If you’re new to cruising, you may have noticed there’s a whole world of cruise ship terms and meanings. If it’s your first cruise, it might take a minute to get the hang of the cruise lingo.
We’ve put together a handy glossary of essential cruising vocabulary you need to know before you step on board.
Cruise Ship Terms
Ship: A ship is not a boat. Ships are large vessels intended for ocean or deep water transportation of cargo or passengers.
Cruise Ship: Cruise ships are large passenger vessels whose primary purpose is to transport passengers on leisurely vacations.
Ocean Liner: Their primary purpose is to transport cargo or passengers across seas. For a more in-depth article, visit our cruise ship vs. ocean liner comparison.
Sister Ship: Two or more ships of the same class or nearly identical design. For example, Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas are sister ships.
Deck: A platform or section on a ship. Where buildings have floors, ships have decks.
The Bridge: The main control center of the ship. From here, the captains and officers have control over the entire operation of the vessel.
Itinerary: A sailing schedule with the route and destinations you will visit. The itinerary is viewable before you book but may change due to unexpected events or weather.
Atrium: The main lobby of the ship. Most cruise ship atriums are three or more decks high, and the location you first step onto a cruise ship. The atrium is the hub of the vessel, where you’ll often find elevators, stairs, photo booths, and the guest information desk.
Purser’s Desk: Often referred to as guest services, this is where guests can inquire about anything related to billing or ship information.
Deck Plan: A map of the cruise ship’s decks. Most ships have deck plans on each floor to help passengers find their way around the boat. Deck plans are incredibly important for navigating your way around the ship, especially for your first few days on board.
Lido Deck: The lido deck refers to the pool deck on a cruise ship. The name comes from the Italian word “lido,” which refers to a public outdoor swimming pool or beach. Accordingly, the cruise ship lido deck is home to one or more swimming pools, hot tubs, bars, and restaurants.
Gangway: A gangway is a narrow walkway used by passengers and crew to get on and off the cruise ship.
Muster Drill: The muster drill is a mandatory safety drill completed before sailing. The drill prepares guests for safe evacuation in the event of an emergency and familiarizes passengers with life vests, escape routes, and lifeboats. By law, the muster drill must be performed within 24 hours of departure.
Muster Station: Muster stations are where guests and crew meet in cases of emergency. The muster station is where you will find life vests and your assigned cruise ship lifeboat.
Daily Planner (cruise compass, bulletin, or newsletter): The daily planner goes by many names. It is where you will find the day’s scheduled activities. Many cruise lines have dedicated apps that allow passengers to see the day’s schedule from their devices.
Sailaway: Sailaway is the period of time that your cruise ship departs the cruise port. Cruise ships often host a Sailaway party to celebrate the cruise’s start.
Sailaway Party: Cruise lines often host a Sailaway party on the first night of the cruise to kick off the vacation. The party is generally located on the main pool deck or atrium with drinks, live music, and dancing.
Sea Day: A sea day is a full day when the ship doesn’t visit a port. Most cruises of a week or longer contain one or more sea days. But, they are by no means boring. On sea days, the cruise line will host plenty of scheduled events. If that’s not for you, you can simply relax by the pool.
Cruise Card: On most cruise ships, you’ll receive a cruise card that provides access to your stateroom and acts as a form of ID and payment around the vessel. The keycard eliminates the need to carry cash or credit cards around the ship.
Ocean Medallion: Ocean Medallion is a smart technology offered by Princess Cruises. Ocean Medallion replaces the traditional keycard with a wearable device. The wearable provides all of the same functions as a cruise card with several additional benefits.
Pier Runners: A name for passengers who are late to the cruise ship. You’ll find these unfortunate passengers running to the gangway as they race to make it onto the boat before the ship departs. Tip: Make sure you get back to the ship before the all-aboard time. The cruise ship will leave you behind if you’re late.
Lanyard: A lanyard is a common accessory used by cruise ship passengers to attach a cruise card. It’s both convenient and an excellent way to minimize the risk of losing your cruise card.
