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Small ship cruises: Everything you need to know

Cruise Advice

In a world where there are cruise ships carrying over 6,000 guests, you might think a ship carrying 1,000 is small. But here at Mundy Cruising, our definition of small ship cruising is rather different.

We cater to those travellers who enjoy the intimacy and exceptional service of the small ships at the luxury end of the market, typically carrying less than 1,000 guests and usually less than 500. For those who find even 500 guests a little too crowded, make sure you check out our Hundred Club, a collection of ships carrying a tiny passenger complement of around 100 lucky travellers.

Why choose a small ship cruise?

A voyage on board one of these vessels is a very different experience to the traditional idea of cruising. So what is about a small ship that makes the difference between a good holiday, and a perfect one?

Well first of all, it's about your experience on board. You can treat the ship like your personal yacht, and be really private and self-contained. At the same time, it is effortlessly easy to get to know your fellow guests - almost by osmosis you learn their names and their tastes, and before you know it you are sharing a joke and recounting the tale of what you did today.

Socialising on board SeaDream Yacht Club

Next it's the itinerary. These little ships can go into the tiny ports and harbours that a big ship couldn't even approach, so you are much closer to the action, and much further from the crowds.

The places you can visit might be way off the tourist trail - locations you can only easily reach by sea - or the ultimate in style and elegance, as you bob in the bay in the company of super yachts and speedboats.

Windstar Cruises - Star Legend in Dubrovnik

On board the ship, you enjoy a very special experience. Personal levels of service and attention to detail are apparent everywhere, as the staff get to know your every taste and preference, second-guessing your needs at every minute of the day. You have access to the captain and senior members of the crew, and a delightful interaction with the select band who are your fellow passengers. And of course you are literally closer to the waves, so you actually feel like you're at sea, rather than on some lavish floating hotel.

Service on board SeaDream Yacht Club

How to choose the right small ship cruise line

Small ships fall into a range of different categories, and at Mundy Cruising, it is our job to help you select the right one for you. There is a huge amount of choice, from tiny yacht-like vessels to romantic sailing ships to specialist expedition ships with ice-strengthened hulls and onboard naturalist guides. The best small ship cruise lines include:

SeaDream Yacht Club

SeaDream is one of our favourites, with two yacht-style vessels carrying just 112 guests apiece. These cruise ships in miniature will indulge your every whim, with outstanding service and memorable food, watersports from the marina at the back, and wall-to-wall champagne and caviar.

SeaDream Yacht Club in the Caribbean


Silversea built their sterling reputation on the back of the intimacy and personal service offered on board their small ships. Capacity on their 'classic' fleet ranges from just 296 guests on Silver Wind, up to 608 passengers on Silver Spirit and a maximum of 728 guests on the brand new Silver Nova. The Silversea Expeditions fleet is focused on off-the-beaten-track adventure by small ship, with vessels carrying between 100 and 254 guests.

Silversea - Silver Wind in Venice


Seabourn boast the most modern fleet in the ultra-luxury category, with three 458-guest sister ships plus the slightly larger Encore and Ovation, each carrying 604 guests. They also launched their expedition programme in 2022/23 with two purpose-built ships carrying a maximum of 264 guests. Seabourn have a reputation for a highly personal style of service, with all staff focused on getting to know each guest individually, in order to perfectly understand your tastes and preferences.

Seabourn - Sunset on the pool deck

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd are justifiably proud of their flagship Europa 2, which has been voted the world's best cruise ship by the Berlitz Guide. Carrying just 500 guests, this stunning ship employs a contemporary Nordic-inspired aesthetic that sets it apart from the competition, and the accommodation, onboard dining and spa facilities are simply superb.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises - MS Europa 2 pool deck

Regent Seven Seas Cruises

Regent Seven Seas is the most inclusive of the all-inclusive cruise lines, with even your shore excursions included in the fare. Regent give you a choice of small to medium-sized ships, from the 490-guest Seven Seas Navigator to the newest all-balcony additions to the fleet, Seven Seas Splendor and Seven Seas Grandeur (746 guests).

Regent Seven Seas Navigator in Alaska

Windstar Cruises

The small ships of Windstar Cruises are a popular choice for first time cruisers, with great service, excellent food, interesting itineraries and a relaxed, easy-going style on board. There are three sail-assisted yachts - choose between the 148-guest Wind Star and Spirit, or the 342-guest Wind Surf - plus three 312-guest former Seabourn yachts, Star Pride, Star Breeze and Star Legend.

(NB. If ships with sails are your thing, make sure you also check out Sea Cloud Cruises and Star Clippers).

Two Windstar yachts in the Caribbean

Oceania Cruises

Oceania's 'R Class' ships - Insignia, Nautica, Regatta and Sirena - fall into the small ship category, carrying 684 guests in comfortable accommodation with outstanding food and a relaxed, unpretentious style on board. Oceania's port-intensive itineraries are all about destination immersion, with long days ashore and plenty of overnights.

