For many travelers, Alaska is the bucket list cruise they dream of for years before finally booking – a week or more spent marveling at the breathtaking landscapes and untouched wilderness of this elusive 49th state, taking in the abundant wildlife, viewing towering glaciers and pristine fjords, exploring charming ports of call with distinctive cultural significance, tasting fresh Dungeness crab and reindeer, and having the opportunity to try exhilarating regional activities as dog sledding or sightseeing from a float plane.
Given all this state has to offer, it's no wonder Alaska is seeing a record number of visitors this year: 1.65 million passengers are expected to arrive via cruise ship this season (up from 1.3 million cruise visitors in 2019).
For many travelers, their Alaskan cruise may be their one and only visit to the Land of the Midnight Sun which is why it’s so important to help steer your clients to the right cruise ship. Afterall, big ships vs. small ships offer different cruise experiences and each client is unique in their needs and expectations.
"Advisors should be aware that the decision between a small ship and a big ship Alaska cruise ultimately depends on the preferences and priorities of their clients," said Carlos Garzon, vice president of partner relations, cruise, Ensemble. "It is important to thoroughly understand the client's desired experience, budget, and expectations to make an informed recommendation."
Additionally, he said advisors need to consider factors such as group size, mobility restrictions, and preferred onboard atmosphere to further aid in making the right suggestion.
And, making the right suggestion is paramount to building a long term relationship with the client.
"Many people who experience their first cruise to Alaska will go on to book future cruises and other vacations with the advisor who helps them plan this trip of a lifetime, so becoming an Alaskan expert can be a great way to build a travel business," said Ted Blank, owner of Ted Blank Luxury Travel & Adventure, an independent affiliate of Travel Leaders.
Big Ships Equal More Onboard Amenities Entertainment Options
Many people equate cruising with nonstop entertainment, so clients who are seeking nightlife, casino games, and around-the-clock onboard activities may feel like they’re missing out on a smaller ship with fewer of these expected amenities.
"Big ships have so many things to offer in terms of entertainment," said Cheryl Hellmold, ACC, MCC, ECC, a Virtuoso travel advisor with Moon and Back Travel, noting the dizzying array of shows, comedians, live bands, trivia, Bingo, and line dancing classes. "Princess offers amazing production shows and is the only line to still have live orchestra music playing for their production shows." On the flip side, smaller ships rarely offer more than a singer and pianist in a lounge setting.
Additionally, big ships have a wider array of dining venues, larger fitness centers, and multiple pools – Garzon likens big ships to a more "resort-like experience."
Big Ships are more Kid-Friendly, Better Suited to Multi-Generational Travel
With bigger ships, you’ll also find dedicated children’s programs to help keep kids entertained all day long – and some have Alaska-specific offerings that help even the youngest sailors learn to appreciate their arctic surroundings.
"Families with young kids, in particular, can benefit from the Alaska Explorer's Youth Program provided by Princess Cruises, ensuring that children have a fun and engaging experience onboard," said LaDell Carter, a travel advisor with Royal Expression Travels.
Similarly, Disney Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Holland America focus on multi-generational travel with a wide range of amenities to please everyone in your client's party, from toddlers to grandparents.
Big Ships Offer Comprehensive Land-and-Sea Packages
While Alaska’s many waterways and ocean-fed landmarks are the primary objective for cruisers, you’d be doing your clients a disservice by not suggesting they add a land package onto their cruise itinerary. It's the only way to see the interior of Alaska, including iconic Denali (the highest peak in North America) and the Denali National Park and Preserve. These packages are offered pre- or post-cruise and truly make for a more comprehensive visit to Alaska.
"Princess and Holland America were first to offer Alaska land packages, and have built an extensive network of lodges and tour operations in Denali and other areas," said Ted Blank, owner of Ted Blank Luxury Travel & Adventure, an independent affiliate of Travel Leaders.. "Newer-to-Alaska cruise lines, like Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity, have enhanced their offerings in recent years."
"For advisors new to Alaska, I'd recommend focusing on and mastering one cruise line and its tour product, and then expanding your knowledge to another one, and another," suggested Blank. "There are often core similarities, but also critical differences that can make or break a trip."
Big Ships and Luxury Small Ships May Be Better for Clients with Mobility Issues
Mobility and health concerns are also important to take into consideration when guiding clients.
