Think working on a cruise ship is all cocktails, dance parties, and sun chairs by the sea? Think again. Life on a cruise ship is very different for those who work on board year round. It's not just parties and adventures all day long, it's hard work! If you've ever taken a cruise, you may have noticed how much cruise crews are responsible for.
From the moment they decide to pursue a cruise ship career, tough auditions, boot camps, and major life adjustments are in store. As real cruise employees explain below, choosing to work on cruises means a trade-off between a normal, stable life and a whole lot of sacrifice.
Imagine leaving everything you know (including solid ground) behind and living on a ship for months of your life! According to researchers at Crew Center, thousands of people choose to do this every year for jobs on cruise lines like Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean. They report that the total number of cruise ship employees worldwide is currently around 223,914.
Don't get us wrong: these employees usually love their jobs. There are positive parts of being stranded at sea for months at a time! For cruise ship singers, dancers, cooks, and hospitality workers, there are plenty of unique cruise ship perks that they exclusively can enjoy - no passengers allowed.
So what's it really like to work on board one of these massive and exciting ships? Here are 25 things you probably didn't know about the lives of cruise ship employees:
25 They Don’t Actually Like the Food
Cruise ship food is famously delicious. You might assume that cruise ship workers would consider the food to be the best part of their jobs, but many of them actually grow to dislike the food options on board.
“Imagine eating at your high-school cafeteria three meals a day, seven days a week for a year,” explains one cruise employee to Insider Magazine. This definitely makes sense to us. Even if a meal is great, you probably don't want to see, smell, and eat it every single day for months at a time, and that's the case for many cruise ship workers.
24 Their Coworkers Are Incredibly Diverse
As reported in a survey by Medium, most cruise ship staff members tend to share a native language with the passengers (think cruise directors and entertainers). That doesn't mean that if you take an American cruise, all your crew members will be American, however.
“On any given contract, you’re working with about 64 nationalities,” former cruise crew member Kat tells Mental Floss. Medium's results confirm her view that cruise ship employees are incredibly diverse and that this is actually an intentional choice by some cruise lines: "Royal Caribbean, for example, portrays itself as an 'international' brand," Medium reports, explaining why this company chooses to hire people with a wide range of nationalities.
23 For Them, Drinks Cost Next to Nothing
Unless you pay for an all-inclusive drinks package when you take a cruise, you'll find yourself shelling out upwards of $10 every time you feel like enjoying a drink by the pool. That's unless you're a cruise ship employee, of course.
Cruise ship employees enjoy their own private bars on deck, where drinks cost much less than they do elsewhere on their ships. As one former cruise employee named Sam explains: "At the passenger bars they were charging like $15 for a drink and we’d go down into the crew bar and you could get a beer or mixed drinks for $1.25."
22 But They’re Not Allowed to Drink Too Much
A lot of cruise passengers enjoy kicking back and sipping martinis all day while they enjoy their vacations. For the people on the cruise ship who aren't actually on vacation (also known as the cruise ship employees), this isn't possible. They are strictly monitored to make sure that they never exceed the cruise line's alcohol limits.
They can be subjected to surprise breathalyzer tests just to make sure they are staying professional while they're on the clock. "There was a strict limit on our ship of no more than .04 blood alcohol content at any time," says a former cruise ship employee named Gavin. "but as long as you didn’t make a fool of yourself, you wouldn’t get randomly breathalyzed."
21 Cruise Ships Make Up for Them Missing Holidays
Kristen Marie is a YouTuber who used to work as a singer and dancer on Carnival cruise ships. She has experience as an employee on seven different ships: Carnival Pride, Ecstasy, Imagination, Glory, Paradise, Fantasy, and Freedom. On every one, she says that no matter how far she was from home, the cruise line would try to make things better around the holidays by hosting special events for their workers.
"Our chefs would make us a special meal," she shares. "It made it a little special because...you’re not home for Thanksgiving or Christmas." How sweet! It's like an office Christmas party, but more personal because they literally live with all of their coworkers.
20 Their Work Hours Are Extremely Long
According to Insider Magazine, cruise ship workers don’t really get days off – they get hours off. "You're always setting an alarm and you always have to be somewhere," cruise ship rock climbing wall instructor Julian Austin told the magazine.
Other employees agree that the work hours that cruise crews are expected to keep are highly demanding and unlike any other jobs' hours. It's hard to imagine that they don't all get overworked within their first months of employment with these intense schedules.
“On my worst contract, I was working close to 300 hours a month,” shares Kat. “Yeah, you might be in beautiful places, but you’re so tired sometimes you don’t even want to go out and explore.”
19 They’re Hired for Their Personalities
It’s not just practical skills that get a cruise ship employee hired. Cruise Ship employment professionals are always looking for people who will be good at carrying conversations with passengers and maintaining a cheerful, upbeat attitude.
"Your job on a cruise ship is not just walking out, singing, and going home. Clearly, you live on board," shares Kristen. "You need to be hospitable, friendly, welcoming, warming, and they like to make you memorable."
