Have Cruise Ships Become Too Big?

Carnival’s  ‘Helios class’ ships, introduced into service from 2020 onward, are around 180,000 gross tonnes and carry a maximum of 6,600 passengers (all berths). The Carnival’s cruise brands: Carnival, Costa, AIDA and P&O (Iona) are/have taken delivery of these giant ships.

Although the ‘Helios’ class is not the world’s biggest class, n terms of gross tonnage (That’s  Royal Caribbean’s ‘Oasis’ class), ‘Helios’ will supersede ‘Oasis’,  in terms of passenger capacity. In fact it will be a world record.

However, this record will be broken, when the Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) introduces their next design of mega-ship,  the ‘World Class’, entering service in 2022 and carrying up to 6,850 passengers.

We have also had news over the past few years, about many other very big ships (Genting, NCL, RCI etc.) which will be entering service within the next five years.

It is hardly surprising  that their are two major concerns about today’s leviathans: 1) How well will the ships cope (and the ports of call) with the huge number of passengers that they will carry 2) How will they will maintain passenger health, against a backdrop of a global pandemic. 

Many people are asking the question “Have cruise ships become too big”? 

Crowded Mega Ships

Mega-ships: Just imagine the opportunities to join a line for the elevator or for the buffet and the possibilities of getting lost in the endless corridors and decks.  Just imagine the pool deck on a sunny day.

Big ships tend to be taller and wider, but there pool decks are not proportionately bigger to their passenger numbers. The pool decks may even accommodate water-chutes, climbing walls, Go-Kart tracks and other ‘gimmicks’, reducing pool and sun lounger space.

There are also concerns about the embarkation, disembarkation and the effect all those people will have on the ports of call, especially  on the Caribbean islands, where most of these big ships will be operating.

The Myth

I am about to contradict myself. There is a myth that I must ‘bust’: Big ships do NOT necessarily feel more crowded on-board, that smaller ones. It’s all to do with the passenger-to-space ratio. Some big ships have more space per passenger, than some smaller ships. The passenger flow on-board a mega-ship is based the concept that not everybody will be in the same place at the same time: this is why they have multiple dining rooms and multiple entertainment venues.

For example, if you are dining in Oasis’s main dining room (which must accommodate over 2,000 passengers per sitting) cleverly you are only really aware of the tables and people around you. At NO time do you feel that you are eating in a giant mess hall.

The “not everybody will be in the same place at the same time” principle can work very well, until there are times when most passenger DO need to be at the same place at the same time.  For example: embarkation/disembarkation and at the ports of call, when every passenger does need to travel in the same path on or off the ship, normally via a cruise terminal.

So how do you get 6,000+ people on and off a ship without unparalleled grid-lock? Already ports like Southampton UK, which is a city and not a small island, can struggle when three or more big ships are in port. Some commentators suggest that the existing cruise terminal buildings are no longer big enough for the new mega-ships, the number of check-in desk and security scanners has become inadequate, the baggage handling staff are overworked, the car parking spaces have become too few and the local roads are now inadequate, which are of course shared with the likes of IKEA etc.

For those that have not cruised on a mega-ship, it can take over half a day to fully disembark all of the passengers and about the same time to embark the new compliment.


Mergaviglia, maiden cruise June 2017, disembarkation, Barcelona. (Source Unknown)

It is hard to imagine how one of the popular Caribbean islands will be able to cope if two  or three ships carrying 6,600 tourists arrive simultaneously.  Even if you built a suitable infrastructure to cope with that many people, would it not spoil these island paradises and turn them into mini-Manhattans? Some commentators feel this has already happened.

Traditionally if a ship could not dock,  possibly due to lack of available berths or large size of the ship, passengers were “tendered” ashore in small boats.  The biggest ship of them all, RCI’s ‘Oasis’ class is too big to berth in many of the world’s smaller ports and tendering that many people is simply impossible. This severely limits her itineraries.

Then there is the question of shore excursions. One commentator put it very concisely: “It is going to make it twice as long to get on and off the ship reducing time people have in ports”. Can you imagine all 6000+ people getting off in a port and demanding taxis where the locals only have a small amount of public transport”?


May 2020: Even the most ardent cruise fan is finding it difficult to even think about booking their next cruise. The thought of being confined with 3000+ people on a ship is not a pleasant thought, at the moment. I could not even contemplate visiting the buffet!

We are all aware how a less serious virus, such as the Norwalk virus, can spread like wildfire on-board a ship. The thought of the Coronavirus doing the same, is a daunting prospect.

Seeing the news in recent months: ships carrying the virus were occasionally been refused entry to some ports, with passengers quarantined (trapped) on-board. This is another scary thought. Sadly passengers have died of the virus on-board cruise ships.

I know that modern ships have very good medical facilities, but they can’t offer full ICU facilities and ventilators for their thousands of passengers.

However, I realise that the number of passenger on-board a ship, may not actually be directly related to how safe they are in terms of a virus. More research is needed. However, if I had a choice of cruising later in the year, with 1,000 fellow passengers or 5,000 passengers, I know which I would choose.

So what is “Too Big”?

With all of this talk about ‘too big’, how do we decide when ‘big’ becomes ‘too big?’ The ships that we considered too big ten years ago (Carnival Destiny, Grand Princess etc.) are now looking medium sized and have generally been accepted as ‘standard’. As another commentator said : “It seems that with each major increase in ship size there are people who say it won’t work. Yet magically, these ships are somehow able to handle the crowds and the crowds seem to love being on the ships”.

P&O’s Iona (a carnival Helios class) maiden season sold like hot cakes, for example.