Rum Runners: Rum runners were people who, during the time of prohibition, traveled by sea to other countries to transport alcohol back to America. Today, a rum runner is a term used to describe a container used to sneak alcohol onto a cruise ship.
No Sail Order: In March 2020, the CDC introduced a no sail order that paused all cruise ship travel within the US. The no sail order was a temporary measure enacted to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
Cruise with Confidence: When cruising resumed following the Covid-19 pandemic, cruise lines introduced flexible cancelations policies. For most cruises, passengers could cancel up to 48 hours pre-cruise and receive full credit for a future cruise.
Warm Lay Up: During the period of suspended sailing, cruise lines could quickly bring a warm lay-up cruise ship back to service. These ships had reduced crew levels, fuel, food, and other essential items but were ready to return to service with short notice.
Cold Lay Up: A cold layup refers to a cruise ship that is fully shut down. Cruise lines shut down many cruise ships to save on costs during the no sail order. Ships in cold lay-up require more time to be brought back into service.
Funnel (or Stack): The funnel (or stack) refers to the exhaust on a cruise ship. It functions similarly to a chimney on a home and is used to expel engine exhaust. Most cruise ships have several funnels; however, typically, only one or two are functional (the rest are for aesthetics.)
Onboard Credit: An onboard credit is applied to your account and can be used on the ship to make purchases, such as drinks at the shop or souvenirs in the shops. Cruise lines and travel agents often offer onboard credit as an incentive to book, where you’ll receive a set dollar value when you book by a specific date.
Duty-Free: Duty-free refers to items that don’t have taxes. Duty-free purchases often must be declared when you return to the cruise terminal. If you are visiting from another country, you may need to declare duty-free items upon re-entry to your home country.
Godmother (or Godfather): The Godmother (or Godmother) serves as a spokesperson for a cruise ship. As a tradition, the chosen individual is responsible for christening the ship and bestowing good luck to the new vessel.
Crossing: When a cruise ship sails across a large body of water. Examples include the Atlantic crossing, where a cruise ship may sail from Europe to America.
Double-Dip: When cruise-goers sail on back-to-back cruises. Sometimes one cruise just isn’t enough.
Maiden Voyage (Inaugural Sailing): The first sailing for a new cruise ship, or after a long pause (such as during repairs).
Dress Code: Cruise lines have dress codes that passengers must follow. Luxury cruise lines have strict policies, while most mainstream cruise lines allow casual wear at all times, except for formal nights.
Formal Night: Formal night is a traditional cruise ship experience where passengers dress up for a night of elegance. Some cruise lines have relaxed formal night dress codes, while Norwegian and Virgin don’t have any.
Planning Your Cruise
Embarkation: Embarkation is the process of passengers and crew members getting aboard a ship.
Embarkation Day: The first day of your cruise. It is one of the most exciting times of cruising, and the day you first step foot on the cruise ship.
Port of Departure: The port where your cruise ship will depart.
Disembarkation: The process of exiting the cruise ship. Often the saddest day of the cruise.
Port of Call: A port where your ship will stop.
Shore Excursion: An organized activity or event that passengers can attend in port. You can book shore excursions through the cruise line, a private tour company, or an independent tour operator.
Tender (Water Shuttle): There are some cruise ports where cruise ships can’t directly dock, usually because of a protected coral reef or the ship’s size. At these ports, the cruise ship will anchor a few minutes away from the port and shuttle passengers by tender boat.
Onboard Booking: You can book your next cruise while on the ship of your current cruise. Cruise lines offer incentives to passengers to encourage onboard bookings. The incentives are one of the best ways to save money booking your next cruise. And, if you booked your current sailing through a travel agent, you can request that your booking is transferred to the agency.
Cruise Fare: This is the basic cost of the cruise. The cruise fare covers the cost of standard meals, accommodations, activities, and more. Many cruise lines offer basic wifi and drink packages bundled with the cruise fare.
Deposit: When you book a cruise, many cruise lines require a deposit to secure the booking. Each cruise line has different refund rules, and you may be unable to recoup the deposit if you cancel.
