Some places lose their charm when they’re inundated with cruise ship passengers. Use these tools to know when the quiet days are.
Now you see them, now you don’t. Like flash mobs, cruise crowds can seemingly pop out of nowhere, flooding down gangplanks and transforming serene port towns or nature areas into ones that are teeming with tourists. When the cruisers show up, prices rise, attractions and tours sell out, and free tables at restaurants become a hot commodity.
If you’re traveling to anywhere that doubles as a cruise port, or anywhere near to a port, it’s important to time your trip so that you miss this mob scene. Here’s some advice for travels that take you near a coast.
Research your destination’s scheduled cruise arrivals
Most travelers wouldn’t be surprised to learn that cruise ships call at the major islands of the Caribbean or the ports of Alaska. But did you know that Melbourne, Australia; Reykjavik in Iceland; and Barcelona, Spain welcome some of the largest cruise ships afloat? In fact, Barcelona handles the most cruise passengers in Europe (2.58 million a year), according to Avoid-Crowds.com.
Not only that, but cities that serve as the embarkation and/or debarkation point for major journeys (like the ones above) tend to be busier both before and after sailing days. Hotel room rates spike as cruisers arrive early or depart late.
To see a list of every major cruise ship on the planet, the number of passengers they carry, and their upcoming scheduled dates in port, take a look at CruiseTimetables.com. It’s a wonky, clunky-looking site, for sure, but its straightforward nature is part of the reason it’s so useful. You can search cruise ports, inelegantly, by nation, making it easy to find lists, in one fell swoop, of the complete panoply of places cruise ships go.
Once you know the busy ports and busiest days, look at a map to see the areas nearby that may be impacted by those crowds on shore excursions. For example, the Cinque Terre in Italy, a region of five tiny coastal towns connected by hiking paths, is often overrun by cruise passengers. On some days, you’re more likely to hear German or English than you are Italian there, because the number of cruise passengers can be exponentially greater than the number of residents.
There is no cruise port in any of the Cinque Terre’s towns, but cruise passengers are brought there on day trips from the La Spezia port.
To give another example from Italy: the port of Civitavecchia near Rome is expected to dump roughly 15,000 passengers a day into Italy for a large number of dates in 2023, according to Avoid-Crowds.com. That’s a number that can make the Eternal City’s iconic sites look more like sardine cans.
Figure out cruise timing
I’m not saying that you should avoid cruise destinations entirely if you’re taking a land vacation—these places are visited by ships because they’re delightful places to go. But if you can avoid the hours that ships are in port, you’ll increase your enjoyment quotient.
“The smaller ships, those with under 500 passengers, aren’t going to impact your trip,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, Chief Content Officer of Cruise Media. “That’s true even if there are several ships in port at once. Overcrowding mostly occurs in the marquee ports where the bigger ships go, those that carry several thousand passengers.”
To easily see which dates you may want to avoid, I recommend CruiseDig.com, which allows users to search by date and by port. In looking up Dubrovnik in Croatia, which has a small historic core that has a hard time coping with crowds, I was able to see quickly that there wasn’t a single date in August when massive cruise ships wouldn’t be in port; on August 30, three ships were set to arrive, bringing a total of nearly 9,000 souls with them. Oof.
A website I’ve been citing, Avoid-Crowds.com is another top-notch resource. It tells you not only when cruise ships will be in port, but also whether local events and school and/or national holidays will be bringing large numbers of people.
In some regions, there are some more rules of thumb you can follow to avoid crowds.
“Most of the big Caribbean ships start their cruises from Miami and Puerto Rico on the weekends. So they tend to be at the Caribbean ports (beyond Puerto Rico, of course), midweek,” Spencer Brown says.
Pay attention to the clock and the map
If there is no way to avoid sharing a destination with a major cruise ship, don’t despair. A smart strategy is simply to plan your sightseeing for the hours when cruise passengers will be back on the ship. That’s usually in mid- to late afternoon. Because cruisers tend to head back to the ship where their lunches and dinners are paid for and then simply stay aboard, mornings are generally busier in port destinations. So plan your explorations, at least for the most popular attractions, for after lunch.
Ships also tend to sail away by the late afternoon or evening, so if you want to visit a truly iconic site, it may pay off to wait until then. Many museums and historic sights will stay open into the evening at least one day of the week—even the Vatican does it.
“When I lived in St. John [in the U.S. Virgin Islands] I would head to the beach after 4pm and have it all to myself,” Spencer Brown told me.
When you’re sussing out which lodging to use, it might be smart to choose one that’s in a more residential area of town. Cruise passengers have a way of lingering near the most touristy parts of town, so it pays to explore elsewhere. “You’ll be eating where the locals eat, getting a real look at what the life of the community is like, and you won’t be competing with cruise ship passengers for restaurant reservations and other services,” Spencer Brown says.
There are usually plenty of great things to see away from the tourist zone. “If you’re going to be in Rome, Lisbon, or Barcelona, perhaps head out of the city to neighboring vineyards, Etruscan ruins, or the wonderful Salvador Dalí museum [in Figueres, about an hour outside Barcelona],” says Spencer Brown.
And enlist the planning help of the people at your hotel, as they have a stake in making sure you’re enjoying your vacation. “The hotels in these port areas will work twice as hard to help you because they don’t benefit from the cruise business and they want to keep their customers happy,” says Spencer Brown.
Spencer Brown’s final word of advice is sensible: “You don’t have to radically change your trip if you’re vacationing in or near a cruise port,” she says. “Just plan a little bit more than you would have if there were no ships around, and you should be fine.”