Before we get into to this, let us dispel the myth that cruising is for the rich. About 13.4 million cruisers rode North American based cruise ships in 2009 according to CLIA (Cruise Line International Association). This marketing information indicates a rising category of this vacation interest even in a recession. The prices are relatively cheap given the exotic destinations available, exotic in comparison to where many families traveled only a couple of decades ago. Unfortunately, as the numbers indicate, the cruise lines are building larger and larger ships to accommodate this demand. For example, we just completed our 21st cruise. The large cruise ship we last traveled on had about 3500 passengers; a mega cruise ship ten years ago. However, there are newer ships that eclipse that number of passengers by hundreds and even a couple thousand. All those folks are seemingly crammed on the ship resulting in inevitable lines and crowded situations. Cruise lines, to their credit, have done their best to reduce these conditions by design and operations; nevertheless, some congestion is unavoidable. So, how would you avoid the inevitable lines and crowds? Here are a few ways:
Pre-reserve shore excursions
Once you get aboard ship, the lines at the Shore Excursion desk are invariably long when the desk is open for business. Do yourself a favor and book your shore excursions on-line well prior to embarkation. The ship will deliver the tickets to your stateroom in plenty of time. A little homework here goes a long way.
Arrive early or late
Long check in and security lines, similar to large airports, are encountered often when embarking on a large cruise ship. The only difference is that when you board a cruise ship, you go through security first before checking in. Consider arriving very early since a ship will be disembarking its previous passengers from about 8:00 a.m. to noon. For example, given a 5:00 p.m. departure, if you show up around 11:00 a.m., you may have to sit a little while, but you will be early in line to check in, get your cards, and get on the ship – just in time for lunch. If you arrive late, say an hour before departure (at your own risk of missing the departure), everyone else will be on board and you will easily walk through security and check in, but you might miss lunch and a tour of the ship, and be there just in time for the dreaded lifeboat drill. If you arrive from noon to 2:00 p.m., you will stand in lines.
Loyalty with cruise lines for priority check-in
When you cruise multiple times with the same cruise line, you get priority access for your loyalty. On our last cruise, our ninth with this company, we bypassed the security lines for new cruisers and went to the front. Then, after security, we moved directly to the check-in counter ahead of everyone else and a few minutes later, we were on the ship. A few years ago, we had an episode where, because of our loyalty, we left the Fort Lauderdale airport in a taxi and 40 minutes later, we were sitting down and having lunch on the ship. Most cruise lines have this benefit for frequent cruisers.
Avoid the buffet lines; eat in the dining room or other offerings
During the cruise, it is tempting to get your breakfast and lunches at the mega-ship buffet lines, normally on the so-called “Lido” decks. Lines are inevitable, finding an empty table during “rush hour” is frustrating, but eating breakfast and lunch in the same dining room where you have dinner is an unruffled option. The food is usually better, too. If you ask: what if the waiter puts us with other people we do not know and we have to spend an hour or so making small talk with strangers? Just ask for a table for two or whatever number your party comprises; the waiters will accommodate. You also have other eating options on the larger vessels, including room service. Therefore, unless you relish rubbing elbows in the buffet lines, look for the breakfast and lunch alternatives.
Avoid shopping on shore unless there is something specific you want
I have never liked shopping in foreign ports – particularly Jamaica. The hucksters there are relentless. Unless there is something specific in a particular port (for example, a special Jamaican rum), look for it on the ship or in the port shopping areas. Ship prices are competitive with the shore and you will find many of the trinkets made in China, anyway.
Use the adults’ only pool
This is understood for those without families. For those with families be prepared to share the pool with many others, but usually, the kids don’t mind. There are rarely too few deck chairs available.
Get up and exercise early
The spa and fitness areas are generally well equipped with several machines, but can get busy by mid-morning. If you are of a mind to exercise on board, get yourself out of bed and go early where you will likely find your favorite machine and best view available.
Arrive late for dinner
Avoid waiting for the doors to the dining room to open for dinner with the other diners. You are not required to be at your table right at the dinner hour. If you wait comfortably in one of the lounges for everyone to file in for five or ten minutes, you can easily stroll in to your table without standing in line like a bunch of cattle – no problem. The waiters won’t mind you being a few minutes late at all.
Ask for early disembarkation times (if you have a late flight, take a shore excursion)
Go to the purser’s desk (wait until there is no line; usually, the best time is early in the morning) and ask for an early disembarkation time. You will generally get a coded luggage tag when you leave at the end of the cruise and be one of the first off the ship. Cruise lines know that disembarkation is a zoo and they have improved the process over the years, but take every option you have. Another way to get off the ship early is to take a shore excursion at your disembarkation port. You will leave the ship first, collect your luggage, and the tour will keep it with the tour until they drop you off at the airport or your mode of transportation.
Travel on smaller cruise ships
Of course, you do not have to ride a mega cruise ship of thousands of passengers. Many cruise lines have ships of less than a thousand passengers but you do give up some of the amenities, destinations, and entertainment. However, if all you want is a destination and a laid-back environment without the large crowds, consider smaller vessels. The drawback is that smaller cruise ships are more susceptible to motion in rougher seas.
Of course, another way to approach cruising on a mega-ship with thousands of fellow cruisers is to just chill out, take your time, and enjoy the trip. People are people and most cruisers are good folks, good luck and happy cruising.