Working On a Cruise Ship Can Be a Dream Job -- Or a Nightmare at Sea
Ten years ago I spent the better part of a year working abroad the Queen Mary 2, a UK-based cruise ship operated by the Cunard Line. We traveled back and forth across the Atlantic and toured Europe, the Carribean, and Central America. I can tell you it was a wild, fun, and well-paid journey. I saw the world, drank my weight in poolside cocktails, and earned more money than I’ve ever made before or since. My experience was slightly unusual, as I worked in the entertainment department as a singer, but the options for onboard positions are plentiful. You -- yes, you! -- could very likely work on a cruise ship if you put your mind to it.
You have questions, I can tell. Well, after tracking down a number of my ex-colleagues from my life on the ocean waves, I have some answers for you. Let’s set sail!
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How do you even find work on a cruise ship?
Every person I spoke to had a different story, so the good news is that the options are endless. This is in part due to the sheer amount of different positions needed aboard a cruise ship to make it function and also due to the high staff turnover. Remember, cruise ships are basically floating cities, complete with all the jobs required to make them run efficiently. Recruitment is always ongoing. There are various departments to explore: some require a certain amount of training, but others are easily accessible. For those trying to find something that they can apply for now, check out the following departments: entertainment, food and beverage, photo, childcare, sports, lectures, beauty/spa, and deck.
Cruise ships recruit for their staff in a variety of different ways. David Carboni, a self-confessed “cruise geek” who has worked as a booking executive for Carnival UK for the last 8 years, took me through some of the ways he has seen the ships staffed:
“For deck and technical jobs, a cadetship is required. However, the cruise lines will usually pay for this and pay a salary on top of that. It’s actually a cracking alternative to university for those just out of school," Carboni said. "For positions such as store assistants, spa staff, sports directors, and those in the childcare department, the big cruise lines accept direct submissions online. A basic level of experience and winning personality is really all you need.”
I asked Carboni if there were any special skills that might give a potential application an edge over the competition.
“The ability to speak multiple languages is always very helpful," he told me. "Cruise lines have guests from all over the world, so being bilingual is helpful. For example, right now Cunard Line is looking for Japanese speakers, because the Queen Elizabeth's itinerary is now out in Japan a lot and so the guest-count from Japan has shot right up.”
Criminal background checks are run of the mill on most crew members and all must have a physical exam before signing a contract. However, a convicted felon is eligible to work on a cruise ship, depending on where the ship is docking. The United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand do not allow entry to US felons, but other countries have more relaxed laws.
What is it like working on a cruise?
I don’t want to “teach the world to sing”: that would be awful, and frankly I don’t have the time. But if you work on a cruise ship you do get a glimpse into a hippy-dippy rainbow world where all nationalities pull together to get a day’s work done. It’s kind of beautiful. My experience included a melting pot of Filipino engine workers, Indian engineers, Ukrainian dancers, American sports captains, and a bunch of Brits who drank a lot. (I think they had jobs too, but those occupations were a mere inconvenience to the onboard parties.)
"If you are a person who seeks adventure then this is a job for you."
There is no standard “culture” on a cruise ship. It’s not British or American: almost all cultures are represented below deck and each is celebrated. I’ll never forget drinking vodka with the Russian string quartet one evening. (Needless to say, I almost died, but I do know how to say “nipples” in Russian so it wasn’t an entirely wasted experience.) Docking in Canada once, the Canadians took me to Tim Hortons for the first time, which this does sound lame, but for a girl who had only left England twice before this was groundbreaking for me.
You can read more about my experience working aboard the Queen Mary 2 here, but to answer this further I spoke to several cruise ship veterans to get their take on the experience.
First I spoke to Patrick O’Neil, a former officer who has worked on cruise ships for over 10 years.
“The answer really depends on the position that you hold on the ship," said Patrick O’Neil, a former officer who worked on cruise ships for over 10 years. " Your quality of life can vary wildly depending on what it is that you do. However, it’s an opportunity to see the world. For one thing, you win all those contests where people say 'yeah well how many countries have you been to?' If you are a person who seeks adventure then this is a job for you. It certainly opens up your eyes to the ability of people from all over the world to work together and get along.”
Shanny Baldwin, who worked in the childcare department, had a more demanding schedule. She explained: “I worked everyday and yes some days are long, but there are quiet days when you can enjoy yourself. I was exhausted but honestly, I enjoyed every minute of it.”
What are employee quarters like on a cruise ship?
This is a bit like asking “what does a typical New York apartment look like?” The answer depends on your job, unless you’re a unicorn and rent controlled. Officers, or those with "officer status," can have quite a plush cabin with a much-converted porthole. Having a window is a major luxury though: I had a single occupancy cabin with no window. It was generally fine, but the lack of natural light did mean that I often left my cabin with make-up that looked like a drag queen had applied it. Also I was often confused about whether it was day or night when I woke up, as we were always crossing time zones.
Most workers however, share a cabin with a roommate. Sometimes in two twin beds, or sometimes in bunk beds (to help you relive your camp days.) O’Neil had lived in all of these situations by the time he retired from ship life and he reflected: “I can think of situations where some people might not have made it through a contract without a roommate. Kids who are young, inexperienced, and not worldly would really appreciate having someone to come home too when they’re feeling homesick. If there’s some politics going on in your department, it’s helpful to have a cabin mate that you can sit and talk things through with after work.
