What Cruise Passengers Should Know BEFORE Visiting a Private Destination

Cruise line private destinations have become some of the most popular ports on the planet. And why not? They are usually built and managed by the cruise lines, allowing them to curate an experience that caters specifically to passengers.

From white-sand beaches to crystal clear water, food, and excursions available right at the port, there’s a lot to love about these spots. There are things about these ports, however, that we’d bet you don’t know, but you should before you ever visit.

So we’re lifting the veil on tips to make the most of your day and a few secrets we’re betting you didn’t know.

Some of the Most Visited Ports in the World

View of CocoCay pier
Spots like Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay receive literally millions of passengers each year, making them some of the most visited ports on Earth.

Let’s begin with a statistic that you likely had no idea. Cruise line private islands can be among the busiest ports of call on the planet. The list of the most-trafficked cruise ports starts with major departure ports, with spots like Miami, Port Canaveral, and Port Everglades ranking highly with around 4 million passengers a year.

When it comes to ports of call, Cozumel and Nassau are the busiest, with each one seeing about 3.5 million cruisers a year. Anyone that’s visited the ports likely isn’t surprised. There can be a half-dozen ships in port some days.

But Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay — the best example of a private island that’s become a stop on seemingly every one of the cruise line’s trips in the area — is up there as well. In a recent earnings call, the cruise line said it expects 3 million passengers to visit in 2024.

In other words, these spots aren’t just a nice stop. They are a major component of itineraries.

Farther Is Better for Finding a Spot on the Beach

Want to find your own little spot on the island? If you’re the type that wants some more space after being on the cruise ship, then the best advice is to start walking.

Similar to how a parking lot is most crowded by the front door, the beaches seem to be most crowded closest to the ship. But just walk a little farther and you’ll find dramatically fewer people. On some of the largest islands like MSC’s Ocean Cay, that walk can be a considerable distance, although there are some shuttles that will take you there. But the farther you go, the smaller the crowds will be.

That’s not to say you’ll be alone by any means. If you want a lounger without someone literally right next to you, however, this is the way to do it.

Drink Packages/Wi-Fi Work Often Work at Private Destinations

Ocean Cay from MSC
MSC’s Ocean Cay is massive and during your day there the wi-fi and drink packages work on land just as they do on the ship.

It’s not always the case, but in general private destinations can save you a lot of money on things like drink packages and wi-fi. When you buy these packages, they are bought for the entire cruise, but you can normally only use them when on the ship.

So if you are in a traditional port of call one day, the drink package for instance is useless until you get back on the ship.

That’s not usually the case at private destinations. You can think of these as extensions of the ship. The drink package will often, though not always, have full use in the port just like you have on the ship. So you can hit the bar and order without paying extra. It’s a similar thing for wi-fi, which allows you to stay in touch even at the beach.

Food Is Usually Included

If you’ve never visited one of these spots, you might be wondering about food. The good thing is that food is usually included in the destinations. There is usually a large buffet area for passengers to eat and then some other spots dotted around so that you don’t always have to walk so far for a snack. Thankfully, for-charge restaurants are pretty rare in private destinations, though there are a few.

Of course, you can always go back to the ship to eat if you want. Despite being in port, restaurants onboard are still open, giving you more options to dine.

Transportation Options Around the Island

Do you have mobility issues, or let’s face it, just don’t want to walk in the heat and humidity of the Caribbean? You’re covered.

Most of these spots have transportation services that circle around to ferry passengers from one spot to another. They are free to ride, just wait at the stop and then hop on when they arrive.

They may not be the fastest way around as usually it’s just faster to walk than wait for a ride, but if you don’t want to do that, then know there are still ways of getting around.

Smart Move: Check a Map Ahead of Time

There can be a lot to see and do in a private island or destination. A spot like Royal Caribbean’s CocoCay has things everywhere, from the pool to multiple beaches, restaurants, the beach club, waterpark, and a lot more. If you’re unprepared, it can be a bit overwhelming and you may not know where to go.

Just like if you were going to visit a theme park, it makes things much, much easier if you are familiar with the lay of the land before you start walking aimlessly. Islands have maps available, usually somewhere right near where you enter and sometimes even on the ship before you get off. They are also available online.

It’s a good idea to take a minute or two and just check out the map and figure out where things are in relation to one another. That way, you aren’t wandering around aimlessly.

Crowds Die Down in the Afternoon

Around noon to 2 p.m. seem to be the peak crowds for private destinations like Virgin’s Beach Club. After that, the crowds thin dramatically as people head back to the ship.

