The Best Small Cruise Lines

Cruises don't have to suck, and these niche cruise lines prove it

If the thought of taking a cruise vacation brings up unpleasant memories of sweaty, crowded pools and all-you-can-eat buffets, you're not alone. Many large cruise lines pack their giant liners with thousands of people, devise cheesy activities to keep guests entertained and leave little time for vacationers to explore their ultimate destination. However, these nightmare cruises aren't the only options you have when sailing the open waters.

Several small boutique cruise lines and international river cruises are changing the game when it comes to traveling by boat. The ships, many of which only hold a few hundred passengers, are made for more VIP, curated cruise experiences, embarking on adventure expeditions around the world. With gourmet dining options, luxury accommodations and not a waterslide in sight, these cruise ships will get you on board with idea of jumping ship for your next vacation.


① Alaskan Excursion with Ponant Luxury Yachts

With a fleet of five ships that hold a maximum of 264 passengers each, Ponant cruises value guest privacy. The French cruise line specializes in French cuisine and wines, and creates unique itineraries for passengers, like the 15- or 17-day Alaskan excursions that feature wildlife tours, visits to volcanic islands, and hikes through remote Alaska and eastern Siberia.

② Lindblad Expeditions + National Geographic Galápagos

Holding between 48 and 96 guests each, the ships that sail to the Galápagos offer intimate and unforgettable experiences for passengers. Maintaining a casual atmosphere on the ship, Lindblad doesn't fuss with assigned tables in the dining room or dress codes, instead focusing on expeditions on Galápagos itself. The 360-degree Galápagos experience, as they call it, allows guests to snorkel and scuba with underwater wildlife, explore the terrain of the islands, kayak, and paddleboard on a 10-day excursion.

③ Quark Expeditions Arctic or Antarctic

Calling itself the leader in polar adventures, Quark specializes in cruises to Antarctica and the Arctic. Each of the fleet's small ships holds less than 200 passengers and is equipped with a landing craft that allows guests to dock in some of the most remote places in the world. One program, for example, called the Arctic Watch Wilderness sends 26 guests to a five-star wilderness lodge in the raw Canadian Arctic for some of the world's best whale-watching. Sign us up.

④ Avalon Waterways Amazon River Cruise

Embark on every adventure lover's dream trip down the Amazon, exploring the archeological sites of Peru and the Amazon rain forest with this luxury river cruise. The small ship holds only 44 guests, making for an intimate experience, and features four types of suites, all with panoramic views of the river. A team of naturalists also accompanies you on your journey to the Amazon, ensuring you'll learn about the sights and sounds of the land as you go.

⑤ UnCruise Adventures - Mexico's Sea of Cortez

UnCruise sells itself as the anti-cruise in the best way possible. The largest ship in its fleet holds only 88 guests, allowing you to go "where the big ships can't go—in more ways than one." Check out the Sea of Cortez expedition around Mexico, which includes wildlife spotting, hikes through the desert, relaxing beach time and mule rides, plus a flexible schedule that lets guests do what they want, whenever they want.

⑥ Uniworld Boutique River Cruises - China, Tibet and the Yangtze

On Uniworld's China excursion, every room has its own private balcony, and 398 guests are assisted by 150 members of staff. The 14-day trip spans the length of China and offers extensive stays in Beijing, Xi'an and Lhasa before starting a cruise down the Yangtze, complete with a stop to visit giant pandas. Meanwhile, the ship itself offers bars, restaurants, a movie theater and an indoor pool to let you travel in style.

⑦ AmaWaterways European River Wine Cruises

Giving new life to the term booze cruise, these luxury trips through the wine country of Bordeaux, Paris and Normandy or Provence and Spain are our idea of a good time. No matter which you choose, the ventures are chock-full of vineyard visits and wine tastings in some of Europe's most picturesque regions. Plus, with only a few hundred passengers aboard each river cruise, guests don't have to worry about hordes of tourists or overcrowded dining rooms.