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9 of the best small ship cruise lines for group travel

Cruise Advice

In recent months, lockdown restrictions have meant we've been unable to see friends and family.

For many of us, this has highlighted just how important it is to spend time with our nearest and dearest. Zoom calls are fine, but they're no substitute for time spent in each other's physical company.

One of the delights of cruising is that it brings people together, offering a relaxing and restful holiday, along with a welcome degree of independence. With this in mind, here is our run-down of the best cruise lines to choose if you're travelling with family or friends…

Luxury barges: European Waterways

For over 35 years, European Waterways have specialised in luxury barge holidays, pioneering slow travel long before trendy millennials jumped on the idea. Accommodating between 6 and 20 guests, this is no ordinary boating holiday. A luxury hotel barge cruise on a beautiful inland waterway includes all meals cooked by the onboard chef, regional wines and an open bar, and daily escorted excursions on your own private minibus. There are bikes to explore towpaths and you can laze on the sundeck or in the spa pool, watching the countryside slip by.

European Waterways - Athos - Sundeck

There are plenty of itinerary options to choose from, including various regions of France, Holland, Italy, Germany and Luxembourg, while closer to home you can opt for a barge cruise in Scotland, Ireland and even along the Thames. It's possible to book by the room, but the full barge charter is ideal for close friends or families.

Perfect for: Families, with activities tailored to suit any mix of ages, and friends looking for relaxing days and informal evenings, with outstanding local cuisine.

European Waterways - Rosa - Guests dining on deck

Yacht style: Crystal Yacht Cruises and SeaDream Yacht Club

The word 'cruise' doesn't seem quite right for describing a voyage on board a ship with fewer than 150 guests. Sailing on a vessel of this size is a completely different experience to those mega ships that dominate the skyline in ports around the world, and is more akin to travelling on your own private yacht. Crystal Esprit accommodates just 62 guests, whilst twin sisters SeaDream I and II are only slightly larger, with room for 112 guests. Both offer the ultimate in all-inclusive luxury, with exceptional food, fantastic wines and intuitive service.

Crystal Esprit has permission to operate in the Seychelles this winter, one of a handful of vessels approved by the Seychelles government, and spends her summers in the Mediterranean, calling at the smaller ports along the Adriatic coast as well as the Greek islands and Turkey.

Group of friends cruising on Crystal Esprit

SeaDream I and II winter in the Caribbean, with a focus on the smaller ports and lesser-known islands, and roam the Mediterranean in the summer.

Travel in a group and the ships will feel like your own; a charter might be a step too far, but you could consider taking over a whole deck. Mundy Cruising can negotiate group savings and additional benefits on your behalf. As for dining, arrange something special exclusively for your party, or relax into the easy-going open seating swing of the vessel's normal operation. Al fresco options are on offer, so your seaview table is always secure, and everything is paid for up front, with no worries about who is picking up the bill.

Perfect for: Families with grown-up children and friends happy to spend most of their time together, or comfortable enough to say they want to spend time alone! The perfect recommendation for friends who think that a cruise isn't for them.

Evening socialising on SeaDream Yacht Club

European style: Hapag-Lloyd Cruises and Ponant

If your preference is to be quite private, socialising with your immediate group, then these European cruise lines will certainly suit. Hapag-Lloyd's Europa 2 carries a maximum of 500 predominantly German-speaking guests, and Ponant's fleet of chic little ships, each of which accommodates under 300 guests, is largely French-speaking. Both cruise lines operate bilingually, offering a cosmopolitan cruise experience on modern, stylish vessels.

Ponant - Le Bellot in Norway

Europa 2 has repeatedly been endorsed by the Berlitz Guide as the best ship in the world, with beautiful light-flooded interiors. Decorated in a Nordic minimal style, she is elegant, fresh and inviting, with lots of dining options, a beautiful spa, and even a cookery school.

Ponant's French style, where modern super-yacht meets nautical flair, provides a perfect environment for exploration, and a comprehensive range of exciting and adventurous itineraries around the globe will appeal to even the most jaded traveller.

Perfect for: Friends who enjoy being sociable amongst themselves.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises - MS Europa 2 - Pool deck

Ultra-Luxury: Silversea, Seabourn and Regent Seven Seas Cruises

These rival brands dominate the top-of-the-range cruising options. All offer exceptional service, all-inclusive fares (Regent even include a comprehensive range of shore excursions), modern ships with multiple dining options, and plenty of space on board.

Silversea's slightly more formal atmosphere appeals to many, although should you prefer a more casual ambience there are still dining venues that will suit you. Seabourn edge more towards a yachty style, with fewer restaurants and generous amounts of outside space.

Group of friends enjoying cocktails by the pool on Silver Muse

Regent, with the most casual onboard atmosphere of the three, operate the largest ships (although still with a maximum of just 750 guests), providing ample space for an excellent range of dining options, an expansive spa and plenty of outside space. Their recently introduced 'Reconnect on Regent' programme offers groups of 10 guests or more included private shore excursions exclusively for your group, along with custom air fee waivers, giving you the maximum flexibility in your travel arrangements, and a complimentary private celebration, complete with your favourite cocktails and exquisite hors d'oeuvres,

All three luxury lines are suitable for grown-up families and groups of friends, and extra incentives for groups travelling together including onboard credit, discounts and free places can be negotiated exclusively for you by your agent.

Perfect for: Friends who enjoy the refinement of luxury travel.

Regent Seven Seas Splendor - Pool deck

Best of the Best: Crystal Cruises

Crystal operate two fantastic ocean ships, Crystal Symphony (848 guests) and Crystal Serenity (980 guests), as well as their more recently introduced yacht and river cruise programmes. Innovative, dynamic and with constantly improving standards, Crystal have won more World's Best and Reader's Choice awards than any other cruise line over the last 30 years.

Their ships are large enough to create a leisurely resort-style environment, enabling the different members of your group to create their own daily programme, and travel at their own pace. The outstanding food and supreme service levels help edge Crystal ahead of their competitors. Yes, the entry-level accommodation is smaller than that of their rivals, but if you're travelling in a group you'll more than likely be out and about anyway.

Crystal Symphony - Umi Uma sushi bar

The advantage of having so much space on board is evident in the range of facilities and the extensive and stimulating programme of activities, ideal for a group with varied interests. The multiple restaurants include the Vintage Room, a private dining venue offering tailored menus with wine pairings, perfect for a gourmet celebration. The breadth of choice means it's easy to enjoy meals together or time apart, and to try a different dining experience every night.

With a discreet children's programme, Crystal is a good choice for multi-generational families who wish to travel without compromise. Group benefits can include onboard credit, special shore excursion options or even discounts, depending on the number of people travelling.

Perfect for: Friends and families with an independent streak, who are looking for the ultimate in space and facilities on an ultra-luxury cruise line.

Crystal Cruises - Vintage Room
Alex Loizou
Meet the author

Director of Sales & Marketing at Mundy Cruising

More about Alex

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