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New to cruising? Here are all the terms you need to know

Andrea M. Rotondo October 20, 2020

The ship and nautical terms


The rear (stern) area of the ship. When you select a cabin, you can pick one in that’s aft, midship or forward.


The splashy main entrance and lobby of the ship. If you sail Norwegian Cruise Line, you may know this spot as the Centrum.

The atrium aboard Norwegian Star. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)


Refers to the ship’s width at its widest point. This is important since it’s the measurement that will tell a captain if a vessel can transit tight spaces.


The very front of the ship.


The bridge is usually on a high deck and forward. It’s where the captain and officers navigate the ship. It’s command central and usually off-limits to passengers with the exception of small cruise lines such as Windstar Cruises and Uncruise Adventures that offer specific times when you can stop by the bridge to ask the officer and his or her team questions.

Bulkhead: Partition walls in strategic places on the ship to prevent the spread of fire or flooding.

Dry dock: When a ship is at a shipyard or other location to be refurbished or have technical upgrades made.

Forward: Toward the front of the ship.

Funnel: The smokestack at the top of the ship. Most cruise lines paint their logo on the side of the funnel.

Galley: The ship’s kitchen. Megaships like Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas may have more than one galley.

Gangway: This is the removable ramp or steps that passengers use to board or disembark the ship.

Grand staircase: Many posh ships, such as Oceania’s R-class ships, have a grand staircase in the atrium. It’s a fabulous spot for photographs — especially when you’re all dressed up. You could use the shot on next year’s holiday card!

GRT: Stands for gross registered tons and indicates the weight of the ship.

Helm: The ship’s wheel (or remote control navigation) and steering apparatus make up the helm.

Hull: The watertight body of a ship.

Keel: A bow-to-stern structural support that runs along the bottom of the ship. You’ll often hear about a ship’s keel-laying ceremony, which kicks off a major construction milestone.

Knot: Indicates the speed of a ship in nautical miles.

Lido deck: Old-school cruisers use this term to denote the pool deck.

The lido deck, also known as the pool deck. (Photo by Vintagepix/

Lifeboat: Every cruise ship carries smaller boats that can be used by passengers in case of emergency. Most often, these are separate vessels from the ship’s tenders (see that term below).

M.S.: Means motor-sail, a type of ship. If you sail Windstar Cruises, you’re likely already familiar with the term M.S.Y., which indicates motor-sail-yacht. Wind Surf, Wind Spirit and Wind Star are all motor-sail-yachts.

Midship: The middle section of the ship. If you’re worried about getting seasick, book a cabin on a low deck at midship so you’re close to the vessel’s fulcrum point, where you’ll feel less movement.

Mooring: A mooring is a physical structure to which a ship can be secured. Examples include piers, wharves, jetties, quays and anchor buoys.

Muster station: A designated location on the ship where each passenger must report for muster drill, a practice run in case of an actual at-sea emergency. Your muster station is printed on a map on the back of your cabin door and is listed on your cabin key card. The location could be in an interior bar or theater or on an open deck.

Panamax: A ship that’s the right width to sail the Panama Canal. Anything larger than a Panamax vessel cannot transit the canal.

Port side: This refers to the left side of the ship as you face forward.

Porthole: An oval or round window. It’s sealed shut so water can’t get in, but it does provide light and a limited view to the world outside.

Promenade: The open-air walkways that usually span the entire length of both sides of the ship.

S.S.: Stands for “steam ship.”

Skiff: These are shallow, flat-bottomed open boats used for expedition exploration. They are favored since you can execute wet landings on beaches and transit shallow bodies of water. They also help travelers get close to glaciers and rock formations. You may also hear people call them Zodiacs, but that’s actually a brand name for this style of boat.

A skiff making a wet landing on a beach so cruisers can meet some penguins. (Photo by Cheryl Ramalho/

Stabilizers: Stabilizers, which sometimes look like wings on the sides of the ship, are retractable tools that can be deployed in rough seas. As the name infers, they stabilize the ship to provide a smoother sail.

Starboard: Refers to the right side of the ship as you face forward.

Stern: The rear end of the ship.

Tender: Small motorized boats that the cruise ship carries. They are deployed on port days and are used to ferry passengers from ship to shore.

Wake: If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you’ve probably photographed the ship’s wake: It’s the turbulence the ship causes in the water that creates a trail, not unlike an airplane’s contrail.

This is the wake of a cruise ship. (Photo by Marcel Kriegl/

Cabin intel

Balcony (veranda): Cruise ship cabins come in all types, including “balcony.” It means the stateroom has a private balcony (shocker!) which is sometimes called a veranda.

