Cruise Ships: When is Big TOO Big?

Cruise ships - when is big too big?

By Simon & Susan Veness

We all know that cruise ships have increased in size in the last 20 years or so, dramatically in many cases. Where 100,000 tons was once considered gargantuan, it is now merely ‘mid-size’ to some cruise lines.

This point came home loud and clear this week as the busy Meyer Werft shipyard in north-west Germany celebrated its “largest ever” ship launch, the massive 184,000-ton AIDAnova of German-based Aida Cruises.

It is the largest ship ever built for a Carnival Corporation company; the largest to sail out of the River Ems; the largest – by some distance – for the cruise line itself (Aida’s previous biggest is last year’s AIDAperla at 125,000 tons); and the fifth largest in the world after the 225,000-ton Oasis-class quartet of Royal Caribbean.

The Oasis-class carry 6,410 passengers at maximum capacity; AIDAnova will accommodate 6,600. AIDA’s first ship, the humble AIDAcara, which was launched in 1996, carried just 1,186. So that’s a SIX-fold increase in just 22 years. In the previous 22, the general increase was around 80 per cent.

In 1995, the largest cruise ship afloat was the rather chic Sun Princess of Princess Cruises, which weighed in at 77,441 tons – a mere tiddler by today’s standards. Little more than a year later, Carnival had launched the 100,000-ton Carnival Destiny, and the race was on to 200,000.

Sun Princess Cruise Ship

Sun Princess (Princess Cruises)

Looking at that passenger figure for AIDAnova (even though it is unlikely she will ever sail with every single berth filled), the actual Space Ratio per passenger is only 27.9, where the ratio is the standard figure obtained by dividing the ship’s gross tonnage by the number of passengers. The figure for the old AIDAcara was actually 32.4. So, although the sparkling new ship is considerably bigger, there is LESS space per person than on the first vessel in the fleet. Even Royal Caribbean’s formidable quartet offer more at 35.1.

It, therefore, begs the crucial cruise question – when is big just TOO big? Is it when a ship passes 2,000 passengers? 5,000? Or does the oft-derided figure of Space Ratio still have a valid role to play in deciding one’s maritime comfort level?

Consider this little factoid: Cunard’s flagship, the venerable Queen Mary 2, was (briefly) the largest cruise vessel on the planet when she took her maiden voyage in 2004, tipping the nautical scales at a little over 148,000 tons. She took the ‘largest’ mantle from Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, which was launched slightly under two years earlier at 139,570.

Queen Mary 2 Cruise Ship

Queen Mary 2 (Cunard)

But the Navigator carried fully 3,807 at full occupancy, giving her a Space Ratio of 36.6. The QM2 carried 2,620 passengers, for a Ratio of 56.6. Prior to 1995, anything above 40 was considered hugely spacious. So ‘big’ is really only a relative term. AIDAnova carries two and a half times more passengers than the Cunard ship, but, at only one-and-a-quarter times larger in pure size terms (where modern tonnage is actually a measurement of volume rather than deadweight), she will feel smaller than her older rival.

Size, or ‘bigness,’ in cruise terms, is therefore not strictly in the eyes of the statistician. A vessel as extensive as QM2 – and she is still longer than all but Royal Caribbean’s Oasis monoliths – can actually feel ‘small’ in some ways by providing more space per person than comparable ships.

The size debate actually becomes more relevant these days when you think in terms of the overall elbow room as a function of the Space Ratio AND the absolute number of people on board.

In our ongoing example, the Cunard standard-bearer may have a generous Space Ratio at face value, but she still holds a fairly sizeable load at 2,600-plus pax, which means you’ll still be rubbing shoulders with a fair number of your fellow cruise devotees.

The trade-off is that there are more amenities and things to do on the larger ship; more dining options, more lounges, bars, spa space, etc.

Here’s another paradigm to consider. When Silversea and Seabourn both burst on to the luxury cruise scene in the late 1980s and early 90s, they did so with ships that were positively tiny for the period. Silversea’s debut duo were each just 16,800 tons, while Seabourn’s initial trio was smaller still at 9,975. Yet their Space Ratios were a whopping 56.7 and 47.9 respectively, made to seem even more expansive with a staff-to-passenger ratio of almost 1-to-1.

Silversea's Silver Wind Cruise Ship

Silver Wind (Silversea)

Along came Crystal Cruises at pretty much the same time, only they went for something bigger again by a factor of almost five, as their first vessel Crystal Harmony made her debut at 50,142 tons, which was larger than anything in the P&O fleet at that time. Harmony carried just 960 passengers, though, which gave her a Space Ratio of 52, better than Seabourn and only slightly behind Silversea.

So, which ship is “bigger’ in real terms, and does the physical size of the vessel actually factor into the final decision? After all, the QM2 is definitely in the conversation with a Space Ratio of 56.6. Could the Silversea ships actually be ‘larger’ in some ways than the Harmony or even the QM2 simply because they offer more elbow room?

It is a fascinating thought. Of course, in this instance we can ultimately fall back on a more tenuous idea of ‘size,’ in as much as our debate is veering in one main direction – onboard quality. What Silversea, Seabourn and Crystal all have in a very real measure is an innate sense of distinction and luxury, something which QM2 only really shares at the ultimate Queen’s Grill level, where personal service is the epitome of the deluxe style.

Ultimately, of course, it comes down to personal choice. Crystal may be too big for some, and too small for others. The original Silversea vessels will definitely seem a touch pokey to anyone who cruises regularly on Crystal Serenity (or Regent’s Seven Seas Explorer, to bring another cruise line into the equation). It’s almost like the old story of Goldilocks and the Three Ships – one was too big, one was too small, but the third was JUST right.

Or, in the end, you may just decide to invert an old saying, and insist, “Never mind the width, feel the quality.”

So what is ‘too big’ for you? Are you happy on some of these larger vessels, with more facilities, or do you think smaller is better? Let us know in the Comments section below.

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Simon Veness

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