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There are so many ways to see Alaska, it can quickly get overwhelming when you’re planning a trip. Maybe you’ve already narrowed it down a bit and know you want to take an Alaska cruise – that’s a good start. But even then, you might soon find yourself drowning in a sea of open tabs on your computer, comparing companies, itineraries, prices, and more.
While I’ve already shared a general guide on how to book an Alaska cruise, I thought it might help to do a more in-depth breakdown on one of the most important questions you need to answer first: which Alaska cruise ship size is right for you? Is bigger better? Or is smaller superior?
See there are actually several sizes of cruise ships, and almost everything about them varies from price to passengers. So choosing the right size ship is an important first step to help you start closing some of those tabs and making decisions to finally book your bucket list Alaska cruise.
In this post, I’m going deep on the differences between the three main sizes of Alaska cruise ships; I’ve done three Alaska cruises, so I have personal experience to share! I’ll share which ones I think are best for different types of travelers – including solo travelers. While I won’t be able to give you that one answer you’re looking for, hopefully by the end, you will know which Alaska cruise ship size will be perfect for your Alaska trip.
In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is primarily the Lingít Aaní (traditional lands) of the Tlingit peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
Alaska Cruise Ship Sizes, Defined
Before jumping into the three main sizes of cruise ships in Alaska, it helps to have an understanding of how the cruise industry classifies ship sizes. For most cruises (worldwide), you have five choices:
- Mega-Ships: 3,500+ Passengers
- Large Ships: 2,500–3,499 Passengers
- Midsized Ships: 1,500–2,499 Passengers
- Small-Mid Ships: 800–1,499 Passengers
- Small Ships: 799 Passengers or Fewer
However, in Alaska, those categories aren’t quite so accurate. Instead, I’d categorize ships as:
- Mega-Ships: 1,000+ Passengers
- Mid-Sized Ships: 200-1,000 Passengers
- Small ships: 200 Passengers or Fewer
As you can see, the differences in the sizes of ships in Alaska are dramatic – a small-sized ship is at least 5x smaller than a mega-ship – though most mega-ships are 2,000+ passengers, so it’s really 10x smaller!
Having a smaller ship and fewer passengers is both freeing and limiting: you can cruise different areas of Alaska’s Inside Passage and have a more intimate experience, but you also won’t cruise as far (mileage-wise) or have as many amenities on board.
Now let me break down each size category a bit more to help you choose which one’s right for you.
Mega Ships: Is Bigger Better?
- Best for: Groups, Families, Budget-Conscious
- Price Range: $500-$1500 per person excluding excursions
By far, the simplest and most common way to cruise in Alaska. Some 1 million people visit Alaska each year, and I think the most recent stats suggested that at least 75% of them come on cruise ships. Mega-ships represent 90% of that number, just because the ships have such a high capacity and can carry the vast majority of people.
Let’s start covering the pros of big ships. First of all, there are lots of companies that operate these sized Alaska cruise ships, so you have choices – think Princess, Holland America, Disney, etc. This also means that there’s price competition, and you can get a good deal. Mega ships are by far the best deal and good for budget-conscious travelers.
Additionally, the biggest ships have enough space and amenities to appeal to lots of travelers, which makes them great for families and groups that want to travel together – and don’t want to break the bank.
However, if you’ve read any of my other cruise resources, you know that I personally don’t support mega-ship companies. They have a terrible reputation on environmental issues, funnel the vast majority of money right back into the corporation (not into the local economy), and take advantage of tax loopholes to avoid paying their fair share in the U.S. economy. If you consider yourself a responsible or sustainable traveler, I recommend doing your own research to verify this and think hard about whether saving a bit of money on your Alaska cruise is worth the negative impact of these companies.
Mid-Sized Ships: Best of Both Worlds?
- Best for: Luxury, Couples, Special Occasions
- Price Range: $3000-$7000 per person excluding excursions
If you like the idea of having a ship with more amenities and itinerary options, you might consider mid-sized ships. There aren’t as many companies that offer cruises on ships this size, but there are still enough options to provide some price variety depending on your budget.
I took a cruise with Windstar Cruises in June 2022; their mid-sized ships carry 300-500 passengers. This gave me a different perspective than other small-ship cruises I’ve done in Alaska, so I can speak directly about the pros and cons.