Category: Ships can have several or many categories of cabins. This can mean inside, porthole, oceanview, balcony and suite varieties. And, one type of cabin can even have multiple categories. For example, inside cabins at the front of the ship, midship and aft can be in different cabin categories.

Double occupancy: Most cruise fares are priced as double-occupancy, meaning two people sharing a cabin. If you book that cabin by yourself, you will often be charged a single supplement of up to 100% of the cruise fare. Alternatively, you can book a cabin meant for a solo traveler. Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean both offer them, as do a lot of river cruise lines. Or, look for a low or waived “single supplement” fare.

Inside: Inside refers to a cabin that has no porthole, window or balcony.

Junior suite: Not a true suite, but a cabin that has a bit more room than a traditional oceanview or balcony. The bedroom and living space are usually separated by a curtain or other movable partition. (See “suite” for more information.)

Obstructed view: You’ll see this note on some deck plans showing cabin locations. Obstructed view means you don’t get a full line of sight through your cabin’s window. You may be able to see part or all of a ship’s tender that’s stored outside your window. On Celebrity Edge and Apex, some rooms have views obstructed by part of the mechanism of the Magic Carpet.

Outside: When you book an “outside” cabin, you’re getting one that includes a window.

Pullman (Murphy) bed: This type of bed pulls down from the ceiling or wall. It’s a space-saving way to add another sleeping area to a cabin.

Spa cabin: Many cruise ships offer incredible spa facilities. To leverage those services, some ships dedicate an entire category of cabins to the spa. These cabins — often located on the same deck as the spa — often have upgrades such as rainfall showerheads in the bathroom and select perks packaged in the cruise fare, such as access to the spa’s thermal suite.

Suite: A true suite means the bedroom and living area is separated by a permanent wall.

Upper/lower berths: This can refer to bunk beds with the upper referring to the top bunk and the lower referring to the bottom bunk.

Virtual porthole/balcony: Some inside cabins have a virtual porthole or window, which is a screen that shows a live stream of what’s going on outside. You’ll find these on certain Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line ships.

This is a virtual balcony cabin aboard Explorer of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean)

The crew

Cruise director: This is the person in charge of all the ship’s social activities and entertainment. He or she is the MC for most events on board. Many cruise directors are highly trained musicians or entertainers.

Maitre d’: This person holds court over an onboard restaurant and supervises the waitstaff and sommeliers. The maitre d’ can assist you in making reservations and getting the specific table, waiter or waitress you prefer.

Porter: Shoreside, porters are the people who ferry your luggage from shore to ship, and vice versa.

Purser: The purser is usually found at the reception desk and is in charge of all onboard accounts and guest relations.

Sommelier: The terms sommelier and wine steward are interchangeable. This refers to the trained crewmembers who have an encyclopedic knowledge of wine. He or she can suggest the perfect wine to pair with your meals. Sommeliers also often host wine tastings on board and share their love of winemaking.

Steward: Each cabin is assigned a specific steward that tends to the room and its occupants throughout the cruise. Your steward will make sure your stateroom is set up correctly upon your arrival and will take care of daily cleaning and maintenance.

Dining terms

The Pinnacle Grill on Holland America ships is a Pacific Northwest-inspired steakhouse. (Photo courtesy of Holland America)

MDR: Stands for the Main Dining Room. The restaurant usually also has a specific name, such as the Sunrise Dining Room and Sunset Forward Dining Room on Carnival Sunshine.

Main seating/late seating: The Main Dining Room usually offers two sittings at dinnertime: main (also known as first or early seating) and a second, or late, seating.

Captain’s or officers’ table: Each evening in the Main Dining Room, the captain and other officers host tables. It’s an honor to be invited to dine at one of these tables. Members of the cruise line’s loyalty program are often invited and the cruise director may also recommend passengers for seating at one of these tables.

Open seating: Open seating means passengers can select where and when they want to eat, and with whom, instead of sticking to a strict early or late seating.

Specialty restaurant: Also known as alternative dining, specialty restaurants — such as Cagney’s Steakhouse aboard Norwegian Cruise Line ships — are smaller dining venues than the MDR. You’ll usually pay a per person surcharge or order a la carte off the menu.

Dress codes

Cruise casual: Most cruise lines have basic dress codes. For daytime, passengers can usually wear casual clothing such as T-shirts, shorts, jeans and sundresses. While you can wear a swimsuit at the pool deck, throw on a cover-up when in other parts of the ship.

