Cruise Lingo 101

by  Donna Heiderstadt | Feb 14, 2022

Sometimes taking your first cruise can feel a bit like learning a foreign language. Is the ship's port side on the left or the right? Is your muster station aft or mid-ship? And what does the captain mean when they say the ship is traveling at 20 knots?

The lingo may be a bit different than you're used to on land, which is why we created a glossary of the shipboard terminology you're likely to encounter when booking, boarding, and enjoying a cruise. Here's every cruise term you can ever imagine. 

Booking & Boarding


Cruise fare: The price of a cruise (per person, based on double occupancy), excluding taxes and port fees.

Port fees: An additional expense covering the dockage, pilotage, customs, and other fees charged by the ports visited that are passed on to the passenger. Port fees are added to the base cruise fare at the time of booking and vary based on the itinerary and number of ports visited.

All-inclusive: A cruise fare (usually on luxury and premium cruise lines) that typically includes alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, crew gratuities, and specialty dining. Wifi, (some) shore excursions, and airport transfers are often part of all-inclusive fares.

Read more: The Best All-Inclusive Perks at Sea

Guarantee cabin: A cruise fare that allows the cruise line to pick your cabin, often at a price lower than an assigned cabin in the same category chosen at the time of booking.

Wave season: Every year from January to March, cruise lines offer promotions, deals, and discounts designed to generate bookings—during what's known as wave season.

Read more: 10 Tips for Getting the Best Cruise Deals During Wave Season

Itinerary: The specific route that the ship will take. This can range from two days to more than 120 days and is categorized by region: Eastern Caribbean, Western Caribbean, Mediterranean, Baltic, Greek Islands, Alaska, Australia & New Zealand, and more.

Read more: 12 Amazing Small-Ship Cruise Itineraries for 2022 & 2023

Port of call: The city a ship will visit—and there are hundreds of possibilities around the world.

Sail date: The day the ship welcomes passengers and departs from the port of embarkation.

Embarkation: When you board a ship at the beginning of a cruise; the city where you board is called the port of embarkation.

Disembarkation: When you leave the ship at the end of a cruise; the city where you exit the ship and head home is called the port of disembarkation. 

Cruise terminal: The building within the port where cruise lines check-in passengers, much like an airline terminal.

Close-loop sailing: A cruise that begins and ends in the same port (AKA a roundtrip sailing). 

Open-jaw sailing: A cruise that begins in one port and ends in another.

Sea day: A day spent entirely at sea, without a port call.

Crossing: A voyage across the water, such as a transatlantic cruise from New York, New York to Southampton, England, or vice-versa.

Repositioning cruise: A longer voyage marking the end of the cruise season in one region and the beginning of one in another. These often involve an ocean crossing, from the Mediterranean across the Atlantic to the Caribbean in the fall or vice versa in the spring, for example. Repositioning cruises can be of great value—that is, if you don't mind a lot of time at sea.

World cruise: As the name implies, these lengthy sailings last 100 days or more and typically visit several dozen countries on five or six continents.

Loyalty program: Like airline frequent flier programs, cruise line loyalty programs reward repeat passengers with onboard perks and upgrades.

Upgrade: A change by the cruise line to a passenger's booking, often one category higher.

The Ship


Gangway: The ramp-like stairs used to embark and disembark a ship; in larger ports, the cruise terminal will have gangways connecting to the ship, much like an airport gate to a plane.

Aft: A directional term for the rear of the ship. You'll often hear this used in reference to aft-facing staterooms or aft infinity pools.

Stern: The technical term for the rear of the ship.

Wake: The frothy trail a ship leaves behind it as it moves through the water.

Forward: A directional term for the front of the ship.

Bow: The literal front of the ship, where the sides of the hull come together. It's the spot where Jack and Rose strike their famous "king of the world" pose in Titanic.

Keel: The bottom center of the ship, located below the water.

Port: The left side of the ship. (A tip for remembering this: Both port and left have four letters.)

Starboard: The right side of the ship.

Midship: The center of the ship. This term is often used when referring to muster stations, stairways, or gangway locations.

Leeward: The side of the ship that is most sheltered from the wind.

Windward: The side of the ship from which the wind is blowing.

Deck: The levels or floors of a ship, which are often numbered and named—the Lido Deck, Promenade Deck, or Sun Deck, for example.

Bridge: The control center of the ship that holds all of the navigation and communication equipment; it's where the captain and officers work.

Knot: The speed at which a ship moves through the water, with a knot being one nautical mile (the equivalent of 1.15 land miles) per hour. 

