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Small Ship & Expedition Cruises Tours & Travel Packages 2024/2025

988 Small Ship & Expedition Cruises trips. Compare tour itineraries from 47 tour companies. 5,239 reviews. 4.6/5 avg rating.

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Top Small Ship & Expedition Cruises Attractions

  • Savoring the tropical breezes and snorkeling opportunities while on a sailing cruise through the Caribbean or South Pacific.
  • Stopping at a quiet bay for a lobster bake while cruising the Maine coast on an historic windjammer.
  • Watching whales in Alaska for hours simply because you can
  • Sailing to Antarctica, following the route of the first explorers
  • Exploring the Turkish coast on a traditional gulet, the Kenyan coast on a traditional dhow, or the Vietnamese coast on a traditional junk
  • Sliding in and out of hard-to-reach cruise ports, like Split, Croatia, and Kotor, Montenegro
  • Taking an expedition-style cruise from Norway to Greenland via Iceland.
  • Indulging in the personalized, friendly service of a staff that gets to know you
  • Spreading out in more spacious rooms and a less formal atmosphere than some mega-ships
  • Following the path of Charles Darwin on a small ship cruise through the Galapagos Islands or the Beagle Channel in Patagonia.
  • <Kayaking and sailing along the coastline right from a small cruise ship’s watersports platform
  • Taking advantage of small cruise ships’ shallow draft to get closer to the cruise line for wildlife viewing

Small Ship & Expedition Cruises Tours & Travel Guide

Small Ship & Expedition Cruises Attractions & Landmarks Guide

A cruise on a small ship or expedition-style ship is as different  from a cruise on a large ship as flying in a small plane is from taking a jumbo jet. They both share the sea but they present different perspectives on it and often serve very different purposes.

(For this write-up, we’ll limit the discussion to small ocean and sea-going vessels as opposed to river ships and boats.)

Both small and large cruise ships have their place in the realm of cruise travel and both have their adherents, but there’s no guarantee that if you’ll like one you’ll like the other.

What Are the Various Types of Small-Ship Cruises?

Just how small is small? And how agile are these small cruise ships, anyway? There are several differences to be aware of among small-ship cruise vessels - and features that distinguish these smaller ships from the mega-ships sailing the oceans today. The best small-ship cruise lines will cater to 300 or fewer guests, guaranteeing a more intimate and authentic cruise experience and the ability to delve further into local culture.

If you’re hoping to spend a lot of time off the ship exploring your destination on foot, or kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding around your ship, then focus on a small yacht cruise. Often, the itinerary can be adjusted to meet guests’ interests and you’ll be able to get in and out of hard-to-reach ports, therefore getting a better and deeper understanding of your destination’s culture - and hopefully even seeing rare wildlife in its natural habitat. Spend the night in quiet remote coves, or decide to stop in to a rarely visited village - small-ship yachts have the capability to change course on a whim.

Small yacht cruises typically promise a low-key, intimate ambience without a lot of evening entertainment. Instead, it’s a chance to unwind with like-minded guests and take in a quiet sunset or marvel at what you saw that day.

Small-ship cruising by yacht often means smaller cabins, smaller bathrooms, smaller dining areas, but with so much activity happening onshore exploring your remote destination, this doesn’t matter so much. Meals, too, can be a family-like affair, with group dining most evenings. But when the chef can prepare the fish you yourself caught that day in Alaskan waters, who wouldn’t want to share with new friends?

If you’re after adventure cruising, consider an expedition ship, like the small ships that sail in the Arctic or to Antarctica. You’ll often cruise closer to shore, seeking wildlife or chasing after a fantastic Aurora Borealis view. Expedition small ships usually exude a relaxed atmosphere, where guests can really focus on the destination’s nature and culture and learn from on-board naturalists and wildlife experts.

Expedition cruises that venture close to shore hold the chance of unexpected sightings - See those whales? Let’s go follow them! In a similar vein, expedition small-ship cruises usually have more shore excursion options that small yacht sailing, with the capability to cater to differing interests among the guests.