Cruise elegant/country club casual: On some cruise lines, they’ve gotten rid of the formal night but still have a slightly dressier standard for dinner. it’s called cruise elegant or country club casual. Women generally wear dresses, blouses and skirts or slacks while men can wear collared shirts and slacks. Suitcoats aren’t required but can be worn if desired.

Formal night: Usually once per seven-night cruise or twice on a two-week voyage, it’s when the cruise line asks passengers to dress up for dinner. That usually means a black-tie affair, with tuxedos or dark suits for men and gowns or cocktail-style dresses for women.

Onboard events

Captain’s cocktail party: Nearly ever cruise itinerary kicks off with a captain’s cocktail party and/or dinner. The gathering gives the captain a chance to introduce himself or herself, the officers and pivotal crew members. At the cocktail party, it’s customary to receive a free glass of Champagne and appetizers. If the cruise line still has formal night, the event is often paired with the first one of the cruise. So, passengers get dressed up to enjoy the festivities.

Friends of Bill W: A fathering of Alcoholics Anonymous members. Watch the daily cruise planner for meeting times and places.

Friends of Dorothy: A gathering of LGBTQ cruisers. Watch the daily cruise planner for meeting times and places.

Sail-away: Stay topside as the ship departs its embarkation port. The cruise director and band are usually at the pool deck entertaining guests and the drinks start flowing. The sail-away from some home ports, such as Miami and Venice, are particularly beautiful.


Berth: This word is used in two ways in the cruising world: Berth can be the pier at which your ship docks. Or, it can refer to the beds in a cabin. For example, if a cabin sleeps three, it has three berths.

Dock: These structures are built next to the water and provide space for ships to tie-up to load and unload passengers.

Home port: The ports from which a cruise ship embarks and disembarks. For example, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral are all popular home ports in Florida where ships from many cruise lines depart on itineraries on a regular basis.

Pier: A pier is built with pillars or pilings over the water and is the place where ships moor.

Port of call: A ship’s itinerary is made up of ports of call: The places the ship will stop so passengers can explore. Most cruises are a mix of sea days and days in port.

Shorex: This is an abbreviation for “shore excursion” and indicates the activities you can take part in on shore. You can purchase shore excursions directly from your cruise line or arrange them on your own.

Tender port: Some ports do not have facilities for cruise ships to dock. In those cases, they are called “tender ports” and that means you’ll board the ship’s tender (smaller boat) to transfer from ship to shore.

Transfers: Usually motorcoach transportation from the airport to the cruise terminal and vice versa at the beginning and end of your cruise. You can purchase these transfers from your cruise line.

Cruise-specific terms

Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Imagination. (Photo by

Sergey Vedenskiy/Getty Images)

Air/sea: Cruise lines offer air/sea, or fly/cruise, packages that include both your flights to and from the ship as well as the cruise itinerary itself. Transfers between the airport and cruise ship are also usually included in the price.

All aboard: The time when all passengers need to be on board the ship before it sets sail. Ships don’t wait for passengers in most circumstances so don’t miss your all aboard time!

Back to back: This refers to two or more cruise itineraries that you book “back to back.” It’s a way to create a longer cruise vacation and see more ports of call. Most cruise lines offer a discount on the second itinerary in a back-to-back booking.

Charter: Cruise ships are the perfect venues for family reunions and corporate gatherings. You can charter an entire ship or just part of it. Sometimes you’ll notice gaps in a cruise ship’s schedule. Many times, it’s because the ship has been chartered and there are no cabins available for anyone outside of that group.

Crossing: Crossings refer to sailings across oceans. Cunard’s transatlantic crossings between Southampton, England, and New York City, are legendary.

Cruise contract: Before you book any voyages, carefully read the fine print in the cruise contract. It lists the various rules and regulations, including what recourse, if any, you have when things go wrong.

Cruise documents: About two weeks to 30

days before boarding your cruise ship, you’ll receive your cruise documents. The paperwork includes your cruise ticket, airline tickets and hotel confirmations (if you booked them through the cruise line), pre-cruise and shore excursion information and luggage tags. Be sure to download this information from your online account. In most cases, you cannot board the ship without this paperwork in hand.

Cruisetour: This refers to a cruise and land tour package. Princess Cruises and Holland America Line both offer cruisetour packages to Alaska so you can see the best of the state by sea and land.

Disembarkation: Departing the ship on the last day of the cruise.

