Alaska’s Inside Passage: Which Size Cruise is Right for Me?

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Alaska’s stunning landscapes, abundant wildlife, and breathtaking natural wonders make it a premier destination for adventure seekers and nature enthusiasts alike.  When planning an Alaska boat cruise, one of the most critical decisions is choosing the right type of ship.

Here, we compare the merits of big ships, large expedition ships, and small ships like Maple Leaf Adventures’ heritage tugboat Swell, to help you decide which option best suits your travel style.

Alaska’s Inside Passage Small Ship Cruise vs. Big Cruise Ships

What’s the difference? Here’s a general breakdown:

Adventure YachtExpedition ShipCruise Ship
# of Passengers and CrewMaple Leaf Adventures’ Swell accommodates up to 12 passengers with a local crew of 5 or 640–100 passengers with an expedition staff of 141,500–5,000 passengers, typically three or four passengers to every crew member
Cruise FocusWilderness, wildlife, active off-ship adventure, solitude, culture  Off-ship exploration of wilderness and wildlife, active adventureOn-ship activities, floating resort, large ports
AtmosphereUp-close, active cruising, fun and family-like. Smaller boats offer intimate experience; locally owned and cared for coastal boats that reflect coastal craftsmanship and historyRelaxed, appreciation of nature, usually very modern décor. Scale between a cruise ship yachtLas Vegas-style nightlife, pools, events
StateroomsRustic charm, cozier sleeping space, because the entire yacht is your deck and loungeMore options, some with balconiesLike standard hotel room, pay more for windows
DiningIntimate, ocean view casual, open seating, family meal-feel but prepared by a chef, share experiences and interact with expert guides and naturalistsOcean-view dining, casual, open seating, often a single dining room, guides and naturalists interact with guestsFormal, specialty restaurants, assigned seating, buffet lines, guides do not interact with guests
Wildlife and ActivitiesDaily planned destinations, also impromptu viewing, up-close yet unobtrusive. When viewing on ship, main deck is 6ft off the water. Guided nature and cultural tours, kayaking in remote anchorages, all includedDaily, impromptu, up-close yet unobtrusive. When viewing on ship, main deck is 30-40 feet off the water. Kayaking and zodiac cruising is typically offered dailyPlanned & added cost, or distance viewing on ship. For example, a half day kayaking tour will cost at least $150; while whale watching tours run around $200 – $300 dollars extra
Access12-foot draft allows Swell to squeeze between pinched shallows, where larger ships dare not sail15-foot draft can reach many of the narrow inlets and wildlife-rich passageways Maple Leaf Adventures can, depending on tide and other factors25-30 foot draft, travels far from shore
ViewsSea, kayak & Zodiac level, and on frequent trips ashore in nature with your guidesSea, kayak & Zodiac level, and on frequent trips ashore in nature with your guidesElevated, think 15 stories up. Activities are at an additional cost
AmenitiesHot tub, salon and lounge areas, open wheelhouse, spotting scope, hydrophoneLots of common space, view decks & fitness/spaMany decks, water slides, salons, golf simulators, etc.
ItineraryPlanned itinerary for highlights but flexible for unexpected highlights and guest interest; shore trips and wildlife viewing are free of crowd management techniques required for larger groups; trips start and finish in remote locations, with longer itineraries to see it all at an unhurried paceRemote locations, flexible, ready for unexpected sightings. Shore trips are at a can be limited due to larger groups, meaning less opportunity to see wildlife than you might expectPopular ports on fixed schedule, starting in Seattle
EntertainmentOnboard experts lead lectures, bears fishing for salmon, stopping to watch whales, exploringOnboard experts lead lectures, wildlife, landscapesMovies, pools, casinos, arcades
FamiliesFamily charters & departures, over age 6 idealFamily departures & onboard kid programs, over age 6 idealBabysitting, water parks, rec rooms, kids’ camps
* For example, Maple Leaf Adventures is one of just 6 overnight operators with exclusive access for our guests to the Pack Creek bear sanctuary on Admiralty Island
Photo: Jeff Reynolds

This passing cruise ship was treated to the same display of breaching humpbacks our guests were, though the view was certainly better from below!

Big Cruise Ships:  Luxury and Convenience


  • Amenities: Big ships offer a wide range of amenities, including multiple dining options, entertainment, spas, fitness centers, golf simulators and waterslides.  With ten or more decks, cruise ships are a city at sea and are ideal for travelers who enjoy luxury and convenience and are not interested in spending their days close to Alaska’s natural world.
  • Cost-Effective:  These cruises often provide more cost-effective options, making them accessible to a broader range of travellers.
  • Variety of Activities:  With extensive onboard activities and excursions, big ships cater to diverse interests, from families to solo travelers.


