KidTripster Teen: 8 Reasons why I prefer small ship cruising over big cruise lines
I have been on three cruises: one with a traditional, large cruise line and two with small ship companies. Yes, big ships offer swimming pools, rock climbing walls, and teen lounges; it's kind of like an amusement park at sea with lots of choices and lots of people. But I strongly prefer the more intimate experience of being on a smaller ship, where the focus is on experiencing nature in one-of-a-kind settings.
My first small ship experience was with Ecoventura on a cruise to the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. The 90-foot ship accommodated just 20 passengers. On this particular cruise, my family and I sailed with a married couple, a father and his college-aged daughter, and three families with teenagers.
My most recent cruise was aboard UnCruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavor, a 232-foot luxury ship that accommodated 84 passengers, though there were only 76 on our cruise of Mexico's Sea of Cortez off the coast of Baja California. Since it wasn’t during the summer, there were only seven kids on board, six of whom were over the age of 12. Frankly, my brother and I didn’t mind cruising with an older crowd; our dinner conversations with them were pretty interesting. Plus, small ship cruising is really about spending time with my own family on unique adventures.
Here are 8 reasons why I think that your family should consider a cruise on a small ship.
1/Up-close encounters with wildlife
Small ships are not limited because of size like the behemoth cruise liners. In the Galápagos, the national park service restricts access to certain islands based on vessel size; smaller ships get to go to the more interesting, more untouched locations. Furthermore, on small ships, you’re closer to the water and are able to look over the side and see more marine life, like dolphins and whales.
During my most recent UnCruise voyage, I witnessed a remarkable sight. During the evening in the Sea of Cortez, tiny bioluminescent creatures rise to the surface from the depths of the ocean. When disturbed, they glow like fireflies. But here’s the crazy part: a huge pod of dolphins swam through those bioluminescent waters in order to ride our ship’s bow. As they did, the dolphins picked up these organisms and appeared to glow in the dark! As they moved through the water like torpedos, their trails glowed, too. The crew called them “tron” dolphins.
On a small ship cruise, you experience more personalized service. On my family’s recent UnCruise voyage in the Sea of Cortez, the passenger to crew ratio was nearly 2:1. Within a few days, our guides and stewards knew us by name, even remembering my drink order at each meal. At the end of each day, the staff would ask us about our day, taking a genuine interest in our experiences. It was refreshing to not just be one of thousands of other guests.
The staff also was very accommodating. For example, I have a healthy, teenaged appetite and found some of the meal portions to be small. I just had to ask for extra food once, and then the waiters would always offer me seconds and even thirds from that point on. Thirds on cinnamon churros dipped in chocolate ganache? Yes, please!
3/Fewer passengers & less waiting
Standing in line is not my idea of a vacation. On my big ship cruise, it seemed like we were always in a line - a line to board the ship, a line to get off at a port, and a line to board a tender to shore, if the port wasn’t deep enough. With small ships, there are virtually no lines. On the big boat, we had to save chairs by the pool. Granted, there’s no pool on most small ships, but there’s always plenty of space on the sun deck or in the lounge to relax. And your activities aren’t overrun with people either. Excursion groups are typically fewer than ten people. On beach days, we weren’t sharing a cruise-owned island with hundreds of people; we were sharing a sandy stretch on an uninhabited island with a few dozen.
Unlike on larger cruises where you have to pay extra for off-boat excursions, all your activities are included in a small ship trip. On UnCruise, we got to choose a morning and afternoon activity; with fewer passengers on Ecoventura, all the passengers did the same activities - again, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. These activities included hiking, mule rides, snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, paddleboarding, birding, and skiff rides to spot wildlife.
One of the best things about small ship cruising is the flexibility. Large cruise ships have to arrive at a certain port on a certain day by a certain time. If there are whales in the distance, the crew doesn’t reroute the ship to follow. But that’s exactly what happens on a small ship. This drop-everything-to-see-nature mentality is so prevalent that there are speakers in each stateroom that the guides use to alert passengers to wildlife. On our UnCruise trip, we spotted blows from a humpback whale in the distance. The ship spent an hour following it until we were close enough to see it breach. It was amazing to see the large fluke raised out of the water, just a few hundred yards from where I stood.
In addition to wildlife, the crew also will change plans based on weather. If we’re experiencing high seas, the captain will decrease the speed and head more inland, even if that means the itinerary has to be reworked. If high winds are expected, the expedition leader won’t schedule a kayaking tour. The crew actively tries to create the best day possible.
Not every minute of the day needs to be scheduled. While there aren’t teen lounges, small ships do have lounging areas. Every day, I’d spend a couple of hours playing cards with my family or reading a book. Yes, an actual book! In fact, on my last cruise, I finished Ron Chernow’s 818-page biography Alexander Hamilton. You certainly can bring electronic devices (my brother liked playing games on his iPad), but there isn’t any WiFi. My mother was a big fan of being “unplugged;” frankly, I didn’t mind it.
7/Chance to learn something
I know that some teens are drawn to the dance parties and glitzy shows on large cruise lines; there’s nothing wrong with that. But I actually appreciated the opportunity to learn something on my small ship cruises. In the evenings, UnCruise guides gave presentations on species that we were likely to see: invertebrates, birds, marine mammals, and those whale sharks. While the slide shows could use some updated effects, I found the information to be really fascinating. And some cruises feature guest experts. Our cruise in Mexico had marine biologist and ornithologist Juan-Carlos Solis on board. One day, he lead a bird walk where we spotted the rare and endemic Xantus’s hummingbird. He got so excited!
8/More time with family
At the end of the day, vacations really are meant to be a time to reconnect with your family away from the daily pressures of life. Parents don’t have to check work emails; kids don’t have to be posting on social media. My family and I spent a lot of time just playing games. My dad taught my brother and I how to play Euchre; he said that I needed to know before going off to college. It was fun. As my mom reminds me, we don’t have many of these vacations left.
Nathan Shah is a high school junior in Portland, Oregon. His short term goal? Setting foot on all seven continents by age 17. Next stop: Antarctica!