What does the private destination have in common with the pool deck on the ship? They seem to follow similar crowd patterns. Head down early in the morning and there’s practically no one around. But as the day goes on, the crowds build, seeming to peak around lunchtime or maybe a little later. In fact, some islands can feel downright crowded at this time depending on how many and what size ships are in port.

As the afternoon wears on, however, many people seem to call it a day and head back to the ship, despite still having plenty of time, daylight, and sunshine to enjoy.

If there’s a spot that you want to be or an activity you want to do on the island, that’s why we suggest doing it earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon when the crowds can die down significantly.

Turning One Day in Port into ‘Two Days’

In that vein of early in the morning or late in the afternoon, perhaps the best tip for visiting a private destination is to turn one day into two days. Here’s how.

Usually your cruise will dock early in the morning and start letting passengers out around 8 a.m. All aboard isn’t until around 5 p.m., with some lines like MSC offering extended or even overnight stays.

What’s smart is to split the day in two. Head down earlier — it doesn’t have to be right at 8 a.m. — and enjoy the morning and some lunch on land. Then after lunch (and when things are most crowded), head back to the ship and have a siesta. Get out of the sun for a bit, take a nap if you want, and just take it easy.

Then you can head back out after a couple of hours and still have plenty of sun and time to enjoy the island again, this time rejuvenated. Otherwise, being in the sun all day can be a beating.

Save Your Money on Excursions

Make no mistake that you can spend plenty of money at the private destinations. Between waterparks, cabanas, and shore excursions, there’s plenty of opportunity. But one tip is to use this as a “free” day if possible.

When it comes to ports of call, there is no spot easier to have an inexpensive day than private islands or destinations. Depending on the spot, you’ll have beaches, pool, and food all included.

It’s the other ports where you usually have to spend if you want to do anything. Even getting around most ports involves cab fare, you have to pay for anything you eat, and many beaches aren’t near as nice or relaxing as what’s offered by the cruise line.

So save you money on these days and put it toward excursions in other ports of call as you can still have a lot of fun in the cruise line islands without spending a fortune.

There Are Parts of the Island You Will Never See

Private island behind the scenes
Many destinations have crew that live on the island behind the scenes. You’re unlikely to see these spots, construction areas, or other facilities that help the port operate.

On the cruise ship it may feel like you have the run of the place, but there are areas you will never see. A private destination is the same way.

Sometimes you can see these areas from the ship. Or they are readily visible from Google Maps, but the back-of-house areas can be massive. This is where crew members stay, where the maintenance areas are housed to keep the destination in top shape and other hidden spots. If you’re on an island, you’ll also notice that there are major undeveloped parts that you don’t get to go to.

So if you’re thinking there are deserted beach spots where you can go… yeah, that’s not going to happen.

Take Advantage of the Ship

One tip you won’t often hear abut visiting private destinations? Take advantage of the ship.

These ports are extremely popular since they are custom-built for cruise passengers. As a result, the ship empties out during the day. If there is something that you’ve wanted to do onboard but haven’t had the chance to do it yet, this is a great time.

For instance, you should find more availability in the spa or specialty restaurants, and shorter lines for activities onboard, though you should check to make sure they are open before you plan around them.

This doesn’t mean you don’t go out and enjoy the destination as well, but simply carve out some time to do what you want on the ship before or after you venture into the port.

Why Cruise Lines Love Private Destinations

There are a number of reasons cruise lines like having private destinations, like Carnival’s Mahogany Bay in Roatan, pictured above.

If you’ve noticed that a lot of cruises seem to visit the cruise line’s private destinations, it’s not your imagination. Cruise lines love to feature these spots for multiple reasons.

First, is control. In the private destinations, cruise lines love that they can have complete control and tailor the experience to what passengers will like so that they have a more enjoyable cruise.

Second, with a captive audience, these destinations can offer all sorts of amenities and extras. And instead of you spending that morning in an independent port of call, you’re now spending it with the cruise line. For instance, Royal Caribbean charges up to nearly $4,000 for some of its cabanas, upwards of $160 or more for entrance to the waterpark, and nearly $300 to the exclusive beach club on the island.

Finally, if you’ll notice, many of the destinations are in The Bahamas, only between 60-100 miles from Miami.

This location isn’t by accident. It’s strategic. The close location means considerable savings in fuel and lower the emissions of the ship. Just like taking a road trip to a spot a couple of hours away instead of across the country saves gas, cruising to a location that’s nearby can add up to millions and millions in saved fuel costs — and lower carbon emissions — over the course of a year.

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