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Small ships allow you to see Alaska from sea level, without the kind of distractions you get aboard the big ships -- no glitzy interiors, no big shows or loud music, no casinos, no spas, and no crowds, as the largest of these ships carries only 76 passengers. You're immersed in the 49th state from the minute you wake up to the minute you fall asleep, and, for the most part, you're left alone to form your own opinions. Personally, we feel that despite these ships' higher cost, they provide by far the better cruise experience for those who really want to get the feel of Alaska.

Small-ship itineraries can be categorized as port-to-port, meaning they mimic the larger ships in simply sailing between port towns; soft adventure, meaning they provide some outdoors experiences such as hiking and kayaking, while not requiring participants to be trained athletes; and active adventure, meaning the hiking and kayaking will be the real focus of the trip and may be strenuous.

On all of these types of cruises, the small-ship experience tends toward education rather than glitzy entertainment. You'll likely get informal and informative lectures and sometimes video presentations on Alaska wildlife, history, and Native culture. Meals are served in open seatings, so you can sit where and with whom you like, and time spent huddled on the outside decks scanning for whales fosters great camaraderie among passengers.

Cabins on these ships don't generally offer TVs or telephones, and they tend to be very small and sometimes spartan. There are no stabilizers on most of these smaller ships, so the ride can be bumpy in rough seas. In general, the small ships are not good choices for travelers who require the use of wheelchairs or have other mobility problems.

Note: All average prices listed are per night. Multiply the per-night cost by the number of nights of the cruise for the estimated cost.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.