There’s no disco on the MS Polarlys, a 619-passenger ship that cruises up and down the Norwegian coast. Also missing: a water slide, arcade, and movie theater.
Instead, you’ll find spectacular fjords, islands, and whales just outside your porthole. The Polarlys is a working supply ship operated by Hurtigruten that serves Norway’s coastline from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes, north of the Arctic circle.
It’s a no-nonsense way to explore some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. And you’re not exactly roughing it. The Polarlys has a fine dining restaurant, two hot tubs, and an onboard scientist to help explain what’s going on outside.
More Americans are ditching the big oceangoing vessels, with their malls, specialty restaurants and pop diva fairy godmothers, and opting for a simpler but more adventurous experience. Small cruise ships are different — and maybe better — after the pandemic. Passengers say they like smaller vessels because of their attention to detail and high staff-to-guest ratio. A small ship cruise can be a true adventure as long as you know how to book the right one. (Here’s my complete guide to booking a cruise.)
Small-ship cruises are rising
By many accounts, small-ship cruises are rising in popularity. The latest Luxury Market Report from Cruise Industry News, a trade publication, predicts the number of small luxury ships will reach 69 this year and surge to 89 by 2027. (Luxury ships are a subset of the small-ship market).
After a long pandemic lockdown, Americans want an adventure more than they have in years. And small cruise ships are offering just that. Small vessels can access smaller ports and navigate into places the big ships can’t reach. The Polarlys can easily navigate through Norway’s narrow fjords, so close to the mountains you can almost touch them.
“The intimate nature of the company’s small ships defies traditional ideas of cruising,” says Ann Shannon, a spokeswoman for Overseas Adventure Travel, a tour operator.
Cruise ship operators say in the post-COVID era, passengers think smaller is better. Jeremy Clubb, founder of Rainforest Cruises, which specializes in exotic riverboat and small ship cruise tour packages, says his cruises are filling up fast. “We just exceeded our 2019 sales, which was our record year to date, so the demand for cruising is definitely there again,” he says.
Why people want a small cruise ship adventure
“We see tremendous differences in customer behavior pre-COVID compared to now,” Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten Group, told me.
They want their bucket list trip now
“First, people’s prioritization of their bucket list travels has changed,” says Skjeldam. “Before the pandemic, they would say they wanted to go to a dream destination within the next ten years. That has now changed to within the next two years.”
Cruise lines like Hurtigruten see passengers booking much closer to departure this year versus a year or two for cruises to Antarctica or Greenland. They value their time more than ever.
Intimate is “in”
Another trend: less is more for some passengers.
“We’ve noticed cruisers who have in the past gone on the bigger ships now looking at us smaller ship operators,” says Skjeldam. “They want to be around fewer people and have a more intimate and curated experience.”
Tom Armstrong, a spokesman for tour operator Tauck, says small ship cruising guests “have a real thirst for learning and authenticity” that a bigger ship can’t provide. “The large mega-cruise ships carry thousands of passengers are destinations in themselves. With small ship cruising, it’s really the destination that’s the star,” he adds.
They’re not afraid to do their research
This may be the most positive trend. Small cruise lines have noticed that their passengers are conducting far more pre-trip homework. (Here’s how to book a cruise for the 2023 season.)
“Cruisers are doing more research before choosing a brand,” adds Skjeldam. One area of emphasis is sustainability, which cruise lines like Hurtigruten support. “More and more travelers want to know that they are minimizing the impact on the destination and giving back to the local communities,” he says.
How the small-ship cruise experience has changed since COVID
Small-ship cruise lines are going to great lengths to reassure passengers that everything is back to normal onboard. For example, on the MS Polarlys, there were no required tests or vaccination requirements.
“As of now, one of the biggest travel hurdles has been lifted: negative COVID tests to enter the United States,” says Annie Scrivanich, Senior Vice President of Cruise Specialists. “This was a concern for many American travelers, and without the worry of not being able to return home, more people are comfortable with going on an expedition cruise.”
But behind the scenes, cruise lines have taken steps to ensure the safety of their guests post-pandemic. Overseas Adventure Travel says it worked with its tour guides, took into account government guidance, and reviewed feedback from its travelers to create health and safety guidelines for all of its small cruise ship adventures.
