If you've ever wondered what goes on below decks, cruise ship tours offer an interesting peek behind the curtain. For a fee, passengers can learn how everything works, see who's doing your laundry or washing your dishes, marvel at the logistics of feeding several thousand people and, on some ships, visit the bridge and learn about navigation.
It's important to be organized -- some cruise lines hold only one behind-the-scenes event per sailing, usually on a sea day, so they do tend to book up, despite the relatively high cost. If you want to register an interest, head for Guest Relations as soon as you board.
Note that these tours are not usually suitable for wheelchair users; you may be able to visit some of the areas but probably not all. What's more, the tour may not include the bridge, so check first if that's your main objective; in these times of heightened security, some lines have stopped all passenger visits to the bridge. Don't expect to hang out in the crew bar or see the crew cabins; some areas are sacred and crew privacy and peace need to be respected.
Here are our top picks for the most interesting cruise ship tours.
Princess Cruises offers, in our opinion, the best and most comprehensive behind-the-scenes tour. Although it's expensive, at $150 per person, a lot of consideration has gone into planning the three-hour onboard "excursion," and you do come away with several decent freebies.
The tour starts backstage in the theater, so you meet the production crew and some of the cast and see the costumes and dressing rooms. In the galley, you enjoy a glass of Champagne with the chef, a canape tasting and a tour of the storage and food preparation areas.
Then it's on to the engine room, the incinerator room -- where you'll meet the ship's environmental officer -- and the print shop, where the daily program is produced, with a set of personalized stationery for each person on the tour. The tour also includes the photo lab, medical center and the laundry room, where you're given a bathrobe to take home.
The tour highlight is a trip to the uppermost deck to look inside the funnel and to get a bird's-eye view over the decks. The tour finishes on the bridge to meet the captain and pose for a photo with him or her by the wheel. Each participant is given the photo and a certificate.
The Ultimate Ship Tour is offered on sea days, once or twice per cruise, and has to be booked via the Passenger Services Desk.
Celebrity Cruises offers Inside Access tours on each cruise, which are conducted in small groups and last three hours. Prices start at $99 and vary depending upon the tour length. You'll get to stroll down the I-95, the main corridor that runs the length of the ship, named after the main interstate highway on the East Coast of the U.S. because of its motorway-like quality. You'll see the laundry room, galley, provisions area, engine room and finally, the bridge, although this may be subject to change. Arrange one of these tours via the Guest Relations desk.
Carnival Cruises' Behind the Fun tour has a nice VIP feel about it since, on top of the usual stops (backstage, laundry room, crew galley, bridge, etc.) and the crew training center, there is a cool emphasis on meeting the people behind the cruise. You might meet the captain, chief engineer and/or the chef de cuisine.
There's time set aside to pose for photos with the captain. Tour participants also receive a few commemorative gifts. Bookings are only taken at the Shore Excursion Desk once you have boarded the ship. The price varies upon the length of the tour (which is based upon the length of your itinerary) and ranges from $55 to $95.
Royal Caribbean treats its All Access Tour as an excursion, so you can prebook it online, which is handy since space is limited. The tour is an extensive journey through the backstage areas of the ship, from the galley and the stores to the engine control room, the laundry and the I-95 crew corridor. There's also a bridge visit, subject to security levels, and a gift on completion of the tour. The price ($50 to $130) and tour itinerary vary by ship and sailing.
Hats off to MSC Cruises for keeping its behind-the-scenes tours affordable at $63 for adults ($33 for children). The Big Reveal is available on all MSC ships, except Lirica, and can be booked at reception.
You'll get to see backstage in the theater, the laundry room, provisions area and the galley. There's also a sneak peek at the Yacht Club, MSC's exclusive all-suites area, with a chance to chat to the butlers and the concierge there -- a smart move on the part of the cruise line to get passengers to trade up on their next cruise.
Finally, there's a stop in one of the ship's specialty restaurants with a chance to meet the chef and try some of the food, with a chef's apron as a souvenir. Unfortunately, there is no engine room or bridge visit.
The tour is available in five languages, and in addition to the apron, you'll get a discount on the cover charge for one of the specialty restaurants.
Members of Norwegian's loyalty club, Latitudes, who have reached Platinum level and above qualify for a free behind-the-scenes tour as one of their perks, but other cruisers can pay $79 to join a tour. These tours operate once per cruise, so you need to book as soon as you can. They can only be reserved onboard.
You'll see the galley, laundry room and stores, and visit the cold storage area, the butchery and the bakery. There's a talk about the ship's environmental systems, a walk along the I-95 and a look backstage at the theater. Passengers are given a commemorative photo of the ship, although there's no bridge visit.
Cunard offers one Behind-the-Scenes tour per voyage on cruises of more than seven days. It takes about three hours to show no more than 16 passengers the workings of a Cunard Queen. The tour costs $120.
You're issued with a cool "access all areas" pass and then whisked down to see the mooring deck where you can marvel at the massive anchor winches, followed by a visit to the medical center. You'll check out waste management, inspect the engine control room with the chief engineer and visit the food stores. Then it's off to the galley with the executive chef and backstage with the production staff.
A stop for refreshments and canapes and a detailed visit to the bridge, to meet the captain and navigational officers, are also included. The tour finishes with a take-home goody bag and commemorative pin.
Our tip? Although all three Cunard Queens are impressive vessels, there's something special about getting behind the scenes on Queen Mary 2, given its global fame and enormous size. Reserve your tour via the Guest Relations desk.
Getting backstage in the entertainment areas (including the incredible wardrobe) is a highlight of Holland America's Back of the House Tour. You'll also check out the navigation bridge, engine control room, laundry, waste management room, marshalling area and a selection of storerooms.
While this tour is expensive at $150 per person, tours of just the galley and kitchen are often offered free of charge. The Back of the House Tour is offered once on a seven-night cruise and twice on cruises of 14 nights or more. These can be booked at reception once onboard.