Bow vs. Stern and Forward vs. Aft: How to Find Your Way Around a Cruise Ship

Find your way around a cruise ship like a pro by learning key phrases and terminology such as bow vs. stern and forward vs. aft.

How to Find Your Way Around a Cruise Ship: Bow vs. Stern and Forward vs. Aft

Is there anything worse than being lost on a cruise ship? Well, maybe being lost and not being on a cruise ship. But the vastness of ships can be intimidating, especially if you’re new to cruising.

Knowing how to find your way around a cruise can be difficult to master on every new ship you board, even if you’ve sailed before. But there are some ways to ease the transition from navigating out of your driveway to walking the decks.

This guide to finding your way around a cruise ship will have you slinging ship jargon, like bow vs. stern and forward vs. aft, in no time. So, you can locate the martini bar without breaking a sweat.

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Bow vs. Stern and Forward vs. Aft: How to Find Your Way Around a Cruise Ship

Learn the terminology

There’s no need to go toe-to-toe with the captain, but knowing some basic nautical terms will help you to translate unfamiliar lingo aboard your ship.

Forward vs. Aft

“Forward” is the nautical term for front, and “aft” means back. Walking all the way forward on a cruise ship means heading toward the very front or bow of a vessel. Likewise, aft is the very back or stern of the ship, which typically affords excellent views of the wake from one of the outer decks.

Ships are typically so long that this can easily get confusing, so it’s best to refer to signage around the ship that should have arrows pointing in the right direction before you set off blindly.

If you know the theater is on Deck 3 but you’ve walked to the very aft of the ship instead of heading forward, it might take a few minutes to cross the length of the deck. (And hopefully you won’t miss the start of the show.)

Bow vs. Stern

The bow is the technical term for the structural front of your cruise ship; it’s the somewhat pointed portion of the hull that cuts through the waves. The stern of a ship is the back portion of the vessel.

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Port vs. Starboard

The directional terms for left and right on a cruise ship might seem confusing at first, but you’ll become used to the terminology. Portside refers the left side of the ship when facing forward. An easy way to remember this is that “port” has four letters as does “left.” Starboard is the righthand side of the ship when facing the bow or front.

These terms are handy on an expedition cruise when wildlife sightings are more common. The captain or crew will call out the port or starboard side of the vessel if they spot a pod of whales, for example.

These terms are also helpful when booking a cabin. While the left side isn’t always facing land, chances are portside will be alongside the port when you dock. If you prefer to have a view from your stateroom as you pull into your ports of call, be sure to talk to your travel advisor or the cruise line about booking a room on the correct side of the ship. 

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Tips and tricks for finding your way around a cruise ship

Simply knowing the nautical terms for front, back, left, and right won’t necessarily help you find your way around a cruise ship — especially aboard mega-ships with more than a dozen decks and more than a thousand feet in length. These tips will help orientate you and navigate even the biggest ships like a pro.

Follow the fish on Norwegian Cruise Line ships

While this cute bit of upholstery seems to be slowly phasing out with new and refurbished ships, take careful note if you are onboard a Norwegian cruise ship and you see fish on the carpeting. These little fish were originally put in place beneath feet to “swim” forward, so passengers always know which direction they are facing.

Some ships from other cruise lines also have hints embedded in the carpeting, like arrows or different colors for port vs. starboard, to help point you in the right direction.

How to Find Your Way Around a Cruise Ship: Bow vs. Stern and Forward vs. Aft

Download the app

Most cruise lines these days have smartphone apps to help you know what’s going on around the ship, book dining reservations or spa appointments, and more. Another handy feature of these apps might be deck plans for your ship. Some are only still images of deck plans, while others are interactive and allow you to tap on various spaces to better see where you’re headed.

Head to the elevators

If you are dizzy trying to find your way, locate an elevator bank. Maps of the ship as well as an indication of where you are onboard are almost always found around these central gathering points. You can usually find these maps either between the elevators or off to the side.

Also found near elevators on some ships are wayfinders, which act as interactive touchscreens that not only tell you where you are but can map out a step-by-step route for where you’re looking to go.

Take a photo of the deck plans

Little folded paper maps of your ship’s deck plans and a list of venues are still provided by some cruise lines upon boarding, and they are handier than you might realize. But if you lost your map or never received one, a workaround is to keep a copy on your phone.

One option is to snap a photo of a comprehensive ship map onboard and bookmark it for reference. Another way to create your own handheld ship map is to take a screenshot of some online deck plans. (Planners might even want to peek at deck plans, which are available online, weeks prior to their cruise.)

Whichever way you decide to capture a cruise map, having it in the palm of your hand will come in handy — whether it’s your first cruise or your fiftieth.

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Memorize your stairwell

A place you’ll return to again and again throughout the cruise is your cabin. In that regard, it’s probably the most important place to remember how to find. Once you visit your stateroom for the first time and drop your bags, be sure to then backtrack to the nearest stairwell or elevator bank; are they forward or aft?

Then, in the first day or two, plan out a few places on the ship you know you’ll be frequenting, whether it’s the pool or the pizza counter. Mapping out the simplest route to the places you’ll be spending the most time means you’ll have more minutes to spend enjoying your vacation and less time trying to figure out where the heck you are.

Pick a landmark or two

Landmarks help us find our way in everyday life — remember a time before GPS? The same applies to finding your way around a cruise ship.

After you’ve had time to walk the ship a little, make a mental note of anything that stands out: the funky sculpture, the mural by the pub, or the jingling of the casino. Attaching a location to these cruise ship landmarks will help orient you and make it easier to find your way from there.

Get lost

Yes, intentionally.

Sometimes the best way to get to know a cruise ship is to wander aimlessly, exploring its various decks and venues. You might discover a cozy, tucked-away bar or a hidden lounge. By walking the ship, you’ll also become familiar with its main thoroughfares, whether it’s a promenade deck or wall to wall with restaurants and nightclubs.

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Did you find our tips on how to navigate your way around a cruise ship helpful? Do you use cruise jargon like bow vs. stern and forward vs. aft when talking ship? Drop us an anchor below to share your helpful tips and tricks for first time cruisers.

Brittany has covered cruising professionally for more than a decade. She embarked on a world cruise as a college student aboard Semester at Sea, and never stopped sailing. Formerly a Cruise Critic editor, Brittany now writes about ships and their many destinations for various industry and consumer outlets. She is a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore.
Brittany Chrusciel, Contributor
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  1. An interesting experience with a cruise ship that gives more understanding of the differences between the bow, stern, forward, and aft is a really helpful guide for anyone planning a cruise. I was useful to know the nautical terms are clear and make it easier to visualize the ship’s layout. As a student, all these tasks seems to be difficult for me. By the way, if you’re looking for assistance, you might find this resource helpful. It is important to understand a ship terminology for a smooth cruise experience.

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