Cruise Etiquette: The Areas on Ships Where Passengers Should Never Go

It can be tempting to peek behind the scenes on a ship, but there are several reasons why passengers shouldn't.
Cruise Etiquette The Areas on Ships Where Passengers Should Never Go
Vidar Nordli Mathisen/Unsplash

The 2020 Film Let Them All Talk was largely shot on board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 during an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Lavish shots show Meryl Streep breakfasting in her duplex suite, swimming in the ship’s pool, and dining with Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, and Lucas Hedges in the plush Queen’s Grill restaurant. 

But there’s another scene that also sticks out: At one point, Meryl Streep’s character, a famous author stewing over her next novel, wanders into the ship’s “back of house.” Soft carpets, wood paneling, and art give way to painted walls, linoleum floors, and institutional lighting, and it’s not long before she encounters a crew member, who politely but firmly explains that she’s not permitted in crew working areas because, as a passenger, she’s not insured. The crew member asks her where she’d like to go and escorts her back into the passenger areas. 

The scene may have been staged, but the crew member’s on-screen explanation is true—and it’s a conversation many crew members will have with passengers over the course of a career at sea. 

With plenty of comfortable, accommodating public spaces on board any ocean or cruise liner, passenger curiosity about comparably spartan crew spaces can be mystifying. Of course, it’s natural to wonder where all the crew members who pour drinks and serve meals and turn down beds spend their days when not on duty, but the dividing line between passenger and crew spaces onboard ships has long been sacrosanct. It’s a boundary that polite passengers should never cross—and there are several good reasons why.

The ship's staff deserve privacy

Crew members on board cruise ships have long working days providing the top-notch service that passengers expect. In passenger areas, they’re always “on,” ready to answer questions or give directions. Having a completely separate crew area—totally devoid of passengers—to retreat to during their off hours where they can rest, relax, and recharge between duty periods ensures they can fulfill passenger demands during those long hours on deck. (Eagle-eyed cruisers can often spot the crew promenade, often on a low deck at the back of a large cruise ship, with grated or screened open-air windows.)

Aside from the long hours, there are other reasons why it’s vital crew get alone time to recharge. That off time is especially necessary given the extraordinary working environments of shipboard staff: many are working multi-month contracts away from their families, often with limited opportunities to call home. 

Passengers venturing into crew areas on board ships are essentially barging into the crew’s home. Even if it’s unintentional, it’s a boundary violation, which is why cruise lines and crew members are quick to escort passengers back to the ship’s public areas. 

It certainly happens by accident that passengers might take a wrong turn through an open door, but cruise lines take a dim view of repeat offenders venturing into crew spaces. Most passage contracts outlining passenger responsibilities on board make it clear that repeatedly entering crew spaces can result in a passenger being asked to disembark before the journey is complete.

Crew spaces can be unsafe for travelers

As the crew member onboard the Queen Mary 2 explained to Meryl Streep, passengers simply aren’t insured to be outside passenger spaces. Of course, a dimly lit corridor might not be the most unsafe place for a passenger, but there’s no distinction between that corridor and an engine room or ballast tank: Crew areas are for working crew, and passengers don’t have any business in them. 

Passenger areas are also designed with safety features for occupants who are only on the ship for short periods of time. Exits and escape paths are clearly marked, wayfinding maps and charts are prominently displayed, and safety plans are designed with the separation of passenger and crew areas in mind. For all this to work as designed in an emergency, crew areas need to be kept clear, because they’re also the main arterials for the flow of emergency and safety equipment, unseen by the casual passenger.

How to satisfy your curiosity without overstepping

Passengers have paid a good amount of money for an upscale experience on a cruise or ocean liner, and the ships are built to transport them in comfort. Yet, cruisers are often fascinated with the inner workings of the ship, and some cruise lines have made accommodations for that curiosity. On Queen Mary 2, there’s actually a viewing area behind the bridge so passengers can watch the ship’s officers at work (although it can be closed off if needed during times of emergency). Other ships have “open bridge” hours while docked or anchored, when the captain invites passengers to peek into the space.

On many other cruise lines there are closely guided ship tours that peer into galley areas or other “behind the scenes” spots, and there may be onboard lectures given by an officer about some passengers’ burning technical questions, like how fast the ship can go or where the supply of fresh water comes from. 

While exploring crew spaces might seem like a harmless antic, it’s really best for passengers to keep to the areas of the ship they saw in the brochure—that’s the experience that they’ve paid for, and it’s designed and meant for them. 

Plus, vacations at sea are about escapism and a certain element of magic, and it simply depletes the value of that experience if one goes searching—intrusively—for more reality than promised.