**(I do NOT speak on behalf of, or about any particular cruise line in this post.)
Seems like everyone wants to travel the world and get paid to do it. Fair enough. I have the same dream. It’s this very dream that lead me to work onboard cruise ships, and consequently how I’ve seen much of my world.
Cruising in five-star-style while having your bank account regularly bolstered sounds fabulous, right? But as with anything that appears too good to be true, there’s more to it than living the Kate-and-Jack life.
First, know that every cruise ship job is NOT created equal. Your role on the ship determines your lifestae.My job as an performer was a coveted one. My position was well paid and worked only nights, allowing for plenty of free port time.
I worked on 3 different ships over the course of 17 months dancing and performing in the nightly entertainment. I had most days off in port, and my workday didn’t start until around 5pm. We are the ONLY positions onboard blessed with the luxury of sleeping ’till noon (envied by everyone onboard and a source of constant teasing).
Departmental specifics aside, I can offer a few insights into life working aboard cruise ships that hide beneath the water line.
KNOW THY PLACE
Cruise ships have a rigid hierarchy, almost militaristic. Everyone has their own set of rules; from where you can eat, sunbathe, and even walk. Learning your rules, and those of the rest of the crew will take trial and error. These rules (or privileges) get more lenient the higher your rank onboard. What’s “rank”? In short, employees onboard ships are divided into Crew, Staff, and Officers. Crew members are the Galley workers, Stewards, Laundrymen etc that do manual labor and often don’t directly interact with guests. Staff members refer to Photographers, Spa Employees, Shop Employees, Musicians, and the Entertainment department. Officers onboard are of the highest rank. Officers can fall into the Deck Department, Engine Department, or Hotel Department. Deck Officers drive the ship and work on the bridge. Engine Officers work below deck maintaining and servicing the engines. Hotel Officers, like the Hotel Director, Matre’d, and even the Head Doctor work front-of-house servicing the guests at the highest level. All Officers display their rank on their shoulder in the form of stripes. The more stripes, the more power/prestige… For those of us who were raised in a democratic, egalitarian society the cruise ship hierarchy can be bothersome. If you were raised in the military, perhaps this won’t seem so strange.
If a cruise ship were a country, consuming alcohol would be its national sport. Working/living/breathing with the same people every second of every day will have you craving a stiff drink and some fresh company. To satisfy these thirsts, you’ve no choice but to head to the Crew Bar after work hours. The Crew Bar is perpetually covered in a haze of homesickness, chronic fatigue, loneliness, and cigarette smoke (they still have smoking rooms on ships because apparently, time stopped at sea in 1960). Anyhow, nothing good happens at the Crew Bar after 2 am. But, it’s a necessary evil to live onboard.
If you’re looking to get away from your endless newsfeed then this is the job for you! Shipboard internet is outrageously priced, obnoxiously slow, and consistently unreliable. You’ve got less access to the internet than a high-security inmate. As a result of being constantly starved for communication, the words “Do you have wifi?” will echo in your head and haunt your dreams. One day you’ll find yourself wandering around Paradise (insert destination here: Fiji, Venice, Hawaii etc) and grumbling to yourself “I wish this place had WiFi.”
WOULD YOU LIKE PRESERVATIVES WITH THAT?
Consider yourself a foodie? Trying to go all-organic? Have a problematic food allergy (I’m looking at you celiacs). I’ve heard food quality differs depending on the cruise line, but how fresh can a meal be if you’ve been at sea for 8 days? If there weren’t pesticides and preservatives on everything, you’d be living on a floating garbage disposal…Oh wait, you are. Again, depending on your job/rank/privileges, you may not be lucky enough to feast on the same food passengers eat. If so, you’re eating in the Crew Mess for every meal, which usually caters to Filipino tastebuds (think fish-head soup etc).
DON’T STAND SO CLOSE TO ME
You’ve seen it on the news: “Cruise Ship Sent Back to Sea Due to Infection.” Cruise ships will either strengthen your immune system or end it. A virus (typically Norovirus, or Gastroenteritis. Google those for fun, I dare you) can very quickly spread throughout the ship. When enough cases report to the Medical Center with symptoms, the dreaded words no crew member EVER wants to hear are uttered over the PA.“Red Level.” This sends the ship into an Ebola-like frenzy. By Captain’s orders everyone is forced to stay in their cabins and bathe in antibacterial hand gel (okay, maybe not last bit). Then it’s up to the Crew and Staff to swarm the ship and spray a skull-and-crossbones solution on everything (I don’t know what’s in this solution. I’m afraid to ask). This spray-down happens every two hours until the ship is clear of new cases…. But this could last days, weeks, even months! Why? Because passengers continue to not wash their hands, ignore quarantine orders, and consequently vom in public areas. Sweet vacay!
