If you're looking for a serene getaway, a cruise ship is not always the best place to be. Nonstop music or noisy movies on the pool deck, chaotic lunchtime buffets and packs of children thundering down hallways can kill that Zen-like vibe. However, it's not impossible to find serenity on a mega-ship. Here are our top tips for finding peace and quiet when you cruise.
Skip the windowless 150-square-foot stateroom cabin if your idea of relaxation means spending time alone or as a couple. Living in cramped quarters only forces you out into the ship's hustle and bustle.
Big balcony suites make for an idyllic retreat, with extra living space inside and a private veranda -- no fighting over chairs! -- outside. When the crowds on deck or in public areas become overwhelming, you can seek solace in your cabin. Even standard balconies work well for this, though expansive suites make the best (though priciest) retreats.
Spa suites and cabins allow passengers to create their own spa-themed experiences onboard with accommodations near the spa, VIP spa privileges and soothing in-cabin amenities like spa showers and yoga mats. While perks vary by line, some offer complimentary passes to ships' thermal suites, where you can bliss out in the sauna or on contoured, heated loungers. Some spa cabin residents even get access to their own, uncrowded restaurants.
With suite complexes on several lines, you can spend more money to maximize privacy and R&R. Book into areas such as Norwegian's Haven or MSC's Yacht Club to enjoy spacious accommodations, private pools and sun decks and even exclusive lounges and restaurants.
Cabins on some ships don't shut out ambient noise entirely, so if you want a blissfully quiet in-cabin experience, make sure the laundry room, elevators or other noisy public facilities aren't within earshot. (That includes above or below your cabin.) Waking up early due to loud conversations in the laundry room across the hall or being kept awake due to the thumping disco overhead does not make for a relaxing getaway.
Flexible dining -- when passengers are allowed to choose when to eat and whether or not they want a shared table with strangers -- is great for those who prefer intimate meals to the exchange of pleasantries at an assigned table. Luxury lines like Regent Seven Seas and Silversea Cruises, as well as mainstream Norwegian Cruise Line, are always open-seating, while most non-luxury lines let passengers choose between open seating in one dining room or set seating in another. Just know that on the larger ships, you might have to wait for a table for two at peak times.
You'll be guaranteed a table for two when you choose to dine in your cabin. Try breakfast in bed, lunch on your balcony and dinner at the table in your cabin. Some lines go above and beyond to turn room service into an event. Princess Cruises' Ultimate Balcony Dinner (for an extra fee) features a course-by-course meal with soothing ocean views and perks like souvenir photos. Luxury lines like Silversea and Regent Seven Seas Cruises offer course-by-course in-cabin dining from the menu in the main restaurant, free of charge.
Nearly every cruise ship offers one or more alternative restaurants, where you'll need to book ahead (and often pay extra) for a more intimate dining experience. Book early, so you can make reservations for a table for two and avoid forced socialization with other passengers. Options run the gamut from upscale (Carnival's steakhouses) and quirky (Celebrity's Qsine), to exotic (Holland America's Tamarind), theatrical (Norwegian's Cirque Dreams and Dinner) and casual (Royal Caribbean's Johnny Rockets).
Even with flexible dining, a full dining room can mean the only choice you're offered is whether to share a table for eight or 10. Plan to arrive for dinner once the rush is over or before it's begun to maximize your chances of snagging a quieter table for two.
For a truly authentic meal in a foreign clime, port days await. Lunch ashore is always a possibility, but some oceangoing lines like Azamara and Viking Ocean Cruises, as well as most river cruises, may stay ashore well into the evening or overnight, affording plenty of time for relaxing dinners. Not only will you not have to sit with people you don't know, but you may not even be able to understand the non-English conversations at the tables next to yours.
A port-intensive itinerary means you'll be off the ship for much of the cruise, exploring the world meaningfully on your own at your own pace -- and avoiding idle chatter with fellow passengers whenever it suits. Look for itineraries with few to no sea days and overnights in port to further maximize your time ashore.
Alternately, if all you want to do on vacation is lounge around, listen to music, read books, watch movies and simply enjoy not having to be anywhere specific at any time, you might prefer an itinerary with lots of sea days. With nowhere to go but the open sea, you'll find your stress melting away and that rush-rush workday mentality evaporating into the ocean air. Just follow our tips for avoiding the throngs onboard.
