Short vs. long cruises: Which one is right for you? Here’s how they compare.

by Nathan Diller

USA TODAY

Whether you want a weekend getaway or to max out your vacation days, there’s a cruise for that.

Cruise lines offer itineraries ranging from a few days to months long. But there are more differences between short and long sailings than just the amount of time guests spend on board. The length of a cruise can help dictate the types of ports passengers visit, the kind of ship they’re sailing on and even the general vibe on board.

“It’s important to walk our guests through and for cruisers to think about, what’s the experience that they’re trying to have,” said Jamie Margolis, owner of Moms at Sea Travel, a Dream Vacations franchise. “So, we try to tease out that information, like, ‘What’s your vacation style?’ ”

What can guests expect from short cruises?

Cruises can be divided into those shorter or longer than a week, according to Jared Feldman, owner of travel agency Jafeldma Travel. “So, anything less than that is really considered a short cruise,” he said.

Those around three nights long are often aimed at new-to-cruise guests “who aren’t really ready to commit to seven days but really want to quote-unquote test the waters, let’s say – to see if cruising is right for them,” he added.

Those sailings typically feature just one port and a sea day and often visit tried-and-true cruise destinations. Travelers sailing from South Florida ports like Miami and Fort Lauderdale will likely visit Nassau in the Bahamas or one of many cruise line private islands, for example. While those sailing from Galveston, Texas, can expect to stop in Cozumel.

Margolis called three-and-four-night voyages a “great intro to cruising,” albeit with more limited itinerary choices. “Is their dream to go to Saint Kitts? They’re probably not going to find that on a short sailing,” she said.

Shorter cruises may also lend themselves more to a party atmosphere and be less kid-friendly. But Margolis noted that’s not unique to cruising. “I mean, it’s the nature of travel that short weekends can be celebratory,” she said.

And with diverse onboard offerings – from ship-within-a-ship concepts to kids clubs – passengers can often carve out their own experience. Cruise lines have new offerings in that shorter category. Celebrity Cruises is launching its first regular weekend itineraries in the Caribbean this month, and Royal Caribbean International’s Utopia of the Seas will offer three-and-four-night sailings when it debuts in July.

The Celebrity Reflection ship.

The Celebrity Reflection ship. Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

What can guests expect from long cruises?

Feldman said any sailing over seven days could be considered a “longer cruise.” Those can range from around 10 days to more than six months. Royal Caribbean is operating a nine-month world cruise to more than 60 countries.

While short cruises “can feel like a bit of a whirlwind,” according to Margolis, longer itineraries offer more time to explore a greater variety of ports. They may feature less-visited destinations such as Aruba and Curaçao and often take place on smaller, older vessels (though ships are refurbished regularly).

That’s partly due to the limitations in places they stop. “Some of the ports … cannot really accommodate this large ship hardware,” Feldman said. “So, you need a smaller-size ship to navigate in and out of these ports.”

The onboard demographic also tends to skew older on those cruises since retired passengers typically have more free time, and travelers with kids are often beholden to school schedules.

If you want a middle ground, though, Margolis said a seven-night cruise “really takes you through what I think is, like, the whole cruise cycle.”

“You get on, you get acclimated, you find all the different amenities, and then you’re able to … truly relax, disconnect, unwind,” she said. ‘And then you know, midweek, you start getting your luggage tags, and you go through that mental process of accepting that you’re going to have to get off in a couple of days and go back to work.”

At that length, it’s also easier to tack on a bit of extra time on the front or back end of the sailing to explore on their own, Feldman added.

Are short or long sailings cheaper?

Because short sailings frequently take place on larger ships, they are “very attractively priced” to help fill the cabins. But that doesn’t mean they’ll always be cheaper than a longer cruise.

A cruise with more stops will have higher port fees, but passengers may book longer itineraries further out and get better fares.

“Most times, you’re not going to book a three-to-four-night sailing 12 to 18 months in advance,” said Feldman. “You’re going to book that much closer in.”

The ship’s age also plays a role in how it’s priced, with shiny new vessels commanding higher rates. “So, there’s a lot of different variables in play that kind of dictate where you’re going to come out ahead or how much your cruise is ultimately going to cost based on those factors,” said Feldman.

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at ndiller@usatoday.com.