The Top 10 Small-ship Ocean Cruise Lines

This year's World's Best Awards survey was open for voting January 11 through May 10, 2021, as destinations around the world were lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Survey rules have always allowed readers to reflect on their travel experiences over a three-year period. We hope that this year's honorees will inspire your own travels as you get back out into the world.

The travel industry at large contended with an extraordinarily difficult year as it weathered the COVID-19 pandemic, but cruise lines were particularly hard hit. Though ships around the world were grounded, readers still recalled fun times at sea as they rated the world's top small-ship ocean cruise lines.

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.

A few small-ship lines moved up in the World's Best Awards voting this year, as travelers sought distinctive experiences in far-flung ports — the sorts of adventures that only the smallest vessels can deliver. For example, No. 4 Lindblad moved up four spots this year, posting a better score for 2021 than 2020. Its vessels will go to Alaska and Iceland this year, and this summer should also see the inaugural cruise of the brand-new National Geographic Endurance, a 126-guest expedition ship that will sail the polar regions.

The MV Evolution by Quasar Expeditions
Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

No. 5 Windstar Cruises rose five places since last year, as adventurers praised its three distinctive sailing yachts, including the Wind Spirit and Wind Star, both of which accommodate 148 guests. No. 2 Ponant also climbed five spots this year, winning over readers with an ever-expanding fleet of small ships. New on the list for 2021 is No. 10 Alaskan Dream Cruises, an Alaska Native–owned line that has a fleet of six ships, including the Kruzof Explorer, a Bering Sea crab-fishing vessel turned luxury-expedition yacht.

But one thing that didn't change this year was the top of T+L's list. No. 1 Quasar Expeditions kept its hold on first place, marking the fourth consecutive year the Galápagos Islands specialist has taken the honors. Quasar continued to impress travelers with its above-and-beyond service in a destination that's a forever favorite. One well-traveled reviewer said Quasar tops anything else in the destination: "As a 14-time Galápagos visitor, the M/Y Evolution is hands down my favorite boat in the islands. Best guides, excellent service, comfortably spacious cabins and outdoor spaces. The unique 32-passenger size is perfect for families."

Read on to see what other readers had to say — and which other companies made this year's list.

1. Quasar Expeditions

Evolution by Quasar Expeditions at night with Lights on
Courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

A specialist in Galápagos Islands cruises, Quasar has a two-vessel fleet that operates in the ever-compelling destination. The 32-guest M/Y Evolution and the 16-passenger M/Y Grace both get high marks from readers, who consistently score Quasar as not only one of the best cruise lines of any size but one of the top travel offerings in any World's Best Awards category. "This was our second cruise to the Galápagos because we loved our previous experience on the Evolution so much," said one reader about a trip aboard the Grace. "Quasar exceeded all our expectations yet again on a very unique and charming ship." (The Grace was named for Grace Kelly, who received the yacht as a wedding present from Aristotle Onassis when she wed Prince Rainier III in 1956 and became Princess of Monaco. Quasar has operated the historic vessel since 2007.) "The M/Y Grace is the only way to visit the Galápagos," said another traveler. "The intimate ship size and staff attention make you feel as if you're the yacht owner."

Score: 97.99
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2. Ponant

Le Champlain ship by ponant in Norway
Mike Louagie/Courtesy of PONANT

Score: 93.42
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3. Crystal Cruises

Crystal Endeavor by Crystal Cruises
Courtesy of Crystal Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 93.33
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4. Lindblad Expeditions

National Geographic Endurance. Sea trials Feb 17, 2020.
Courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions

Score: 92.97
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5. Windstar Cruises

Windstar Cruises WindSpirit in Tahiti
Courtesy of Windstar Cruises

Score: 92.90
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6. Silversea

Silver Explorer by Silversea in South America
Bruno Cazarini/Courtesy of Silversea

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 92.15
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7. SeaDream Yacht Club

Aerial view of a SeaDream Yacht Club ship
Courtesy of SeaDream Yacht Club

Score: 87.28
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8. Australis

Stella Australis with a rainbow
Courtesy of Australis

Score: 83.72
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9. Celebrity Cruises

Aerial view of Celebrity Flora
Michel Verdure/Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

WBA Hall of Fame honoree. Score: 83.69
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10. Alaskan Dream Cruises

Alaskan Dream ship by Alaskan Dream Cruises
Courtesy of Alaskan Dream Cruises

Score: 83.57
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See all of our readers' favorite hotels, cities, airlines, cruise lines, and more in the World's Best Awards for 2021.

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