Doc dancing: When your cruise documents arrive via mail, courier or your email inbox, many cruisers do the “doc dance” to show their excitement that their cruise will begin shortly.

Embarkation: Boarding the ship for the first time at check-in.

Godmother: Every ship has a godmother who is installed at a ceremony that coincides with the brand-new ship’s inaugural voyage. This person, usually a woman, christens the ship and wishes it a lifetime of good luck and special sailings. Godmothers are usually celebrities, royalty or industry executives.

Inaugural voyage: This is the big celebration every brand-new ship has when it first sets sail. It’s not necessarily the ship’s very first sailing, but it’s the one at which a big deal is made and where the godmother christens the ship.

Lanyard: Many cruisers like to stash their cruise card (key to their cabin and method to charge items to their onboard account) on a lanyard. A strap hangs around your neck with a plastic pouch at the bottom to keep your cruise card easily accessible.

Maiden voyage: This is a “first” for the ship. It can be a brand-new ship’s very first voyage or a ship can make a “maiden call” on a port it has never visited before.

Repositioning cruise: Repo, or repositioning cruises, happen at the beginning and end of a regional cruising season. It’s when the ship repositions from one home port to another. For example, a ship may spend the winter cruising out of Miami for Caribbean itineraries. In the spring, the ship repositions to Barcelona to sail out of that home port for Mediterranean voyages all summer long.

Sea day: A day at which the ship doesn’t stop at a port of call. It stays at sea all day and night.

Segments: Longer voyages, like world cruises, are often broken up into shorter “segments.” This makes it possible for cruisers to book just part of a longer itinerary.

Turnaround day: This is the day one cruise itinerary ends and another begins. Turnaround days are tough on the crew since they need to see every passenger off the ship safely, clean and prep the ship for the next batch of passengers, and welcome them on board. It’s a very long and busy day for the crew.

Upgrade fairy: The upgrade fairy visits passengers on occasion. This is when the cruise line calls you (or your travel agent) to offer an upgrade. They are usually paid upgrades but the discounts make them very attractive.

Waitlist: Sometimes, an entire cruise itinerary or the cabin category you’re interested in will sell out. If you want to be notified when cabins become available, ask to join the waitlist. If someone cancels the trip and a cabin opens up, the cruise line will contact travelers on the waitlist.

World cruise: Many cruise lines offer three- to four-month-long itineraries that span the entire globe.

Pricing and the bill

All-inclusive: You’ll see the term “all-inclusive” used often in relation to cruise fares. It means “everything’s included.” However, read the terms since that’s usually not quite true. Mainstream cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line generally include accommodations, all meals in the main dining room and buffet (as well as other free restaurants), nonalcoholic beverages and entertainment. Extras like wine and booze, spa treatments, specialty (for-fee) restaurants and shore excursions still cost extra.

Future cruise credits (FCC): If you had to cancel or postpone a cruise due to coronavirus, you’re probably very familiar with future cruise credits. These are vouchers with a dollar value that the cruise line gives out in certain circumstances, such as when an itinerary is canceled. Cruisers who receive an FCC can rebook on another ship and itinerary of their choosing.

Chit: The “chit” is the bill of sale you’ll sign onboard cruise ships when you make a purchase. That could mean buying a drink at the bar, paying for a T-shirt in the boutique or signing up for a shore excursion. On truly all-inclusive lines like Regent Seven Seas Cruises or The Ritz-Carlton Yacht Club, you’ll never sign a chit since nearly everything is included in your cruise fare.

Guarantee (GTY) cabin:

You’ll sometimes see GTY fares. This means you can book the cabin category but not select the actual cabin number as you normally would. You are guaranteed a cabin in that category but, if it sells out, you will be upgraded to the next available cabin type. Read this for a complete explanation of cruise cabin guarantee fares and when you should — or shouldn’t — book one.

Onboard (shipboard) account:

At check-in, the ship will open an onboard account for you, and you’ll provide a credit card. Charges will be added to this account throughout your cruise. At the end of the voyage, you’ll receive an itemized bill. If you’re fine with it, the total will be charged to the credit card on record.

Onboard credit:

Cruisers love onboard credit (OBC), which is also known as shipboard credit. It’s basically money that’s deposited into your onboard account that you can spend during your cruise on things like alcohol (if drinks aren’t included in your cruise fare), shore excursions and specialty restaurant fees. Cruise lines often lure passengers to book cruises with the promise of OBC. Travel agents also often reward clients by giving them a certain amount of onboard credit to thank them for booking a cruise through their agency.

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