7 Things a Transatlantic Cruise Taught Me About Small-Space Living

published Sep 25, 2022
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Luxurious bedroom with sliding doors leading out onto decking beside a lake
Credit: Getty Images/Catherine Falls Commercial

I’m a travel writer who doesn’t fly, so in May, I took Cunard’s Queen Mary II on a transatlantic crossing from New York to Southampton, England. As a Black woman, my experience on board wasn’t ideal, but as a travel writer, I always learn important lessons from every experience. And the most unexpected thing I learned on the QM2 was actually about small space living. 

On any cruise liner, you’re going to have a reduction in space. The Queen Mary II has rooms in a variety of sizes, ranging from fairly huge (The Queen’s Grille suites), about the size of a small studio apartment or average hotel room (Princess Grille Suites, where I was)  and super small and windowless (Britannia Inside). I took a tour through all Cunard’s different types of rooms to see what I could take from this experience and apply to small-space living in a studio apartment. 

Credit: Nylah Burton

Go outside — or bring the outside in.

Passengers that stayed in steerage — smaller rooms with no windows — admitted to me that they were going a little stir-crazy. And even in the Princess Suite, with its gorgeous balcony, I found myself feeling cooped up. But when you’re staying in a small space, you have to make it a discipline to prioritize going outside. The people with smaller rooms with no windows that seemed to be doing the best were people that often walked out on the deck or hung out by the pool. And for me, since I didn’t feel super comfortable in the common spaces on the ship, going outside of my small space meant utilizing my balcony and breathing in fresh ocean air on the deck. On land, that might look like an evening walk after dinner through the park. And while not every apartment can have a balcony, you can also look for ways to bring the outside in like plants or fountains, to set a nice atmosphere. 

Built-in closets are your friend.

On the ship, my built-in closet kept me from having to live out of my suitcase during the crossing. The closet was actually quite tiny, but ample shelving and drawer space meant it didn’t feel that way. If you have a small closet and want to build it out for more storage, it doesn’t have to be expensive. You can put in less expensive shelves or dressers, or even a thrifted vintage dresser. Bonus points if you wallpaper the closet walls to give it a colorful pop. 

Don’t skimp on color.

I often notice that people who live in studio apartments try to keep everything as beige or minimalist as possible. If that’s your style, go for it. But if you find yourself using whites and neutrals solely to make the space seem bigger, scratch that. Cunard’s design stuck to neutrals and a pop of blue or red here and there. You might be happier with color palettes and decor that match your style, rather than doing something you don’t like that much solely to make the space look bigger. 

Mirrors are helpful — but not in places where you’ll see yourself all the time. 

Cunard had mirrors in their drink cabinets near the foyer and it had the strange effect of making the room look bigger, but not distracting me because it was right in front of my face. Those full length mirrors of the 90s meant to widen a small space might be out of style — and windows by the bed or in the living room are so awkward — but placing mirrors in areas that won’t detract from your storage space or force you to look at yourself 24/7 are a wonderful way of making a space look bigger. 

Credit: Nylah Burton

Combine furniture.

This one might seem like a no-brainer, but it has to be mentioned. Although there was lots of multifunctional furniture in my cabin, the one I found most useful was the desk/bookcase/dresser/vanity. There was so much space to put books, papers, my laptop, clothes, and there was also space for me to do my makeup without having to crowd myself in the bathroom. Hide your mirror somehow if it will distract you — some retract into the desk but you can also cover it with some cloth if you’re not using the mirror. 

But don’t overdo it on the storage.

So much of small living advice is about packing in storage wherever you can, but on the cruise I notice that too much storage can really overwhelm the space. There wasn’t a lot of room for color or lightness in the cabin because so much of it was taken up by wooden cabinets. Remember that you also can have a design vision, that you don’t need drawers and shelves on every surface, and that sometimes the bed you love will be much prettier than a bulky storage bed. Storage is important but not at the cost of taste. 

Make small moments luxurious.

What separates a cramped space from a cozy space is the intentionality in decor and experiences you create for yourself there. The rooms may have been cramped, but having space to curl up with nice lighting and read a book, or have a mini spa-day in the room by myself, or drink wine and watch movies, turned a room that might have made me feel too claustrophobic into my own retreat. Whether you’re in a huge apartment or a small studio, remember to cherish the moments you spend there.