When looking for work on a cruise ship, you are presented with pictures of idyllic beaches, happy working people and nice cabins.
Ahhhh, the awesomeness of marketing. While that image isn't entirely fake, it is far from the real life of a crew member. Let me break it down for you.
Working on a cruise ship is not the same as working on land, not all bad, just not the same. You do not have the luxury of going home at the end of the day. Complaining is futile, because everyone is in it together. Cruise ships for the most part operate in international waters and therefore do not need to comply with labor laws.
All departments have different work schedules and hours. Some only work while the ship is at sea while others operate regardless of the ship's location. Cruise lines are registered in countries other than the USA for various reasons, usually they are tax related. This also allows companies to skirt the laws of minimum wage and maximum hours employees are allowed to work in a day.
Most crew members work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week for 10 months. They go home for a 2 month vacation and return to do it again. This may vary depending on your position, but almost all crew will work long hours with few breaks and few days off.
For most crew, working on ships is about the money. What they can earn in one month, even if it’s under $1000, is way more than most crew can earn in their home countries.
Staff from first-world countries rarely sign up for the money, for them it’s about the traveling. While there are opportunities to make good money on board, don’t be disillusioned, the pay isn’t great. Fortunately, with room and board covered, saving money is easy. It's not unheard of for crew to sign off with several thousand dollars in their bank accounts.
For more information on salaries and positions see the article job classifications, Pay scales – per position / commission.
As staff, crew or officers you are the voice and face of the cruise line that spends millions on marketing to get passengers onto the ship. You are always on stage. Even on your worst day the passengers must think you are having a fantastic time.
The hardest part about working in a passenger area is always being happy, polite and positive, even when confronted with some of the rudest people on the planet. For anyone who has worked a retail or hospitality job, this is nothing new.
Passengers are paying to have a good time, but for some, vacation means forgetting everything about being nice and putting on your I-pay-your-salary-and-want-it-now attitude. There is no option to speak your mind or step out of line. That's a sure-fire way to get kicked off at the next port of call.
Sea days are the worst for everyone working on board. These days the ship does not stop in any ports, and passengers roam the ship in search of entertainment and services all day long. Depending on your department you could end up working 18 hours in one sea day, with only brief breaks for meals or power naps.
On some cruise itineraries there are back to back sea days or ocean crossings with five or six in a row. Departments have limited staff, and on sea days they need to cover 24 hour periods.
My day in the casino would start at 6am and if I was lucky there would be a lunch lull where I could take an hour or two off. If the casino was not busy, my day would end around 9pm, but some nights it would be packed until 2am.
One sea day is always formal night, where passengers dress up and have their photos taken with the officers. Formal night is the busiest night for the cruise ship and also the highest revenue earner for the week. Passengers want to feel like James Bond and play a few bucks on red, have their champagne on the balcony and take in the show for the night. It may sound glamorous, but for crew it means an exhausting day of constant smiling.
If you work for one of the departments that cannot operate in port, like the casino or the gift shop, port days are your sleep-in/hangover days. But for departments like shore excursions or photography, port days mean early mornings and long hours. The photographers are the first ones off the ship after security and start taking happy, squeezy squeezy nice and easy photos of groggy impatient passengers wanting to get off the boat as fast as possible.
As employees, you have very little time in port, if any. Crew always have to wait until all the passengers are off before they can disembark, and then you must be back aboard an hour before the ship sails. When you do get to land, most of the time is either spent calling loved ones or going to the crew shop to pick up toiletries.
All crew, staff and officers have additional safety duties and regular training sessions. Your first week on a ship is spent familiarizing yourself with the safety equipment and procedures. If it is your first contract expect your first month or two to be filled with training sessions ranging from basic first aid and crowd control to firefighting.
Weekly boat drills mean that you spend most of the port day in training. Each staff and crew member have a duty to perform during these drills, from firefighting, muster station leaders, life boat captains, and evacuation crew. Safety roles are assigned to all employees. It’s simply the luck of the draw.
Yes these drills are a pain, but for the few who know what an emergency aboard is like, these drills are just rehearsals. All of my safety training came in handy on May 25, 2003. While docking in Miami, the SS Norway had an explosion caused by a catastrophic failure of boiler #23 that killed eight crew members. The damage caused by the blast compelled the captain to call for all passengers and crew to go to their evacuation stations. The passengers, who 7 days before felt it more important to have a cocktails than attend the safety drill, were now like a mad rush of frightened cows. Thankfully the crew knew what to do. Events like these are tragic and fortunately rare, but it makes you appreciate the drills and hours of training all the more.
While this might sound like the worst job in the world, it is still loads of fun. Many staff and crew end up working more than one contract because it is a means to travel.
It is not the idyllic environment portrayed by employment agencies, the long hours and crappy pay are absolutely worth it. You will meet great people and make amazing friends from many different countries. You'll learn to tolerate ridiculous work schedules and unbearable people for the few hours you can spend on shore in fantastic destinations around the world all while saving a bit of cash.