Tiny SeaDream 1 next to a gigantic P&O ship in Antigua...
Maybe I shouldn't write this blog post. My husband Bill and I have done seven cruises, six of which were on very small ships. Our very first cruise was on Royal Caribbean's Vision of the Seas, which is one of their oldest and smallest vessels. I think Vision of the Seas carries about 2400 people max, which makes her pretty small for a Royal Caribbean ship. Compare Vision of the Seas to Royal Caribbean's enormous Oasis of the Seas, which carries over 5000 people, and Vision of the Seas seems positively dainty.
Bill and I enjoyed our first cruise on a big cruise ship, but we didn't like the huge crowds and nickel and diming that went on all the time. Though there's plenty of do on a big ship and it's easy to escape the crowds if you are so inclined, we determined that we liked the idea of small ships and all inclusive cruising better. So we tried SeaDream Yacht Club and, to date, have been on three SeaDream cruises. Either of SeaDream's mega yachts only carries 112 passengers at a time. So the staff gets to know your name. So do the other passengers.
Later, we tried Hebridean Island Cruises, which is an even smaller ship. Only 49 passengers are aboard at a time. That means even more personal attention and even more inclusiveness.
Bill and I had a great time on our most recent cruise, but once we disembarked, I couldn't help thinking I'd like to try another cruise line. There are several I'm interested in. One I've been wanting to try for years is Un-Cruise Adventures, which is an American line. If we hadn't moved to Germany, we might have cruised with them this year instead of Hebridean. I've also been wanting to try Seabourn for a long time. Azamara has kind of piqued my interest, too. So has Paul Gauguin Cruises, though I doubt we'll be trying one of those until we're back in the States. It takes way too long to get to Tahiti from Germany! None of these cruise lines have ships that are super huge, but most of them are smaller than anything you'd find on a mainstream line.
Some people love the really huge ships with many restaurants, shopping venues, waterslides, rock climbing walls, waverunners, and the like. Me? I like a ship that has really good food, all inclusive pricing, and excellent service. I also like ships that don't pressure me to tip. One thing I like about Hebridean is that they operate on a strict non tipping policy. SeaDream also doesn't pressure passengers to tip. Instead, those who want to tip are encouraged to donate to the crew fund. The only exception is when you use the spa, where tips are expected.
Don't get me wrong. When I go out to eat or get personal services, I tip. I have waited tables before and understand how it is, especially in the United States. However, I find tipping rather awkward. I never know how much to tip or how to go about doing it gracefully. I would rather cruise lines (and restaurants, for that matter) pay their people appropriately. I know it'll probably never be popular practice in the United States not to tip because servers like being in charge of what they can earn. But I think the people who employ servers should be paying them and not putting that duty off to the customer. I thought this when I was a server myself, too. I would seriously rather pay higher fares than deal with tipping. I remember being on Vision of the Seas and noticing the video about tipping on the ship's television channel. I thought it was really tacky.
Another thing I liked about the smaller ships is that a lot of times, what you pay up front is what you pay. At the end of a SeaDream cruise, we usually have a bill. It's never been as big as it was when we cruised on Royal Caribbean. When we've been on Hebridean Princess, we have never had a bill at the end. We don't even give them a credit card when we board. I like that.
I'm not sure when our next cruise will be. Bill has said more than once that he wants to try river barging. I am definitely up for that. That means an even smaller boat. I think most barges only carry about a dozen people. Tipping is also expected and you don't tend to cover as many miles on a barge.
There are drawbacks to small ship cruising. For one thing, smaller ships don't tend to be as stable as the big ships are. You can end up getting pretty seasick on the small ships. I never have on Hebridean Princess because they mostly stick to the lochs, which are usually pretty calm. They also anchor at night. I have gotten very seasick on SeaDream 1 on more than one occasion, often in the middle of the night when they move to the next port.
Another drawback is that it can be hard to escape people who get on your nerves. If you happen to be on a cruise where a large group has booked, you can end up feeling a little like an afterthought. Big groups on small boats can overwhelm the ambience a bit. If there's someone you clash with, it can be hard to avoid them. On the other hand, the small ship also allows for very personal attention and service. For instance, I got a big kick out of one of the bartenders on Hebridean Princess going out of his way to make me a Brandy Alexander. That probably wouldn't happen on a huge ship.
Anyway... my guess is that the next cruise we book will be a barge somewhere in France or perhaps Ireland. Things will get even smaller! But I haven't ruled out Seabourn or another SeaDream cruise. I may even get crazy and try another line. We'll see.
Tiny SeaDream one in the foreground and a huge Celebrity behind it. Actually, this photo makes me want to book a SeaDream cruise...