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Managing your time and money on a big, big ship

Vacation life on a big ship has few negative moments, unless you want to eat lunch at exactly the same time and place as the multitudes that daily descend on the buffet restaurant near the pool.

In a week cruising on the gigantic Oasis of the Seas, crowds were not much of an issue. On a ship that holds up to 6,000 passengers, I zipped aboard in Fort Lauderdale (a breeze at 2 p.m.), and seven nights later walked off just as quickly. At sea, I had no problem finding a free deck chair, an elevator or an alternative restaurant seat. After the first day, I skipped the buffet (Windjammer Marketplace) between noon and 1:30 p.m.

My biggest problem on Oasis: Checking off everything on my long to-do and to-eat lists, which is something to note if you are one of those non-cruisers who fears being bored. Either way, active or relaxing, my dance card usually was booked for the day, including the three at sea between Florida and Cozumel, Mexico.

With twin sister Allure of the Seas, Royal Caribbean’s Oasis is world’s largest passenger ship. On dozens of other cruises, I just showed up, looked around and meandered my way through the week. Not on Oasis. Without a plan, I might have missed something glazed at the donut shop, an onion ring at Johnny Rockets, the packed evening comedy club, a Hairspray performance, or a high dive show at the outdoor pool theater. So, at home, before the cruise, I made lists of activities and eating choices.

I kept a budget. Not a gambler or a big drinker, I didn’t add up expenses on past cruises until the end of the week. But with tips now at $11 or so per person per day, and many onboard activities and special meals carrying a price tag, I noted daily expenses. I budgeted roughly $300 for the week, including tips ($80), fees for specialty restaurants ($100) and bar bills. Instead, I spent nearly $500, which is why, near the end of the week, I decided to skip two of the fee-based alternative restaurants.

From a financial perspective, a week aboard Oasis was a tale of two ships, so much for free, so much with a price tag. Many passengers probably fit into one of two roles — folks with some extra bucks to spend and others sailing on a strict budget — so I decided to bounce back and forth between pricey and cheap.

Oasis is well designed to accommodate either role.

When feeling flush, I dined well at the best alternative restaurants for dinner: 150 Central Park ($40 fee for a six-course gourmet meal, including scallops, a Wagyu strip and six kinds of salt for the sourdough rolls, $21 for two glasses of wine) and Chops Grill ($30 fee for a fine steakhouse dinner, $65 for a bottle of Bordeaux that I drank over two nights). I also tasted tapas at Vintages wine bar ($11.50).

I splurged on a deep tissue massage ($150 with tip), which was necessary, and successful, to deal with a sore lower back, the result of several plane rides on my way to Florida. After the spa treatment, I walked without pain for the rest of the week.

I wasted $10.24 for dinner at the Seafood Shack on the Boardwalk, where everything is heavily breaded and deep fried, much more than my tummy was used to. Royal Caribbean may have achieved its goal of serving Boardwalk food with authentic tastes from Atlantic City. But why would they want to?

A Boardwalk lunch was fun at Johnny Rockets, where the $4.95 fee includes a burger, onion rings and dessert. Is the burger better than the free one upstairs in the buffet restaurant? No, but I could sit outside and listen to some great old rock music. My waitress was bubbly good. She insisted that I try the apple pie a la mode, and when she returned to clear the table, she eyed the empty pie plate, eyebrows raised.

“I didn’t eat that pie,” I told her.

“I know,” she said. “Somebody walked by your table, looking hungry, and you gave it to them.”

“That’s my story,” I said.

“Been used before,” she said.

After all my indulgences, I wandered around Oasis for the next several days, spending nothing more than beer money, noting that a ship with plenty of expensive options also offers nearly as many eating choices that are included in the cruise price.

Evenings brought free entertainment, including a Broadway-style performance of Hairspray and a comedy club routine. Both shows required a reservation for crowd control, which meant no waiting lines, except for the folks who had not made a reservation.

I ate well in cheap mode. I skipped the sushi at Uzumi ($3-$5 fee plus a la carte items) and Italian dishes at Giovanni’s Table ($20 fee) for the healthy Asian fare at the Solarium, free at breakfast and lunch, and the well-prepared dinner buffets at Windjammer Market, an upgrade over the main dining room (attempted only once and my worst meal aboard ship) as the buffet salads were fresher, meats and vegetables tastier, and service better, less harried, at Windjammer.

My favorite place on the ship was Central Park, where during most breakfasts and some lunches you would find me mingling with what I presumed primarily were city folks, accustomed to park sitting with some takeout food, watching the world walk by.

Central Park is unique to Oasis and Allure — a fully foliaged patch situated in the middle of the ship, open to the sky, yet surrounded by eight decks so you are out of wind. Most times, unless the waters beneath are roiling, it’s difficult to remember that you are at sea.

Perhaps best of all is the deli called Park Café, where the coffee, the breakfast sandwiches and pastries are free. Mid-day, while the well-heeled were doing lunch at pricey Chops, I was sitting outside in the park with a book, eating a free roast beef sandwich and yummy cookies from the café.

As any big city dweller knows, a key to comfort is to find a neighborhood and gain some familiarity with what soon feels like home. On big ship Oasis, I walked through Central Park at least 50 times from my cabin, which also was on Deck 8. By the end of the week, I was nodding hello to old friends, some of whom I had shared a table with, for morning orange juice and coffee.

During my six days on Oasis, I had skipped the rock wall climb and flow rider, but did the zip line and water aerobics, ice show, theater, comedy club, game show, karaoke, aqua show, watched some basketball, bar hopped, walked the outdoor track, read, walked a lot of stairs (skipping the elevator), strolled for miles on the three shore days at Labadee, Falmouth, and Cozumel. In between, I ate or snacked at 17 different restaurants, lounges, shops and bars.

Daily, I returned to Central Park, which was my oasis on Oasis.

David Molyneaux writes monthly about cruising. He is editor of