Zodiacs ships are small inflatable vessels that allow you to get up close to the wildlife. Credit: Seabourn

The A-Z of cruising

Author: Ben Olsen

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Nonplussed by nautical miles? Mystified by muster stations? You’re not alone, says Ben Olsen – but our guide to oceangoing lingo will help you pass as a pro.


A sure way to simplify onboard outgoings, all-inclusive packages quote a single price that covers your accommodation, meals, drinks, wi-fi and entertainment, as well as taxes, port fees and tips. While specifics vary between ships – some include alcoholic drinks, for example – going all-inclusive helps you avoid complicated bills at check-out.


Occupying a lofty position towards the front of any vessel, the bridge is the ship’s command centre. From here, the captain’s senior team oversees all onboard operations, from navigation and speed to steering and communication. Many cruise lines offer a guided tour of the bridge, which provides a fascinating insight into the ship’s functions – as well as excellent views.


Among the most sought-after invites on any cruise is the one seeking your company for dinner with the captain and their team. Seen as a privilege and often requiring more formal dress, these enigmatic requests usually arrive in paper form, with invitees ranging from VIPs and frequent travellers to first-time cruisers.


Providing a detailed layout of the ship and its staterooms (cabins), facilities, stairwells and safety areas, this document is an essential tool for finding your way around. With each level marked and facilities labelled with an accompanying glossary, the deck plan will help you maximise your time on board, with many companies offering downloadable and hard copy versions.


To ensure passengers are familiar with onboard safety procedures, mandatory briefings must be completed on the first day before the ship can legally set sail. While these vary, they’ll often include the ship’s alarm systems being sounded, with passengers assembling at their assigned muster station (see later entry), putting on a life jacket and responding to a roll call.


While dress codes on cruises have evolved over the years, with the conservative attire of old mostly replaced by a more relaxed approach, many cruises still host onboard formal nights throughout the week. Here, passengers are encouraged to dress up – think evening gowns and cocktail dresses for women and tailored suits or tuxedos for men.

Most cruise lines will have a Formal Night- an excuse to dress up in your fanciest clothing. Credit: Shutterstock


Following a centuries-old maritime tradition, newly built vessels are anointed by a chosen ‘godmother’ at a glamorous naming ceremony. Here she bestows her blessings upon the ship by smashing a bottle of Champagne against the hull for good fortune. Famous godmothers include Dame Judi Dench (Carnival Legend), Dame Helen Mirren (Scenic Eclipse) and the Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai (Celebrity Edge).


Every adventure has to start and end somewhere, and in the cruise world that tends to be at the home port – the location a ship sails from during the season. From here, passengers will join or leave their vessel as the crew restock and prepare for its next sailing. Cruises with far-reaching, multi-stop itineraries may not have a designated home port.


Be among the first to experience a new ship by joining an inaugural cruise. Usually the ship’s maiden voyage, these special sailings are often defined by a sense of celebration and one-off events. Yet while the chance to witness history in the making creates a unique onboard atmosphere, a ship’s newness might also mean service isn’t the smoothest.


Anticipation runs high during joining (embarkation), which marks the start of your journey. Armed with travel documents, passengers will check in at the cruise terminal and pass through security before boarding the ship and settling into their staterooms, where luggage should be waiting. Remember to double-check embarkation times and arrive with time to spare.


A ship’s speed is calculated in knots – a unit of speed equal to one nautical mile per hour. While top speeds can reach 30 knots, the average speed for most cruise ships is about 20 knots, ensuring better fuel efficiency and smoother sailing.


Many cruise lines have a points-based scheme that rewards returning passengers. These points often translate into lower prices or onboard benefits such as complimentary drinks, VIP lounge access or speciality dining. Disney’s Castaway Club, Royal Caribbean International’s Crown & Anchor Society, Celebrity’s Captain’s Club and Norwegian Cruise Line’s Latitudes Rewards are well known.

