How to work on a cruise ship

How To Get A Job On A Cruise Ship

Sailing the high seas has been the number one means of exploring the world since the Vikings first set foot in North America. Admittedly, technology has come quite a distance since that time and you can now fly from one place to another on these newfangled planes, but is that really safe? What if you hit a bird?

No, that’s not the way to go. If you want to see the world without spending any money, working on a cruise ship is the answer to your prayers. After all, the ocean isn’t dangerous, right?

Sharks are not friendly, disregard the caption

Just look at that friendly face.

 

Benefits of the job

Seeing the world

Seeing the globe may seem like more of a daydream to you than something you could possibly make a reality. In a day job, you have restricted vacation time each year so to see multiple countries you will need to either cram a tiny bit of each place into a two-week break each year, or you’re going to have to stretch your trip planning into the span of years.

  • 2018 – France
  • 2019 – Germany with two days in London
  • 2020 – Brazil

It’s a tradeoff that everybody has to make in their life. Do you put a career first so that you’re financially safe in the long run or do you throw discretion to the wind and set off in the hopes of finding more of yourself abroad? That’s a big decision to make, and taking the latter over the former may wind of being both the better personal and financial decision in the long run. It’s certainly outside of the scope of this article, but the world is a big place; what are the chances that your perfect job just happens to be in your hometown? Statistically, it’s a pretty slim chance, so get out there into the world and find yourself a purpose that you love.

Even if you decide to only take a year or two off after high school or college to cram as much traveling in as you can before starting up a career, working on a cruise line is a pretty good option. No, scratch that. Working on a cruise ship is perhaps the best way to see the world without a trust fund to support you. 

You’ll be traveling to the same locations that guests have paid thousands of dollars to visit, and when you stop into port, often your duties are over until the ship sounds the “all aboard” to get everybody back on deck. Yes, the hours on deck can be long, but rather than spending your break discussing the office gossip around the water cooler, you’ll be shooting photos of polar bears in Alaska, ziplining in Rio de Janeiro, or relaxing on a beach in Italy.

No Living Expenses

If you put together a relatively short trip, say a month, to one of your countries of choice, lets say Italy, your budget could easily break the $3,000-$4,000 barriers with flights, accommodation, meals, and other expenses. Yes, you could backpack around cheap countries living on a tighter budget and you would be able to stretch the same money out over a longer period of time, but where’s the fun in traveling when you can’t go to the places that you really want to see?

How would you like to see dozens of countries per year without spending a dime on any of those expenses? Yes, that’s a rhetorical question but it’s completely plausible when you work on a cruise ship!

If you’re not the world’s best penny pincher, you will be spending a little bit here and there – booze certainly isn’t free (well, it almost is in the crew’s bar), nor are those souvenirs you’re hoping to send home – but nothing to the extent of the costs that accrue with a permanent residence and career.

Insurance and Benefits

This is highly dependent on how important your position is. If your position requires a lot of technical skill and/or training – ship engineer, captain, stage director – you could find yourself with a decent salary, a 401k, stock options, and full dental and health insurance.

However, if your position is one which is easily filled – serving staff, housekeeper, deckhand – your front office will most likely avoid the expense of keeping you healthy. Look at the bright side; you’ll still get the bare minimum in health insurance! However, it only applies while you’re under contract so you’re going to have to look to provide your own travel insurance when you’re off the ship for your break.

Shore Time

Sure, maybe you don’t get weekends to relax, but getting time off to explore the streets of Rome is a pretty good tradeoff. Many companies charge a premium, even to their employees, to use the Wi-fi on the ship, so getting a day on shore is a good time to set up shop in a little cafe by the harbor to get updated on the happenings in the great big world.

Cruise ship shore time

Not a bad place to grab a beer

And oh, the sights you’ll see! Nobody wants to admit it, but we all love posting photos on social media that garner some jealousy from our friends slaving away back home. It’s part of being human. There’s a reason that nobody posts photos of themselves working on spreadsheets all day.

You’ll spend your shore days creating amazing memories with fellow crewmembers that soon become your closest friends.

Don’t expect sobriety to be easy

Cruise ship crews are notoriously hard drinkers. If I’ve found one consistent theme among the stories I’ve heard from former crewmembers, and that I’ve read in my time researching the topic, it’s that cruise ships are full of drunken debauchery. Every ship has it’s own crew bar where beers cost ~$1 and highballs are not much more expensive. It seems that cruise liners know that cooping up thousands of employees and subjecting them to long days of work for months on end can lead to some stress, so they turn a blind eye to crewmembers turning to alcohol let some of that stress out as long as it doesn’t affect the guests’ experience. Many of the larger cruise ships will actually encourage the flowing of alcohol by holding themed crew parties once or twice per month with an open bar!

Crew staff are occasionally subjected to random breathalyzer tests and are expected to keep a BAC below 0.04% but the rule is rarely enforced unless there are extenuating circumstances – such as being drunk during your shift.

