Big vs Small Ship: Alaska Cruise Ship Size Comparison

May 14, 2024 • Lis Larson
Big ship vs. small ship… which size should you choose in Alaska? Our experts have been aboard both in Alaska and detail the full package of considerations in this side-by-side comparison.

When people begin researching cruising Alaska, they instantly think of big cruise ships, or find these options first online. While at first the price may seem appealing, the true cost of a big ship cruise in Alaska is more than it seems. BUT there’s much more to consider—most importantly, the experience. Read on to see which Alaska cruise ship size will be best for the travel experience you seek.

A man in a black jacket and hat standing on the deck of a ship with a tidewater glacier and mountains in the background with a cloudy sky.

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Small Ships in Alaska
Avg 40 Guests

Choose a small ship Alaska cruise if you want to be off the ship more than on it, and prioritize active wilderness exploration vs. port towns.

  • Ship Size: Up to 240 feet long with up to 4 decks. 8 to 100 passengers.
  • Cruise Fare: $600 to $800 average per day, with all shore excursions included in the rate. Even the lowest-priced cabins will have a porthole or window. Dining is included, with alcohol also included on some ships.
  • Itinerary: Mostly round-trip from smaller port towns like Juneau, Ketchikan, Sitka or Whittier. Itineraries that include Seattle take more than a week.
  • Nights: Spent anchored in remote coves and bays.
  • Onboard Style: Casual, open seating dining & lounges, often a single dining room. Onboard entertainment comes from guides who give lectures on Alaskan wildlife & culture.
  • Views: Sea-level, kayak-level, Zodiac-level & on foot.
  • Activities: Small ships are typically all inclusive, and common guided activities are hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, Zodiac cruising and even snorkeling. Multiple options are offered for different levels typically twice each day. Fewer organized activities on ship.
  • Wildlife: Daily, spontaneous sightings are common due to the low-impact method of travel. You’ll be out in kayaks and skiffs instead of cruising in a large ship at fast speed. When aboard, the flexible schedule of a small ship allows the captain to linger if whales are nearby.
  • Glacier Bay: Options for multiple days exploring this national park, with time off ship taking Zodiac rides, kayaking and hiking.
  • Crew & Guides: Dedicated expedition guides and naturalists who organize all excursions, lead informative onboard lectures and even eat alongside you at meals.
  • Kids: No dedicated camps or rec rooms, but lots of nature and family bonding exploring wilderness together. Over age 6 ideal.
  • Transfers: Often personal pick-ups or small group transfers included.

Big Ships in Alaska
Avg 2,000 Guests

Choose a big ship in Alaska if you like the amenities and entertainment of a resort, and don’t mind being on the ship more than off it.

  • Ship Size: Up to 1,000 feet long with up to 20 decks. 1,500 to 5,000 passengers.
  • Cruise Fare: $200 to $400 average per day, with extra costs including port fees, excursions (from $50 single attractions to $500 for individual day tours), alcohol & specialty restaurant dining. Lowest rates have no window or porthole.
  • Itinerary: Includes larger ports & more time on the ship. Docks in an Alaska port approx. three times in a one-week cruise. Expect embarkations in Seattle or Vancouver.
  • Nights: Spent in transit or docked in larger port towns.
  • Onboard Style: Resort-like with casinos, performances, spas, multiple restaurants. Like a floating city, so expect lines when disembarking at ports.
  • Views: Elevated, think 15 stories up.
  • Activities: Lots on board, but less on shore. Shore excursions are booked separately from your cabin and may fill up fast. Yet full days in port mean you can book more varied activities like zip lining and train or helicopter rides, or simply relax and shop more.
  • Wildlife: Encounters are on planned excursions, often to places like raptor centers or bear preserves where sightings can be guaranteed. But you may be able to plan more niche interest excursions, like fishing. Whale sightings are from far away. Ship takes miles to stop if desired.
  • Glacier Bay: Routes that include Glacier Bay do not include time off the ship there. The ship sails in and out on a fixed schedule.
  • Crew & Guides: The ship’s crew is global, often with top-notch customer service. Expect concierge-type leaders & guest host lecturers vs. dedicated naturalists.
  • Kids: Camps & kid-only zones provide endless onboard action and entertainment, and give parents their own time.
  • Transfers: DIY, pay extra for transfers to and from the ship.

