Last Updated on December 10, 2023

Perhaps when you think of cruise ship navigation, you might think of how the crew manage to direct the ship through the waters and oceans to and from the various ports. This indeed is navigation and wayfinding.

Why is Wayfinding Important on Cruise Ships and Cruise Vacations?

There is also the navigation that takes place on these massive boats that are often the size of mini-cities, housing up to 4000 people at one time.

Cruise ships make for a fascinating study when it comes to how we find our way on because cruise ships once they are at sea, in effect are self-contained travel spaces and this means we are ‘captive travellers’ until the moment we reach land again.

The security and safety implications in terms of wayfinding also become somewhat exaggerated, in that any emergency movements need to be very well organised, even by normal safety standards given that there are no secret routes to escape other than the surrounding sea itself.

I asked a friend recently how his cruise holiday was and if he had any problem finding his way around the boat, getting on and off and navigating the local ports which the ship stopped off at.

He seemed surprised at the question and said that everything was straightforward.

Does this I wonder, signify that there is simply nothing to discuss in terms of wayfinding and cruise travel or is it actually so well organised (for the most part)?

Or is it that navigation and wayfinding ARE very important on boats and it is a case that cruise companies are just doing a fantastic job in this area and have created such as efficient system, that we can actually learn a lot from the latter example? The answer is that they do it very well! 

Having been on five cruises myself, I have found the answer clearly is that cruise lines have created wayfinding systems that are highly effective and we so often do not need to think about directions and navigation on cruises because of this level of efficiency.

Let me take you through some ways in which cruise lines have mastered this area.

Being guided to the boarding area on a cruise boat

Floor Plans – The use of colour coding on many ships such as the P&O cruise fleet are combined with naming conventions to try and make remembering where you are on the ship and what end, much easier.

Even though the age range of cruise trips is coming down with many younger families and middle-aged people choosing to now try this form of travel, there is still a high percentage of elderly passengers travelling on these boats, particularly on the trips which are adults only.

A ‘catchy’ name such as decks called the ‘Florida Deck’ for Deck F on the Arcadia is a typical naming convention, i.e. a name which is easy to remember.

Next to the lifts (elevators for American readers) on many floors, there are also details of what bars, restaurants and facilities are on that floor and this continues to be a useful resource throughout the cruise.

It can be argued that part of the trouble in finding your way around a cruise ship and spending a few days getting used to it, is part of the holiday experience i.e. it keeps you entertained and leaves you with something to discover for several days.

In terms of colour coding, a ship such as P&O’s Arcadia colour codes the carpets on the staircases, with different colours used on different parts of the ship i.e. with three separate colours for the forward, middle and back of boat staircases).

The staircases on the cruise ships are often colour coded, even though you might not realise it
The staircases on the cruise ships are often colour coded, even though you might not realise it

Certainly though, being able to find your way around the mid-sized cruise ships such as P&O Arcadia or the Norwegian Jade (both of which I have travelled on) you will always be able to find what you want if you use for example the small pocket map which you will find either in your room or with the documentation you get with your cruise documents.

For the first day, I tend to keep the map in my pocket and just explore i.e. undertake what is known as recreational wayfinding.

Paper map of the cruise ship decks
You can usually pick up a paper map of the decks and layout of the ship when onboard

Disembarking and Cruise Ship Navigation

When you have a boat with 2000 to 3000 or more passengers on board and when half of the passengers want to disembark at roughly the same time, it requires careful planning on the part of the cruise company. Guiding people efficiently is vital!

This is especially so when passengers also have baggage that also needs to be taken off such as on the final morning of the cruise, a day on which another few thousand people are getting on a few hours later to start their cruise.

The whole process of disembarkation is one which cruise companies have finely tuned and wayfinding is central to the process.

Before talking about the final day dis-embarkation process, let’s first talk about how it all works at port calls.

