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Cruise ship vacations: Which size boat is best?

A passenger swings on the ropes course on

A passenger swings on the ropes course on Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Breakaway ship on June 26, 2013. Credit: Steve Beaudet

Travelers looking for a cruise vacation have endless vessel choices. Which is right for you? A "big" ship or a "small" ship? Is one perfect for a romantic honeymoon? A family vacation? Will there be enough activities, or fine dining and wine?

For the sake of argument, in the "big" category I'll put the very large ships that can carry 3,000 passengers or more. Some, like the leviathan Oasis of the Seas (and its sister ship, the Allure of the Seas), can carry more than 6,000, plus a crew of almost 2,400. In the "small" category I am including cruise vessels that house fewer 1,000 passengers. However, most of the boutique ships carry far fewer, usually 300 to 600 passengers.

Pros of a big ship

SO MANY CHOICES "Mega ships absolutely give more options than any other ship -- with a wide range of cabin sizes, configurations and price ranges, to many dining options" says travel broadcaster Sandy Fenton. For example, the Norwegian Breakaway, which went into service last year, has 33 separate onboard dining venues.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY "For families, this can be an ideal vacation, as kids and hard-to-please teens will be entertained," says Fenton. The Oasis of the Seas, for instance, has teen-only sessions in the FlowRider wave and surfing pool and a huge rock climbing wall. Norwegian's Breakaway has a miniature golf course, a bungee trampoline and a 24-foot enclosed climbing cage.

LOTS OF CABINS On ships with thousands of cabins, guests have a wide range of choices and price ranges. They come in various sizes, configurations, with or without balconies -- even in different neighborhoods.

ENTERTAINMENT GALORE Big ships really go all out on entertainment, with giant, state-of-the-art stages and Broadway shows such as "Mamma Mia" and "Rock of Ages." Others offer music cruises such as The Moody Blues Cruise, with guest Roger Daltrey, on the MSC Divina next month. Big vessels tend to have big casinos, too.

VALUE CRUISING (WITH A CAVEAT) The big cruise lines regularly offer great sales on various voyages. But, beware -- all the small charges can add up (see below).

Cons of a big ship

HOW BIG IS TOO BIG? You'll be traveling with 4,000-plus new friends, so if you don't like crowds, this isn't for you. For peace and quiet, look elsewhere.

KIDS, KIDS, KIDS If you aren't a kid-friendly person or just prefer the company of mostly adults, you'll be out of luck. With the value-pricing options and programs aimed at children and teens, there will be kids aplenty aboard big ships, particularly in the summer.

EMBARKATION AND DISEMBARKATION With so many passengers getting on and off at the start of a cruise, during shore visits and at the conclusion, this process can be extremely tedious.

NICKEL AND DIMED Large ships are not all-inclusive -- meaning passengers will pay for virtually every item, and not just alcoholic beverages. The cost of tips and shore excursions quickly adds up, and the bill at the end of an "inexpensive" cruise can be quite a shock. Onboard drink packages can save a lot of money.

DINING AND SERVICE With thousands of hungry people to feed every day -- the Oasis of the Seas' Opus Dining Room can seat 3,096 -- quantity often trumps quality. And those buffet lines can be ceaseless. The same goes for service; the endless stream of passenger faces, requests, issues and complaints can wear down even the friendliest crew.

Pros of a small ship

ALL-INCLUSIVE In some instances, that means virtually everything. Regent offers free round-trip air, free shore excursions, all gratuities, most wines and spirits, and included specialty dining on every cruise. You'll rarely need to tip or sign a bill.

LUXURY AND TOP NOTCH SERVICE Many of the smaller, premium lines have experienced butler service for all suite guests. Sanjay, my butler on a recent Silversea cruise, went above and beyond, lending me a pair of cuff links so I didn't have to buy a pair. Embarking on these voyages is usually a stress-free boarding experience that ends with a glass of Champagne. Servers will remember your preferences and bring you your favorite appetizer or drink without asking.

FINE DINING Smaller ships offer gourmet cuisine in the dining rooms and at the alternative dining restaurants such as Silversea's La Terrazza aboard the Silver Spirit -- the first and only Slow Food-approved restaurant at sea.

EXCLUSIVE ITINERARIES Smaller cruises offer language and cultural programs, and some present posh culinary classes, art and literature courses, enrichment programs with world-famous lecturers and wine-themed cruises.

PEACEFUL AND LUXURIOUS Smaller ships generally do not cater to families, and there will be few, if any children aboard. The cabins are appointed with high-end amenities and the vessels often display beautiful and expensive artworks throughout the ship.

Cons of a small ship

IT'S TOO QUIET Most smaller ships close up early and do not have much in the way of late-night bars, nightclubs or gambling. Most restaurants and dining stations close around 11 o'clock -- so no midnight buffet.

ENTERTAINMENT OPTIONS ARE LIMITED Entertainment options consist of less-elaborate shows, solo entertainers, film screenings, trivia contests, bridge clubs and lectures.

KIDS MAY BE BORED Smaller vessels have few options devoted to children and teenagers. The ships do have pools, but normal youthful play around them is discouraged. Onboard sports options usually are limited to golf practice, Ping-Pong, shuffleboard and gym workouts.

WE WILL MEET AGAIN Since the size of the ship is small and the overall number of guests low, it is likely you will meet each and every passenger more than once. If this is a problem, you may want to sail on a larger ship.

ITINERARIES ARE LONGER Many luxury cruise lines have itineraries beginning with 8-day voyages and longer. This can be too long or expensive for some travelers. Seabourn is one of the luxury carriers that runs shorter trips.

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