Big Ships Are Not all Bad

To be fair, we should also take a look at the positive aspects of these very large ships. I have enjoyed cruises on the biggest ships and some that are very small. Big ships offer a range of facilities including a vast variety of dining, entertainment and sports facilities, that could only have been dreamed of, fifty years ago. The staterooms (cabins) have become more luxurious, are often larger  and often have private balconies. Fares on these mega-ships should be competitive due to the ‘economies of scale’ offered to the owners: running one big ship instead of several smaller ones, is more cost effective.

A number of factors drive the  demand for ships of ever increasing size. The cruising masses certainly love them. According to NCL’s former CEO, Colin Veitch, “The thing that’s attractive about bigger ships is you have more choice and variety on board,” he said. “We make a lot more money on them. Ticket revenue and on-board revenue is dramatically higher on larger ships than on smaller, older ships.”


P&O Britannia and Marco Polo (Image Courtesy of Karen Bradbury – click to enlarge )

The global cruise market is continuing to grow, so the cruise lines was simply responding to the Kevin Costner adage; “if you build it, they will come”. These big ships almost market themselves; ‘The Biggest’ always generates headlines. Let’s not forget that it is big ships that have enabled the American masses to cruise in the first place, by offering affordable fares.

Somehow it Works

Big cruise ships are not a new phenomenon, they just happen to be getting even bigger each time a new one enters service.  Many of the most popular ships in service today exceed 100,000 gross tonnes and  carry over 3,000 passengers. On any given day, it is not unusual to find half a dozen big ships, or more, berthed at a port of call. Although it is not necessarily an ideal situation – most of the Caribbean ports are certainly more crowded than they used to be – somehow it still all seems to work. This is due to the excellent on-board organisation of the cruise lines in disembarking people on shore tours etc. I’ve seen it run like clockwork. The Caribbean is still the world’s biggest cruise destination and that does not look set to change. If it was so unbearable due to overcrowding, I think people would simply stop cruising there, yet they keep on coming.

The major cruise lines today, have their own private island such as Disney’s, ‘Castaway Cay’. This helps reduces the congestion at some the more popular ports. Some new ports of call in the Caribbean are also emerging, such as ‘Grand Turk’. Personally I think the ports of the Mediterranean, which are mostly cities, rather than islands, are better placed to absorb the increasing passenger numbers. However, who knows, perhaps the ports of call will become less important in the future as these ‘floating resorts’ become the destination and not just the means of travel. Mega-ships are making way for ultra-ships. Even the term ‘ship’ is increasingly becoming inadequate to describe these giant floating resorts.

Despite the scepticism in some quarters, RCI’s ‘Oasis’ class ships have proved that it is possible to embark, disembark 6000+ people efficiently, if the supporting infrastructure is in place. This means large berths, no tenders, bigger/better terminals, superb crowd control systems and adequate roads.

Although I the sight of 20 of buses lined up on the dock, to take hundreds of passengers on excursions,  is not a pretty sight or very environmentally friendly, once again thorough careful planning the negative impact can be minimised.

However the Coronavirus is a game changer! Cruise commentators Ben & David have an opinion about this below:

Smaller Ships

In total contrast, to everything that I have said above, we are also seeing a ‘boom’ in smaller ship construction. However theses are mainly exclusive  ‘Expedition’ vessels, carrying 100-200 passengers, operating in remote locations. They offer high luxury with very high fares to match. River cruising, which has been growing in recent years,  also involves small vessel often carrying under 200 passengers.

However, some smaller cruise lines that rely on buying/operating second-hand ship (Olen, CMV etc.) are finding that each time they are in the market to buy a new ship, those available are bigger than their past vessels.  For example, there was once many older ships in operation at 30,000 gt or less. Now the smallest tend to be between 45,000-70,000 gt. Therefore even small ships are getting bigger!


A non-cruiser once asked me what was the difference between the big-ship and small-cruise ship experience. I answered that the former is like a busy/high-energy floating shopping mall/state-of-the-art resort experience, with all the positives and negatives that it brings. The latter is more sedate/intimate/friendly and in many ways more nautical. A small ship has a much better connection with the sea.

Back to the opening question: “Have cruise ships become too big?”  It is of course a very subjective question. The cruising masses did not seem to think so, until the Coronavirus. It remains to be seen what affect the virus has of the future of the industry.

It is a fact that much of  the cruise growth in recent years was being driven by very big family-friendly resort ships.  For example, RCI and NCL have stated that their biggest ship are their most profitable yet.  This should not be surprising,  as the new big ships are full of alternative dining, sports and entertainment options, many of which carry a surcharge. Many of the cruising public obviously thought that  “Big IS Beautiful”. 

So when will the race to build bigger and bigger ships end? Well there are still many big ship on order over the next five years or more. These ships would probably be too expensive to cancel. However I’m sure that the Coronavirus will stall future newbuilds for some years to come, especially the biggest ones.

Malcolm Oliver

Q: Feel free to comment.

So is ‘Oasis of the Seas’ too big?  See My review: HERE

*(You will notice that I did not even discuss the safety and logistics of evacuating 6,600 people into lifeboats, as it does not bear thinking about. Neither did I touch on the environment and pollution).

13 Responses to “Have Cruise Ships Become Too Big?”

  1. David Bowley Says:

    Large cruise ships must be banned from the Venice Grand Canal following yet another near miss.

  2. Malcolm Oliver Says:

    Hi Jo, at least us Brits still have the likes of Fred Olsen and CMV offering small ships and reasonable fares. American’s probably only have the luxury lines and high fares.

  3. Malcolm Oliver Says:

    HI Bruce, thanks for your input.

    I’m not qualified to discuss lifeboats/safety, However I do wonder how 6,600 passengers could form an orderly queue, in an emergency, and get into lifeboats. Lets remember that when Concordia ran into trouble, she listed and one side of lifeboats were unusable. Some passengers swam to shore – were there even enough usable lifeboats?

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