Final Payment: As the sailing date approaches, you will be required to make the final payment. The final payment is typically due within 70 to 90 days of the sale date. However, as policies vary, it’s always best to check with the cruise line.
Cruise Contract: You will be asked to sign a cruise contract when booking a cruise. The contract includes a set of terms and conditions that apply to passengers and the cruise line. The agreement is where you will find the refund policy, final payment date, and cancellation terms.
Gratuities: Gratuities, or tips, are customary on cruise vacations. Cruise lines charge gratuities on a daily, per-person basis. Most major cruise lines have automatic gratuities split among the hardworking staff, except bartenders and spa staff. If you don’t pay the gratuities in advance, they are charged to your onboard account and paid at the end of the cruise. Bartenders and spa staff receive tips through the gratuities charged on drinks, drink packages, and spa treatments.
Pre-paid Gratuities: Pre-paid gratuities are paid in advance of sailing. Paying in advance makes it easier to budget and plan for a cruise.
Solo Supplement: Most cruise ships charge a fee for solo bookings in regular staterooms. The added fee is known as a solo supplement. When a solo traveler books a cabin, the cruise line misses out on additional revenue from having two people in a stateroom.
All-Inclusive: All-inclusive cruises are great if you prefer to have all your expenses known before sailing. The all-inclusive definition varies by cruise line but typically includes gratuities, wifi, and a basic drink package.
Drink Package: Most cruise lines offer drink packages that entitle guests to order unlimited drinks. Drink packages typically have rules such as price limits and drink restrictions. If you don’t want to purchase the drink package, you can still purchase individual drinks from the bars, lounges, and restaurants.
The drink package isn’t worth the price for most people. To see if it’s right for you, check out our article: Is the drink package worth it?
Online Check-In: Before embarking, cruise ship passengers can complete online check-in and print any required documents.
Cabin: Your room onboard the ship.
Stateroom: Another term for your room on the ship.
Interior Stateroom: This is a cabin located on a ship’s interior. Interior cabins don’t have windows (portholes) or balconies.
Oceanview Cabins: A cabin with a view of the ocean through a porthole or large window.
Balcony Cabins: As the name suggests, this is a stateroom with a balcony.
Suites: The largest and most luxurious cabin category on a cruise ship. Passengers who book suites often receive additional perks such as a butler, private lounge, bonus loyalty points, and free specialty dining.
Guarantee Cabin: This refers to booking a cabin category without choosing a specific room location. These cabins are lower priced, but with the drawback of having the location assigned by the cruise line. If you’re not picky about the location of your stateroom, guarantee cabins on cruise ships are a great way to save money on your cruise vacation.
Obstructed View Stateroom: You may have an ocean view or balcony cabin, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have unobstructed ocean views. Obstructed view staterooms have an object, such as equipment or a lifeboat, in the direct view of your window or balcony. These staterooms cost less than those with unobstructed views.
Veranda: Veranda is another word term used to describe a balcony. The word originates from the Hindi varandā, but it is related to the Spanish baranda, meaning “railing.”
French Balcony: French balconies are located on the interior of an outside-facing stateroom. They are often a result of modifications to older cruise ships or added as a lower category cabin. Though termed a balcony, it’s more of a wall-to-wall open window.
Virtual Balcony: Virtual balconies are wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling screens providing the illusion of a balcony for interior staterooms. They project real-time video of the outside, so your virtual balcony displays precisely what you would see from a real balcony.
Virtual Porthole: Like a virtual balcony, a virtual porthole projects real-time outside video. They provide interior cabins with the feeling of a porthole. Despite sounding tacky, they provide an extraordinarily realistic view.
Pullman Bed: Pullman beds are like little bunk beds where the top bed pulls down from the ceiling or wall above the main bed, accessible by a ladder. If you book with three or four people to a cabin, your cabin may have a Pullman bed.
Double Occupancy: Double occupancy indicates two people booked in a stateroom. The advertised cruise fare is often based on the double occupancy rate. Additionally, cruise lines often use double occupancy as the measurement of passenger capacity, as it is unrealistic that every stateroom would be booked at maximum capacity (e.x. two passengers staying in a cabin that could hold four.)
