By Paul Brady
July 08, 2020
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Credit: Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

This year’s World’s Best Awards survey closed on March 2, just before widespread stay-at-home orders were implemented as a result of COVID-19. The results reflect our readers’ experiences before the pandemic, but we hope that this year’s honorees will inspire your trips to come — whenever they may be.

The smaller the ship, the more T+L readers seem to love it. At least, that’s the story with this year’s voting, which gave smaller vessels some of the highest scores in any category in the 2020 World’s Best Awards. Readers said the travel opportunities these smaller vessels unlock are the key to what makes them so wonderful. (The fact that many lines also deliver excellent food and sterling service certainly didn’t hurt.) With journeys to legendary destinations, including the Galápagos, Antarctica, and Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago, these lines open up the world — and for voters this year, that was key.

Every year for our World’s Best Awards survey, T+L asks readers to weigh in on travel experiences around the globe — to share their opinions on the top hotels, resorts, cities, islands, cruise ships, spas, airlines, and more. Readers rated individual cruise ships on their cabins and facilities, food, service, itineraries and destinations, excursions and activities, and value. Those assessments were combined to generate results for the cruise lines in five categories; small-ship ocean cruise lines have ships that can carry 249 or fewer passengers.

This year’s runner-up, Crystal Cruises, won praise for its 62-passenger Crystal Esprit. Though small in size, the ship manages to offer an array of luxury amenities — huge guest suites, a formal dining room, spa treatments — while also offering a yacht-like experience, with an intimate on-board vibe, and outings via Zodiac. “This is a fantastic small ship with outstanding food and service,” said one reader of the Crystal Esprit. “It was our first experience with the cruise line, and we were sold.” “The Crystal Esprit is like traveling on the private yacht of the wealthy relative you wish you had,” raved another reader. “I can't say enough how much we enjoyed the serenity of small coves and ports not visited by the larger ships and the personal attention by all the excellent staff.”

Seattle-based No. 5 UnCruise Adventures rocketed up the list this year, from tenth place in 2019. Known for trips in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, UnCruise also organizes small-ship itineraries in Hawaii and the Galápagos, among other alluring destinations. “Absolutely loved traveling with them,” said a reader, who traveled on the Safari Endeavor. “It’s like being in a bed-and-breakfast with more personal service.” Another voter, who sailed on the Wilderness Discoverer, agreed: “The benefits of this cruise were the top-notch crew and excursions.”

No. 3 Australis moved up two spots this year, which is perhaps an indicator of readers’ eagerness to see Tierra del Fuego up close. The line’s two expedition-style ships, Stella Australis and Ventus Australis, put passengers nose-to-nose with wildlife in the waters off southernmost Chile. “The detailed attention from all the staff was refreshingly impressive,” said one fan, who traveled aboard the Ventus Australis.

This year’s winner, Quasar Expeditions, is another line known for its South American cruises. Find out what else sets it apart — and the full list of the best small-ship ocean cruise lines — below.

1. Quasar Expeditions

Credit: Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

Score: 99.17

More information: quasarex.com

This is the third year in a row that Quasar has taken top honors in the small-ship ocean cruise lines category. Fewer than a dozen hotels, resorts, and tour operators had scores above 99 in this year’s World’s Best Awards, and Quasar was the only cruise line to notch such an eye-popping number. This small-ship brand simply wowed readers with its trips to the Galápagos Islands aboard its two distinctive yachts, the 16-passenger M/Y Grace and the 32-guest M/V Evolution. “We’ve taken two trips with Quasar, one aboard the Evolution and one aboard the Grace. The Evolution was perfect for our first trip: the ship is amazing and the staff could not be better,” said one voter. Other readers chimed in with similar raves. “The islands themselves don’t disappoint, but everything was made so much better by our yacht, the staff, crew, and guides,” said a traveler who also sailed on the Evolution. “We really felt like we were home away from home.”

2. Crystal Cruises

Credit: Courtesy of Crystal Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 97.50

More information: crystalcruises.com

3. Australis

Credit: Courtesy of Australis

Score: 92.72

More information: australis.com

4. SeaDream Yacht Club

Credit: Courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club

Score: 92.42

More information: seadream.com

5. UnCruise Adventures

Credit: Courtesy of UnCruise Adventures

Score: 91.39

More information: uncruise.com

6. Silversea Cruises

Credit: Courtesy of Silversea Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 90.16

More information: silversea.com

7. Ponant

Credit: Nicolas Matheus/Courtesy of PONANT

Score: 89.47

More information: ponant.com

8. Lindblad Expeditions

Credit: Oclin/Courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions–National Geographic

Score: 89.37

More information: expeditions.com

9. Windstar Cruises

Credit: Courtesy of Windstar Cruises

Score: 89.22

More information: windstarcruises.com

10. Celebrity Cruises

Credit: Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 86.05

More information: celebritycruises.com

See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2020.