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Cruise Ship and Boat Wayfinding and Navigation

Boarding a cruise ship

Boarding the Arcadia P&O ship.

Cruise ships make for a fascinating study when it comes to wayfinding because cruise ships once they are 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.

You can be forgiven for wondering if there is actually anything we can learn from wayfinding on a cruise ship and if there is anything worth discussing. 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 straight forward. 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) that cruise companies are excellent and experts in this area and have created such as efficient system, that we can actually learn a lot for the latter example. Having been on five cruises myself, I have found the answer clearly is that cruise lines have created wayfinding systems which 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.

Navigating your way On-board

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 on the Arcadia is a typical naming convention, i.e. a name which is easy to remember.

Arcadia deck plan

A deck plan on the Arcadia P&O cruise boat

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).

Colour coding on a cruise ship.

Colour coding of carpets and using red on the back staircase.

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.

Deck plan map

Pocket Map of the deck plans


When you have a boat with 2000 to 3000 or more passengers on-board and when half of the passengers want to dis-embark at roughly the same time, it requires careful planning on the part of the cruise company. This is especially so when passengers are also have baggage which 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 sign posted with temporary signs on stands throughout the ship (normally on the stair cases and lifts or thereabouts).

Departure signage

Disembarkation signage

Using a Tender

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 which use tenders (this P&O list helps to identity 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 which is fairly straight forward because of the machine like system companies such as P&O have in place.

Guernsey tender boat

Using a tender at a cruise port in Guernsey

Departure Day

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 8pm 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.

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 the 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 830am. 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.

Baggage area

Baggage collection area at Southampton cruise port.

Emergency and Safety on a Cruise Ship

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 🙂

Exit signage

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 signage

Emergency signage on a cruise ship.

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 which involves safety and security.

Special lighting

Theatre lighting for wayfinding

In Port

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

Hop on hop off buses often stop off near cruise terminals.

Hop on hop off buses often stop off near cruise terminals.

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