No one wants to feel like a sardine on vacation, so it’s not surprising that “how crowded are cruise ships?” is one of the most common questions we receive from the cruise-curious. Unfortunately, that’s a lot like asking “are hotels and resorts crowded?” There’s no simple answer, but that’s exactly why we write these articles.
Whether or not a cruise ship feels crowded depends on several factors, the two most important of which are the time of year and the size of the ship. Ships sail full year round, so don’t expect to sail on a ship where only half the cabins are booked just because you’re sailing during the offseason. However, there are some times of year when ships sail “more full” than others (see tip #1). Larger ships (more than 4,000 passengers) can feel more crowded for the obvious reasons.
Crowds can even vary throughout the cruise: The ship will feel practically empty if you stay on board during a port day, and but the next day at sea you may struggle to find a place that isn’t packed. Ultimately, the best way to avoid crowds is to know when and where you’re most likely to encounter them and plan accordingly:
1. Don’t Sail During School Holidays
The more families there are, the more crowded the ship will feel. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
During Summer vacation, spring break, or between Christmas and New Years, you can expect to have more larger families sailing, which means there will be more cabins with three, four, or even five people.
Tip: Sail in January or February, or in the Fall.
2. Look for Smaller Capacity Ships
Lines like Holland America are a great option for cruisers who don't like crowds. - Photo by Holland America Line
The bigger the ship, the greater the chances you’ll going to run into crowds. To be fair, new megaships with 5,000+ passenger capacities are designed to handle crowds and spread people throughout the ship, but with that many people on board, some crowding is unavoidable.
Tip: Stay away from ships with more than 3,500 passengers.
3. Embarkation Day
Consider taking the stairs on embarkation day. - Photo by Carnival
Embarkation day always feels crowded, so you might as well mentally prepare yourself now. Some elevators are shut down for luggage service, so lines for the remaining elevators will be longer than normal. It also doesn't help that people are still figuring out how to navigate around the ship, and no one is 100% certain where they're going.
Tip: Relax, go with the flow and things will be probably “normal” by the next day. Don’t assume you booked a bad cruise just because things are a little hectic for the first few hours.
4. Dine Strategically
Dining at the right time is key. - Photo by Royal Caribbean
Even with dozens of specialty restaurants and multiple main dining rooms, ships can struggle when every passenger wants to eat at the same time. This means long lines full of hungry cruisers waiting to be seated.
Tip: Choose a set dining time rather than “Anytime” dining to avoid waits/queues. Get to the buffet early for breakfast on sea days (and late on port days), or eat breakfast/brunch in the dining room for a more relaxed meal.
5. Avoid the Pool Deck on Sea Days
Pools attract crowds like few other places on board. - Photo by Carnival
Everyone wants to get some sun on a sea day, so it’s safe to assume the top decks will be packed.
Tip: Look for out of the way sundecks or use your own balcony (if you have one). Also, itineraries with more sea days give passengers more chances to lay by the pool, which can help thin out the crowds.
6. Skip a Port
Busy attractions like the Flow Rider are best saved for port days. - Photo by Royal Caribbean
On an average port day, the majority of the passengers will disembark for excursions and sightseeing. The ship will feel practically empty.
Tip: If there are long lines for the activities you want to do, choose a port to skip and you’ll have the ship to yourself.