Living in a Dorm

Do you miss the days where you lived in the same hallways as all of your friends in the dormitories in college? Did you never get the chance to experience what dorm life was like? Yes, there are some benefits to having your own place complete with a private yard and a rocking chair out front, but when you’re young, having your closest friends living in the room one door over can be one hell of a good time.

When crewmembers get some time off to visit home, they often cite that it’s disconcerting that they have to put effort into hanging out with their friends. They’re so used to having them as a neighbor that the very act of having to text them to arrange hanging out is an alien concept.

Contracts are several months long, and spending that much time cooped up so close to the same group of people can be strenuous. It’s a good thing that you get…

Vacation!

You’ll spend so much time and effort bringing people around on their mobile vacations, that you’ll soon be finding yourself needing some time off from work yourself. Thankfully, cruise companies tend to give generous amounts of vacation time in between contracts, sometimes up to two months. The cruise line is required to pay for repatriation which just means that they organize your flights home, so you can take some much-needed time off to get reacquainted with your family and friends.

Not ready to go home quite yet? If you contact the onboard crew office in advance and arrange for the proper tourist visa, you can push your flights back to get some time to relax and maybe travel around a little bit. Or you can just forget about flying home at all and spend your vacation time seeing some more of the world!

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows

Unfortunately, there are some pitfalls that come with working on cruise ships. If you’re going to commit yourself to a long-term contract, you should know the dark sides that you’ll witness on the job.

Demographics of the crew

Large cruise ships often have more than 1,000 crew members on board at any given time, and that crew is often comprised of people from nations all over the world. Due to operating in international waters, companies are not subject to paying a minimum wage, meaning that they can pay workers from developing countries less than those from the developed world. Cruise companies claim that they use a discriminatory wage among their employees because the money goes further in developing nations than other areas.

This account puts the wages for “lower” jobs at somewhere between $200-$500 per month, plus whatever tips they could make. It can be a tough pill to swallow. Many former staff have reported that their compatriots from developing nations are able to send most of their earnings home to their families, and some of them aren’t doing too badly according to this article.

Pay isn’t amazing

Unless you find yourself among the lucky few to hold an esteemed staffing position amongst the crew, you will not be roping in a fortune while you spend your time cruising the seven seas. This stage manager started working at a rate of $2700/month and she was one of the top earners amongst her colleagues. Another worker estimated the average starting wage for crewmembers in the range of $1,500-$4,500 per month.

Once again though, unless you’re spending all your money on $1.00 beers at the crew bar, most of that money is going straight into your bank account, waiting to be spent upon finishing your contract as you will have very few expenses while on board.

No personal time

If you are an introvert, you will have to make some serious adjustments to living in cruise ship conditions. It’s rare for you crewmembers to get their own rooms, so right off the bat, you’ll have roommates, and the chances are that you’ll be sleeping in a bunk bed as well. You’ll be discouraged from loitering in public areas during your breaks, so you’re going to have to either hole up in your room – which probably won’t have any windows – or you’ll be forced to hang out in crew common areas with your coworkers.

Aside from getting yourself some private time during your brief stays on shore, you will be surrounded by people at all times of the day. Get used to the fact that having personal time is for the shorebound community of the world, of which you are no longer a part (at least until your contract ends).

You’re going to miss out on big events. 

Friend getting married and wants you to come? No can do, you’ll be in transit to Palma that weekend. Best friend’s birthday? Maybe you can squeeze in a Facetime call between shifts to say Happy Birthday. Grandparent just found out they have stage IV bowel cancer? Well, you can quit and go home but that’s going to be a tough decision to make. Plus, your front office may not cover the bill for your flight so you’ll be on the hook for that bill as well.

Know that by signing up for the long – 4-6 month contracts – that are required by cruise liners, you’ll be forced to miss out on some significant events.

No weekends and long hours (depending on your position)

There are no real labor standards to hold your employer accountable because you will primarily be operating in international waters. Who’s going to prosecute them, the Pacific Ocean Police? You should do some research before applying for a position because some can involve insanely long hours – up to 14 hours per day. Why pay for the living expenses of two staff to take shifts when they can just hire one to work both shifts one immediately after the other?

You’ve worked some long hours before, you can stomach some long days, right? Sure, a few long days in a row can wear you down but with a weekend to recover, it might be doable.

Oh right, there’s no such thing as a weekend, and aside from having a serious illness worthy of a doctor’s note, you will be working every single day of your contract. Once again, contracts last between 4 and 6 months and can extend even longer, so finding a position with reasonable hours prior to boarding might be a good idea.

Confined living quarters

Which would you prefer: a king sized memory foam mattress situated in a master bedroom overlooking a beautiful ocean view or a skinny bunk bed squeezed into the corner of a tiny aluminum room with a window that looks straight into a hallway?

Wait, you don’t like the sounds of that second one? Well, that’s too bad because chances are that those are going to be your living conditions for the next half of a year. If you’re lucky, they might even squeeze two sets of bunk beds into the room! The single rooms are reserved for officers and priority staff, so you’d better hope that your roomies don’t smell too bad.