Boutique, expedition and small-ship lines have a distinct advantage over mainstream mega-ships: They fit into smaller, lesser-known ports and can deliver blissfully crowd-free shore days. On its coastal route, Hurtigruten's shore-hugging ships visit 34 ports over six or seven days to deliver people, goods and mail along the Norwegian coast, giving you an opportunity to explore non-touristy ports. Or, choose a cruise to Antarctica or off-the-beaten-path Alaska on an expedition line like Lindblad Expeditions or Un-Cruise, where the biggest crowds in "port" may consist of seabirds, penguins or seals. To avoid the tourist hoards in the Caribbean or Europe, look to SeaDream Yacht Club or Star Clippers to slip into little coves and harbors -- or enjoy blissful days of water play from the ships' water sports marina.
Ships can theoretically sail above 100 percent occupancy because that percentage is based on the traditional assumption of two passengers per cabin -- when, in fact, cabins may hold three or four people, or more. To guarantee you don't end up on an overly full cruise, avoid peak-season cruises, especially during school holidays. Try Alaska in May or September, the Caribbean in the fall or Europe in the late winter or early spring. Alternatively, try a less-popular type of cruise. For example, repositioning cruises -- so named because the ships are switching from one cruising region to another -- take place in the off-peak months of spring or fall and tend to be long, transoceanic journeys or oddball itineraries. Because of this unusual style and timing, these cruises are often cheaper and less crowded.
Explore ports of call independently or, if you have the means, hire a private car, with or without a private tour guide to show you around town. You'll have more flexibility compared to a ship-organized tour, and it can be less exhausting because you can sightsee as you please, avoiding shopping stops or attractions that aren't of interest and avoiding long waits while the tour guide leading a large group struggles to round up wayward stragglers.
Cruise line private islands offer pristine beaches, plenty of water sports and lunches that don't cost extra. But with everyone in the same small space, it can be no more relaxing than being on the ship's sun deck. To escape, rent a private cabana where you can have some space to yourself and perhaps splurge on an alfresco massage. Plus, having a place to shower, change and store your stuff will keep your island visit hassle-free.
Avoid irritating lineups for tenders, aggressive touts and jam-packed beaches and souvenir shops by remaining on the ship when it anchors in a popular port. You can breeze through the buffet at lunchtime, and spa treatments are easy to come by (and often discounted). And remember that perfectly positioned deck chair by the pool you've eyed all cruise long? Now's the time to nab it.
Every ship has a daily rhythm that influences the movement of people onboard and creates opportunities to find seclusion in certain rooms or decks at specific times. To avoid the crowds, hit the gym at lunchtime, rather than in the early morning; log in to the internet cafe while everyone's at dinner instead of mid-afternoon on a sea day; and snag a chair in the top-of-ship observation lounge in the morning, as opposed to at sunset. On sunny days, indoor conference spaces, card rooms and libraries tend to be under-used. Dine at off-peak hours to avoid lines in the buffet.
Even party ships harbor quiet places to tune out the rest of the world. The outside strolling area known as the promenade is a great place to start on any ship. It's far from the pool-deck action, isn't a connect point between major public rooms and often comes with deck furniture for reading or napping. Some promenade decks wrap around the entire ship and are great for walking. For example, on Disney ships and Royal Caribbean's Oasis-class ships, the promenade decks double as jogging tracks with incredible views -- try them instead of a busy gym.
Concierges, private butlers or the guest services desk know their ships' quiet nooks. If you're looking for an out-of-the-way retreat, ask these staffers for suggestions. Their insider tips can help you find the ideal chill-out location.
Many cruise ships discreetly separate under-18s from their parents in order to maximize peaceful coexistence of all concerned. Adults-only sun decks such as Princess Cruises' The Sanctuary, Carnival's Serenity and Disney's Quiet Cove Pool and Satellite Sun Deck are places to grab drinks and sun loungers for blissfully kid-free afternoons. You won't be able to get away entirely from fellow frazzled parents -- these spots do tend to fill up -- but you can certainly avoid chitchat by donning earphones and listening to MP3s or simply closing your eyes. Or, if you really want to close the curtains on the outside world, rent a private cabana on select Holland America, Celebrity and Seabourn ships and wile away the day, lounging in solitude -- with perhaps a visit every now and then from an attendant bringing fruit skewers and refreshing drinks.
Night owls have the run of the ship while everyone else is asleep. Turn insomnia to your advantage, and read a book in an empty lounge or library, enjoy a midnight snack at the buffet, or gaze at the stars out on deck. It's amazing how alone you can feel on a 3,000-person vessel!