On our most recent family cruise, we traveled with 3,600 other people. That’s a whole lot of folks with whom to spend a vacation! Indeed, mega cruise ships hold plenty of passengers, and to be totally frank, I felt a bit like one of a herd of cattle at times—especially during embarkation at the start of the cruise, as well as disembarking at each port.

However, there are several ways to personalize a cruise experience, even when traveling on one of the larger ships from the likes of Carnival Cruise LinesNorwegian Cruise LineRoyal Caribbean International, or Disney Cruise Line. After all, modern cruise ships are all about offering a multitude of options to their passengers. Consider these tips to avoid the crowds and make your cruise vacation your very own.

1. Dine at off hours. Thankfully, many cruise ships now have “dine where and when you want” meal plans. With smaller theme restaurants available as an alternative to the humongous main dining rooms, you can truly pick the type and style of cuisine that pleases you most, whether it’s a casual burger or upscale fare. For more personalized service from cruise-ship servers and staff, time your meals early (say, 11:00 a.m. for lunch and 5:30 p.m. for dinner) or late (2:00 p.m. for lunch and 9:30 p.m. for dinner).

2. Eat in your room. Don’t call it being anti-social; you’re just enjoying alone time when you order from the 24-hour room-service menu to savor a leisurely meal on your stateroom’s balcony. And order dessert. Typically, room-service dining is included in the overall price of your cruise, so live it up!

Viewfinder Tip: Celebrate a special occasion by decorating your stateroom door with streamers, signs, photos, or artwork, all held up with magnets.

3. Make fine-dining reservations. On some cruise ships, there may be a couple of restaurants that charge an additional per-person fee for a premium meal. I highly recommend making this splurge on a very relaxed dining experience in a small venue. My family’s favorite meal on the Carnival Breeze a couple of years ago was at the Steakhouse, where we received excellent service because the restaurant was barely half-full while we dined. (Not to mention the cuts of meat and the desserts were top-notch.)

4. Seek solace at the spa. One ideal place to get your Zen on while away from the crowds is at the ship’s spa. Heated tile loungers, solaria, hydrotherapy pools, and relaxation rooms all offer serene spots for repose. If your ship’s spa is open while the ship is docked in port, this is when you’ll likely find the best discounts on services, too.

5. Stay on the ship. In fact, even if you aren’t angling for a deal at the spa, you might think about opting out from disembarking for one day during your cruise. It’s a bit radical—after all, fun excursions, key landmarks, and tantalizing street food beckons on land just beyond the gangway. But, if you want to take advantage of having the ship nearly to yourself, simply stay on board to kick back at the quiet pool area, or get to know your favorite bartender when he’ll have more time to chat with you.

Quiet ship pools on a dock day

6. Avoid group shore excursions. Booking sightseeing tours or outdoor adventures via your cruise line or a local outfitter is certainly convenient, since organizers will pick you up right at the ship and deliver you back to the ship before it departs for the day. However, especially if you’ve visited the port before, consider doing your own thing on foot, hiring a taxi, or booking a private car to get you around the city for the ultimate in flexibility and ability to “do your own thing.”

7. Take the stairs. My family of four made a game out of not once taking the elevator on the Carnival Breeze during our spring break Caribbean cruise. First of all, we knew we’d be eating a lot on vacation, and we were happy to burn off a few extra calories by taking the stairs for a week. Second, waiting for an elevator with a crowd is a total buzzkill; it’s such a waste of time when there are more exciting things to be doing on a cruise than standing by for that elevator ding. Similarly, you might make up your own routines or “daily traditions” on the ship: an early morning walk around the promenade, daily afternoon cappuccino from the coffee bar, or late-night dancing in the disco.

8. Try a different activity. On large cruise ships, there are usually a few different activities going on simultaneously. If the majority of the passengers on the ship are heading to the ballroom for salsa lessons, consider the cultural presentation in the library. If everyone’s on the pool deck watching the movie on the huge outdoor screen, go check out the cooking demonstration on a deck below. My family and I wouldn’t typically embrace trivia contests, but we found ourselves wanting to avoid the sun (and the deck crowds) a couple of times during our Carnival sailing, so we met up with some brainy folks to get quizzed on everything from Harry Potter to navigational charts. Turns out, we won one of the games, and have fond memories of coming home with our “ship on a stick” trophy.

How do you personalize trips when traveling with a big group?

Carnival Cruise Lines header image courtesy of travel writer Beth Blair.