Nautical mile: A unit for measuring distances at sea; equivalent to 2,025 yards.

Tender: A small boat, often one of the ship's lifeboats, that's used to ferry passengers ashore from an anchored position at a port that doesn't have a cruise ship dock (referred to as a tender port). 

Zodiac: An inflatable boat used by expedition cruise ships to take passengers ashore in Antarctica, the Arctic, and other remote destinations.

Read more: 7 Things to Know Before Booking an Antarctica Cruise


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Inside Cabin/Stateroom: A windowless cabin, varying in size from snug to similar to standard oceanview and balcony staterooms, that offers value. The lowest prices for a cruise are usually for inside cabins unless the ship doesn't have them (most luxury ships don't). 

Oceanview Cabin/Stateroom: This category of cabins is located on the lower decks and offers a view outside, typically through a porthole-shaped window. 

Balcony Cabin/Stateroom: Also sometimes referred to as a veranda stateroom, most cabins on most cruise ships fall into this category. Passengers who book these cabins enjoy access to a small private outdoor sitting area via a sliding glass door.

Obstructed view: A balcony or oceanview cabin with something (usually a lifeboat) blocking or partially blocking the view.

Virtual balcony or porthole: A special effect in inside cabins (mainly found on a handful of Royal Caribbean and Disney ships) that projects a live feed from outside onto one of the walls.

Suite: Anything larger than a standard balcony cabin. These range from junior suites (or mini-suites), which are slightly larger, to Owner's suites, which are usually the top accommodation. Most suite cabins include special onboard perks or privileges.

Family cabin: A stateroom that can accommodate more than three passengers.

Spa cabin: A stateroom designed for passengers who intend to frequent the spa. They are often located near the spa and come with in-cabin amenities.

Accessible Cabin/Stateroom: These cabins are typically roomier than standard cabins and have unique design features (think: wider doors, grab bars, shower benches, and lowered closet rods) intended for passengers with disabilities. 

Studio or Solo Cabin: A cabin, typically a smaller inside one, designed for a single guest. Not all cruise ships have them, but they are increasingly popular with solo cruisers looking to avoid paying a single supplement;  some new or renovated ships offer a small number of them.

Single supplement: The extra charge levied on a solo traveler who wants to occupy a cabin priced for double occupancy. The surcharge can vary from as little as 10 percent to as much as 100 percent of the cruise fare.

Onboard credit: Also known as an OBC, this is a dollar amount credited to a passenger's stateroom—as a bonus perk for booking during a promotion or for the cancellation of a shore excursion that was paid for before embarkation, for example—and must be used during the cruise. That means some or all of your charges (for beverages, specialty dining, onboard shopping, or spa treatments) can be erased from your bill at the end of the cruise. Yippee!

Crew appreciation: Also known as crew gratuities or tips, this is a daily amount added to a passenger's stateroom account on cruises that aren't priced on an all-inclusive basis. These funds are distributed among the crew employed throughout the ship. 

Key card: Like a hotel room key card, a ship's key card (also called a cruise card) provides access to a cabin—but it's also your ID card. It should be carried at all times and will be scanned at the gangway as you disembark and embark the ship in port. 

Crew quarters: The living and sleeping area for the hard-working men and women who work aboard the ship. This area is located on the lower decks and is not accessible to passengers.

The Staff

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Officers: The team of highly trained professionals responsible for getting a cruise ship from port to port and across oceans, as well as protecting the safety of passengers on board. They are distinguished by their crisp black or white uniforms with golden stripes, called epaulettes, on the shoulders. The more stripes, the higher the rank.

Captain: The individual in charge of the ship and who leads the officers in its operation. They can be distinguished by a uniform with the fanciest epaulettes.

Staff Captain: The second in command. Staff cabins must be familiar with all aspects of the ship and take command should the captain be indisposed.

Chief Engineer: The officer responsible for the proper operation and maintenance of the ship. 

Hotel Manager: The shipboard equivalent of a hotel manager who oversees the hospitality staff across housekeeping, the galley, restaurants, bars, and lounges.

Purser: The money guy (or gal) who's in charge of onboard billing. 

Cruise Director: The typically vivacious person who coordinates all onboard entertainment and activities (like Julie from the 1970s TV series, The Love Boat), acts as an emcee in the theater or lounge during nighttime performances, and makes port-related announcements. 

Crew: The hundreds and even thousands of onboard workers who keep all aspects of a cruise ship running—from operating the engine room and laundry room to cooking and serving in the restaurants and cleaning cabins and public spaces.