She says you don't need an agent, but you do need charisma. Coming to an open-call cruise audition without it is a surefire way to get sent out the door, whether you're applying to be a singer, dancer, server, or otherwise.
18 They Like to Prank Passengers
Just like how the food gets a little boring to workers who are on the ship every single day for months, the activities on the ship can also get a bit humdrum and monotonous. How do the most adventurous and daring crew members pass the time? According to some: pranks.
"A favorite was while in a passenger area say to another crew member, loud enough to be heard by passengers, 'Meet you in the bowling alley tonight!' Of course, there wasn’t actually a bowling alley on board," shares one former cruise employee. "Then we'd wait for the comment cards to come in: 'Why do crew get a bowling alley when we don't?'"
17 They Go Through an Intense Training Bootcamp
Before setting foot on the cruise ship itself, singers, dancers, and musicians have to undergo weeks of intensive training on land. That’s when they learn the songs and choreography they’ll be performing. According to Kristen, Carnival Cruise workers work from 9 to 5, with no cell phones for 6 days a week for an entire month before they’re ready to start actually doing their jobs. They’re even housed in one main apartment complex so they can get used to working in close quarters.
Even though every person hired into these positions already has years of training and experience, there’s nothing like working on a cruise ship! It takes specialized, intense practice to prepare for dancing around on rocky seas.
16 There’s Lots of ‘High School Drama’ On Board
It doesn't come as a surprise that when you put a bunch of young people in a tight social bubble, have them work long hours without much sleep, some of them are going to butt heads. While some fantastic, lasting friendships are made between people who work on cruise ships together, there is also a good amount of drama between crew members on board who can't separate themselves from the group and find a moment alone.
"That is the difficult part about it, separation," explains Julian Austin. "You're constantly mixed with work and personal life, and it all gets intertwined... there were only 1,200 crew members and I think my high school was three times that."
15 Their Room and Board Are Completely Covered
Have you ever wondered what it costs financially for crew members to live on board? They have room and board completely covered, and they just make a paycheck on top of that.
According to CruiseJobFinder.com, a lot of employees find that the money from these paychecks easily adds up. This is because they don't need to spend it on the typical adult expenses of rent, food, or healthcare.
"Many people who work on cruise ships save most of the money they earn because they have so few expenses," the website reports. "Most cruise companies also offer medical and dental insurance, life insurance, disability insurance, travel benefits for you and your family, and vacation time."
14 They Call Home Only on ‘Port Days’
Just like passengers, cruise ship workers only have very expensive, very slow Wi-Fi and no cell phone service while they’re aboard a ship. Unlike passengers, this doesn’t just prevent them from sharing their pictures as instantly as they might like to. It also prevents them from being able to contact their families or check their emails/social media accounts for days at a time.
This contributes to the feelings of isolation that many cruise employees experience. If you see your favorite cruise ship crew member talking on the phone or video chatting while off the ship at a port of call, resist the temptation to go say hi! This is the precious time that they need for staying in touch with their families.
13 They’re Not All Allowed to Visit Port Cities
Even though port days are crucially important for keeping in touch with their families, friends, and lives at home, not every performer gets to actually leave the ship at every port. Maritime Law states that a certain number of employees must be on board manning the cruise ships at all times.
For Carnival, crew members rotate this duty. One day the performers will leave the ship, kitchen staff the next day, hotel staff the next day, and so on. The rest have their port passes confiscated so they can’t set foot off the ship! If you don’t see your fave performer enjoying the sandy shores of your port stop, now you know why.
12 Some Parts of the Ship Are Off Limits
Even though they work there, cruise ship employees don’t get to go wherever they want. Kristen Marie says that despite working on 7 different cruise ships for years, she never got to set foot in certain areas of the ship.
One that she mentions is the boiler room, which to be honest, we wouldn't be interested in visiting anyway, but it is strange that even a trusted employee can't walk around freely in their own workplace. This is especially true when you consider that their workplace is also their home. Who else can't walk around freely and explore their own home? Rough.
11 They Get Their Own Themed Parties
It’s not just the passengers having all the fun. Performers, kitchen staff, administrative staff, and hospitality workers all get to come together at exclusive parties and events while the guests are asleep in their beds or doing their own thing. Cruise crews have their own entire social events calendars of fun activities that the ship’s staff plans for them to enjoy while on board.
If you're someone who enjoys cruises, you'll already know that partying on a cruise ship is no joke. The cruise lines go all out when it comes to decorations, activities, music, and more, all which fit with the particular party theme. Employees are lucky enough to enjoy their very own versions of these world-class events.
10 A Lot of Their Paycheck is Based on Your Feedback
Passengers have a lot of influence over how much cruise ship employees get paid. You know the comment cards at the end of your cruise? These are a way for you to review your experience and share your opinions about the staff - which, if positive, translate directly into salaries and bonuses for workers.
"For most people, their salaries are quite low and they rely on those bonuses," Kat says. So if you leave a bad review, you can be sure that the employee you mention within it will feel the impact on their paycheck. "The very best thing you can do for a crew member is to write a glowing review, mentioning them specifically on your comment card."
