What I Learned Working 6 Hellish Years on Cruise Ships

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you know it’s a small city compressed into a dozen or so gluttonous decks. People from all over the world crowd into a confined space to eat large amounts of mediocre food, drink too much, and co-exist peacefully with all the other randos. For a week. But imagine living in a space like that for six months at a time, or years. All while having to make life better for people who may have saved up for years to be able to join you for a few very special days.

The longer cruise stint is a learning experience. We talked to “Blake,” who worked in the casino of two different cruise lines for a total of six years. One of those cruise lines was a boutique luxury line who catered to, as he put it, the richest people on earth who don’t own their own yacht. The other was a large budget line that catered to, well, people who cruise on large budget cruise lines. So he’s seen the full spectrum of cruise passengers and employees, and the lessons that come along with serving them. Here he is in his own words:

Cruise ship room

One cruise ship got away with paying me literally nothing

My first contract as a dealer paid $950 a month, but my tips were all counted against my salary. So basically as long as I made at least $950 a month in tips, the cruise line got me for free -- I didn't cost them a dime. This was only for my first contract, and I don't know for sure if other employees got the same deal I did. But I do know nobody made much. Room stewards got $200 a month, topping out at $400. Waiters and bartenders were the same. We were pretty much all living on tips. So...

Tipping is crucial to survival

If you’ve ever gone to the front desk of a cruise ship to get the daily service charge taken off your bill, you should just throw yourself overboard while you're at it. See, the reason your four-day Bahama adventure was only $250 (with unlimited food!) is because the employees onboard cost the cruise line nothing. So the livelihood of those workers, and in many cases their families, is almost completely dependent on guest tips. Should the cruise line pay us more? Perhaps. But when we’d go to Europe, and Europeans didn’t understand the concept of tipping and had gratuities removed, people suffered a lot.

You can survive in a tiny space

If you think the stateroom on your last cruise was a little cramped, it’s an episode of Cribs compared to where the crew stays. I shared a 48sqft room with another guy, which is just over half the size of a regular guest room. You learn how to pack clothes into a small space, travel light, and maximize every inch you have by stacking, rolling, and stuffing your entire life into a narrow locker. I guess it’s kind of like living in any apartment in New York, really. Fortunately I’ve never had to deal with that.

Cruise bartender

Cruises are big melting pots, and you’ve got to have patience

It’s amazing to me how people in America have absolutely zero patience with anyone who doesn’t speak English. When I was onboard, the first thing I learned was you had to have patience with other cultures. A cruise ship isn’t American business as usual, it’s a whole different world out there. You’ve got 60 different nationalities onboard, all with different work ethics, different styles, and different languages. And you still have to make it work or the whole ship falls apart. So you learn to control yourself, slow down and breathe, and remember that you’re not on your home turf anymore, so the rules are a little different.

Europeans have a whole different set of business ethics

In America, we kind of live by the playground code, and if you don’t like what somebody’s doing you confront him first. Otherwise, you’re a tattletale. I don’t think there’s even a word in any European language for tattletale, because the custom of European employees was that if you don’t like a coworker, you go straight to the boss. There’s no arbitration, no trying to work it out face to face. Which caused a lot of problems for Americans who worked onboard.

Everyone sleeps with everyone

The ships were the most incestuous workplace I’ve ever been a part of, we pretty much buggered each other any time we weren’t working. On the budget line I worked on, I think the ratio of men to women was like 9:1. So any time a new girl started working on the ship, that first night at the crew bar was a free-for-all. And for the most part nobody was loyal to anyone. I remember there was a couple on one ship everyone was sure were going to get married, and when the guy’s contract was up a month before hers was, he took a plane back to Uruguay to wait for her. Before he landed, she was with somebody else.

Cruise ship deck
Claude Huot/Shutterstock

The super-wealthy can be terrible

I guess on airplanes, the people who sit in first class are apparently much more civilized than the people in coach. Not the case on cruise lines. On the bargain ships, there were all these people who had saved their whole lives to go on a cruise, and as long as they got fed on time they were just grateful to be there. The super-rich, however, could be downright horrible people. I had one New York seafood magnate who loved to play dice. One night a woman accidentally knocked his dice after he threw them, and he lost a few hundred bucks. He nudges me and says “Watch, I’m gonna make this bitch cry,” and proceeded to rip into her with a loud, obscenity-laced tirade until she actually started sobbing. He did tip me, though.

Elite travel programs make people entitled

On the budget line we had this frequent cruiser program where people got a point for every night they spent on a ship. So people would literally compete to see who could get the most cruise points like it was some kind of fancy New England prep school. They’d nitpick everything, complaining about watered-down (free) drinks in the casino, the cut of prime rib at the buffet, dealers who didn’t let them “win” enough, it was unreal. They’d all rub elbows at their nightly cocktail party like some kind of bougie royalty, all the while talking endless amounts of shit about other elite members. All for the honor of... being the person with the most cruise points. It was like a fifth grade star chart for middle-aged people.

Cruise worker
Flickr/Roger W

Those people cleaning your cabin are probably smarter than you

Like I said, the people from other countries who worked on these ships weren’t there because they were uneducated. They did it because there was no work in their fields. I met my wife when we were working on the same ship; she had a masters in education but was working as a dealer because there was no work where she was from. We met another guy from her country who had an advanced engineering degree, and he was working as a mechanic.

Happiness is all about perspective

No matter who you are or where you’re from, we all want two things out of life: to make money and feed our family. It’s in our basic DNA. People I met on the ship from other countries had no work where they came from. So they’d leave their families for, literally, years at a time just so they could support them. And, seriously, 99.9% of them had this extremely happy, positive outlook on life and I really respect them for what they did. It puts things in perspective -- jobs most Americans wouldn’t do for more than a few months, these people were genuinely happy to have.

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Matt Meltzer is a staff writer with Thrillist who is always patient with people of other cultures. Follow him on Instagram @meltrez1.