Single Occupancy: Most cruise lines charge a single occupancy rate to solo cruisers. The single occupancy rate adds a solo supplement. The total cruise fare for single occupancy is often near the cost of booking two people in a cabin.
Solo Cabins or Studio Cabins: Some cruise ships have staterooms dedicated to solo travelers. Solo cabins or studio cabins are comparably smaller than typical cabins, but they are cheaper as they forgo the solo supplement. If you’re cruising solo, look for cruise ships with solo cabins.
Triple and Quad Cabins: As the name suggests, triple and quad cabins can accommodate three or four passengers.
Towel Animals: One of my favorite memories from cruising as a child is returning to the cabin and finding a beautiful towel animal on the bed. Room stewards often create cute towel creations to put a smile on your face. You’ll usually find them on family-oriented cruise lines.
Types of Cruises
Charter: People or tour operators may book out an entire ship to host a special event.
Repositioning Cruise: A sailing occurs when a cruise ship transfers to another part of the world. For example, a cruise ship offering Caribbean itineraries may reposition to the Mediterranean for two months. Repositioning cruises are often cheaper than regular itineraries as cruise lines look to fill the vessel to earn revenue from an expensive voyage.
World Cruise: As the name suggests, a world cruise offers an extensive itinerary that sails around the globe and visits several continents. World cruises may last anywhere from two to twelve months.
Canal Cruise: A type of cruise that sails through a canal. Popular canal cruises such as the Panama canal take passengers on a unique voyage through several ship locks.
Barge Cruise: The smallest-sized cruise ship available. They usually consist of six to sixteen people. The cruise acts as a floating hotel able to traverse very shallow and narrow waterways.
Expedition Cruise: Expedition cruises offer sailings to the most remote locations in the world. These cruises emphasize the journey, adventure, and experience with a special focus on adventurous shore excursions.
River Cruise: A river cruise is sailing along inland waterways. In our opinion, river cruising is totally underrated. We love the calmness of river sailing, intimate ships, and uniqueness of itineraries. If you’ve only sailed on ocean cruises, you should definitely take a look at river cruising.
Day Cruise: A cruise that sails for a limited number of hours and does not include an overnight stay. Day cruises are typically limited to media and press tours.
Transatlantic: A cruise that sails across the Atlantic. Before airplanes, transatlantic sailings were the only transportation between Europe and North America. The ocean liner Queen Mary 2 regularly sails traditional transatlantic voyages from South Hampton to New York.
Cruise to Nowhere: A cruise itinerary that consists only of sea days before returning. They are typically only a few days long and don’t call in any ports.
Closed-Loop Cruise: A closed-loop cruise starts and ends in the same port. For example, a voyage that departs and returns to Miami, Florida, is an example of a closed-loop cruise.
Open-Jaw Cruise: An open jaw cruise starts and ends at different ports. Passengers embark at one port and disembark in another. For example, a voyage that departs Seattle, Washington, and arrives in Ketchikan, Alaska, is an open-jaw cruise.
Cruise Ship Dining Terminology
Assigned Seating: Many cruise lines provide assigned tables in the main dining room. The assigned seating is usually dinner-specific.
Early and Late Dining: Some cruise lines with assigned seating split dining times into two seatings. The first and second seating is often referred to as early and late dining.
Open Dining (or Open Seating): Many cruise lines offer open seating, whereby passengers may eat in the main dining room without a specified time for seating. Norwegian Cruise Line only offers open dining, which they call Freestyle dining. Other cruise lines, such are Princess Cruises and Celebrity Cruises, provide passengers with the option of set dining times or open dining. While open dining offers more flexibility, you may need to wait in line for an empty table.
Specialty Restaurants: Specialty restaurants refer to alternative dining choices that aren’t included in the base cruise fare. Specialty restaurants offer an intimate dining experience with a better culinary experience. The ship charges the meal to your onboard account when eating at a specialty restaurant.
