There's big, and then there's HUGE!
Choosing to sail on a mega-ship not only means that you'll have endless options when it comes to dining, entertainment and onboard activities but it also means you'll be sailing with anywhere from 3,000 to 6,500-plus other cruisers. While these ships are spacious (Harmony of the Seas is nearly four football fields long) and well designed, they can also feel crowded and chaotic at times.
You need to be proactive if you want to maximize the benefits of sailing on a mega-ship, while minimizing the issues of sailing with so many people. Embrace these eight hacks to get the most out of your big-ship cruise vacation. (Some of our tips might even come in handy on smaller ships, too.)
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1. Hack Your Carry-On to Hit the Ground Running.
You might not realize it but most of the onboard deck activities are already up and running by the time you board the ship. While many of your fellow cruisers will be attacking the buffet or getting acquainted with the ship, you should be maximizing the short lines for the activities or the best chairs by the pool. But you need to be prepared.
You'll hand over your large suitcases to the porters right before you board the ship, so choose and pack your ship carry-on wisely -- you might not see your checked bags again for several hours. Keep in mind that your room might also not be ready for an hour or two after you board, so rather than lug around a rollaboard, try to cram your necessities into a comfortable shoulder bag or backpack. (We love this one that has USB ports for charging as you go.)
If you want to try the rock climbing, ziplining, ropes course and other adventurous activities be sure to pack (or wear) sneakers and athleisure wear. If it's water-related activities you're after, stash your swimsuit, flip-flops and sunscreen in your backpack. You can typically find a bathroom near the pool areas to change in if your room isn't ready yet.
2. Make Reservations for Everything.
A go-with-the- flow mentality is tempting on vacation, but with seemingly endless dining and entertainment options onboard and as many as 6,780 other cruisers (maximum capacity on Harmony of the Seas) sailing with you, flying by the seat of your pants can lead to frustration and disappointment. If reservations are an option, take advantage in order to get the most from your cruise.
Specialty dining venues are much smaller than the main dining rooms, allowing for a more intimate dining experience, but this also means they fill up quickly. Consider booking your dining reservations when you book your cruise to ensure you get your preferred venue and time.
Reservations are often required for shows on mega-ships, even if the show is included in your cruise fare. Remember that reservations are not for specific seats -- just specific showtimes -- unless otherwise noted, so always show up early.
If you can't, you should definitely plan to get to the venue at least 10 minutes before the start of the show to avoid losing your reservations. Some cruise lines will consider you a "no-show" at that point, and open the doors to cruisers who don't have prior reservations as this is when the doors will open for them. (Which means if you forget to get tickets but want to try and see the show, you can get in line early and hope for standby seats to open up.)
3. Learn the Tricks to Finding Your Way Around the Ship -- Even Before You Board.
On a small vessel like Silver Cloud (514 feet long with seven passenger decks), it's easy to familiarize yourself with the ship's layout by simply walking the decks. On a large ship like Harmony of the Seas (1,188 feet long with 16 passenger decks), it could take you an entire cruise to find your way around and figure out where everything is located. If you don't want to wander around lost for a week, study the deck plans in advance -- and figure out the tricks for remembering what is where.
For example, Norwegian Escape has a simple layout of food in the back, entertainment in the front and information in the middle. A clever way to think of it is as a reverse mullet: business (dining) is in the back and party (entertainment) is in the front.
Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class (Oasis, Allure, Harmony and Symphony of the Seas) took a more creative route and created seven distinct neighborhoods where dining, entertainment and shopping are found throughout. The neighborhood names clue you in to what you'll find there. For instance, the Boardwalk might make you think of family-friendly things to do and places to eat, and that's exactly what you'll find there: carousel, arcade, Johnny Rockets and all.
Plus, Harmony of the Seas uses symbols on its elevator buttons to point you in the right direction. You'll see a carousel symbol for the Boardwalk on Deck 14, a surfboard and umbrella for the pool deck on 15 and even a button that says "Gangway" so you can easily find your way off the ship.
Once onboard, there are other tricks you can employ to help you find your way around and determine whether you're walking forward or aft on the ship. Stairways often have themed art, with the forward stairwells embracing a different look than the aft staircase. Making note of the decor will help you orient. If you're in a cabin hallway, keep in mind that cabin room numbers begin all the way forward and go up as you make your way to the aft. On Norwegian cruise ships, the fish-patterned carpet has all of the fish swimming toward the front of the ship.
When all else fails, know that there's always a map of the deck you are on and a list of what's on the other decks by the elevator banks, so find the nearest one if you're feeling lost. Plus, on most of Royal Caribbean's Quantum- and Oasis-class ships, you can scan your cruise card (or RFID wristband) on one of its digital wayfinder screens and it will give you visual walking directions back to your cabin. If you're looking for directions to a venue, find the name on the screen and it will give you walking directions to that area of the ship.
4. Use the App.
Just about every major cruise line has a mobile app that you can use while onboard to make or change dining, entertainment and shore excursion reservations; review daily activities; explore restaurant menus; view your cruise pictures; pull up a map of the ship; and more. The app allows you to make all of these changes without ever leaving your pool chair to trek down to guest services and wait in a long line, and you don't need to buy an internet package to use the app.
Tip: Download the app before sail-away.
