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The captain of National Geographic Resolution watches the landscape from the bridge. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)

5 Ways to Go Behind the Scenes on a Cruise Ship

The captain of National Geographic Resolution watches the landscape from the bridge. (Photo: Colleen McDaniel)
Jac Taylor
Lori A. May

Sep 6, 2023

Read time
6 min read

Ever wondered what goes on inside a cruise ship and what makes it all tick? From food prep at specialty restaurants to what room stewards do for their guests, there's only so much information the average passenger can glean about life onboard ships.

Like any hospitality operation, the "front of house" only scratches the surface. It's the "back of house" that forms the humming heart of the ship. Separate passageways, sections and whole decks can be set aside for crew operations, with only a few passengers allowed behind the scenes. After you score your next cruise deal, consider one of these five ways to see another side of cruising.

1. The Captain's Table: An Invitation to Dine in Style on Your Cruise Ship

Every intrigue that has taken place aboard any cruise ship on TV seems to reach its zenith at the Captain's Table. In real life, there are no guarantees of shipboard drama, but it's certainly true that the ship's Captain is the person with their finger on the pulse. So, if you want to know the real gossip on ship goings-on, this is the invitation to score.

However, there seems to be just as much mystery around how to get an invitation to dine with the Captain in the first place. Cutting through rumors and strategizing, our best advice is to treat it like trying to get a flight upgrade: dress well, be friendly and polite with staff, stand out with your general bonhomie, and it helps if you are a cruising regular.

The cruise line advises crew if there are any notables (rich and famous or media) on board, but if your dinner table in the main dining room is observed to be having a delightful time every night, then you might just be asked to bring that delight to dine with the Captain one night, too. Bring your best cruise attire -- it's always a formal affair with the Captain.

2. Ship Tours: Pay for a Behind-the-Scenes Cruise Ship Tour

Most major cruise lines organize guided tours of the ship for a small group. Lasting one to four hours, these tours may cover the bridge, galley (kitchens), laundry, recycling, engine control room, backstage of the theater, the mooring deck and the crew's mess hall. Some tours include drinks, snacks, lunch or a take-home souvenir. You might also meet a captain and officers, chief engineer, head chef or hotel director.

Reservations will be required for the best cruise ship tours and may be available immediately after booking, or once aboard, but note that they sell out quickly. On smaller ships that don't have hosted tours, it doesn't hurt to politely ask permission to see the area that interests you.

For a quick look behind the scenes, Royal Caribbean has peekaboo windows above the bridge on their Voyager-class ships. Many expedition ships have an "open bridge policy," which means you can go and see how the captain and officers control the vessel at almost any time (except when arriving into or departing from a port).

3. Chef's Table or Galley Tour: A Taste and Tour (Free or for a Fee)

Galley Tour on Celebrity Infinity (Photo: Cruise Critic)

Are you curious as to how all those cruise meals just keep rolling out, often 24 hours a day with room service, seven days a week? Between feeding different palates and ensuring dietary restrictions are met, cruise chefs are responsible for a great deal.

If you're not quite up to spending money and time on a full behind-the-scenes tour, galley tours are available for guests of some cruise lines (such as Cunard and Celebrity) for free. Even if it's not a listed tour, ask at the tour desk when you first arrive.

On other lines, it's offered as part of a Chef's Table experience, which can be booked through the specialty dining reservation desk. The experience most often includes the executive chef leading a small group of guests to a table in the galley itself, while on other ships there is a dedicated intimate dining space.

We've tried the Chef's Table on Carnival Cruise Line and we've even experienced Seabourn's Shopping with the Chef, a different sort of food prep tour. For a look at what goes into preparing just one meal, guests can book Carnival Kitchen on Carnival Cruise Line or try a hands-on demo with America's Test Kitchen on Holland America Line.

4. Be an Onboard Speaker: Share Your Expertise with Others on Your Cruise

Now it's time for something completely different. If you like the idea of enjoying everything a cruise has to offer, but want to get more involved, perhaps you'll enjoy signing up as a guest speaker.

There are multiple agencies with which you can register; when you do, make sure you "brand" yourself clearly with the skills that make you stand out. You'll need to be able to either speak about travel destinations with expertise, or to lecture about an "enrichment" subject, such as astronomy or photography. You may also be interested in speaking aboard themed cruises.

If your application is approved, you will then pay a small daily fee to sail. It's not a paid job, but that fee will be cheaper than the cost of the cruise if you had simply bought it outright and you won't get caught paying too much for a cruise.

During your cruise, you and your cabin companion will be treated like normal passengers and given plenty of free time. In most cases, you will present several one-hour talks per cruise, likely on sea days, and will help set up with the ship's entertainment staff.

It's quite easy to get a gig if you have a popular field of expertise and some speaking experience, although you won't have complete say over which cruises might want to book you. If the ships that want you aren't cruising locally, you will need to factor in the price of airfares.

5. Read Cruise Books: Crew Members Share Their Onboard Experiences

Of course, all these tours and products keep you at arm's length from the real life below deck. If you want to let your imagination run riot about what's happening around you while you're settled in your deck chair, bring some tell-all tales about crew life on board.

"Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline" by Brian David Bruns is a rollicking good read, based on the author's experiences working for Carnival. "The Truth About Cruise Ships" by Jay Herring gets very saucy, very quickly -- also based on his work for Carnival. Meanwhile, "Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Member" is written by travel writer Joshua Kinser and gets straight into the answers to all the behind-the-scenes questions you want to ask your cruise crew.

Updated September 06, 2023
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