Cabin Steward: The individual responsible for the cleaning of your cabin. Cabin stewards will generally greet you upon arrival. Throughout your voyage, cabin stewards are tasked with keeping your space super-tidy, as well as delivering the in-cabin printed daily schedule, turn-down chocolates, and, on some cruise lines, towel animals (a towel folded into one of many animal shapes).

Butler: On some small luxury ships, suite guests are also serviced by a butler, who can make onboard dining reservations, collect clothes that need to be pressed or laundered, and deliver late afternoon cocktails and hors d'oeuvres.


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SOLAS: The acronym of Safety of Life at Sea, the regulations that cruise ships must follow to ensure the safety of passengers and crew.

Muster drill: The required protocol for all cruise ships before they set sail. All passengers must participate by gathering at their assigned muster station (or, since COVID-19, this sometimes means watching a video in their staterooms) as crew members explain the general emergency signal, how to put on a life jacket, and other safety protocols.

Muster station: The place on the ship that's assigned to each passenger as the spot to gather for a muster drill or if the general emergency alarm sounds. Passengers will find their muster station indicated on the inside of their stateroom door and their key card as A, B, C, D (and so on), which corresponds to a public space, such as a theater, restaurant, or lounge.

General emergency signal: The loud alarm of seven short horn blasts followed by one long blast that sounds if passengers are required to gather at their muster station.

Life jacket: The bulky, bright orange flotation device used in emergencies. These are typically stowed on a shelf inside each cabin. 

Lifeboat: The smaller enclosed vessels attached to certain outside decks of a cruise ship and intended to be used in the case of an onboard emergency.

Crew safety drill: Passengers get one muster drill per cruise, but the ship's crew practices safety drills more often, typically when passengers are ashore, so you may hear announcements if you're on board when they occur.

Sea legs: The term used to connote having adjusted to the rolling movement of a ship in moderate to high seas without losing one's balance.


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Main dining room: A large restaurant (or restaurants, since many cruise ships have multiple dining rooms) that serves á la carte menus for dinner and often breakfast and lunch.

Buffet restaurant: Almost all ships have a buffet-style restaurant, often called a café, that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. In light of COVID-19, these are no longer self-serve. Instead, crew members now dole out what passengers ask for from behind Plexiglas partitions. 

Specialty dining: The term refers to smaller dining venues—steakhouses, Italian or French restaurants, and sushi bars, for example—that require a reservation and, on most major cruise lines, an added charge. On some luxury vessels, specialty dining is included in the cruise fare.

Complimentary/Included: Cruise lines use the term "complimentary" or "included" to indicate that dining in a restaurant will not incur an added charge.

Early seating: To accommodate passengers in the main dining rooms, cruise ships traditionally have two seatings. Those who choose the early seating generally dine at 6 p.m.

Late seating: The second seating in the main restaurant that typically starts at 8 p.m.

Open seating: Some cruise lines have ditched early and late seating times for open seating, meaning passengers can eat whenever they want during the 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. dining period (although there may be a wait for a table during popular dining times).

Galley: The ship's kitchen, a massive prep and cooking space that services the main dining room. Ships with multiple specialty dining restaurants often also have smaller individual galleys.

Beverage package: An add-on available to passengers aboard cruise ships with fares that aren't all-inclusive. A beverage package offers unlimited non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages for a set daily fee or a flat fee covering the entire cruise duration. Some cruise lines use free beverage packages as part of their deals and promotions.

Open bar: Free open bar is another way of saying that beverages (typically standard but not premium wines or spirits) will not incur an additional cost.

Onboard Activities

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Sail away: When passengers gather on the top deck or in a panoramic lounge, sometimes for a sail-away party with cocktails, to enjoy the view as the ship sails away from the port.

Shore excursions: The tours and activities offered by the cruise line when a ship is in port (most times, these cost extra, although a few luxury lines include some excursions in the cruise fare). 

Private island: A tropical cay (a small island pronounced like "key") typically in the Bahamas and off the coast of Belize, owned by a cruise line. Many Caribbean itineraries call on them for a day of enjoying the beach, water sports, and other activities.

Dress code: These vary by cruise line, but most have a casual dress code by day and smart casual (a step up with collared shirts suggested and no tank tops) in dining rooms at night.

Formal night: Traditionally, most lines have one formal night, when passengers don cocktail dresses, evening gowns, suits, and tuxedoes to dine on special menus and take portraits (at an extra charge). Some lines maintain this tradition, while others have done away with it altogether, opting for a dress code that's "cruise elegant."

Captain's cocktail: A cocktail party, generally held in the theater or largest lounge, with drinks and hors d'oeuvres served as the captain introduces the ship's officers.

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