"Another thing,” he added, “after living on a ship you certainly learn how little you need in order to be comfortable. When you go back to the real world, you realize that you don’t need a lot of stuff.”
What are the best cruise lines to work for?
There’s a big difference between which is the nicest ship to work on and the best ship to work for. Some luxury ships are beautiful but don’t have their HR working effectively, while other ships may not be as plush, but really take care of their staff. After polling my shipmates, Cunard came out as a workers’ favorite. Disney Cruise Line also scored highly, as they have a monthly schedule of events just for the crew. Celebrity was also liked, but some of the smaller ships and luxury yachts fared less well, mainly due to them being so small and guests too demanding. But as each person has a different job, boss, and experience, it can be hard to definitively name a winning line. My advice: do your research ahead of time.
How much money can you make?
The question you’ve all been waiting for. If you’ve been reading this article closely you can guess what I’m about to say: it depends on your position on the ship. I can tell you though that when I worked aboard the Queen Mary I made $4,500 a month and I was paid in cash. Yep, cold hard cash. (That was 10 years ago though and I recently saw a job listing for a singing position where they were paying $7,000 a month.) And because I am a UK citizen and my money was earned in international waters, I didn’t have to pay tax on it either. Sadly this rule applies to nearly every country in the world except -- you guessed it -- you poor US citizens. But do take into account that your rent, bills, and food are all taken care of, so the money you make is pure profit. There is a great opportunity to save money by working on a ship. Even if your pay isn’t quite as high $7K, you can still easily save money and pay off a good chunk of your student loans for start a little nest egg. For example, a shop assistant can earn around $2,000 a month. Six months on the ship and you’ve saved 10K -- not bad for hawking some perfume.
Is it possible to turn this into a career?
Certainly! Many people on ships start out at the bottom and work their way up to more senior positions, like in any company. I knew musicians who became band leaders, waiters who became restaurant managers, and so on. It is a very particular lifestyle though, and takes a certain kind of person to make it work. You are away from home for several months a year and sort of ending up living two separate lives. If you can keep it all straight it can be a great way to live, but if you crave stability perhaps it won’t be the career for you, but nothing is certain anyway. No one has a job for life these days so why not see where it all takes you?
The best days working on a cruise ship are like a dream
Your ship has docked in Barbados on a warm summer’s day. You imagine that you’ll throw on your bathing suit and head down to the beach and sip a daiquiri don’t you? Well, let me be the one to tell you... yes, that’s exactly what you’ll be doing you lucky devil.
This surely has to be the best part of working on a ship: not only do you travel to these exotic locations, but you have the chance to enjoy them too. It’s a payment of its own. Lucy Homes, a veteran cruise ship employee, told me about her best days: "Sipping cocktails on fabulous beaches, sailing up the Amazon, riding horses up volcanoes, singing under the stars. Being paid to do what you love and seeing the world in the process, it’s just amazing. Oh and the sunsets at sea were epic.”
A former band leader told me that certain holidays made working on a cruise ship like living a wonderful dream.
“There were certain days on the ship that you never missed. One of these was Indian Independence Day because all the Indian workers onboard would cook for a week and have a big celebration. Celebrating with them made me realize that there was so much to learn about this world," he said. "Also when you were on runs with lots of different ports, seeing exciting things. There you are in Rome walking into St Peter’s Basilica, things you perhaps couldn’t afford to do alone.”
I personally remember swimming with sea turtles, snorkeling in the Caribbean, walking around Rome, sunbathing in Cannes, sipping coffee in Quebec -- I could go on but I’m in danger of venturing into #humblebrag territory. So, for some balance…
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Some days working on cruise ships are floating nightmares at sea
Just because everyone else is on a vacation doesn’t mean you are, this is your job remember? Jobby things will happen. You’ll have a run-in with your boss in the throes of jetlag, you’ll be so exhausted you’ll wonder how you’ll make it through, you’ll get fed up of seeing the same faces everyday. There are highs and lows like any job situation, and just when you’re on top of the world, things can come crashing down. What goes up must come down -- or should I say, what goes down must come up?
Allow me to explain. One of the worst onboard experiences has to be when there is a Code Red on the ship. This usually meant that there was an outbreak of norovirus and everyone was confined to their cabins. The ship is basically in lockdown on these occasions. If you don’t have a good book on the go it can be torturous, especially as the internet can be spotty when out at sea. Also, missing friends and family and being millions of miles away with limited wifi can be lonely at times. Cabin fever can set in, but usually the friends you make onboard really help you through it.
Anyone who has worked on a cruise ship has a wild horror story or two. Rumors spread like wildfire and it’s hard to discern what’s real and what isn’t. Strange and tragic things can happen too, like a person falling overboard. It’s rare, but it’s not unheard of. And death can rear its head in many different forms. Here are a few stories I rounded up from my shipmates. I asked them to recall a strange moment from their ship life.
“The rumor that if somebody died onboard they had to make room in the freezers for the body, so they would give the crew all the ice-cream to make space," says one worker who asked to remain anonymous so as to not seem ghoulish. "The guilt of eating that ice cream, but after months of crew mess slop, it tasted so good.”
Another relayed the horrors of the cruise ship equivalent or roadkill: “The time we heard an announcement that if we looked out the port side we would see whales. The whole ship ran out to see them, when suddenly heard a thud and the sea turned red. Not a happy whale spotting experience.”
Though at times ship life can be a strange experience, for the most part it’s a fabulous way to make an international group of friends, travel, get paid and save money. Anchors aweigh!
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