in just a couple of days, creating a friendly atmosphere which makes sitting with complete strangers for every meal a lot more bearable. While it’s a smaller ship, they don’t skimp when it comes to rooms. While cabins are a tighter squeeze than say, an American hotel room, you’ll find there’s still plenty of space to unpack and move around.

Viking River Cruises

A stateroom on a Viking River Cruise

One of the best perks of a river cruise is that it’s essentially all-inclusive, so there’s nothing to think about once you get on board. For example, Viking Cruises includes beer or wine with meals, Wi-Fi, and a daily tour for all guests with local, knowledgable guides. Guests on a cruise visiting famously expensive cities such as Paris will also save a bundle, as they can still see the city without paying $300+ for a hotel room.

best of budapest hungaryIt’s no secret that river cruises are typically marketed to older jet-setters, and you’re unlikely to find many people under age 50 sitting around the dinner table. Entertainment is substantially toned down compared to an ocean liner, and the only extreme activity on board is if a game of shuffle board on the top deck gets exciting! However, it makes for a relaxing trip, and the early bedtime means you’ll be well rested for the next day’s sightseeing.

RELATED: 5 important tips for booking a cruise

No waves= no seasickness!

No waves= no seasickness!

Pros:

  • Won’t get seasick as there aren’t large waves on a river
  • Usually all-inclusive, so no extra charges for alcohol or excursions
  • Personalized attention due to less guests
  • Well sized staterooms, many of which include balconies

Cons:

  • Not as many on board amenities or entertainment
  • Ships can sometimes be delayed getting to a destination if there is a wait time to get through a canal lock. Low water levels can also alter itineraries.
A Viking River Cruise passes by Durnstein, Austria

A Viking River Cruise passes by Durnstein, Austria

Yacht or Expedition Ship

The word ‘yacht’ may conjure images of the rich and famous, but not all hope is lost for the rest of us. Yachts are actually just a term for a smaller ship, which are used to navigate environmentally sensitive areas, or hop between tiny, remote islands in the Maldives, Panama and Costa Rica, or the Seychelles.

maldives-atolls

Imagine sailing through these atolls in the Maldives!

Booking a trip on a yacht is an incredible way to explore otherwise hard to access spots, which may not have accommodation options. Ecoventura, which operates trips in the Galapagos Islands, is an example of a company who pulls this off spectacularly. With only about 20 people on board, you’ll all become fast friends (hopefully!) while still enjoying typical cruise ship experiences like gourmet dining, a full staff, daily excursions with naturalists and activities including kayaking or snorkelling.

Ecoventura's yachts

Ecoventura’s yachts

Yachts are also popular in spots like the Caribbean or Australia, where they cater to the younger party crowd who sign up for a few days of island hopping, boozing and suntanning. While guests aren’t afforded much privacy due to the close quarters, itineraries aren’t usually too regimented as there are less people to try and organize. Most yacht companies operate off the beaten bath, which gives guests the opportunity to explore untouched areas, and spend more time relaxing rather than rushing around large cities trying to see everything in just one day.

Pros:

  • Smaller groups can mean more flexible itineraries
  • Can access untouched areas thanks to the smaller boat

Cons:

  • Can get seasick as a small boat is not as sheltered from waves
  • Can be noisy depending on the group
  • Very few entertainment options

Charter Boat

Ah, the charter boat. Is there anything than says luxury more than hiring a captain to sail you around some exclusive spot like the British Virgin Islands, create your own diving expedition, navigate Turkey’s Aegean Coast or go island hopping in Greece?


Pretty much anywhere in the world that you can find water, you can also find someone willing to rent out a private boat, whether it’s a small yacht, sailboat, catamaran, gulet or houseboat. You can hire a skipper and extra crew members like a chef or steward, or simply go about it on your own (provided you actually have experience handling a boat, of course).

The advantages of seeing the world this way are clear: you can enjoy a completely customized itinerary, and change course at any time because, well, you’re sailing it! The only people on board are your group, meaning you’re free to spend your vacation as you please. Charter boats are also usually small, so you’ll be able to access inlets and lagoons that larger crafts have to stay away from.


One thing to keep in mind with a charter boat is that it can be a bit of work, especially if you don’t hire a crew. You’ll have to sail, navigate and moor, as well as cook, clean and shop for your own food. You’ll also likely stick closer to land, as smaller ships don’t fare as well in big open waters as well as ocean liners.

Pros:

  • Completely customized, flexible itinerary
  • Private
  • Able to access areas that larger boats can’t

Cons:

  • Can get seasick
  • Not much room to move around on a small boat
  • May have to do things like shop for own food, prepare meals and clean

What’s your favourite kind of cruise, or which one is on your bucket list? Share in the comments below!

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