Some small ship cruise lines still require tests or vaccinations. (Check with your travel advisor or directly with the cruise line before setting sail.)
Fernando Diez, marketing director for Quasar Expeditions, says health protocols have changed a lot since the pandemic, too.
“One result is stricter hygiene protocols throughout our entire cruise operation,” he says. “Quasar had always had very high hygiene standards in the Galapagos, but these standards were elevated to a whole new different level during the height of COVID.”
Among them: using advanced coating materials for countertops and tables that are antibacterial and were normally only used in the healthcare industry. And most of the new protocols stuck, even though the threat of COVID has faded.
Why passengers like small-ship cruises
Cruising on a small ship is in many ways better than a large vessel, say passengers.
“When you go on a small cruise ship, you won’t have to deal with crowds or lengthy wait times,” says Mathew Bowley, an avid cruiser. “It’s simple to obtain a table at one of the restaurants, a drink at the tavern, a cup of coffee at the café, or explore the ship in general.”
Patrick Johnson, another frequent cruiser, says he feels safer on a smaller vessel.
“The high crew-to-passenger ratios of small ships allow for unparalleled levels of personalized care and attention to detail,” he says. “Someone is always on hand at all times to address passengers’ concerns and remind them to follow safety procedures.”
Smaller cruise ships have a downside, too. Because they’re small, you can feel every swell. And with limited facilities on board, you have to be extra sure you’re on the right adventure — or you’ll get bored fast. But many avid small-ship passengers wouldn’t have it any other way. They say the size and extra level of attention make a small vessel experience rise about the rest.
Now more than ever, they also say a small ship can deliver something Americans really want: adventure. Small vessels can maneuver into small ports and get closer to the action than those floating shopping malls.
Small ship cruises can be a real adventure
What’s the allure of small ship cruises? To find out, talk to Gerri Hether, who recently sailed on the new Viking Octantis from New York to Toronto via the St. Lawrence Seaway. The ship accommodates 383 guests and avoids the stereotypical “churches and castles” excursions, she says.
“It is designed for scientific excursions and has two submarines, two special boats and four zodiacs,” she says. “Special cold weather and wet gear is provided for guests.”
But the onboard experience is also completely different. She says the Octantis was roomier than an oceangoing cruise ship, with spacious accommodations and floor-to-ceiling windows instead of tiny portholes.
But the adventure wasn’t without its risks.
“We had to provide a specific amount of medical insurance and have written medical clearance, which was reviewed and approved by Viking no less than 45 days before the cruise,” she says.
Now that’s some adventure.
Make sure you find a reputable operator
All small-ship cruises are not created equally.
Judith Reaves recalls the cruise she did in Turkey recently.
“It was a converted fishing boat,” she remembers. “The cabins were barely long enough for us to get into the room. I had to share a cabin with another woman. That was OK, but the beds were smaller than twin size. We had one high porthole window which I could not open.”
Reaves, a retired city employee from Phoenix, says there was no power at night because the ship didn’t run its generator.
“That was a real problem for the man in the next cabin who needed a CPAP machine to breathe at night but had no power for it,” she says. “It was miserable.”
Mallory Shaw, a travel advisor specializing in cruises, says you must vet the cruise line carefully when dealing with a smaller company.
She recently discovered a new product out of Ecuador, Kontiki Expeditions. The company converted and renovated a motor yacht to sell as staterooms in a cruise-style format.
“They only have nine staterooms in total,” she says. “All of them were very spacious.”
The ship cruises along the less explored coast of Ecuador. Among the shore excursions: visiting a farm that produces the beans for the most expensive chocolate in the world.
“It was an amazing experience, as the small ship allows for access to places a larger ship would not be able to get to, as well as a yacht charter-esque experience for a fraction of the cost,” she says.
What’s the best small ship cruise for you?
If you see the ship as transportation, as opposed to the main attraction, then a small-ship cruise might be in your future. You have to do your homework, though — otherwise, you might end up on Judith Reaves’ Turkish fishing boat.
The easiest way to find a reputable operator is by consulting a qualified travel advisor. (You can find one on the American Society of Travel Advisors’ site.) But if you want to book it yourself, prepare to do your research.