Certain areas of a cruise ship can get a little crowded. And for those who want more solitude while on vacation it can be difficult to truly “get away”.
Factors like the time of day, daily activities, and ship-design bottlenecks can all contribute to a feeling of being crowded while at sea.
In this article will look at the best ways to avoid the crowds and enjoy a claustrophobia-free vacation.
Cruising is my all-time favorite mode of travel. It allows you to unpack once, see exotic locations, and enjoy the same comfy bed and exquisite food without having to plan out every step of the way.
But I will admit, there have been times an overcrowded pool deck or crammed muster drill process added to some vacation stress. I’m so thankful to whomever invented the e-muster drill, by the way.
Most first-time cruisers aren’t prepared for how crowded some of the mainstream cruise lines can be during certain aspects of the cruise. From the embarkation process to the lido deck there are plenty of times a ship can feel more crowded than others. And as much as we love our fellow passengers sometimes we just need a little space.
Here are some of the best ways to avoid the crowds on a cruise.
1. Make priority boarding a priority
The embarkation process is so much smoother and faster than it was even 10 years ago. I remember having to wait for two or three hours in the cruise terminal waiting to board the ship. But even though things are a lot better these days there are still ways you can skip the lines and avoid the crowds.
Paying extra for priority boarding may seem like excess, but the sooner you can get on the ship the sooner you can start enjoying your vacation. And there’s the extra perk of getting on a cruise ship that is pretty much empty. This means you can hop in that pool, grab a free lounger in the perfect spot, or get a bite to eat at your favorite eatery right away – and all without any crowds.
Often, booking a suite will automatically give you the fast-track to boarding a ship before most everyone else. More on this later.
Related: Cruise line loyalty perks compared
2. Check in on the exact date check-in opens
Even if you don’t pay for priority boarding you can usually get an earlier boarding time by checking in as soon as your cruise line allows. I’ve mentioned this many times in previous posts but it bears repeating.
Cruise lines split up boarding times so not everyone shows up at once. This would make for a very crowded terminal. But those earlier boarding times are on a first-come first-serve basis. The sooner you complete the online check-in process the sooner you can grab that earlier boarding time.
3. Pick a smaller ship or more premium cruise line
Not every cruise ship is created equal. And even some cruise ships within the same cruise line will offer more space per passenger than others. This isn’t always that noticeable though. The ship’s design and flow of passenger traffic play a major role in how crowded it feels.
Feel free to read my article that lists every cruise ship by its passenger to space ratio to get an idea of what cruise lines and cruise ships offer the most space.
You might be better off choosing a more premium line that prioritizes space over number of passengers. Personally, I think it makes all the difference in the world when it doesn’t feel like I’m just bumping into people at every turn.
4. Book the ship-within-a-ship experience
Some cruise lines allow you to have a very different experience than the rest of the passengers by booking a more premium cabin with exclusive perks. Norwegian has “The Haven” and MSC Cruises has the “Yacht Club” just to name a couple. This allows you to have a separate pool, restaurant, sun deck, and other amenities that are only accessible to a select few on board.
This will definitely allow you to escape the crowded feeling you might get in other parts of the ship. It costs a lot more, but for those who love the personal attention from the staff and more relaxed atmosphere it’s well worth it.
5. Enjoy some of those comfy lounges during off-peak hours
There are always quiet places to get away on a cruise ship. Even on a full ship in the middle of a sea day you can always find a lounge or space that is virtually void of people.
The key is to visit these different venues during non-peak hours. Those same lounges that are bustling and full of people after dinner are pretty much empty throughout the day. And some offer great views of the ocean from the front or back of the ship.
6. Get up early
It depends on the demographic of your cruise ship, but most people on a cruise will sleep in – at least a little. Breakfast becomes more of a brunch when the 10am rush hits the buffet.
You can avoid a lot of crowds simply by rolling out of bed a little earlier and beating the rush both to breakfast and to the shore.
If you have to take a tender to the shore it can be quite crowded during certain times. And there’s nothing you can do about it if the first tender doesn’t leave until 9-10am. It will simply be crowded.
7. Don’t get off the ship until the masses have left
This is counterpoint to the above recommendation. If you don’t want to get up early on a port day just wait until the crowds have left the ship. This both allows you to enjoy the pools and hot tubs with little to no crowds and also allows you to enjoy a ship-to-shore process that is smooth and fast.
I know many cruisers who live by this principle. They will have their pool days on port days and just visit the port later in the day after lunch. This eliminates most crowds from what could be a busy day in port and allows you to enjoy an open lido deck.
8. Book a suite or larger balcony
Yes, I know this will make your cruise more expensive, but having a larger stateroom and bigger balcony to enjoy your cruise can enhance the whole experience. Sailaways from your own suite or aft balcony (which are typically much larger) allow you to have a relaxing, crowd-free departure.
And when just getting back to the ship after a long day of exploring a destination it’s great to have some extra space to enjoy your solitude before dinner.
9. Take the stairs
Those elevators can get quite cramped for the claustrophobic. And sometimes it feels like people want to test those weight limits with just how many people they can fit in there. I don’t mind a crowded elevator myself, but I know some who will take the stairs just to avoid being too cramped. And on top of this they get some exercise to justify eating a little more for dinner that night.
10. Go on off-the-beaten-path excursions
Some excursions on a cruise ship will be more popular than others. And some ships will really cram in the numbers to a popular site. But this makes it harder to really experience a destination or even get a picture without a ton of people in the way.
Many third-party companies offer wonderful shore excursions that can limit how many go on a tour. This also allows you to ask more questions and get a personal experience.
Keep in mind that when you book an excursion through the cruise line the ship will not leave without you. The same cannot be said for third-party excursions. So give yourself plenty of time to get back.
11. Make port days ship days
If you really want to explore the ship away from the crowds you can just skip seeing the port altogether. This is a better idea if you’ve already seen the destination before and just want a relaxing day.
In some of the more common ports like Nassau and Cozumel not as many people get off the ship from what I’ve seen from personal experience. But it’s still a night and day difference in how crowded the ship will be during those port days.
That’s the great thing about a cruise. You can enjoy the vacation you want. Don’t feel obligated to get off the ship or stay on the ship. If you decide to stay on the ship there are always activities going on throughout the day as well. There’s nothing like some midday trivia while enjoying ocean-views and sipping a cold beverage.
12. Try specialty dining
When trying to get away from those dinner time crowds specialty dining is a great option. Not only will you avoid the crowds but you will also get more personalized service. In my opinion the food just about everywhere on a cruise ship is fantastic.
Some people ask why go to a specialty dining restaurant when the food in the main dining room is just as good. And while the quality in a specialty dining restaurant is a tier above the MDR, what you’re really paying for is service. This extra attention to service comes with a more relaxed ambiance as well, and is a great way to enjoy a crowd-free meal.
One of the best parts of cruising is getting to know your fellow-passengers. So I’m not in any way advocating you become a recluse during your trip. But if the bustle of crowds seems even a little stressful in your mind I hope the tips above will help set you at ease.
What other ways can you avoid crowds? Got any ideas? Leave us a comment so we can all glean from your cruise knowledge!