As you leave your cabin to walk down to the one floor which all of you will disembark from, the route to get off the boat is generally signposted with temporary signs on stands throughout the ship (normally on the staircases and lifts or thereabouts).

Cruise disembarkation at port
Cruise signage for disembarking

Using a Tender on a Cruise Ship Trip

You cannot walk straight off the boat at every port because many cruise ships are too large to dock in some ports; ports such as Guernsey (Channel Islands), Grand Caymen, Ko Samui, Phuket and Geiranger.

For travellers who cannot manage to be mobile without assistance (such as wheelchair users), there is often no choice but to stay on the cruise boat at ports that use tenders (this P&O list helps to identify many of the ports with tenders).

The movement of people who will use the tender is normally managed very well with a ticketing system (first come first served basis) to get into the tender boats.

You normally do not have to wait long to disembark. In terms of wayfinding, the process is one that is fairly straightforward because of the machine-like system companies such as P&O have in place.

Cruise port tender
At ports, moving masses of people in a short time means the need for a well-planned and executed wayfinding plan

Departure Day and Finding Your Way

So back to the question of how you shift 2000 bodies and their bags off a ship within a few hours and then start boarding the next few thousand?

The answer is with high levels of planning.

Any good wayfinding system and particularly when we are talking about this number of people who are travelling in such a confined space (confined if compared to a holiday resort), requires great organisation.

In addition to efficiently and safely moving the passengers, first the bags needs to be moved. Cruise lines solve this issue by collecting your bags the day and night before.

You pack whatever bags you want taken off the ship for you and leave them outside your cabin door by 8 pm the night before the last day of the cruise.

The bags are collected by the stewards and off loaded into the baggage warehouse onshore from as soon as the boat pulls into port in the early hours.

Dr Paul Symonds

Dis-embarkation for passengers occurs on a staggered basis with passengers allowed to give a preferred leaving time but most accept their allocated time. Any preference is given to frequent travellers.

For me, the most impressive part of the whole process was the baggage collection area.

With anything between 2000 to 5000 bags all to be collected from the one warehouse, I had visions of walking around for hours trying to locate my two bags.

In fact, I literally walked up and just picked the bags up.

You collect your bags from the baggage number which relates to your floor and secondly what I recommend is to get off the boat around 830 am.

This way many have collected bags before you and you have far fewer bags to look through.

This gives you time also to grab a last breakfast on the cruise before getting off and starting your journey for the day.

Finding your baggage after disembarkation
Cruise lines tend to have an excellent system for navigating to your bags – even though there are thousands of bags in the arrivals hall.

Emergency and Safety and Cruise Ship Navigation

Safety and security are vital on cruise ships and the signage and the semiotics on-board are a valuable part of the way in which this issue is tackled.

The wayfinding aids are quite easy to notice around the ship although those not so interested in wayfinding as I am, may well have not given the related signage aids, even a second glance 🙂

Emergency wayfinding signs om a cruise ship

A typical sign which you can just see on the bottom of the image above and which is similar to the image below is aimed at guiding passengers when they are crawling on the floor and using the special lights which will guide, should you need to navigate off the ship using the emergency lighting.

Emergency exit signage
You often see this emergency signage at floor level on cruise ships.

As we find our way around a cruise ship, there are always innovative ways to help guide us and the image below shows the theatre on the Arcadia ship, with lighting used as an aid in warning passengers of the steps.

The use of light can be invaluable when planning a wayfinding system that involves safety and security.

Watch the step sign on a ship

In a Cruise Port

In ports, the influx of cruise passengers also creates a great opportunity for service providers.

Hop on hop off tour bus

When you only have six or seven hours in a port and with the penalty for missing the boat’s departure time the cost of getting yourself to the next port, getting lost on-shore can be a concern for many people.

This provides those willing to pay for their own direction finding and navigation to be placed in the hands of local service providers, a benefit for cruise travellers and locals.

Paul Symonds