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It’s not surprising how many people want to work on a cruise ship. The idea of living and working on a boat, sailing out to sea and seeing new places, has a certain kind of romance about it. Just knowing you could do that sounds exciting. Everyone wants to jump on board.
I spent a bit of time working on a cruise, and whenever the subject comes up, people have questions. What’s it like? What’s it pay? Where do you sleep? The usual.
My personal experience was a positive one, and I would definitely encourage anyone considering this line of work to give it a try. If you do it right, it can be very rewarding.
If you do it right.
While cruise work is unique, it’s not always fun, and this is a point I always make when people ask me about it.
I’ve listed below some of the key aspects of what it’s like to live and work on a cruise ship, along with advice for those interested in applying for work.
1. Twelve Hour Shifts
That’s the average. Twelve hours. No days off. Between that and sleep, which you will want a lot of, you’ll have maybe four hours of time to yourself. For some, that’s plenty. It was a great opportunity for me to catch up on my reading. But others want to spend their down time on shore, exploring the places the guests get to see. You can certainly do that… if you’re in port when your shift is over. And if it’s daylight.
2. Tight Quarters
Staff have their own living space away from the cruise guests. This is usually below decks, squeezed in between the water and sewage tanks and the ship’s machinery. We were three to a room, which is a good reason to pack light. Also, you’ll want to maintain clean habits. Messy living is bad enough when you share space on land, but on a ship it’s far worse. No one wants to trip over someone’s shoes or dirty underwear during a fire drill.
A cruise ship is a closed space—a sphere of existence unto itself. The staff live very close together and become very familiar with each other, whether they want to or not. No privacy. Everyone is in everyone else’s business. So if any drama goes down (and it always does eventually), in an hour or so everyone on board will know about it.
And while we’re on the subject, it’s important to know that if the staff aren’t gossiping about each other, they’re gossiping about the guests. Trust me, you can see some strange folks on a cruise.
4. Fast Turnaround
Cruise life isn’t for everyone. With the tight living quarters and long shifts, the guests and the other staff, it can be taxing. Some people can handle it, but most of the people I met on board couldn't. We went through so many wait staff I didn’t even bother learning names. I think the average waiter lasted a month. Housekeepers and deckhands lasted longer, but quite a few of them dropped off, too. On the flipside, though, this means that there are always opportunities for employment on cruises.
Most people don’t know this, but a cruise is a floating hotel. I don’t know why they don’t make the connection. I mean, they have a hotel manager and everything. Since you’re a member of the hotel staff, you will be interacting with the public like you would at a register, or in a hotel on land.
Anyone who’s worked with the public knows that people can sometimes be... unsavory. But unlike a job on land, if there’s a guest you’d rather avoid, guess what? You can’t avoid them! You will see them again later that day. And the next day. And every day until they disembark.
Different cruise companies will pay their staff differently. For the most part it’s on a per diem basis. Most entry-level workers are paid $100-120 per day. Given the long shifts, this converts to less than minimum wage in most US states. Some may find this method of payment unfair, but bear in mind that you have no expenses on a ship. Room and board and meals are all taken care of. All you have to do is keep working, and at the end of your voyage you’ll have a nice chunk of change waiting for you.
7. You are not on vacation.
I don’t know why, but for some reason a lot of people go to work on a cruise thinking they’re the ones on vacation, rather than the guests. I once heard of a guy who brought a set of golf clubs on board. When and where would you use those?
To an extent, it’s understandable. After all, you’re setting off on a journey, getting a very unique experience, and you’ll be doing things you’ve never done before. It’s an adventure, no doubt, and you can have fun if you’re creative, but don’t get confused. You’re there to work.
If it sounds like I’m trying to discourage you, I promise you I’m not. I worked a four-month contract on a cruise ship and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I saw lots of amazing places and met some great people, but I’m not going to kid you: it was tough.
In the end, though, for me the experience of cruise work and the pride of finishing my contract was worth all the challenges. For others, the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. It all comes down to what you hope to get out of it.
If you’re able to roll with the punches and adapt to the unique lifestyle of cruise work, I say do it. You’ll have an adventure, you’ll make friends, you’ll see the world, and you’ll get paid in more than money—you will have stories to tell.