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TravelHere's the next best thing to having your own private cruise ship

Here’s the next best thing to having your own private cruise ship

Have you ever wished you could have your own private cruise ship? I’ve felt that way, especially after sailing on vessels at just 25% capacity following the COVID-19 industry shutdown. Something special happens when you’re one of only a few passengers on board — something you can experience by staying on the ship during port days.

It might sound counterintuitive, especially if you cruise to see new places. After all, you don’t have to take a voyage to lie in the sun, read a book or sleep in; you can do that at home for free. However, if you find yourself in a port you’ve already visited, and you’re craving some relaxation, I highly recommend hanging back while most of your fellow passengers head ashore.

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If you’re skeptical, here are eight things, both good and bad, that happen when you skip port days and have a cruise ship almost all to yourself.

There are no lines

The line at a cruise ship pizza counter on a sea day versus a port day. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On a recent sailing, I waited 20 minutes one sea day afternoon to grab a slice of pizza by the pool. It was delicious and worth every second I stood in line, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have liked the wait to be shorter.

The following day, I stayed on the ship when it docked in a port I had been to several times before, and I was able to walk right up to the counter at lunchtime and snag a pie without any wait time at all.

I saw no lines for the usually popular waterslides, and trivia wasn’t standing room only as it had been the day before.

You can find quiet spaces

The empty piano bar on a port day on Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Firenze. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

As libraries become a relic of the past on many new vessels, it’s increasingly more difficult to find quiet spaces outside of your cabin to read, do puzzles or simply take in the scenery — especially on crowded megaships and on sea days.

When most passengers are on land, many of the public areas transform into quiet spaces by default. Lower decibels make for a more soothing, peaceful atmosphere that lends itself to relaxation. Although certain bars might be closed, their adjoining lounges offer respite from the usual ship hubbub.

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You’ll never fight for a deck chair

Deck chairs on a cruise ship on a sea day versus a port day. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

As any avid cruiser knows, it can be downright impossible to snag a sun lounger near the pool on busy sea days. Each morning, some people rise early, slink from their cabins and claim prime poolside real estate by placing their belongings on deck chairs in the most sought-after locations. Then, they return to bed.

These passengers, known as chair hogs, have caused cruise lines to instate time limits. If a chair isn’t actually occupied by a person for a certain amount of time, crew members are allowed to remove any items placed on them in order to free up space for other people to use.

You’ll never run into this problem when a ship is in port, even on the nicest of days. Most passengers will leave the vessel in search of a beach on which to hog loungers instead; this leaves the pool nearly deserted for anyone who stays on board to enjoy.

Spa appointments abound

A couples massage at the Cloud 9 Spa on a Carnival ship. CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE

You must book certain activities and experiences before you board your sailing if you have your heart set on them. Spa treatments aren’t generally one of them.

However, if you find that you’re having trouble with the availability of certain treatments after you board or you’re looking to score a discount, schedule something on a port day. With fewer people on the ship, more appointments are available; onboard spas and salons will often knock a percentage off the cost of services to entice people to show up when business is slow.

You can peek behind the curtain

“Ryan,” a fire rescue dummy, waits to be saved by crew during a drill on Norwegian Encore. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

One of the most interesting aspects of staying on board when most other cruisers don’t is the chance to see some of what the average passenger misses when they’re ashore.

Although you won’t be able to directly participate in crew drills, you’ll likely hear them announced during port days. If you’re in the right place at the right time, you might be able to watch from your cabin balcony or an upper deck as lifeboats are launched and tested.

If you’re listening closely, you might hear announcements directing the crew to a particular restaurant, bar or public space for faux medical or fire emergencies. If you just so happen to make your way to that area after the call (while staying out of the way, of course), you could see mock CPR rescues or fire responses; some of these practice scenarios are conducted on dummies like Ryan, pictured pre-rescue on Norwegian Viva.

On other ships, you might also be able to catch members of the entertainment crew as they rehearse for that night’s show. Theaters are often closed to the public during rehearsals, but sometimes, you can quietly sneak in on the top floor and sit in the back to watch.

On some ships, such as the ones in Carnival Cruise Line’s new Excel Class, the secondary theater is open, and rehearsals can’t be blocked off from passenger view. Royal Caribbean’s AquaTheater (on Oasis and Icon Class ships) is also in public areas that guests can access at all times. Grab a coffee or a cocktail, find a seat and get a preview of the show.

You’ll miss a day in port

A snorkeling excursion. THOMAS BARWICK/GETTY IMAGES

Obviously, if you stay on the ship in port, you won’t be ashore, which means you’ll miss one of the places on your itinerary. That’s why I only recommend skipping port days in places you’ve already visited.

It definitely can be a bummer when you stay on board only to have your travel companions return to the ship at the end of the day and gush about what a fantastic time they had on a shore excursion or exploring on their own.

Of course, you can always spend part of your day on board before heading to land. Perhaps you sleep in, order room service or have brunch in the dining room, then hit the gym or have a spa treatment. Afterward, you can disembark to enjoy a bit of beach time or a tasty early dinner. That only works if your ship is docked for a significant chunk of time, but it’s a nice compromise that won’t make you feel like you missed out. It can also help your day to feel less exhausting.

You’ll have limited food options

The Compass Rose main dining room on Regent’s Seven Seas Grandeur. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

On port days, you won’t find as many daytime food choices on board as on sea days. That’s because many passengers will take all-day excursions or opt to dine ashore instead of on the vessel, so the ship doesn’t need so many eateries to be open for lunch.

On port days, you’re likely to be limited to the buffet and a handful of other casual choices like grill fare or pizza. The main dining rooms and specialty restaurants are likely to be closed; if you’re hoping for a nicer sit-down lunch, you’ll want to plan that for a day at sea.

You’ll have fewer choices of onboard activities

An empty miniature golf course and ropes course on a port day on Carnival Firenze. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

A port day is a fantastic time to stay on board and avoid crowds in places like the gym, minigolf course, basketball court, pools and waterslides; these tend to be open regardless of the day. However, you can’t avoid lines for every activity — largely because many onboard experiences aren’t open on port days (or have limited hours starting in the afternoon).

Closed attractions or ones with reduced hours might include the go-kart track, ropes course, rock-climbing wall, roller coaster or surf simulator. Additionally, you might find yourself out of luck if you were hoping to grab a port-day slot for a hard-to-book escape room or test out a virtual reality ride.

Your options for crew-led events will also be limited, with fewer activities on the daily schedule. The number of trivia sessions might be cut from five or six to two, and you won’t find daytime jewelry or spa seminars or art auctions. The ship’s bands won’t be playing music live by the pool or in the bars, and you’re unlikely to find pool deck activities like bellyflop contests scheduled because not enough people are around to participate.

The same applies to the onboard kids club. Although it might be open, the scheduled events will likely be less structured (think movies, video games, and arts and crafts). Keep that in mind if you’re cruising with kids and planning not to disembark.

Bottom line

An empty basketball court on a port day on Carnival Firenze. ASHLEY KOSCIOLEK/THE POINTS GUY

If you’re on a cruise and feel drained or sick of the crowds on board, it’s OK to skip a port day in favor of resting, relaxing and enjoying a vessel that will make you feel almost like you’re the only person on a cruise ship. This is especially true if you hang back in a port you’ve already visited.

When you stay on board as others disembark, you’ll experience a quieter atmosphere, fewer crowds and more opportunities to take advantage of activities and amenities — such as spa treatments, trivia and waterslides — that can be crowded or difficult to book on busy sea days.

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