Queen Mary 2 is the world's last ocean liner. Credit: Shutterstock


These assembly points are places for passengers and crew to gather in the rare event of an emergency. Situated throughout the ship – usually on open decks and near lifeboats – they help to prevent overcrowding and confusion during a critical situation. Each passenger is assigned a muster station upon embarkation, with signs throughout the ship detailing their locations.


This is the unit of length used at sea, whether determining the distance between two ports or a country’s territorial waters. It is regarded as a more accurate measure for calculating distances on the Earth’s surface than the mile we use on land, as it takes the Earth’s curvature into account. Each nautical mile equates to 1.15 land miles (1.85km).


Whether included within your cruise deal, earned via credit card programmes or coming in the form of onboard casino winnings, this credit can be used on board to enhance your holiday. As well as paying for speciality dining or spa treatments, it can often be used for shore excursions. Be sure to spend before disembarking as it’s rarely possible to roll it over.


Simply put, this is the number of passengers divided by the number of crew, which gives a figure used to measure the level of service you can expect on board. The greater the number of crew there is per passenger, the more attentive the service is likely to be (and the higher the fare), making it an excellent point of comparison when booking a cruise.


Cunard’s flagship vessel, Queen Mary 2, is a maritime icon. A true ocean liner – the only one now sailing – she is built to withstand the rough conditions of her regular transatlantic service between Southampton and New York. Famed for her refined onboard service, reminiscent of the golden age of travel, QM2 remains a benchmark in the world of luxury travel.


Cruise ships are frequently “repositioned” between locations, usually the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, depending on the season or demand. Often sailing at higher speeds – which can make them feel choppier – and with more days at sea, these one-way journeys tend to offer passengers good value for money, as well as the chance to visit destinations that may not be added to regular itineraries.

The 2023 Wave Awards were held at The Dorchester hotel. Credit: AG Studios


Some ships can now plug into the domestic electrical supply at some cruise terminals – meaning they can cut their engines while in port, thus reducing emissions and noise. Alongside the rise of hybrid ships using battery power, this is an important step on the way to cruising’s sustainable future.


Two words that embody the spirit of any given cruise, these onboard evening events offer an opportunity to dress up and meet other passengers. Themed nights range from the sophisticated attire of formal occasions to more flamboyant affairs, including P&O Cruises’ Gatsby Parties, Virgin’s red-hued Scarlet Night and Disney’s larger-than-life Pirate Night.


Throughout any cruise you’re likely to meet crew in a range of uniforms that denote their job on board. Officers tend to wear epaulettes with stripes to denote their rank – the highest ranked captain and chief engineer wear four stripes, while the first officer, first engineer, chief stewardess and chef all wear three.


Many cruise lines offer 360° virtual tours of their ships, so you can get a taste of them before you book, or familiarise yourself with the layout before you depart. This means you can choose your favourite seat at a particular restaurant, for example, or take a peek inside a penthouse suite.


The annual Wave Awards, last held at The Dorchester hotel in November 2023, celebrate excellence across all aspects of the cruise sector. With categories spanning everything from overall performance to destinations, excursions, cuisine, entertainment, wellbeing and value for money, the awards are a great resource when considering your next cruise. While the event is produced by Real Response Media – publishers of World of Cruising and our sister title Cruise Trade News – the categories are independently judged by industry insiders.


Not willing to travel to another country to begin your cruise? Spare yourself the hassle of air travel by searching instead for ex-UK cruises, defined as those that depart from a British port such as Southampton, Dover or Newcastle, and otherwise known as no-fly cruises.

Cruise around Antarctica in ultra-luxury yacht Scenic Eclipse. Credit: Scenic Cruises


An emerging travel trend is the rise of small-ship cruises, on vessels that take their design cues from luxury yachts. These boutique ships – including new launches by Four Seasons, Aqua Expeditions and Ritz-Carlton – can access smaller ports and marinas, guaranteeing a more intimate cruising experience.


These small, military-style inflatable boats, carried by many of the expedition ships that operate in the Arctic and Antarctic, allow passengers to take a closer look at the landscape and wildlife on excursions. While they do require a certain degree of agility and balance to hop on and off, Zodiacs offer a thrilling perspective from right down near the waterline.

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