Disclaimer: This article is specific to Norwegian Cruise Lines, and may or may not be the same accurate for other companies. It is based on our four years of experiences working for NCL. We welcome comments from current and past staff, crew and officers and will be happy to add them to the article.
Before we delve into life aboard a cruise ship we need to explain the hierarchy of the staff and crew. Not everyone has cushy jobs with nice cabins and time off. In fact, many employees are never seen by passengers and rarely leave the ship.
Typically the ratio of passenger to employee is 2:1. This means if a cruise ship has 3500 passengers there will be approximately 1750 staff, crew and officers aboard. The ratio varies depending on the ship and the cruise line. There are four main classifications employees: crew, staff, entertainment, and officers. Here is a breakdown of what it means to be in each of these categories.
The majority of employees aboard are called crew. These positions generally fall in the following departments: deck, housekeeping, laundry, galley, food and beverage, engine and maintenance.
Crew work the longest hours and have the longest contracts. Typically they work 10-12 hours a day, every day of the week for 10 months. Crew do not have the same perks as other ship board positions and very seldom have the opportunity to visit ports because of their duties aboard.
Crew, for the most part, work for the money. The vast majority are from developing countries and will work 18-hour days with no formal complaints. The money is lousy compared to other positions. Salaries for crew range from $900 to $1200 per month depending on the position. While working aboard we heard reports of crew members earning as little as $600 per month.
Crew seldom go into passenger areas because the cost for meals and drinks is usually too high. On NCL, special permission is needed from the hotel director to go to a restaurant or bar.
Cabins for all employees are much smaller than passenger cabins, crew often share with six or more other people. A cabin consists of a locker, drawer and small bunk bed. The locker is hardly big enough to fit a hanger and a six foot tall person will find it impossible to lie straight in bed.
On top of their regular jobs, crew members are randomly assigned extra duties. Additional duties can include embarkation and disembarkation where crew carry passenger luggage to cabins, and haul supplies aboard for the ship for the next week. Crew also undergo extensive specialty safety training courses and exercises in ports of call, usually during off time.
Staff positions are generally contracted though external vendors. These positions are in the following departments: internet café, gift shop, salon, spa, shore excursions, audio and visual, casino, and photography.
If you are interested in joining cruise ships as a way to travel the world, these are the easiest positions and departments to apply to.
Contracts and salaries fluctuate wildly depending on your department, position and the arrangement with the company you are employed through. Contracts range in length from two to ten months working, and two weeks to eight weeks vacation between contracts. Salaries can be commission based or fixed amounts paid monthly. They range from $1200 to $6000+ per month.
The longest work days for staff are sea days, when the ship does not call on a port. On sea days staff work well over 12 hours with a few breaks in between.
Staff cabins vary depending on your position and range from 1 berth to 6 berth cabins, similar to those of crew. Perks vary from full passenger area access (for managers) to access by permission only (for most employees).
In addition to work, staff also have mandatory ship board duties. Usually these are safety related, such as muster station leaders or search and rescue team members. Mandatory safety drills are done weekly or bi-weekly. Even if you are not on duty, you are required to attend.
There are few entertainment positions available on a ship. These are sought after positions, and depending on the ship and your talent, can bring in big bucks.
Positions we have seen include: musicians, disk jockeys, dancers, fitness coordinators, lecturers, magicians and comedians. Although these seem like the fun positions aboard, the entertainment staff are always in the spotlight and rarely get a break when spending time in passenger areas.
Entertainers have varying contract lengths ranging from a week to several months. Salaries are all over the place, from $1600 for lounge groups to a whopping $18,000 per month for specialty acts. Depending on your contract, you could be on stage every day of the week, or only once or twice. Most entertainers spend most of their time preparing for performances.
Entertainment staff are allowed to spend free time in passenger areas and do not require any special permission to go to restaurants or bars.
Officer positions are very specialized and usually require years of training and experience. They are not easy jobs, no matter what movie you've seen on TV.
Officer positions are: security, engineers, deck officers, chief fire fighter, chief engineer, environmental officer, radio officer, first officer, safety officer, medical officers, hotel manager and assistant managers, the pursers, staff captain and captain.
Officers are required to wear a ship-issued uniform with officer insignia all the times. The amount of time they can spend on land is often very limited. Officers are usually not allowed to drink, and like all other employees are not allowed to fraternize with passengers.
Contract and salaries range from $2,400 to $10,000 per month with contract lengths anywhere from four weeks to six months. Officers have many perks like single cabins, offices and unrestricted access to passenger areas. Like entertainers, officers are always in the spotlight when they are in public areas.
In the next article we will take you through the typical life of staff aboard a ship.