In addition, if you have a United States or Canadian passport, you can say goodbye to long debarkation lines the next time your cruise ends at Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades. (Note: Most of the large ships homeport in Port Everglades.) Mobile Passport (currently used in 21 airports and one cruise port) will expedite your entry process into the United States at Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades.
Set up your profile before your cruise. Once your ship has docked but before you debark, connect to the Wi-Fi signal and submit your trip information (basically a digital customs declaration form in the app). A few seconds later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection will send you a digital receipt and an encrypted barcode. Be sure your phone is fully charged when you debark and follow the Mobile Passport Control signs to get into a shorter customs line.
5. Plan out Your Sea Day.
Part of the hype about sailing on a large ship is the endless onboard activities that make sea days so much fun. But what you might not realize is that some of the activities are only offered at specific times of the day.
For instance, the SeaPlex area on Royal Caribbean's Quantum-class ships transitions from a roller skating rink to a bumper car area to a circus school -- with set times and days for each activity. Review your daily itinerary the night before (or check the app a few days before) so you know exactly what's going on and when. Most onboard activities don't require reservations, but the lines can get pretty long. Be sure to get there when they open to avoid waiting and possibly missing your opportunity.
If you are traveling with your teen children, keep in mind that a parent or guardian needs to sign an approval form or waiver for said teenager (typically under 18) in order for them to do most of the physically active onboard activities. Be sure to be there when they check in.
When it comes to lunch plans, remember that some of the lunch options (both included and for a fee) are only open on sea days and during set times. For instance, Guy's Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que on Carnival Vista is only open for lunch on sea days. On a seven-day cruise, you will typically have two to three sea days so make sure you know which venues you want to hit up. Most run on a first come, first serve basis, so we recommend getting there early.
6. Pack a Sea Day Bag.
You already know to pack a bag on port days but you should also pack a bag for sea days to avoid having to go all the way back to your room every time you need something. Sea days are packed with back-to-back activities and if you planned yours out you already know what you'll need. Here are a few things you should keep in your bag:
- Portable charger: Whether you're using your phone, camera, tablet or another device, keep an external portable charger in your bag so you don't have to go without if the battery dies. Charge it at night when you get back to your room, and you'll be ready to go in the morning.
- Cruise card: This might be obvious but you need to carry yours with you at all times because it is your identification, credit card and room key all in one. You'll scan it when you enter the dining room, when you rent a towel, when you want to do an onboard activity and just about everything else.
- Water bottle: Fill it up at breakfast and you'll have it for the rest of the day. Staying hydrated in the sun is important. A collapsible one is easiest to pack.
- Cover-up: If you're spending the afternoon around the pool you'll need something to use when you go in for lunch. The ships really crank up the AC, so you'll want a cover-up that's not wet.
- Chair clips: These are so underrated but really come in handy. If you're spending the day at the pool, be sure to pack a few towel chair clips in your bag. Buy these before your cruise (the wilder and wackier colors the better). Use these to secure your towel to your chair and as a way to quickly find your chair in the sea of chairs, towels and cruisers.
- Sun protection: Sunglasses, hats and sunblock are key to your sea days. You'll really need to apply sunblock every few hours to avoid looking like the lobster you ate the night before. And even if you're spending a few hours indoors, you'll eventually find yourself out in the bright sunlight, needing sunglasses and a hat. Just make sure your hat is sturdy or has a string. It gets quite windy on the outer decks on sea days.
- Sturdy shoes and change of clothes: Onboard activities will be up and running and if you get the urge to zipline or rock climb and the lines are short, you'll need socks, sturdy shoes and dry clothes.
7. Skip a Port of Call.
Large ships are like floating cities, and long lines and competing activities make it hard to fit everything in on the allotted sea days. If there's a port of call you're not interested in exploring, consider skipping it. The spa typically has discounted packages, the pool has more open chairs and the deck activities are up and running but with shorter lines. Also, if you are prone to motion sickness, this is the best time for you to try out the rock wall, ropes course or other top-deck attraction.
8. Upgrade to a Suite.
If you want all the mega-ship perks -- lots of entertainment and restaurant options -- but want to avoid crowds and queues, check out one of the suites in Norwegian Cruise Line's The Haven or MSC Cruises' The Yacht Club. Rooms in these areas offer perks that eliminate a lot of the hassles that come with the big-ship-cruising experience.
For instance, you'll have priority when debarking, embarking and tendering, so you never have to wait in line to get on or off the ship. On Norwegian, reserved performance seating means you don't have to rush out of dinner or another activity to get good seats in the theater; access to the ship shops outside of regular hours on MSC gets you personal attention and a less claustrophobic browsing experience.
Plus, when you stay in these keycard access protected areas, you will also have your own private area within the ship that's decked out with a pool, hot tub and sun deck where you won't have to battle for a chair. There's a restaurant and bar reserved exclusively for passengers staying in these suites. Forget waiting in line at the service desk or frantically working on last-minute reservations because you will also have access to a concierge who can book shore excursions, make dining reservations or take care of any guest services issues, so you don't have to. It's like having a small-ship experience with some added mega-ship perks.
Royal Caribbean offers some of the same perks to its Royal Suite Class passengers, such as priority debarking and embarking, reserved performance seating, exclusive restaurant and sun deck for suite passengers only and priority dining reservations. Royal Caribbean carries its perks off the ship when passengers visit its private port, Labadee, with exclusive access to the Barefoot Beach Club. The only difference is that the suites are scattered around the ship, rather than in one area surrounding the limited-access venues.
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