Small expedition cruise ships feature most of their cabins on an observation deck to ensure optimal scenic and wildlife viewing. Meals on expedition ships are casual and while often a relatively limited menu is offered, the food is typically based on the destination and there is plenty of it.  

Interested in a cruise but not on a ship? Find the best river cruise tour companies >>

Popular Small Ship Cruise Destinations

So where can you sail on a small-ship cruise? The destination possibilities for this more intimate type of sailing are impressive, from Micronesia to Baja California, from Antarctica to the Mediterranean. These small ships are able to navigate coastlines more nimbly than their much bigger siblings, opening up a world of choices. Here are a few top suggestions for where to go on a small-ship cruise:

  1. Antarctica: The ultimate polar expedition.
  2. Micronesia: Some of the world’s best diving, including the San Francisco Maru.
  3. Melanesia: Snorkel pristine coral reefs, meet children in remote Tikopia and see what daily life is like in the islands.
  4. Polynesia: Bora Bora to Tahiti, paradise is found in this archipelago.
  5. Baja California: Island-hopping with gray whales, whale sharks, dolphins and rays as your closest neighbors.
  6. Southeast Asia: The temples of Angkor, remote Mekong River Villages and snorkeling in crystal-clear emerald-hued waters.
  7. New Zealand: A chance to get up close to the rugged coastlines of the North and South Islands and Fiordland National Park.
  8. Lesser Antilles: Including Martinique, St. Lucia, Saba, Sint Eustatius, and Grenada, and featuring great birdwatching, snorkeling, diving and history tours.
  9. Mediterranean: Swimming in the brilliantly blue Adriatic Sea and popping into quiet, off-the-beaten-path villages for dinner.
  10. Alaska: Up-close glaciers, unplanned stops to watch wildlife in action and heading ashore to explore rainforests and hikes along the shore.
  11. Galapagos: The only truly in-depth way to see these flora- and fauna-rich islands, from penguins to giant tortoises.
  12. Greek Isles: From the Saronic to the Cyclades, a tempting immersion in Greek Isle food, culture and traditions.
  13. Arctic: Polar bears and the Northern Lights. Need we say more?

Wildlife Sightings on Small Ship Cruises

Wildlife and small-ship cruising go hand in hand … how better to see the local fauna than to sail right up close to their habitat, never disturbing it, of course, but being a solemn spectator to Mother Nature’s bounty?

Whether you’re hoping for polar bears or tiny tropical fish, small-ship sailing reveals wildlife both on land and under the sea. A few small-ship cruises to consider for the best wildlife viewing:

  1. Galapagos: See pink flamingos, seo lions, giant tortoises, cormorants, blue-footed boobies, Darwin’s finches and more. Then snorkel or dive and get to know the golden eagle rays and green sea turtles who live beneath the waves.
  2. Baja California: Small-ship sailing to see whales in Baja California will feel like a VIP experience. You’ll sail in search of these gentle giants, getting to access viewing points that most tourists can’t. Depending on the time of year, you’ll see dolphins, gray whales, blue whales, fin whales, humpback, orcas, pilot whales and many more.
  3. Arctic: Topping many a wildlife-lover’s bucket list, the regal polar bear is actually within reach (or your binoculars, at least) in the Arctic. Add to the Arctic wildlife list the Atlantic walrus, several types of whale, muskox, narwhals, arctic foxes, reindeer, bearded seals and more.
  4. Antarctica: Small-ship sailing to Antarctica is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for most, so make the most of it by adding rare and elusive wildlife to your memories? See an Emperor penguin colony up close, get a front-row view of humpback and fin whales and scan the shoreline for the black-browed albatross or the wandering albatross.

Who Will Like Small-Ship Cruising?

A small-ship cruise will fit the bill for your cruising experience, if you:

  • Crave your personal space and don’t want to jostle in lines at dinner or for offloading for a shore excursion with thousands of other passengers.
  • Prefer a quieter cruise environment where the staff gets to know you by name, brings you your favorite drink with dinner and can give you personalized recommendations because they’ve gotten to know your interests and personality.
  • Want to make new friends with guests who have similar cruise interests, be it wildlife, photography, culture, history, music or just exploring new destinations in an immersive manner.
  • Want to go places other cruise ships can’t. Imagine the stories you’ll bring home from your small-ship cruise ... an intimate meal you had in family-owned restaurant in a tiny, tucked-away town, or the day you and an expert photographer guide managed to snap a photo of a gray whale breaching an arm’s length away.

