What You Always Wanted To Know About Working On A Cruise Ship

Updated: Jan 23, 2021

Before the pandemic hit and the cruise ships (temporarily) stopped sailing, Nathaniel and I used to be crew members onboard what I think is the best cruise line at sea. See how I got my job onboard here, and follow along to see what really happens below the waterline! If you’ve ever taken a cruise you’ve probably asked these questions and if you work onboard you’ve answered all of them at least once! Being in a guest facing role means you get hit with all the most common, and the strangest, questions day after day. I’m going to answer them here so you can be prepared for your next sailing, whenever that happens to be!

Does the crew live on the ship? This is hands down the most common question we get asked. The answer you get can range from an annoyed “yes of course” to a sarcastic “no, we fly in and out by helicopter every day.” My favorite was always, “No, sir, we’re all just very strong swimmers!” Yes, your crew lives, works, and plays onboard. There is an entire underground, or should I say underwater, city in areas your eyes will never see. We have our own crew mess, on some ships there are even different levels of officer, staff, and crew messes provide various levels of food and service. Sometimes your position determines how well you can eat onboard. In my experience this is a more outdated concept and the hierarchy isn’t enforced the same way on the bigger, newer ships. The captain eats with the waiters, and everyone has the same options. HOW they live depends on the size of the ship and the line you’re on as well. I’ve lived underwater, heard the waves slapping the side of my walls each night, and lived at the bow of the ship right underneath where the classic “Titanic” moment happened. To be honest I prefer living further down because you feel the movement less, which really helps when you’re trying to make your eyeliner wings even. One of my cabins was directly above the anchor chain, so no matter what time I started work I would hear the crank working at 5 am, and again during my afternoon nap before we started sailing again. Some ships I’ve been on have packed as many as four people into one room. On my last contract everyone had a single cabin with an adjoining bathroom. I shared with one of the Youth Counselors who had a wildly different schedule than I did so there was never any competition for the shower. It was a wet bath, meaning the shower head was right above the toilet with a drain in the middle of the floor. Great for efficiency! Ever been able to poop while shampooing your hair before? It was really easy to accidentally lock your roommate out if you forgot to undo the latch before leaving, though. Gotta watch out for that!

Can the crew go off in port? For the most part, yes, if you’re not working that day. There’ s also a maritime regulation that a certain percentage of crew has to remain onboard at all times in case of an emergency. For example, the entire fire department can’t decide to go for a beach day leaving no one to respond in case of an emergency. Each emergency position comes with a port manning marker. On my line we used colors, so blue would be stuck one day, green another, etc. The days usually rotated so everyone could experience each port at least once. Some days you would be scheduled to work all day even though you’re not assigned to port manning, and in those cases you just have tough luck. You can wave to your friends as they walk down the gangway though!

Do you get days off? Hahahahahahahahahahahaha. No. No we do not. Dancers and guest entertainers may have a day that there’s no show scheduled, but int hose cases they usually have rehearsals. So no one onboard will ever get a true day off. But! You will learn to structure your life around HOURS off instead. I might say “I’m off in Bermuda!” but that only means I don’t start untila aound 3 pm instead of being scheduled all day duty. On one itinerary there would be one blessed day where my department wouldn’t be scheduled until 8 pm. If that’s the day you’re also stuck on the ship? That’s a nap day. It feels so good to be nestled under your duvet in the pitch black of your cabin with no alarm set or no reason to crawl out except for food. These are rare cases and they are treasured. Some of my best memories onboard were days that I spent doing nothing while my friends hit the beach or went shopping onshore.

What are the cabins like? That depends on the ship and whether you have a single or share with many people, but most crew cabins are double occupancy and use bunk beds. The first month after I signed on I was fighting for a bottom bunk. My cabin mate was signing off in two weeks, but when she left they moved me, so I had to stay on the top. Two weeks later that roommate left and I left someone to cover my duties while I ran down the stairs to move my things and claim the bottom bunk before the new sign on arrived. Unluckily for her, I was scheduled onboard for another 5 and a half months, so she climbed up and down every day. We didn’t even have a ladder, so she would hop on the desk and hoist herself from there. More than once things were knocked down as she tried to jump down after a nap. We had bunk beds, two closets, a desk, and a full length mirror. These bathrooms were larger with a separate toilet and shower. No counter space, no dresser, so half of our clothes lived in our suitcases. On some lines they have space under the bed to shove your luggage, but that cabin had drawers instead, so to open the closet, you had to move a suitcase. To sit at the desk, move a suitcase. They were constantly in motion. In my single cabin I had so much space under the bed that I didn’t know what to do with it! It’s always a gamble to be assigned to a new ship and wonder what’s waiting for you there. To be honest I missed having a roommate on my last contract. For one, I never realized how many of my dresses I can’t zip up by myself! (Read my New Years Eve struggle with that here) But it was nice to come home to someone at the end of the day. Have lipstick to share, stories to tell, and an extra alarm set just in case! How Much Do You Get Paid? Okay I’m obviously not going to answer that. Besides, the answer can be different for everyone depending on nationality, position, seniority, and whether or not you get tips or commission. I will say, it’s not bad! I used to work in theme parks on land, sometimes up to 16 hours a day in jobs that expected me to have a college degree, and I still made more onboard. It helps, too, that there are almost no out of pocket expenses. You don’t pay rent, crew mess feeds you, and there is a medical center in case you need anything from a band-aid to antibiotics. Besides, you can’t put a price on waking up in a new country every day, making friends from all around the world, and doing your dream job for six months at a time. There are some things we can choose to buy out of our salary, like alcohol, special coffees, or wifi, which are definitely essentials to some people, or any money that you spend in port. But all of our basic needs are taken care of, so there’s nothing to worry about!

Is It Worth It? I will answer this with a resounding ABSOLUTELY! It can be hard to leave your family, your friends, you regular life for so long. Anywhere from 4-10 months at a time! I missed the strangest things onboard, like being able to open the fridge for a snack instead of having to put on my name tag to walk to crew mess. I missed making my own coffee in the morning. I missed seeing dogs! Of course, there are none onboard and very few in ports. But the memories and friends I made are worth all the little inconveniences. There are hard days. Birthdays and holidays without loved ones, missing big events back home, all of those things can be very hard for some people who may not enjoy ship life if they get homesick easily. But, truly, there is nothing like it. I start my day hearing ten different languages before breakfast, and understanding most of them! I spend every night on a dance floor partying with our guests, and I have seen the world. For free! Take the leap, apply, audition, do it even if you’re scared. It is worth it.

I know you have more questions than these generic ones that I always here, so please, submit them! Email us or comment, we will get an answer to you in a post or privately if you prefer. All the weird and wonderful things you’ve ever thought of about life onboard. How do the toilets work? What happens to all the leftover food? Does the crew have their own time to party? Send them in! Nothing is off limits….


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