"Larger ships or small ship luxury ships are accessible for people with mobility problems, and many of the larger ship cruise tours are well-suited to these guests," said Blank "Smaller expedition ships may require a higher degree of agility – instead of docking alongside a dock, you might go ashore in a Zodiac speedboat."
Small Ships Cater to Those Craving a More Intimate or Authentic Experience
Small ship cruises – such as Windstar, Hurtigruten, Seabourn, Lindblad Expeditions, and UnCruise Adventures – provide an intimate and exclusive atmosphere. They often deliver a more personalized and close-knit setting, added Garzon, where passengers can enjoy a sense of camaraderie with other guests and can interact closely with the destination.
Have a client who's leery about feeling like herded cattle on a bigger vessel? Only being amongst a few hundred other passengers may help ease their discomfort. "It's also important to note that small ship cruises also are appealing to first-time cruisers who don't like the idea of a big ship cruise, such as past river cruise or guided tour guests," said Blank.
Smaller ships may also find special ways to bring the region's local cuisine onboard, enhancing each guest's ties to the community they are there to experience.
"Regent Seven Seas Cruises emphasizes a robust culinary immersion program," explained Carter. "Their itineraries celebrate Arctic indigenous traditions, sustainable fishing practices, and aquaculture. Travelers can savor unique flavors and learn about the culinary heritage of the region while supporting local communities."
Small ships Deliver More Remote and Unexpected itineraries
Another advantage small ships have over larger vessels is their ability to navigate narrower channels and reach more remote areas – which, according to Garzon, allows for unparalleled exploration of Alaska's hidden gems, and closer proximity to glaciers, wildlife, and natural wonders.
"These ships go into ports that other ships cannot even attempt to sail into," said Hellmold. "Windstar, Hurtigruten, and Seabourn offer these amazing itineraries that are off the beaten path, going into small towns like Wrangell and Prince Rupert. These ships also have the ability to sail into Misty Fjords, which can only be accessed by an excursion with the bigger ships."
Carter noted that Seabourn's itineraries often focus on such off-the-beaten-path destinations as Alert Bay, British Columbia – a charming fishing village. Other unique stops may include Klemtu, British Columbia; Prince Rupert, British Columbia; Rudyerd Bay, Alaska; and the Behm Canal.
Hurtigruten, Lindbland, andUnCruise, which hold less than 500 passengers, tend to have port days or expedition days every single day. "You are either sailing into inlets or smaller passages looking for wildlife or you are stopping in a small, quintessential, small Alaska town," Hellmold said.
One notable exception to this rule is Glacier Bay. Blank said that Princess and Holland America, who were the first companies to cruise to Alaska, have secured the majority of Glacier Bay National Park entry permits. This means that many of their sailings include this must-see destination in Alaska, whereas other cruise lines visit Glacier Bay on a more limited basis.
Small Ships Use Zodiacs for Up-Close Encounters and Expedition Crew for Guidance
For clients who aren’t excited about the idea of joining large group tours for their excursions, small ships offer an appealing alternative in the form of more intimate outings: Hurtigruten, Lindblad, UnCruise, and Windstar offer Zodiacs and kayaks right from the ship.
"They take you far back into Misty Fjords or Tracy Arm Fjord and then you board Zodiacs to go even farther into the Fjord," said Hellmold.
These smaller ship cruise lines also have knowledgeable expedition crew members available (think: marine biologists, naturalists, and historians), to provide lectures on board and serve as your guides on the Zodiac and kayak adventures.
"Hurtigruten has up to 15 Expedition crew members that can answer every question about whales, birds and glaciers that the big ships just don't offer," she continues. "They even take you to small inlets, where you take Zodiacs to the land for a walk-about on untouched nature. It is true Alaska sailing."
Luxury Small Ships Balance Luxury with Genuine Alaska Experiences
Just because your client is headed to a rugged destination, doesn't mean they have to rough it on board – luxury abounds on some of Alaska's small ships, and this can be an especially good option for clients who have a mix of goals for their vacation.
"For instance, if a client expresses a deep love for wildlife, but their spouse seeks a more pampered and luxurious experience, we may recommend Crystal Cruises," said Carter. "Crystal Cruises offers a blend of exceptional wildlife encounters and lavish amenities, catering to both the desire for wildlife exploration and a pampered journey."
She added that small ship cruises, like those offered by Seabourn, provide an intimate and exclusive atmosphere starting with its 300 lavish oceanfront suites.