Small Ship Cruises vs. River Cruises

Small-ship cruising (typically up to 300 guests max) and river cruising share some common elements. Both have a better ability than their larger ocean-going counterparts to access smaller, more remote ports and destinations.

In keeping with the immersive type of travel experience, both types of cruise tend to focus more on the local culture, cuisine and traditions - making them part of the onboard experience. There is less focus on flashy evening entertainment, giant swimming pools and multi-level waterslides.

You’ll visit and dine with like-minded guests, mingle with destination experts and be treated more like you’re sailing on a private yacht instead of a small city. Your personal space is usually larger on small ships, as there is less room devoted to boutiques and activities. Wherever possible, smaller sailing vessels, especially those used for wildlife tours, will use precious space for outdoor viewing decks or platforms one can kayak or canoe from.

Small-ship cruises sail through far-flung archipelagos (think the Lesser Antilles or the Cyclades), while river cruise vessels will glide into the depths of a country through its most important waterways (think Amazon, Nile, Rhine, Moselle).

See our river cruise guide to get a better picture of what to expect as you sail the world’s most intriguing rivers.

Amenity Gap

Small ships may have some amenities, such as a smallish swimming pool, a lounge, a bar area, and a dining area, but nothing like you’d expect to find on a modern-day large cruise liner designed to hold from 2,000 to 6,000 passengers.

Casinos, climbing walls, Broadway-style theaters, huge dining halls, discos, organized contests and games (beyond board games), and other features of big cruise ships are highly unlikely to appear on a small or expedition-style ship.

Even medium-sized cruise ships, in the 600 passenger range, are far more likely to have multiple restaurants, organized entertainments, and other typical cruise amenities.

The Small Ship Experience

On a small ship, you’re more likely to make meals or the pre-dinner appetizer-cocktail hour the hub of your social life.

Gatherings are more likely to include lectures on what you’ll see the next day than late-night dance parties. The libraries on small ships take on more importance than on the typical large cruise ship.

Shore excursions and sightseeing are also at somewhat more of a premium on small ships than large. The general thrust of a small ship or expedition-style cruise -- especially the latter -- tends to be on the destination or itinerary (such as the Galapagos Islands or whale-watching off Alaska) rather than the ship itself.

Specialty Cruises

The ships themselves, though, may take on greater importance if they’re traditional to the countries being visited (such as the Turkish gulet or Arabian dhow), where a large part of the pleasure is experiencing that type of vessel.

A trip across the polar reaches on an icebreaker or another expedition-style ship is another singular small ship experience. (The only ships that have permission to actually land on Antarctica hold 500 passengers or fewer.)

If you think that small-ship cruising may be right for you, Stride can help you sort through the many possibilities around the globe. Happy sailing!

Small Ship & Expedition Cruises Reviews & Ratings

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Trusted Customer

Jul 2024

Written on

Britain and Ireland Highlights

The schedule was very ambitious, but our tour director, Greg Coglin, made the experience amazing. The hotel is Glasgow was not very nice especially because of the ex...

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Linda Herman

Jul 2024

Written on

Britain and Ireland Highlights

I enjoyed it immensely. It was vigorous and a little tired some. I would have liked some more walking in some of the towns and less bus time. I understood why, bu...

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Trusted Customer

Jul 2024

Written on

Britain and Ireland Highlights

it was a trip of a lifetime since Ireland was always on my bucket list. Our guide Nicky was excellent, as was our driver Steph. I would recommend this to all my fri...

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Robert Fedele

Jul 2024

Written on

Britain and Ireland Highlights

It was a wonderful trip that took in a lot and traveled to several places in a short timeframe. Next time I would choose a longer trip with more time in each place, ...

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Trusted Customer

Jul 2024

Written on

Britain and Ireland Highlights

There is A LOT of bus time!

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