  • Crowds:  With thousands of passengers, big ships can feel crowded, which might detract from the intimate experience some travelers seek. By the same token, some travelers report it can be hard to meet anyone as there are few shared experiences.
  • Limited Access:  These ships are restricted to larger ports, missing out on more secluded and pristine areas of Alaska.
  • Hidden Costs:  The advertised price you see is for the passage, accommodations and some dining options. Guests then pay extra for each shore trip activity, special restaurants and onboard activities.

Large Expedition Ships:  Adventure with Comfort


  • Adventure Focus:  Large expedition ships prioritize adventure and exploration, offering specialized excursions such as guided hikes, wildlife viewing, and zodiac tours.
  • Expert Guides:  These ships often feature expert naturalists and scientists who provide in-depth knowledge and insights into the region’s ecology and culture.
  • Enhanced Access:  While not as nimble as smaller vessels, expedition ships can access more remote locations than big ships, providing a strong “middle ground” in immersion


  • Moderate Group Sizes:  These ships carry around 100 passengers, offering a balance between intimacy and social interaction.
  • Higher Cost:  Expedition cruises are typically more expensive due to their specialized nature and expert-led activities.
Photo: Phil Stone

Guests aboard Swell marvel at an iceberg up close from a zodiac

Maple Leaf Adventures’ Swell: The Best Choice for Nature Lovers


  • Intimate Experience:  With a capacity of just 12 guests, Swell offers a truly personal and immersive adventure.  Each guest can engage deeply with nature and the guides.
  • Exclusive Access:  Swell’s small size allows it to navigate secluded coves, narrow fjords, and remote inlets, providing close encounters with Alaska’s wildlife and landscapes.
  • Historic Charm and Comfort:  Swell is an 88-foot converted tug built in 1912, with over 100 years of history on this coast between Alaska and Seattle. Swell features six private cabins with ensuite bathrooms and showers, combining historic charm with modern comforts.
  • Local Expertise:  Small group sizes mean more personalized attention from knowledgeable, local guides, including expert naturalists, who share their intimate understanding of the region’s ecology and culture. The guest to crew ratio equates to level of attention and care that feels “human”.
  • Diverse Activities:  Swell offers kayaking, shore trips in quiet coves, to natural hot springs, bear sanctuaries, wild beaches and forested trails, as well as a few Alaskan towns. Each trip includes historic town experiences guided by locals.
  • Boutique Style:  The boutique size of Swell allows for personalized service and exclusivity in activities and experiences offered.


  • Costs:  The exclusivity and personalized service of Swell appears to come at a higher price point than the advertised rates of a traditional cruise, and about the same as a big-ship expedition cruise. While in fact, the price of this Alaska small ship cruise is actually closer to other forms of travel than you think. An inside passage cruise on Swell is all-inclusive.  All meals and beverages, guiding, activities and shore trips, plus an Alaskan cultural history tour at the start or end in a historic town are covered.  On a traditional Alaska boat cruise, the fare is for the passage, accommodation and some dining options.  Guests then pay extra for each shore trip activity, special restaurant and onboard activities. In the end, the expedition may still be a bit more expensive, but it reflects the unique and high-quality experience provided.
  • Limited Availability:  As Swell operates a boutique service, availability is limited, often requiring advance booking.
Photo: Jeff Reynolds

Nature enthusiasts share a moment of camaraderie and fascination amidst the majestic old growth forests of Alaska, led by expert guides.

Choose the Experience that Matches Your Interests

Each type of cruise offers distinct advantages depending on your interests and preferences.  Big ships provide luxury and convenience for those who enjoy a variety of amenities and activities.  Large expedition ships strike a fair balance between adventure and comfort, ideal for travelers seeking guided exploration with some luxury. However, for those who love nature, value local guides, and seek and immersive, close-up experience of Alaska’s wonders, Swell offers an unparalleled adventure and inside passage cruise that connects you deeply with the environment and local culture.

Photo: Phil Stone

Exclusive to small groups, guests observe bears in their natural habitat at the secluded Pack Creek bear sanctuary on Admiralty Island, one of the best places on earth for bear viewing.

Swell, The Inside Passage Experience: an Alaska Small Ship Cruise

For a truly unique journey, an Inside Passage cruise on Maple Leaf Adventures’ Swell offers an intimate way to explore Alaska’s most famous waterway.  Known for its protected waters, stunning fjords, and abundant wildlife, the Inside Passage is a haven for nature lovers.  Swell’s small size allows it to access hidden coves and less-visited areas, providing a richer, more immersive Alaska small ship cruise experience.  The Inside Passage Cruise Alaska on Swell ensures that every day is filled with new discoveries, from whale watching and glacier views to cultural encounters with local communities.

Choosing Swell for your Alaskan journey ensures an intimate, enriching experience that larger vessels simply cannot provide. Whether it’s the thrill of wildlife watching, the tranquility of kayaking through fjords, or the joy of catching fresh seafood, Swell delivers a personalized adventure that highlights the very best of Alaska.


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