While there are certainly cruisers who think bigger is better — five shows! 30 restaurants! waterslides! — the mega-ship lifestyle isn’t for everyone. The best small-ship ocean cruises epitomize a different way to travel — one that allows for more access to remote destinations, more peace and quiet, and more engagement with the experience of being on the water.
Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabins and facilities, food, service, itineraries and destinations, excursions and activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in five categories; small-ship ocean cruise lines have vessels that can carry up to 249 passengers.
Related: The 2019 World's Best Awards
For many, small ships are synonymous with a more luxurious, personalized experience — and several ultra-high-end lines made this year’s list for offering this kind of product. Silversea, which came in at No. 9, and Crystal Cruises, No. 2 this year, both offer fine dining, 24-hour butler service, and unlimited champagne, even on their smallest ships. Returning to the list in 2019 after many years is SeaDream Yacht Club, in eighth place — one reader commented that SeaDream had “the best food and service I've experienced in more than 70 cruises,” adding, “I wish they had more than two ships.” Luckily, the company is adding a highly anticipated third yacht, Innovation, to its fleet in 2021.
Of course, small ships really excel at expedition-type cruises — sailing to lesser-traveled locations without major cruise infrastructure and remote ports not accessible by larger vessels. Many of the winners this year specialize in adventure destinations like the Galápagos, Cape Horn, Alaska, Antarctica, and the South Pacific. One company takes the adventurous spirit even further: UnCruise Adventures, No. 10 this year, which is known for its play-it-by-ear style. (There are outlines of an itinerary, but no two voyages are the same.) “It’s great for active travelers who want experiences with the environment, not getting dressed up for dinner,” enthused one reader.
The No. 1 small ship cruise line is a dyed-in-the-wool expedition company. It has sailed in the Galápagos for more than 30 years. Read on for the full list.
10. UnCruise Adventures
More information: uncruise.com
9. Silversea Cruises
WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 90.00
More information: silversea.com
8. SeaDream Yacht Club
More information: seadream.com
7. Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic
More information: expeditions.com
6. Windstar Cruises
More information: windstarcruises.com
5. Australis Cruise Line
More information: australis.com
4. Grand Circle Cruise Line
More information: gct.com
More information: ecoventura.com
2. Crystal Cruises
WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 96.72
More information: crystalcruises.com
1. Quasar Expeditions
More information: quasarex.com
The seeds for this Ecuadoran expedition cruise company were planted back in 1969, when co-founder Dolores Diez first sailed the Galápagos Islands on a high-school biology field trip. Fast forward to 1986, when Diez and her new husband, Eduardo, hatched a plan, bought a yacht, and started a company to introduce travelers to their favorite archipelago at a time when even getting to the Galápagos was an expedition in itself. These days, they operate two ships in the area: Evolution and Grace (the latter, famously, carried Grace Kelly on her honeymoon to Corsica and Sardinia). In addition to classic “footsteps of Darwin” sailings, Quasar also offers photography cruises, family-oriented itineraries, private charters, and expeditions led by scholars like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Pinker. One respondent called sailing with Quasar Expeditions “the trip of a lifetime,” saying, “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2019.