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River cruiser drop their guests right in the centre of cities, such as Budapest.Getty Images/iStockphoto

Cruising has long since shed its one-buffet-fits-all reputation. From the hives of activities that are big ships to the slow-it-down river boats, there's just so much choice. Here is some advice from two travellers with strong sea legs to help you decide which side of the deck you're on.

Big is … bigger

"Big ship cruising offers everything you could ever want, and more," says Aaron Saunders, who writes the blog From the Deck Chair  and has spent nearly 200 days at sea. We're talking abundant restaurant choices from sushi to steak and continually one-upping amenities that range from ice bars to planetariums.

Ask yourself, says Vancouver-based Saunders: Is the ship itself the destination?

If you like crowds and relish spending some time on the open ocean, this might be the choice for you.

"With a big ship cruise, wherever you go, it's sort of like a floating resort," says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the website Cruise Critic. "Sometimes on vacation you don't really need to see a whole lot – sometimes on vacation you just want to relax and have a good time."

Get up close and personal

River cruising, meanwhile, is more intimate. The vessels literally pull up to the edge of town. And here, it's walking tours, not climbing walls where you can burn off steam (or calories after all the holiday indulgences).

Case in point: One of Brown's favourite river stops is Durnstein, Austria along the Danube River. "It's a beautiful ancient town set in the mountains and all surrounded by vineyards. … Take a bike ride through the vineyards and go to a café and have wine outside or climb up to [the castle] where King Richard was imprisoned for many years."

But intimate can also mean more time with crew and fellow passengers, especially if all meals are on board. And while river cruises are now attracting a younger clientele, they aren't the melting-pot-of-the-ages one finds aboard the big liners.

Pick your destination

Size of the ship aside, figure out where you want to go and what you want to see. Big ships are continually steaming toward new ports and itineraries. River cruising, meanwhile, is expanding on its European base to include Russia's Volga River, Egypt's Nile and Asia's Yangtze.

"Big ships are architectural marvels," Saunders says. "If I were headed to the Caribbean, I'd hop on one in a second. But if you're looking for a more immersive experience, small-ship cruising or river cruise ships are the way to go."

Brown puts it this way: Port calls on big ships are a bit like tapas bars in that you get to sample various cities, but may not get to know them in a meaningful way. River cruises, meanwhile, lack the buzz and onboard entertainment. Instead of the Blue Man Group you might get a guy at the piano. But you don't have to pick sides, says Brown, who has been on 15 river cruises and stopped counting the number of cruise trips after 200. You just need to make a decision for this trip.

NEXT WEEK: A reader wonders what's new at Niagara Falls. Visiting relatives from India always want to go, but there's got to be something else to see than the waterfalls. Do you have any recommendations? Send your suggestions to

Follow Karan Smith on Twitter: @karan_smith.

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