Oceania Cruises - Regatta in the Panama Canal


French cruise line Ponant has undergone incredible expansion in the last few years, adding no less than six 'Explorer class' yachts to the fleet since 2018, carrying up to 184 guests apiece. Plus, their groundbreaking hybrid-powered icebreaker Le Commandant Charcot launched in 2021, taking up to 245 lucky guests to some of the most remote corners of the globe. Their fleet also includes the ship that started it all, the sail-assisted 32-guest Le Ponant, plus four sleek 264-guest yachts exploring a variety of intrepid destinations worldwide.

Ponant - Le Boréal

Paul Gauguin Cruises

In our opinion, if you want to cruise the South Pacific then the 332-guest MS Paul Gauguin is the only game in town. This lovely little ship is based in the region year round so knows the area inside out, with the flavour and warmth of the islands replicated on board. Enjoy a combination of 7,10,11 and 14 night itineraries discovering the Pacific's remote isles.

Cabin on Paul Gauguin Cruises

Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection

Ritz-Carlton made their first foray into cruising in 2022 with the launch of their brand new yacht Evrima, carrying up to 298 guests in elegant luxury. The second and third yachts Ilma and Luminara, due to launch in 2024 and 2025 respectively, are a slightly larger capacity, carrying a maximum of 456 guests, and across the fleet you can expect an extension of the Ritz Carlton brand with stylish suites and excellent dining.

Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection


Australian travel company Scenic expanded into ocean and expedition cruising in 2019 with their first ultra-luxury discovery yacht, Scenic Eclipse, and in 2023 Scenic Eclipse II joined the fleet. The technologically-advanced sister ships boast a sleek design, elegant and spacious suites and an exceptional spa, and the 228 guests (200 in Polar waters) can enjoy a range of unique itineraries categorised as either expedition voyages, discovery voyages or traditional cruise voyages.

Scenic Eclipse in Valletta

Emerald Cruises

Emerald made their name in river cruising and in recent years expanded into ocean cruising with the launch of two sleek yachts Emerald Azzurra and Emerald Sakara. Carrying a maximum of 100 guests in stylish accommodation, plus with expansive deck space and an onboard marina, the Emerald cruising experience is more akin to sailing on your own private yacht. Itineraries range from hidden harbours of the Caribbean, the beautiful Adriatic and idyllic isles in the Seychelles.

Emerald Azzura in Corsica

Small ship cruises from the UK

Most people associate ex-UK cruising with the big mainstream lines like P&O or Cunard, but there are also plenty of small ship options for those who prefer not to fly. As well as summer visits from many of the cruise lines listed above, there are several small ships based in the UK year round.

Hebridean Island Cruises

Intimate, characterful and utterly unique, the little 48-guest Hebridean Princess explores the coasts and islands of Scotland, with a sociable house party style on board and quirky touches like tartan curtains and a brick fireplace in the lounge bar. Their second vessel Lord of the Highlands carries just 38 guests and was designed to transit the Caledonian Canal with the same homely Scottish atmosphere on board.

Hebridean Princess

Small ship expedition cruises

As well as the more classic cruise itineraries, there are also a number of small expedition vessels exploring remote areas such as the polar regions, the Galapagos or the islands of the Pacific, carrying naturalist guides and expert lecturers, zodiacs to land on deserted beaches and high tech equipment to seek out what's going on underwater.

Top small ship expedition cruise lines include UnCruise Adventures, Lindblad Expeditions, True North Adventure Cruises, AE Expeditions and Quark Expeditions. For more information, take a look at our sister company Mundy Adventures.

AE Expeditions - Sylvia Earle in Antarctica

River cruises

A river cruise is another great choice for fans of smaller ships, taking you on busy journeys of discovery, with loads of time exploring ashore, soaking up the culture and sampling the local food and wine. You can choose to cruise close to home on the rivers of Europe, or further afield in Asia, Africa or the Americas.

Scenic River Cruises in Budapest

Download our River Cruising Uncovered brochure

Thinking about a river cruise but don't know where to start? Our informative guide is packed full of everything you need to know, including which cruise lines we recommend, what to expect on each river and how to make the most of your trip...

Whichever style of small ship you choose, what you will particularly enjoy is the warmth and intimacy of your onboard experience, and the excitement of being part of a rather special journey. To identify your perfect small ship cruise, call an expert: the team at Mundy Cruising can help you through the pros and cons.

Meet the author

Edwina Lonsdale is Managing Director and together with husband Matthew, owner of Mundy Cruising. Most recently she's cruised on Windstar and has also sailed with Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas, Crystal, SeaDream, Ponant, AmaWaterways and Aqua Expeditions. Her favourite destination is the Galapagos however she's also enjoyed cruises in the Mediterranean, Danube, Middle East, East Africa & Indian Ocean, Brahmaputra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Mekong, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Caribbean and the Arctic. When she’s not travelling she loves reading, food and wine.

More about Edwina

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