Every employee (no matter their department) is briefed on how to handle “emergency situations.” Some better than others. You’ll have drills every week which will involve wearing big orange life jackets, standing for hours, and enduring the terrifying barks of ex-Naval officers shouting things at you like “Your superiors have all died! Get the survivors into the lifeboats now!” With practice, you will learn to walk a fine line between knowing when to take your life into your own hands, and waiting dutifully for commands from higher-ups. All that being said, if it came down to it you’d have to manage a serious crisis situation. You ready for that?
ON CANDID CAMERA
Cruise ships seem enormous, they’re all too small when it comes to living on one. There’s no such thing as blending in or laying low. You’re always being watched, Big Brother style, complete with security cameras used for the wrong reasons. Everyone knows your business (like say, who’s cabin you walked home from at 2am). Accept it. Smile for the camera… Or flip them off? Up to you.
LOVE KNOWS NO (TIME) LIMITS
If you choose to start a relationship onboard be prepared for it to move very fast… Allow me to set the scene: It’s another night at the Crew Bar and you’re nursing a gin and tonic, chatting it up with someone new over the sweet sounds of poorly-mixed dubstep. A week later you’ve moved in together. You’re spending sunny days out in port frolicking around paradise as if on a mock honeymoon. Your life resembles a chapter from “ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”… In between sharing ice-cream cones and skipping around cobblestoned streets, try to gain some perspective. Your contract will eventually end and so too will your real-life rom-com…On the other hand, I’ve heard of plenty successful love stories born upon ships, ones that even end in marriage and a mutual agreement to grow old onboard [shudders]. But be aware—there are people who will take advantage of the fact that after a few months you will never see each other again.
At Your Service. Don’t forget, no matter your role onboard you are still working for a hotel. Your primary job on a ship is to be hospitable and accommodating to the people paying for your super-awesome nomadic lifestyle. So if you’ve ever worked in Hospitality you know that vacationers leave their brain at home. If you don’t have the patience for questions like “Do the stairs go up and down?” or “Do they feed you?” then you may want to look at another line of work.
What day is it? On a ship you lose all sense of time, especially on long stretches of days at sea. You’ll stop calling days Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and just start calling them by their ports.
“What’s tomorrow? Santorini?….I really need to do my laundry before Lisbon?”
Money, Money, Money. It would seem cruise-ship employment would be the ultimate money-saver. After all, you’re not paying for any living expenses! But that money can disappear faster than you think. If you’re looking to enjoy the globe-trotter’s life you’ll have to spend a few bucks—on taxis, tours, entrance fees, tipping, internet, meals in port, WiFi (the ultimate wage-guzzler) etc. It all piles up and your net earnings will dwindle. And remember that Crew Bar? If you’re spending the evenings socializing with friends over drinks, your bar bill will show it. Don’t remember that round you bought everyone at 2 am a few weeks ago?… Your bar bill does.
Blue Traveler. It’s important to consider that traveling via cruise ship employment makes for a specific type of travel experience. Cruise ships rarely stay in port longer than the morning and afternoon. If you’re lucky your ship might “overnight.” This means any open establishments within walking distance will be obliterated by Crew and Passengers. For the most part you’ll only get to know a place in the daylight…then you leave. You don’t get to know the local people, the customs, the night life, and the magic of immersing yourself in a completely different country. You get the same pre-packaged tours the passengers do, unless you do some serious leg work and find something on your own (not impossible, but not easy). It can be difficult to feel as if you’re really a global traveler when you’re constantly watching the clock so not to miss “all-aboard.”
Cruise ships are a taste of a travel. They are a good way to figure out where you want to come back and spend more time.
If I’ve dashed all your dreams, WAIT!
With all that being said, my year and a half working onboard was hugely educational and loads of fun.
I would do it all again.
The skills and experience I gained working in this environment will aid me in future lines of work. I was fortunate to do and see incredible things, even if it was crammed into just one afternoon. I rode a gondola in Venice, I feasted on street stalls in Mumbai, I rappelled down waterfalls in Vanuatu, I haggled my way through the markets of Istanbul, I kayaked my way around New Zealand. I also met and worked with incredible people that will remain life-long friends. These people alone made the WHOLE thing worth it.
Though fleeting, my experiences were still rich. They’ve only whet my appetite for more travel and exploration.
If you have the opportunity to work onboard, give it a try even if just for a few months. You’ll leave the ship grateful for your freedoms, and develop a greater global understanding—an indispensable skill.
What else do you want to know about cruise ship crew life?