When I was a travel consultant in the early 2000s, the concern I would most often hear from potential first-time cruisers were about crowded ships: “I don’t want to be cooped up with all those people,” they’d groan.
At the time, the capacity of the industry’s largest ships was just over 2,600 passengers. Today, that’s considered medium-sized. The world’s largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean’s new Icon of the Seas, can set sail with 7,600 passengers onboard. With the industry reporting a return to pre-pandemic booking levels in 2023, there's enough cruising demand to fill these new mega ships—the Icon of the Seas' inaugural voyage was nearly sold out just 24 hours after bookings opened, The Points Guy reported. While busy ships help create the fun-loving social atmosphere cruises are best known for, navigating crowded cruises can also lend itself to questionable passenger etiquette (nobody likes a pool chair hog).
Of course, not every cruise will sell out, nor are they all that big. As a rule of thumb, travelers should expect full ships during summer months and popular holiday and school break travel periods. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to determine if your cruise has been booked to capacity prior to its sailing (many a Reddit thread has been dedicated to cracking the code).
When anticipating how crowded a cruise ship may feel, the total number of passengers onboard doesn’t tell the whole story. To get a better sense of this, the cruise industry refers to something called the “space ratio,” which takes the total tonnage of the ship and divides it by the number of passengers the ship can accommodate. As one might expect, that ratio is lower on big ship cruise lines—Norwegian, Carnival, and Royal Caribbean generally have less space per passenger. It then increases on premium lines (think Princess, Holland America Line, Celebrity), and tops out at the luxury end (Crystal, Regent Seven Seas, Silversea).
But how can passengers who aren’t booking a boutique cruise ship or a luxury line carve out quiet spaces to themselves onboard bigger ships—while still being respectful of other passengers? Below, find tried and true ways to find space on a crowded cruise ship, whether you're onboard a modern mega ship or an intimate expedition vessel.
The secret ‘ships within a ship’ on mega cruises
The most obvious way to secure your own quiet enclave is to book a balcony stateroom. While small, the value of this outdoor space shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly for itineraries rich with scenic cruising, like voyages to Alaska or the Baltic Sea. Several cruise lines also offer private areas of the ship for top-end suite passengers, including dedicated bars, restaurants, pools, and spas that are off-limits to other cruise goers, Tom Baker, the president of Cruise Center, tells Condé Nast Traveler.
These self-enclosed complexes, such as NCL's The Haven, Celebrity Cruises’ Retreat, and MSC’s Yacht Club, create a “ship within a ship” for higher-paying customers, Baker explains. That way, regardless of how busy your sailing proves to be, you can still enjoy yacht-like privacy—plus the fun-loving social atmosphere and amenities of a large cruise. Other ships have dedicated spaces for suite passengers such as Richard’s Rooftop on Virgin Voyages, or the Grills Lounge and Terrace on Cunard that are located throughout the ship. They may not rise to the same “ship within a ship” level of seclusion, but are still exclusive to qualifying guests.
The majority of passengers will spend their time at the ship's standard pool and deck areas, where you'll likely to come face-to-face with the age-old cruise etiquette question: Is it rude to save seats? In my many years of cruising, I've witnessed personal articles strewn across rows of prime pool seating while passengers slept in or lingered over breakfast, and large swaths of theater seats saved for late-arriving guests. When determining the appropriate time window for seat saving, look to the cruise line’s policy, or ask a nearby staff member: Carnival will remove guest belongings from pool loungers and store them at a nearby towel station if they’ve been left for longer than 40 minutes, for example, and Royal Caribbean will remove belongings if left unattended for 30 minutes.
To circumvent this awkward game of musical chairs, some lines offer premium deck spaces that all passengers—regardless of cabin category—can access for a nominal fee. On Princess Cruises, guests can book cushy lounge chairs from $40 per day in The Sanctuary, an adults-only sun deck with attentive deck servers and added amenities like fruit skewers and Evian facial mists. And on most Holland America Line ships, passengers can reserve cabanas at the private outdoor space, also called The Retreat, with exclusive bar service and ocean views (cabana rentals for two adults start at $75 per cabana on port days and $105 on sea days, and family cabanas for four adults start at $105 on port days and $165 on sea days). Even Seabourn, a luxury small ship cruise line that structures fares on a “mostly-included” model, offers the option to pay extra for premium deck seating in a zone called, yet again, The Retreat.
To find quiet escapes, explore on day one
All right, so pools and sundecks can be crowd-free for a fee—but what about the rest of the ship? Part of the fun of sailing on a cruise is wandering the ship for those quiet corners to relax on your own. “Finding nooks and crannies on ships is about exploring and discovering on day one. They might not be illustrated on the deck plans, but there are often hidden booths and seats spread around for a lovely retreat,” Jason Leppert, founder of the YouTube channel Popular Cruising, tells Traveler.
Veteran cruisers are easy to recognize—they'll lay claim to their favorite tables before the ship even disembarks and reserve the same spot early each morning. My very first sailing was on the Celebrity Millennium, and I quickly found the quietest spot for breakfast was in the Spa Café in the Solarium on Deck 10 each morning. On Princess Cruises’ Caribbean Princess, I often found the Wheelhouse Bar empty when I went for a pre-dinner cocktail, so that became a nightly ritual. And onboard Lindblad Expeditions National Geographic Explorer Islander II in the Galápagos, I wondered why more passengers hadn’t discovered the hammocks strung from the ceiling on the little-used Observation Deck that I often had entirely to myself for afternoon naps.
If you still have difficulty finding your groove on the ship after a round of exploring, consult the experts. Cruise ship crew members live and work aboard their ships for months at a time, so they know them incredibly well. Crew also have their thumbs on passenger habits. If you ask when a specific bar, lounge, or pool is most quiet, they’ll most likely be able to share their detailed observations.
Ultimately, there’s no way around the fact that ships are a vehicle of transportation, and like any vehicle, space is limited. Whether you’ve chosen an intimate yacht cruise, a high-energy expedition voyage, or a quick getaway on one of the industry’s new mega ships, odds are any passenger with an appetite for calm and an eye for seclusion can find their own little slice of peace and quiet.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler