What it’s really like to work on a cruise ship
If you’ve ever had the urge to travel the world, working on a cruise ship sounds like an appealing way to see some sights while making money. After all, passengers pay lots of cash for the experience. But are luxury cruises still as glamorous behind the scenes? Here are some facts you probably didn’t know about working on a cruise ship.
Workers don’t eat as well as the passengers
One of the main draws for going on a cruise is the delicious food that gets served to the passengers. But if you’re a member of the staff, your dining experience is very different. According to workers, the food is less like a luxury buffet and more like a school cafeteria.
The combination of only having access to subpar food and working excessively long hours means many workers lose a considerable amount of weight. It’s forbidden for staff to have a BAC of over 0.04 at any time, so this limits the amount of empty calories you can consume through alcoholic beverages as well. But rules do get broken …
Lots of workers party hard when they can
Even though overindulgence in alcohol is prohibited for staff, it’s not always strictly enforced. As long as an employee doesn’t make a fool of themselves, management is often happy to turn a blind eye. Drinks at the employee bars are cheap — where they charge around $15 per drink for guests, workers get their drinks at about a tenth of the price.
“Really, as long as you didn’t make a scene or do anything stupid a blind eye was turned,” says a former staffer. Since drinking to excess on the ship is risky, employees often prefer to quench their thirst when they get some time off at a port. “We’d get absolutely ripped on shore though. It made for some tense moments when reboarding the ship.”
The ‘Filipino Mafia’ can get you anything you want
As we’ve made clear, being out at sea for months at a time is an isolating experience — it’s easy to lose touch with what’s going on on land. But what about basic things that you might want to get hold of when you’re miles away from the shore, or if you want to drink in secret? According to several sources, you’d go to something called the “Filipino Mafia.”
“If you wanted anything after hours, they would get it for you!” a former employee said. “The crew bar would close around 1 or 2. If you wanted to keep drinking, but were out of booze, you would just go to the Filipino Mafia and get what you needed. You paid a huge markup obviously, but it was still pretty cool!”
What do you have to do to get the job in the first place?
Practically everyone that works on a cruise ship has to go through a one-week Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW) program. This involves learning basic safety and evacuation training that specifically applies to being at sea.
Typically, if you apply to work on a cruise ship and they decide to hire you, you’ll be directed to a place to take an STCW. Once you complete this, you’ll have to pass a separate half-day course known as the Proficiency in Security Awareness course, which explains how security systems work on board.
No days off
Staff are typically contracted for six months at a time, with a one-month vacation. During your contract, you work seven days a week. Depending on your job, you could be working long hours practically every day.
The most hectic days are “embark days,” when new passengers board the ship. Everyone is in a rush to book activities for their trip and explore everything the ship has to offer, so the staff have their hands full. They get some downtime between shifts, but there’s little to do, and internet access is spotty at best, which limits their contact with the outside world.
For employees, hooking up with the passengers is prohibited
Workers on cruise ships are not allowed to pursue relationships with passengers — doing so will result in an abrupt termination. That’s not to say that it doesn’t happen, however. One former cruise ship employee on Reddit described the great lengths workers will go through to conceal their late-night trysts, even dressing a passenger in a staff uniform when they pass by security cameras.
In the case described above, the offending employee was caught and fired. A much safer option is for the forbidden lovers to meet up on land, when the ship docks to explore a city. Safer still — and actually encouraged — is for employees to date one another.
Cruise ships are serious about separating employees and passengers
Earlier, we described the creative ways less-scrupulous employees will try to hide their relationships with passengers. The reason they have to be so secretive is because of the systems companies have in place to prevent these relationships (and protect themselves from sexual harassment lawsuits).
For example, any time a crew member is near the passengers’ cabins, they have to carry a permission slip that allows them to be there. “When my mom came on board the ship and I wanted to visit her, I had a sheet signed by my boss and my boss’s boss,” a former employee said.