9 They Can Win Big Prizes from the Cruise Line
When your cruise ship has a staff of 1200 people, and each of those people pitch in a few dollars on crew-only bingo night, you could find yourself raking in thousands of dollars in cash in just one night.
According to Kristen Marie, Carnival also donates big prizes like phones, ipads, cameras, and more to crew-only events like these. Salaries aside, working on a cruise ship can get you some great free gear if luck is on your side.
8 They Can Get Kicked Off at Random Ports
In typical jobs, getting fired is always uncomfortable and awkward. If it ever happens to you, just be grateful that your job takes place on land. The most your boss can do is take away your future paychecks and wave you out the door. On cruise ships, firing has a much more dramatic conclusion.
Cruise Lines take rules about their employees conduct very seriously, according to RydeAway. When a crew member breaks the rules, they can be fired and kicked off the ship at the next port of call. This means that an American crew member can easily find themselves out of a room and a job and completely alone in a foreign country like Norway or Belize.
7 They Have a Morgue On Board
"We definitely had a morgue on board," one former ship employee told Mental Floss. "Because the line was for older demographics, we had people die on the ship pretty regularly."
According to Cruise Critic, deaths on cruise ships are definitely a regular occurrence. Roughly 200 people die on cruise ships every year, so it makes sense that cruise lines have built special rooms to meet the need that arises from having deceased passengers on board. Most ships have morgues that can hold up to five or six bodies at a time to keep them safe until the ship reaches shore.
6 They Don’t Get Seasick
Have you ever heard of the expression "get your sea legs"? According to Marine Insight magazine, this expression "refers to getting acclimatized to a newer surrounding, specifically on the water." When you don't have your so-called sea legs, it's easy to get seasick on a cruise ship. Since the crew has so much experience on board, they overcome seasickness over time.
"You definitely notice it when you first get on board, that first night you're in your bed and you're rocking," says Julian Austin. "It's something to get used to. There are days when you feel off, your equilibrium is just off, but it could be from the night you partied before."
5 They Have Their Own Code Words
Just like flight attendants, hotel employees, and many other working professionals in specialized industries, cruise ship crew members have shorthand code words for all kinds of incidents and medical emergencies they might encounter on board.
The next time you're on a cruise ship, listen up for announcements like Code Adam (a child is missing), Code Oscar (man overboard), and Code Bravo (fire on the ship). They use these terms so that they can communicate over the loudspeaker without alarming passengers, but we wouldn't blame you for being alarmed after hearing any of those - especially code Oscar! Who knew going overboard was common enough to need its own code word?
4 They’re Clueless About What’s Happening in the Rest of the World
Because cruise ship employees give up their home lives for months, they lose touch with a lot of goings on in their own home countries. It can be difficult (and expensive) to find an Internet connection while at sea (see item number 14) so many ship workers completely lose track of current events while on contract.
“You are giving up your life for 6 to 8 months at a time,” Kristen Marie says. “You’re not home for weddings, family, life goes on without you.”
“You stop following news and sports and pop culture,” says former cruise employee Gavin. “You’re really kind of isolated out there.”
3 Dating You Will Get Them Fired
If you picture yourself snuggling up to a charming and charismatic (see item 19) crew member on your upcoming cruise through the Caribbean, we've got some bad news for you. There's no chance a cruise ship worker will easily strike up a romantic relationship with you on board. In fact, this is the exact kind of behavior that would get them fired and potentially stranded.
According to former cruise ship members themselves, these relationships do sometimes happen, but they are breaking official cruise line policies. Remember: ship security keeps a close eye on crew members day and night. If they catch you in a crew member's quarters or vice versa, your new friend is about to get in big trouble.
2 Returning Home Always Feels Weird
Life is dramatically different for people who have gotten those sea legs and spent weeks upon weeks in a ship. The culture shock that comes from returning home after a season on a cruise ship can be hard for some crew members to handle.
“I would honestly say the hardest transition was always stepping off to the next chapter after ships,” shares Kristen Marie. “It’s hard coming back. You feel like you’ve been in a time capsule for 6 to 8 months. People have moved on, gotten married, had kids, bought homes, and you’re planning out what ships you’re going to next and what ports of call you’re going to see.”
1 They’re Trained for Pirate Attacks
This is a real issue! Whether they're a cook, singer, dancer, comedian, casino worker, or person with any other job on the ship, they need to know how to defeat pirates in case the ship is ever taken under siege.
According to Nolan, who worked for both Princess and Oceania cruise lines, he had to be prepared to get all guests away from windows and spray the pirates with giant water cannons. Other ships are often equipped with Long Range Acoustic Devices that scare pirates away with loud, painful noises. You might laugh, but that's how one luxury liner defeated pirates in 2005. Cruise ship employees rose to the occasion and escaped the pirate attack.
What a job.
References: Mentalfloss.com, ThisIsInsider.com, DailyMail.co.uk, CruiseJobFinder.com, RydeAway.com, MarineInsight.com