Maitre d’Hotel (Maitre d’, for short): The Maitre d’ is in charge of the restaurant on the ship. This person greets customers, supervises the restaurant staff, and ensures that the experience meets the highest quality standards.
Captain’s Table: As the name suggests, the captain’s table is a chance to enjoy dinner with the ship’s captain.
Ship Crew Member and Staff Terms
Captain: The ship’s captain holds the ultimate command and responsibility of the vessel. In addition to steering and navigating the boat, the captain is responsible for the safety of all passengers and crew.
Cruise Director: You’ll often find the cruise director leading activities around the ship. During your sailing, the cruise director acts as the face of the cruise, and it’s their job to be friendly and outgoing.
Cabin Steward or Cabin Attendant: The cabin steward is responsible for cleaning and maintaining your stateroom. These crew members work hard to keep your room tidy and clean for when you return.
Deckhand: The deckhand is responsible for maintaining the exterior of the ship. They are responsible for general cleaning and maintenance of the deck areas and ship gear. They are also the ones responsible for loading and unloading supplies and equipment.
Bosun (Boatswain): A bosun is the highest-ranking, non-officer role in the deck department. Among their responsibilities, a bosun supervises deckhands, coordinates work, coaches staff members, maintains ship appearance, and overseas the mooring and anchoring operations.
Purser: The purser is responsible for handling the ship’s finances. Specifically, the chief purser oversees the staff who manage money, passenger accounts, and guest services.
Porter: The porter is responsible for helping passengers with their luggage. They are employed by the port authority, not the ship.
Passenger-Crew Ratio: The ratio of the number of passengers to the crew. The ratio gives a quick feel for the quality of service on board a cruise ship. In theory, the lower the ratio, the better the service. A ratio of 1:1 (a ratio only seen on luxury ships) means that there is one crew member for every passenger on board the vessel. Ratios of 3:1 are considered good.
Cruise Terminal: The building where you check-in for your cruise and board your ship. Like how airplanes have airports, cruise ships have terminals or cruise ports.
Port: A maritime facility with loading areas for ships to load and unload passengers and cargo.
Home Port: The primary cruise port for a ship. The home port is the port where the cruise ship begins most cruise itineraries.
Cay (Pronounced “kay” ): A small, sandy island with a low elevation on the surface of a coral reef.
Marina: A dock or basin that provides mooring services for small boats and yachts.
Dry Dock: A dock that can be drained of water to allow for construction, maintenance, and repair work on ships.
Shipyard: A facility where ships are built and repaired.
Port: When facing towards the front (bow) of the ship, the port is on your left. If you face the back of the boat (aft), the port is on your right.
Starboard: When facing towards the front (bow) of the ship, the starboard is on your right. If you face the back of the boat (aft), the starboard is on your left.
If you need help remembering port and starboard, check out our article: How to remember port and starboard on a cruise ship.
Bow/Forward: The front of the ship.
Stern: The rearmost part of the exterior of the ship.
Aft: The rearmost part of the interior of the ship.
Prime Meridian: Prime meridian is the earth’s zero of longitude (0º), which passes through Greenwich, England. Together with the anti-meridian, they divide the earth into two hemispheres.
Nautical Twilight (Nautical Dawn): Nautical twilight begins in the morning when the sun’s center is between 6 to 12 degrees below the horizon. During nautical twilight, the stars and horizon are visible, even on moonless nights, allowing sailors to take reliable star readings for navigational purposes.
Celestial Navigation: Navigation by observing the sun, moon, and stars. Before advancements in technology, celestial navigation was the primary method for sailors.
Midship: The middle of a ship or boat.
Overall Length: The length of a ship from bow to stern.
Beam: A measure of the width of a ship or boat.
Gross Tonnage: A measure of a ship’s overall internal volume. Gross tonnage is determined by dividing by 100 the contents, in cubic feet, of the vessel’s enclosed spaces.
Wake: A moving ship generates a tace on the water’s surface. The frothy white water trailing a moving vessel is called the wake. Watching the ship wake as you sail away from the port can be mesmerizing.