But even with these restrictions, cruise ship employees aren’t as chaste as you might imagine …
The love boat
Because of the amount of isolation the workers are subjected to, dating among employees is common. Unlike many other businesses, cruise ships actually prefer if their employees date one another. Being lonely makes people unhappy, and workers tend to be more pleasant and work harder when they’re content.
Many long-lasting employees met their spouses on the job. After all, it’s difficult for people to stay together when they’re apart for six months at a time. According to some workers, it’s also not uncommon for employees to have an open arrangement with their landlocked partners to make the months apart less intolerable.
Lodgings are less than ideal
How are cabins for cruise ship employees? In one word: small. Depending on the rank of your position, you may be sharing this small space with a roommate … or three. Even if a group of people gets along swimmingly, spending half a year or more together in such a cramped space can wear on anyone’s nerves.
If you’re the type of person that needs their privacy, or needs to unwind by yourself after a long day at work, then maybe working on a cruise ship isn’t for you.
Some employees absolutely hated living in their cabins
Most former employees seem to look back on their life aboard a cruise ship fondly — even if there were some things they’d like to have changed. For others, they couldn’t wait to get back on dry land.
One Reddit user didn’t mince words. “Living conditions were hell,” they said. “My ‘cabin’ was a box with a mattress smaller than a standard single, the ceiling was so low I couldn’t sit up on the mattress, no fan, no air-conditioning, and just 20 cm on one side for me to store my stuff on.”
But that’s not to say living on a cruise ship isn’t without its advantages …
Free room and board
The job may not pay the best, and the food might not be the tastiest, and the rooms may be small, but when you work on a cruise ship, you have practically zero expenses. Besides a phone bill and the option to pay for spotty Wi-Fi, any money earned is money that stays in the pocket.
Because of the lack of expenses and the excitement of traveling around the world, working on a cruise ship is an especially attractive option for people right out of high school or college while they decide on a career.
It’s hard to keep up with the outside world
If you decide you want to work on a cruise ship, you can forget about keeping up with current events and your favorite sports teams. Internet connections are notoriously spotty and expensive for employees, so their social circle tends to shrink. While this isolating experience can be frustrating and lonely, it’s not all bad.
Despite all the drama that so much workplace dating can bring, as well as the tension that builds from spending every day with the same people for months at a time, some workers say they find a sense of friendship and camaraderie with their fellow employees that is impossible to find in other jobs.
Practically everyone gets seasick
Seasickness is just a part of life on a cruise ship. There are things you can do to mitigate the effects, but sooner or later, you’ll probably get sick. The good news is, most people get used to it after a while, but not everyone …
One former employee described a friend that couldn’t hack it. “He was literally green and could not stop throwing up once he got on the ship,” he said. “They gave him three days and then told him it’s probably best if he left. He did so, gratefully I assume.”
There’s a bit of a class system in place
Employees are segregated by the rank of their respective positions. The staff members, like performers, hosts, and cashiers, and the general crew, such as the kitchen staff, waitresses, and stewards, have different lodging arrangements and privileges. The officers have it the most comfortable — unlike the rest, they’re able to move freely throughout the ship, get rooms to themselves, and attend shows. Does this lead to some resentment in the ranks?
It appears so. An anonymous former employee, who sold shore excursion packages, let everyone know how he felt about the officers in a Reddit thread. “It was my experience that the officers (white uniforms) were total douches,” he said. “There were exceptions, don’t get me wrong. But mostly, yeah, total douches who looked down on anyone below their rank.” Ouch.
Jealousy may have something to do with the resentment
Officers and certain other crew members, like solo entertainers, are afforded the best accommodations. Mainly, they get their own rooms. Of course, this makes it easier to relax in between shifts, but there are other advantages that come with a solo room as well.
For employees interested in dating their coworkers, having a room you don’t have to share with anyone else is ideal. “I was pretty much alone which made bringing dates home very easy,” said one former cruise ship technician.
“Girls (and guys) go crazy over you as you have a solo room,” another employee said. “Ugliest guys get prettiest girls if they have a solo room.”
The employees speak in code
There are many things that can go wrong when you’re out at sea. Sometimes this means disaster, other times it’s something minor. Either way, the employees don’t want the passengers freaking out. For that reason, workers speak in code to one another.
A “30-30” is a maintenance request, while “PVI” stands for “Public Vomiting Incident.” “Alpha” means a medical emergency. If you hear a staff member call out for a “Kilo,” it has nothing to do with weight — it means all staff must report to their emergency posts, which could be for an evacuation. Stay away from the edge of the boat when the sea is bumpy, or you may end up as an “Oscar” — a man overboard.
Life on the ship gets repetitive
For most passengers, each day spent on the cruise is a different experience. There are many luxurious, fun, and relaxing activities, such as fitness classes, fine dining, and lounging by the pool, but for the staff, life at sea can get old pretty quickly.
Even though staff have their own amenities, they’re typically not nearly as luxurious as the ones afforded the passengers. Also, with no days off, the days tend to blend together, and it can lead workers to feel like their life is a real-life version of Groundhog Day.
The repetition wears on your psyche
When days turn to weeks, and weeks turn to months, even the things you love the most can get boring. Even time off the ship when you visit ports gets old, considering you’re visiting the same ports over and over again.
“So routine,” said one Reddit user. “So boring. Wifi is usually anywhere from $5/day to $10/hour and there is no cell service. So, when you’re not working, you’re trying your best to find anything to do. So a lot of the time you’ll start spending money on anything new, and then you’re not saving or enjoying yourself, so there’s little point.”
According to some employees, cruise ships should take more considerations for mental health
With all the repetition, drama, and isolation, it’s understandable that some employees would find the experience depressing or anxiety-inducing. While each cruise ship has a human resources department, some employees have complained that they’re ill-equipped to deal with serious mental health issues.
“Basically, there is (no psychological help) and 0 support system, and it’s unfortunate,” says one Reddit user. “People get all riled up, there’s drama, closed quarters, etc, and things happen. If there was someone on board that was trustworthy and reliable to help educate, support and guide some of the crew, then ship life wouldn’t be as destructive as it can be. I don’t want to get into it, but it’s a conversation I’ve had on almost every ship I’ve been on.”
Employees have to be extremely efficient
Time is money. This means when one ship full of passengers disembarks, the next group of tourists is boarded almost immediately, causing the crew to scramble to get everyone off the ship, clean everything up, and prepare for the next group of passengers.
Sometimes they have as little as three hours to clear and prepare lodgings for up to 3,000 guests. Furthermore, there’s an expectation of luxury and perfection for guests boarding a cruise ship, so everything needs to be perfect. To work on a cruise ship, you’ve got to be able to hustle and get the job done well.
What happens when a passenger dies on a cruise?
Of course, all cruise ships have medical centers equipped to deal with emergencies, but what about when the worst can’t be avoided? According to an anonymous insider who spoke to Cruise Critic, about three people per week die on cruise ships.
To deal with this harsh reality, each cruise ship must have its own morgue and body bags. The guest care team is prepared to deal with grieving families and coordinate with government representatives to return the remains home.
Norovirus is fairly common, but it’s rarely the crew’s fault
If you’ve ever taken a cruise, you probably remember constant subtle reminders to wash your hands. This is incredibly important in preventing the spread of the highly contagious norovirus. Nothing ruins a trip quite as easily as constant diarrhea and vomiting. Kitchen crews do their best to mitigate risks by keeping things as hygienic as possible.
But more often than not, poor hygiene habits of the guests are to blame for an outbreak. According to an industry insider, short trips are the most risky. This is because of the clientele they attract — more on that later …
Sometimes, norovirus gets completely out of hand
It’s rare, but sometimes norovirus becomes a major health catastrophe on a cruise ship. For example, in January of 2019, a Royal Caribbean Oasis of the Seas cruise ship had to cut a trip short after approximately 475 people became infected. Can you imagine waiting in line to use the bathroom?
