Some of us are drawn to the glamour and excitement of the staggeringly giant action-packed mega ships, while others gravitate to small vessels for the exact opposite reasons. No matter what your taste, there's a ship of your dreams somewhere out there -- but that doesn't mean it's not fun to hash out the pros and cons of big versus small. This week, Frommer's cruise correspondents Heidi Sarna and Matt Hannafin, experts in the art of bickering, have engaged in a little conversation about size. Does it really matter?
The Good Old Days
Heidi: Sometimes I sort of get nostalgic for the past. I put some Barry Manilow on the 8-track, pour myself a glass of Tab, and sink into my beanbag chair for a trip down memory lane.
Matt: And this has what to do with cruise ships, exactly?
Heidi: I'm talking about the good old days. Remember those? When you could walk from one end of the ship to the other in less than an hour? Sigh.
Matt: That's all a matter of perspective: If you didn't have any, those ship corridors wouldn't seem nearly as long. Or would they seem endless?
Heidi: Would they seem endless if I didn't have any what?
Matt: Perspective. Didn't you take art class in high school?
Heidi: I won awards for my art in high school.
Matt: No kidding? Then you're familiar with the dictum "One man's Malevich is another man's plain white canvas." Which kinda gets us back to the point of this discussion: some folks think megaships are exciting and others think they're just obnoxious.
Is Bigger Better?
Heidi: Me, I miss the smaller, more nautical ships of yore, but I have to admit, I just can't find any fault in sushi bars, big spas, and cabin balconies. Progress is progress.
Matt: That's not necessarily progress, though. It's just growth.
Heidi: Ah, but one man's growth is another man's progress.
Matt: OK, now you're getting into dermatology, and that's just icky.
Heidi: Oh, you know what I'm saying. The cruise lines race to outdo each other and we get to sit back and try out some pretty neat stuff. OK, that surfing thing on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas might be sort of weird, but then again, why not? Beats napkin folding and quoits, don'tcha think?
Matt: Well now, I just don't know about that. Just because something's bigger and louder doesn't mean it's better. One of the most fun ships I ever sailed was a 15,400-tonner out of New Orleans, with about 500 passengers. That's about one tenth the size of Freedom, but it meant everybody aboard could go see the passenger talent show, or take part in team games in the lounge. It was like when I was a kid: Everybody could talk about Happy Days because there were only three or four TV stations to choose from, so pretty much everybody watched it.
Heidi: I don't know if talking about Fonzie's latest girlfriend helped me grow into a better person, but I will say, big cruise ships have helped make travel accessible to the masses. Building bigger ships means more people can travel for less money. You're just as likely to meet a truck driver or school teacher on a ship as a doctor or lawyer. Vacations aren't just for rich people anymore.
Matt: I'm not sure the populist argument really applies. That 15,000-ton ship I sailed was totally cheap -- the line had bought it from the Russians after the Soviet Union collapsed and its prices were low, low, low. The fact that today's luxe lines tend to use small ships has made folks think ships have to be big to be affordable. Fact is, Carnival was Carnival when its ships carried 1,400 passengers, and it's still Carnival now that they carry 3,000.
Maybe Not Better, But Cheaper!
Heidi: That old ship you were on was an exception -- one of those budget lines that aren't even around anymore -- and sure, in spirit Carnival is still Carnival. But I'm saying cruises are more affordable now than ever, and there's no question economies of scale have helped that. You see the ads, you can often snag a Caribbean cruise for less than $100 a day, and that includes food and entertainment! Cruising is for the people. Everybody's doing it, and having lots of big cruise ships around sure fosters accessibility.
Matt: Not to mention revenue. The way I've heard cruise line execs tell it, design and construction costs on all new ships are so high that it just makes sense to just build 'em bigger. Bigger ships equal mo' berths to sell, mo' berths equal mo' money.
Heidi: Who can argue with a good bargain? But price aside, I bet there are some things you really like about cruising on the big new ships. Go ahead, be honest.
Matt: Let me answer in anecdote style: I was on Royal Caribbean's big Explorer of the Seas a few years ago. It was a weeklong Caribbean cruise, I was alone, and I had a lot of work to get done along the way. On days at sea I got into a routine: I'd wake up, go to the Internet center for my e-mail and the news, then stop at the coffee shop on the way back to my cabin. I'd work for a few hours, go to one of the restaurants for lunch, take a stroll to work off some energy, then hit the computer again till dinnertime.
Heidi: Some vacation. That sounds like a normal New York day for you.
Matt: Exactly! It made me realize that, especially for people who live in the country or the suburbs, sailing on a megaship is like vacationing in a big city. You get the excitement, entertainment, crowds, restaurants, and cafes but none of the hassles.
Heidi: Well, except for long lines. Like doing just about anything in New York City, on a big ship you gotta wait with the other 3,000 passengers to file onto the ship, grab some lunch, book a massage, sign up for snorkeling, ask a question at the reception desk, order a drink . . . I hate that about big ships.
Matt: To be fair, I didn't see one line the whole time I was aboard Explorer. That amazed me.
Smaller is Saner
Heidi: I don't believe you, but even if I did, you know what I mean about the line thing on big ships. On the other hand, I was just on the SeaDream I, a yachty ship that carries just 110 passengers. What a pleasure to walk right up the gangway and onto the ship with no wait. Breeze into the cabin, have your suitcases show up ten minutes later, call the spa and immediately get an appointment -- you get the picture. Thing is, you have to pay up to get the exclusivity -- and civility -- of a SeaDream cruise. Easily three times or more what you'd pay for Explorer of the Seas.
Matt: There's a happy medium, though -- literally. A few mainstream lines still have some great midsize ships in service: Celebrity's Zenith; Holland America's four Statendam-class ships and the Prinsendam; Oceania's Regatta, Insignia, and Nautica; Princess's Tahitian Princess and Pacific Princess . . .
Heidi: And MSC Cruises even built a few new midsize ships recently.
Matt: Right, Lirica and Opera. Their cruises are kinda old-fashioned too: no bizarro attractions, no technological gimmicks, just food, drink, some entertainment, and a bunch of people to facilitate games and parties.
Heidi: Jeez, you sound like you're on the payroll.
Matt: Unmarked bills, delivered the first of the month. How do you think I afford this jet-setter lifestyle?
Heidi: Riiight . . .
Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our Cruise Message Boards.