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Breaking Down the Big Ship vs Small Ship Cost in Alaska

Think about how you shop for a flight. With some airlines, by the time you add on the cost of choosing your seat and checked bags per person, you’re paying much more than advertised. The same is true for cruise pricing. Not all cabin rates are created equal, so there are a few tricks of what to look for. These include added dining fees, alcohol, port fees, fuel surcharges and, most costly, shore excursions.  

An example is that a half-day kayaking tour will at the very least cost you $150 on a traditional Alaska cruise, but it’s just a part of the daily included activity options on most Alaska small ship cruises. Similarly, whale watching tours run $200 or $300 dollars, while it will likely happen in the flow of your week on a small ship due to the flexible itinerary. 

Dining can be a big added cost as well. The all-inclusive nature of small ships keeps it simple. But on big ships, the whole experience is designed to get travelers to spend more while they’re aboard. Expect more long days at sea. While buffets are included, dining at specialty restaurants and formal nights all get you in the mood to upgrade your experience.

A graphic showing the average cost per person of a big ship cruise vs. small ship in Alaska with the total cost difference looking at the base rate and other added costs.

There is no doubt that small ship cruising costs more than big ship cruising, but the ease of having everything included in a simple single rate can be priceless, not to mention all the added experiences detailed above. We often have clients who’ve been to Alaska on a big ship who return later with us to see the “real Alaska.” So we always recommend picking the right Alaska cruise ship size for experience you seek the first time.

A big cruise ship Diamond Princess towers over small ship Wilderness Explorer in front of a rocky cliff with icebergs in the water
A mountainous fjord is the setting for a small ship seen behind a Zodiac with a group of travelers in it

Where Do You Want to Be?

AdventureSmith Explorations founder Todd Smith tells this story from his time working as a naturalist guide on a Glacier Bay cruise in the 1990s.

“We used to kayak in front of Marjorie Glacier, and when a big ship would come barreling toward us, we could see hundreds of tiny humans up on the decks looking out toward us and the glacier from afar. They’d divert their eyes to us, then the glacier. I’d always tell my kayaking group that ‘Half the people up there think we are crazy. The other half want to be us.'”

A mother and adult daughter sit on the bow of Zodiac with one arm up in red life jackets in front of a bright blue glacier in Alaska

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MORE ALASKA RESOURCES:
Alaska Small Ship Cruises
Alaska Yacht Charters
Luxury Alaska Cruises
Alaska Cruise Guide
Alaska Cruise Deals
Small Ship Alaska Cruise Reviews
Best Alaska Cruises for Families
Small Alaskan Cruise Lines
Glacier Bay Cruises
Alaska Inside Passage Cruises
Alaska Whale Watching Cruises
Alaska Trips
Alaska Tours
Visiting Denali National Park
Alaska National Park Tours
Best Time to Visit Alaska

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  • Larry D says:

    Do you have accommodations for people with disabilities? Not necessarily wheelchair bound yet, but I need a lot of the same assistances (elevator/no stairs, ADA bathroom).

    • AdventureSmith Explorations says:

      Hi Larry,
      Thank you for your question. We work with several small ships in Alaska that have elevators for easy access to all decks and other accommodations to ensure everyone can comfortably enjoy their experience. The best thing to do is allow our Alaska experts to learn more about your specific needs so they can hone in on your best options. One will be in contact with you shortly.

  • Donna Basham King says:

    I’m interested in seeing the Northern Lights. What cruise and what time of year is the best for doing this? What would be the absolute best time to be assured of getting to see them????

    • AdventureSmith Explorations says:

      Good timing… some of our travelers saw the Northern Lights on their Alaska cruises this very week! They can be elusive and are typically not fully aligned with the summer cruising season in Alaska due to the long daylight hours, but we definitely have some tips for you. Going as early or late in the season will be your best bet. We will have a specialist be in touch with further information and available options, and in the meantime you can view our page dedicated to the Northern Lights cruise topic, where there is a dedicated section on Alaska Northern Lights cruises.

  • Barbara Lamb says:

    Interested in planning a small ship cruise

    • AdventureSmith Explorations says:

      Hi Barbara,
      You’ve found the small ship cruise experts! We’ll be in touch shortly to talk through your goals. In the meantime, our small ship cruise FAQs may be of interest.

  • Sara Provines says:

    My husband and I are 76 yearly old. We are interested in the smaller ships. Our 2 grown daughters would go with us. Do you have any information that you can email to me? Thank you.

    • AdventureSmith Explorations says:

      Absolutely, one of our specialists will be in touch by email with some recommendations for you and your daughters. Small ships are perfect for multi-generational families like yours!

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