The Eye-Opening Tour Rick Steves Says Is An Absolute Must On A Mediterranean Cruise

Have you ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of a large cruise ship? Some of these vessels are so enormous, their occupancy could be compared to the size of a small city. Each day, the crew prepares thousands of meals, turns over countless loads of laundry, and navigates the ship from port to port through unpredictable weather conditions. All of this activity goes on almost imperceptibly, with the staff accessing secret passageways, private stairwells, and a control room that could rival NASA. Rick Steves, beloved travel host and author, discovered a secret during a Mediterranean cruise that everyone should know about. Per his website, he found out that an exclusive "insider access" tour can give passengers a chance to see what's really taking place on a large cruise ship, allowing you to witness the behind-the-scenes operations.

The cruise ship industry continues to grow year after year, with a total of 30 million passengers expected to climb aboard by the end of 2024 (via Cruise Market Watch). That is, quite frankly, a lot of people eating a large number of meals and generating a ton of laundry! How does the crew on these ships keep pace with this activity and even make it look easy? On his travel blog, Steves describes the insider tour on a large ship as "an amazing two-hour look at how the ship and its crew manage to run the entire show in a parallel world that is invisible to the typical cruiser."

Travel down a secret corridor on a cruise insider tour

Many of the large cruise companies offer the same type of tour that Steves recommends, such as the Inside Access Tour by Celebrity Cruises. Passengers get an exclusive look at areas such as the main galley, the engine control room, and the ship's massive laundry room. Be sure to include good walking shoes when you consider how to pack for your cruise vacation, as guests will travel along the main crew corridor to visit these operations. Commonly called the "I-95," this passageway extends the length of the ship and is named after the longest stretch of highway on the East Coast of the U.S.

An average of 25,000 meals are prepared every day in the galley, and visitors have a chance to see the provision room where all of the ingredients for these gourmet meals are stored, which is like a gigantic pantry for a cruise ship. The volume of supplies required for a single cruise might include 10,000 bananas, 32,000 potatoes, and 8,500 pounds of watermelon. Guests will also have a chance to visit the engine control room, where the ship's engine and every other onboard system is monitored around the clock. The tour will also witness firsthand how thousands of beach towels, table linens, and bedding sets are cleaned each day in the laundry, through the use of industrial washers and dryers. A typical machine has a capacity of 264 pounds, which means it can handle the equivalent of 14 loads of laundry at once.

Learn what happens behind the scenes on a cruise ship

Many ship tours will also offer guests an opportunity to visit the bridge, an exclusive opportunity to witness firsthand how the captain and crew rely on sophisticated equipment and sharp observation skills to navigate the vessel. On Steves' Mediterranean cruise, these navigational techniques really stood out. "Ship geeks will marvel at how these newer massive ships no longer use an old-style shaft and propeller," he writes. "They are nimbly maneuvered by Azipods (pods with propellers that can rotate 360 degrees and, with the help of bow thrusters, can jockey a 300-yard-long ship into whatever pier is required)." It's an amazing look at how these systems function together, and it's certain to create an appreciation for the talented crew members who make it look so effortless.

These insider tours will appeal to experienced travelers as well as first-time cruisers who are learning what to expect when boarding a cruise ship. Many companies also put their own spin on these tours to offer a slightly different experience. For example, Carnival calls its ship tour "Behind the Fun," and it provides guests with snacks, photos, and a commemorative baseball cap. MSC Cruises offers a "Backstage" tour that includes a chance to actually go backstage, behind the scenes of the ship's entertainment. Getting a chance to see the costumes, props, lighting, and sound systems that are part of the ship's entertainment productions might especially appeal to the younger members of any family-friendly cruise.

Consult the guidelines for insider tours

It's important to be aware of the specific guidelines and minimum age restrictions that each cruise line requires. Tours can last between two and four hours long, and they involve extensive walking and standing. Guests will also be required to climb and descend multiple sets of stairs. Most cruise companies have a minimum age requirement of 6 or 8 years old, while some companies (such as Cunard) require guests to be 18 years old. It's common to see requirements for closed-toe shoes and pants for visitors' safety and comfort. High heels, shorts, skirts, purses, and video cameras are often not permitted on the tours. Many companies, such as Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean, allow you to book this tour before embarkation, but others may ask you to wait until you're on the ship to make your reservation. 

This kind of tour can be a bit pricey, as Steves warns, with an estimated cost between $100 to $150. However, the tours sell out very fast due to the limited number of spots available. As you consider your next cruise itinerary, there are a number of hacks you can use when booking your trip to make it special. Now that you have an insider tip from Rick Steves, consider booking this special tour of the areas that are usually off-limits for passengers. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe all the magic that takes place behind the scenes.