Ever wondered what goes on inside a cruise ship? 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 operations, with only a few passengers allowed behind the scenes. Here are the five best ways to see another side of cruising.
1. The Captain's Table
(most cruise lines; free of charge)
Every intrigue that has ever 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 on shipboard drama, but it's certainly true that the Captain is the person with his or her 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 invite to dine with the Captain in the first place. Cutting through the rumours and strategising, 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 regular. The cruise line advises crew if there are any notables (read: rich and famous or media) on board, but if your dinner table 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 dress -- it's a formal affair.
2. Ship Tours
(most cruise lines; AU$95 to AU$200)
Most major cruise lines organise 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 theatre, the mooring deck and the crew's mess hall. Some tours include drinks, snacks, lunch or a take-home souvenir. You might also meet the captain, officers, chief engineer, head chef or hotel director. Bookings tend to be taken once you have boarded the ship and 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. 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
(most cruise lines; free or about AU$150)
Are you curious as to how all those meals just keep rolling out, often 24 hours a day, seven days a week? 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 (such as on Carnival ships -- AU$75) with the executive chef leading a small group on a walk through the kitchen. Remember that it's a military operation in this area of the ship, so stay with your guide. It's also a good idea, and often a requirement, to wear enclosed shoes.
4. Be an Onboard Speaker
(several cruise lines; about AU$65 per day of the cruise)
And now 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.
If your application is approved, you will then pay a small daily fee. No, it's not a paid job, but that fee will be cheaper than the cost of the cruise if you had bought it.
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 and 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
Of course, all these tours and products keep you at arm's length from the real gossip. 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.