First off, it is really nice to have a bigger ship if you are sensitive to wave motion. Mid-sized ships handle the seas better, travel faster and further, and allow you to explore as much as the mega ships – and certainly more than smaller ships.
Second, the amenities on mid-sized ships are generally closer to mega-ships than smaller-sized ships. Typically on a mid-sized ship, you’ll have multiple restaurant options, bars, multiple outdoor and indoor common spaces, a spa, pool, and more. This means you can feel like you’re having the full cruise experience, sans lines at the buffet and crowds at evening entertainment.
However, all this comes at a price… literally. Mid-sized ships tend to be the most expensive of any size of Alaska cruise ship. This makes sense, as you’re getting the best of both worlds – and a better experience than either other option. But, this can definitely be cost-prohibitive for people; for that reason, I think this category of ship is best for couples, especially those planning a special occasion. (Mid-sized ship companies also tend to add on lovely extras if you are traveling for an anniversary or milestone, so be sure to tell them that when booking.
Small Ships: Smooth Sailing?
- Best for: Independents, Adventurous
- Price Range: $5000-$7000 per person, all-inclusive
Last, but certainly not least, small ships. I love small ship cruises, and I think it’s the best way to cruise in Alaska. However, it’s not for everyone, and I’ll explain why.
First, small ship cruises are great because they’re intimate in every way. When you’re on a ship with only a few dozen people at most, you get personalized attention from the crew, get to know your fellow passengers, and start to feel at home on the ship right away. You also get a more intimate experience of Alaska, since a smaller ship can reach further into the inlets and fjords of the Inside Passage, as well as visit smaller ports that the bigger ships can’t.
I’ve been fortunate to take two small-ship Alaska cruises, with Uncruise in 2017 and Alaskan Dream Cruises in 2021. While both companies offer a great experience, they are different too: Uncruise is more outdoors adventurous with days in far-flung areas of wilderness, and Alaskan Dream Cruises was more culturally oriented with more ports in small Alaskan communities. For this reason, I recommend reading reviews (like mine, and others) from past travelers to get a sense of each company since they’re not a small investment.
This brings me to some of the downsides of small ship cruises. First, as mentioned, they are a greater investment than larger ships; the starting price-point is usually higher, though the total price is usually on par with mid-sized ships. And while they can explore deeper in the Inside Passage, they can’t explore further – the smaller ship limits the geographic range you can cover on a standard 7- or 10-day Alaskan cruise, so you won’t see as much of the region (and none of them offer trans-gulf crossings to end in Seward or Whittier as bigger ships do).
That said, I always like to travel deeper rather than further, and think a small ship cruise is the best option for adventurous travelers who have the budget for one.
Which Size Alaska Cruise Ship for Solo Travelers?
If you’ve been reading this post carefully, you might still have one important question: hey, what about me, the solo traveler who wants to cruise in Alaska and isn’t gonna wait for anyone else to make it happen?!
Fair question, dear reader. And I’m a little bit torn on my answer, which is honestly why I left it for last.
See, from a price perspective, the bummer is that solo cruisers pretty much always have to pay a single supplement – an additional charge. It’s dumb, and I don’t appreciate companies operating at such narrow margins that they financially penalize solo travelers. But I don’t have the magic wand to fix that industry-standard practice, so the best thing I can do is provide my advice.
That single supplement issue makes me think that mega-ships are the best suggestion because that lower starting price also means a lower single supplement. However, you might also be a principled traveler who doesn’t want to support those corporations. What then?
In that case, I’d go for a small ship. Yes, they’re more expensive than mid-sized ships – and often have a higher single supplement – but if you’re going solo, there’s no better ship to connect with your fellow guests and crew to make it a more enjoyable/less lonely experience. I’ve met solo travelers on both of the cruise ship sizes I’ve experienced, and I think small-ship companies and crews do a better job of ensuring solo travelers meet fellow guests and have an amazing time.
Which Alaskan Cruise Ship Size Will You Choose?
In the end, I can’t provide you with a single suggestion for the “best” Alaskan cruise ship size for your trip. It depends on too many factors: the size of your party, your budget, what you want to experience, if you’re celebrating a milestone, and your travel principles… just to name a few!
However, I hope this post has given you a sense of the realities, pros, and cons of each size Alaskan cruise ship, and you are better informed about which one will be the best fit for you.
Have any other questions about how to choose the right Alaska cruise ship size for your Alaska cruise? Let me know in the comments below!
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