Rankings and meals

As with any other job you’ve ever held, you’ll find that staff are separated into a hierarchy. First come the officers who basically have their run of the ship. They’re encouraged to fraternize with the guests in public areas and can choose to eat in any of the staff or guest mess halls.

Following them in the hierarchy are the members of the staff (employees that work more directly with passengers) and finally, on the bottom, the crew.

The staff mess halls are separated. Officers can eat anywhere, staff can eat in both their own mess hall and the crew’s, and the crew is only allowed to eat in their own mess hall. Albeit a few years old, this Reddit user sums up the food quality eloquently.

“Officer’s Food – This is for anyone three stripes and above. It’s basically dining room food in the same rotation. Monday is chicken, Tuesday is steak, Wednesday is pork tenderloin…etc. The officer’s mess will sometimes cook custom goodies in exchange for favors from the officers.

Staff Food – It’s like someone saw a picture of a buffet, and said “I can make that!” but only had access to dumpster leavings. Many a night I’d wander into the staff mess and ask someone along the way what was for dinner. Many a night the reply was “Toast and cereal”. They had to think pink “dessert” that we called “Pepto Bismol surprise”. The surprise was that it didn’t taste like Pepto Bismol or anything else you’d put in your mouth. It was served in little metal cups, and if there was any left over, it would appear upside down, sans la cup, on a small plate the next day. If it was still un-eaten on the third day, it became “Boob Food”. Someone squirted a little areola of a whipped-cream-like, edible oil product on the top, and placed a single raspberry on top. They disappeared after the 4th day.

Crew Food – Unidentifiable for the most part. Real oxtails in the oxtail soup. Lots of saffron rice.”

There are very few crewmembers from major cruise ships that have shared any semblance of praise for their meals while whilst living on board.

Ready to apply? Here are some positions you can choose from

Hospitality

  • Server
  • Bartender
  • Cook
  • Dishwasher
  • Housekeeping
  • Human resources
  • Gift shop*
  • Guest relations
  • Medical* 
  • Spa* 
  • Shore excursion salesperson
  • Technicians
  • Youth care (babysitter)

*usually offered by a separate company that operates independently on the cruise lines. 

Entertainment

  • Casino staff
  • Dancer
  • Musician
  • DJ
  • Sound engineer
  • Stage director
  • Performer

Technical

  • Security
  • Deckhands
  • Engineer
  • Officer
  • Captain

Prior experience and languages

Depending on where your cruise line is based and what nationalities frequent their business, you may be required to know certain languages. For tourism jobs, it’s a safe bet that knowing more than one language will be beneficial to your career prospects.

Cruise ship companies prefer to hire people that have degrees, but if you have some relevant experience to the position you’re applying for, you may get hired over others with less meaningful backgrounds.

What about visas?

Typically you will have some assistance from your manning agent when acquiring necessary visas for your upcoming contract. If you will be making any stops in a United States port of entry, your employer will require you to obtain your C1D (unless you’re American or Canadian) which allows you stay in the country as long as your vessel remains in the country.

Visas can become more complicated depending on your country of origin, but this site gives some good tips on what you can expect as a cruise ship employee.

Contract Length

Signing a cruise ship contract

You’re going to be at sea for a good length of time.

Contracts for cruise ships can be as short as 4 months in a row and can extend past 7 months if you choose. As you’ll be working almost every day for the duration of that period, it’s important to find a position that you can enjoy and one that doesn’t wear you down to the bone. If you think working 5 days in a row can be exhausting, imagine doing that 24+ times consecutively.

 

How to not get fired from a cruise ship

What happens to you when you get fired from your job aboard a mobile vacation spot that’s docked in a foreign country? This is entirely too common, what with the notoriously long hours that some workers have to endure, and the copious amounts of alcohol that some staff drink on a nightly basis.

Although it’s required by international law that your former employer make sure that you make it back to your home country (although they may dock the cost out of your final paycheque), there are some instances where employees have been fired and marooned with no plans made to send them home. They’re mired in an unfamiliar country and have to navigate their own way back across the globe to their eagerly awaiting families.

Don’t be that person.

Before sending you off into the deep and dark realms of cruise ship applications, here are some tips on keeping your job security intact:

How not to get fired from cruise ships

Probably not the best idea in the middle of the day

  • Don’t act as an international drug mule
  • Don’t sleep with passengers
  • Don’t miss the all aboard call when on shore
  • Don’t be drunk during the work day
  • Don’t steal (duh)

And of course, just use your common sense.

Without further ado, here are some links to 5 of the world’s largest cruise lines career pages to get you started on your path to becoming a crewmember!

Career Sites: 

 

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Robert

Robert works part of the year as an international tour guide in Asia with Life Before Work Travel . When he's not getting paid to travel the world he's out in the field taking photos, on his laptop creating new sites, or sitting in the gutter petting stray dogs.