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From tendering to barges and tugboats, lots of things can potentially cause an odor aboard a cruise (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

What's That Cruise Ship Smell - And What to Do About It

From tendering to barges and tugboats, lots of things can potentially cause an odor aboard a cruise (Photo: Aaron Saunders)
Ramsey Qubein

Last updated
Dec 4, 2023

Read time
5 min read

Sailors both above and below deck are not immune to a variety of fragrances, smells and downright odors when they are cruising. Often, it can be attributed to things like fuel, seaweed, passing ships or even natural sulfur in some destinations.

But, much of the time, it is coming from somewhere around your cabin. If it were the wafting wake-up call of sizzling bacon or freshly brewed coffee, it would be welcome. However, if it is a stench, we need to know what it is and how to mitigate it.

Here are some of the most common odors reported by cruisers on Cruise Critic forums.

On This Page

The Cruise Ship Smell: Plumbing or Sewage Issues

Enclosed promenade decks often have plenty of fresh air intakes and exhausts (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

In such close quarters and with pipes only inches from cabin walls and floors, odors from plumbing can seep inside. If you smell something unfortunate, try turning on the shower or sink, as some readers report, to help flush water through the system. Another reader tip is to pour liquid like coffee directly down the drains to keep things flowing. In rough seas, odors from gray water in the pipes can release more easily from tanks when their protective flaps move splashing the water into the top of the drain.

This can also be the result of a toilet stoppage or overflow, which is a common occurrence when people flush anything other than toilet paper (against the recommendation of cruise lines). If you fear the scent is lingering, ask to have the carpets shampooed or better yet have air dryers push the scent out of the enclosed space. Sometimes, the remnants of a past guest can linger, but contacting guest relations can result in their finding a way to fix it (from a change in cabin, perhaps an upgrade, or a top-to-bottom clean of the room from the maintenance department).

Some readers suggest that being on a lower floor can lead to more smells since this is closer to the grey and black water storage areas. But, there is another interesting comment from the Cruise Critic community. The method that newer ships use to process waste takes place on board filtering the waste and then releasing it as clean water into the sea. The remaining waste is incinerated. Unfortunately, this odor can sometimes be released via the smoke stack and other outflow valves and then is at the mercy of the winds to see where the stench goes.

The Cruise Ship Smell: Smoking or Motion Sickness

Shipboard casinos can sometimes be a source of unwanted smoke. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Neither of these smells is something you want to experience when you enter your cabin, but they can linger within the fabrics. If caught smoking outside of designated areas, cruise lines impose fines to cover cleaning costs, but some travelers still smoke on their cabin balconies. This can be disturbing to people above and below or on either side. A fabric freshener spray or room deodorizer could make a big difference, say some travelers.

The results of motion sickness can be another unfortunate odor that can linger, especially if not cleaned properly. If you notice a stench, request to have it rectified immediately while you are away from your cabin. Many frequent cruisers report that carrying air freshener or freshener is their go-to method for saving the day from any type of odor.

When embarking for a new sailing, it is common to smell strong odors. This can be the result of cleaning supplies (some of which can smell like vomit, according to a cruise employee poster on Cruise Critic message boards). The smell may lead you to think there is something dirty nearby, but it is just the opposite.

The Cruise Ship Smell: Paint

New paint on a ship can often have a strong odor, but it's necesary for maintenance. (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

The harsh sea air and saltwater against a ship means the crew is constantly working to keep it in tip-top shape. The pungent odor of paint can often waft from the main decks into nearby cabins, but this will quickly dissipate over time.

It should be reassuring, instead of disconcerting, as the cruise line works to keep everything looking its finest. In fact, by the time the ship has been fully repainted, it is time to start from the beginning all over again. Luckily, cruisers online say that the smell is usually only temporary once the ship starts sailing.

The Cruise Ship Smell: Mildew and Dampness

Transiting locks can often smell of mildew (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

On river ships, it is common to smell the lingering smell of mildew or even mold. This is most common when passing through locks since the damp smell of the walls are so close to the ship as you pass through. If anyone leaves a window open or the main doors are open, odors can waft inside.

The Cruise Ship Smell: Diesel

A ship's funnels can sometimes smell of diesel exhaust depending on the wind (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Depending on the wind, the smell of diesel, fuel or exhaust can waft into cabins when the balcony doors are open. It can also seep inside through exhaust fans. They are not harmful, but it can always be helpful to bring your own small fan if you are concerned of unwanted odors. Reception can also send ventilation blowers to help push out the odor if it seems to be stuck in fabrics or carpeting.

Cruisers on Cruise Critic's message boards suggest asking reception to move cabins if possible to be farther away from the source of the smell.

The Cruise Ship Smell: Dishware Odors

Self-serve buffet on Pride of America (Photo/Aaron Saunders)

Sometimes, the combination of humidity and sanitizing liquid used on dish and glassware can be overpowering. It is most noticeable on reusable cups since they come close to your nose. The same smell can also appear after staffers wipe down tables with similar cleaning liquids, say repeat cruisers. It can be quite intense, but it is meant to remove bacteria.

If you are sensitive to such smells, consider bringing your own refillable drinkware to enjoy in public areas or simply asking for a replacement if in a dining room.

The Cruise Ship Smell: Chlorine

Indoor solariums can sometimes trap in humidity and smells (Photo: Jorge Oliver)

If a cruise ship has an enclosed, indoor solarium, sitting in the more humid air can exaggerate the smell of chlorine since the ventilation is less. This could even affect some of the rooms immediately nearby the pool, which is an important consideration if your sailing is in cooler temperatures since more people are likely to be enjoying the solarium. Also, you may want to opt for a room farther away from an indoor pool or solarium area.

Most Cruising Is Odor-Free

Two people watch the sun set over the Inside Passage (Photo: Aaron Saunders)

Thankfully, most of your cruise experience is likely to be free of odors, and those that are present likely won't stick around for long.

As always, a little advance planning and advocating for yourself to solve any issues that arise onboard can make any cruise a more pleasant (and dare we say it, aromatic) experience.

Publish date December 01, 2023
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