Berth: The term berth has a dual meaning. The first is a name for a bed on a ship. The second is a space where a vessel may be moored.
Helm: The helm is the position from which the captain steers the vessel. It also refers to the lever or wheel that controls the rudder on a ship.
Hull: The main body or structure of a vessel. The hull includes the bottom, sides, and deck of the ship. The watertight hull is how cruise ships float.
Porthole: A small exterior window on a ship. Portholes are usually circular.
Mast: On a sailboat, the mast is a pole rising vertically from the hull, which serves to support the sail. There is only one mast on a small sailboat, but larger boats have several.
Mainsail: The largest and most important sail on a boat. On a square-rigged vessel, the mainsail is the lowest and largest sail on the mast.
Boom: The boom is a thick pole that extends at a 90-degree angle from the mast. It anchors the bottom of the sail and provides sailors with greater control and maneuverability.
Rudder: The rudder is an underwater verticle blade positioned at the vessel’s stern. It is controlled at the helm and is the primary method of steering. When the captain turns the wheel, it rotates the rudder. As the rudder rotates, the vessel’s head turns in the same direction.
Mooring: Refers to a permanent structure to which a ship can attach.
Docking: The act of mooring a ship at a dock.
Latitude: A geographic coordinate that specifies the north-south position on the earth’s surface. Latitude lines run in parallel lines from east to west. When looking at a globe, latitude lines are horizontal. The latitude angle ranges from 0° at the equator to 90° at the poles.
Longitude: A geographic coordinate that specifies the east-west position on the earth’s surface. Latitude lines run in parallel lines from north to south. When looking at the planet, longitude lines run vertically.
Equator: The equator is a latitude circle dividing the earth into the Northern and Southern hemispheres. It is located exactly halfway between the North and South poles. The equator’s location is at 0 degrees latitude.
Flag Country: The country where the ship is registered. You can quickly identify the ship’s flag country by looking at the ship’s stern, where you’ll usually find a flag and the country’s name.
If you are curious about why cruise ships have a different flag country, check out our article: Why do cruise ships sail under foreign flags?
Knots: Knots are a unit of speed used by ships and are short for nautical miles per hour. One knot is equivalent to 1.15 land miles per hour. Cruise ships have cruising speeds of around 22 knots.
Provisions: Refers to supplies needed on the ship
Lock: A device used to raise and lower ships between stretches of water at different levels.
Zodiacs: Small inflatable boats used for water bases shore excursions. Zodiacs are named after the company that invented them. The inflatable boats were created in the 1930s for the military but are now commonly used in tourism.
Stabilizers: Stabilizers are fin-like devices mounted to the ship’s hull beneath the waterline. They help counter the roll of a vessel due to waves or wind and provide a smoother ride for passengers.
Anchor: A heavy object attached to a rope or chain used to keep a vessel stationary.
Galley: The galley is another name for the kitchen of the ship. Many cruise lines offer tours of the galley, which provide a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world hidden from passengers.
Cruise Industry Acronyms
OBC (Onboard Credit): Onboard credit can be used like cash for purchases on the ship. You might receive onboard credits as an incentive offered by a travel agent or cruise line.
GTY (Guarantee Cabin): An abbreviation for guarantee cabin (see the definition above for guarantee cabins).
FCC (Future Cruise Credit): Future cruise credits work little like store credits. Cruise lines offer FCCs in place of refunds which can be redeemed when booking a new sailing. Always read the fine print as they almost always have expiry dates.
TA: Short for a travel agent.
Cruise Industry Organizations
CLIA: The Cruise Line International Association is the world’s largest cruise industry trade association based on the number of passenger ships operated by CLIA members. Among other responsibilities, the CLIA’s focus is to set standards for cruise lines and represent the interests of the cruise industry. According to their website, “CLIA is the global organization that fosters our members’ success by advocating, educating, and promoting the common interests of the cruise community.”
NOAA: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association is part of the US Department of Commerce. Their responsibilities include “daily weather forecasts, severe storm warnings, and climate monitoring to fisheries management, coastal restoration and supporting marine commerce.”