Of course, situations rarely get this bad. That’s because cruise ships have systems in place to prevent this kind of disaster from happening. Namely, there is an Outbreak Prevention Plan (OPP), which breaks potential outbreaks into different levels. On the first level, guests are reminded to wash their hands through subtle and subliminal messaging — “How many times have you washed your hands today?” At level two, this messaging becomes more direct. When a cruise ship hits OPP3, guests lose the ability to handle their own food, and all linens are collected into red biohazard bags, which are then laundered at a separate facility on land.
Which cruises are the safest to avoid getting sick?
Short cruise trips are the most viable option for elderly passengers who lack strong immune systems and tend to contract and spread the virus easily. On the other hand, the lower price point attracts a younger crowd that just wants to drink and party. Unfortunately, intoxication tends to coincide with less concern over proper hygiene practices.
For these reasons, longer trips are safer in terms of avoiding norovirus.
Besides norovirus, common ailments include upper respiratory infections and bruises from taking an intoxicated tumble. Urinary tract infections and Viagra side effects are also common occurrences (lots of people spend their honeymoons on a cruise ship and romance is in the air).
Crew have mixed feelings about the passengers
As is the case with most jobs in the service industry, guests and customers range between lovely and awful. Most guests have a cheerful attitude — they are on vacation, after all — but others just can’t wait to complain. We all know the type. “I read a guest complaint holding the cruise line accountable for the poor weather conditions,” Alissa, a former performer on a cruise ship, recalls.
Since a lot of alcohol tends to get consumed on board, workers see the full spectrum of bar patrons, from the happy lushes full of joie de vivre, to the miserable and aggressive barflies who make life difficult for the crew.
Things can get ugly
Sometimes passengers can go from being rude to downright dangerous. Nadine, a 26-year-old female performer, was almost punched by a male passenger over a missed opportunity to take a photo with one of the “princesses.”
“He started threatening me,” she told VICE. “I was trying to keep my cool, of course. But then he took a swing at me. Luckily, his wife stopped the punch. She stepped in front of him and said ‘What are you doing?’ He’d lost his mind. He thought he’d have to take a swing at me just to go and see a princess.”
Passengers have a big impact on how well employees are paid
Those comment cards that each passenger is asked to fill out at the end of their trip are taken very seriously. A few nice words that mention a certain employee could mean a pay raise or bonus for that person.
On the other hand, if someone paints an employee in a bad light on one of those comment cards, it will definitely get brought up to that person and, depending on the context, could mean a pay cut or even a termination.
Some passengers make some absurd requests
Since they’ve spent a lot of money, it’s not uncommon for passengers to make some ridiculous requests and expect some absurd considerations. One cruise worker told Cruise Bulletin about a guest on his honeymoon who made a bizarre complaint.
Apparently, this guest became furious when he and his wife’s cabin was not decked out in white and there were no rose petals on the bed. Of course, he hadn’t informed the staff — he just expected them to know.
Cruise ships have a zero-tolerance policy toward violence
With all the alcohol that gets consumed on a cruise ship, it’s easy to imagine things getting out of hand and passengers coming to blows. However, this is a rare occurrence — bartenders are careful not to overserve passengers.
Inevitably, every once in a while, stuff goes down. Take for example, this massive brawl that occurred between an extended family of 23 people. According to an employee, this wasn’t the only incident the group had been involved in, just the final straw. The whole group was forced to disembark immediately following the incident.
The infamous ‘poop cruise’
It’s rare, but sometimes cruise ships have massive malfunctions. One Royal Carribean Splendour of the Seas cruise was plagued with such mishaps. After a fire and subsequent loss of power, passengers and crew members were left dealing with some particularly disgusting consequences.
The ship’s plumbing and sewage system shut down, leaving every toilet filled to the brim with … well, you get it. Perhaps even more disturbing was the company’s response to passengers demanding a refund, stating they made no promise of a safe voyage. “The contract ticket makes no express guarantee for safe passage, a seaworthy vessel, adequate and wholesome food, and sanitary and safe living conditions,” agreed U.S. district judge Donald Graham. Yikes.