Working on a cruise ship: Pay, hours, conditions, and secrets
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to work on a cruise ship? If so, you are obviously not alone. Even for those too young to remember “The Love Boat,” it looks like a glamorous and interesting job. Throw in all the “free” travel and it seems hard to beat, but cruise ships are also notorious for long hours and modest pay.
I've always wondered about all of this myself, so I recently asked a friend and fellow travel writer about her experiences after doing two 7-month contracts working on a cruise ship starting in Europe and ending in the Caribbean. Some of the answers are probably not what you'd expect, but it's all interesting.
Take it away, Trekker…
Greetings everyone, I am Trekker, a lifelong traveler and pretty much a Jill of All Trades and Master of Nothing in Particular. At present I am working on cruise ships. I work for an Italian company and am the English Social Hostess.
The Social Host/Hostess is pretty much a ship's ambassador for a specific language. We usually have the five main languages: English, Spanish, Italian, French, and German, covered by a native speaker of that language. Our job is to be there for guests when they need specific information as well as socialise with them and make sure they are having a good time.
We do the Embarkation and Disembarkation talks, translations, check the Daily Programs that are delivered to the guests each evening, support the Captain during Gala evenings, give ship tours etc…
So far I have done 2 contracts and am waiting on my 3rd. My first was 6 months long and on one of the smallest of our vessels, she can carry 2,300 guests and 700 crew. We sailed the Eastern Mediterranean, including Italy, Turkey, Israel Ukraine, and Greece.
The second was 7.5-months long and on the largest of our vessels, she can carry 4,300 guests and up to 1,700 crew. We sailed from Italy transatlantic to the Caribbean, spent 6 months there then sailed down to Rio De Jeneiro, Brazil.
Even though the contracts are long and tiring, I am definitely interested in going back and just hope I get my requested location of South Africa.
How did you get the job?
Getting the job was not easy. I honestly had no idea how to even go about starting this process. When people ask me “why…” I respond with “It all started because of a boy”. Usually, folks who are interested in working on cruise ships, find a recruiting agency and pay them to get them a job. This is good as it means less work for you, but can be bad as I have heard tales of folks applying for reception and being given a waitressing position or having to pay the recruiters part of their salary for the first contract or two.
As far as my journey, it involved lots of research and emailing and calling. When I visited the “boy” on the ship in Italy I also went to one of the offices there, but was told they could not help me as they only booked cruises.
I pretty much got the runaround for close to 10 or 20 phone calls. Finally I think I must have hit the limit of “gee she must be serious” and was given an email to send my resume and wait for an interview date. Also, most people at least have an idea of WHAT position they wanted to do. I, on the other hand, barely knew what positions there were. During the initial stages when asked what position I wanted, I just kept saying “something with guests.”
After about 6 months of runaround I was finally able to get a Skype interview. The interview lasted about 30 minutes and at the end I felt very confident. She had asked me all sorts of questions from my customer service background to how to answer a difficult guest without being disloyal to the company.
It took 2 weeks before I got my answer and, as you can see, if was affirmative, I would be embarking on a ship at the end of the year as the English Social Hostess. I was really excited, and honestly I hadn't even known about this position when I started.
How many hours do you work per day and per week?
As the Social Hostess our hours vary from day to day depending on the kinds of duties we have. Our busiest days are embarkation days. We help with answering questions and collecting credit card bills (from 6am – 9.30am), in Europe we do the actual check in desk, we also help with disembarkation procedures, we often have ship visits and tours, not to mention embarkation welcome talks and much more. On those days we can be on the go almost non-stop from 6am to 11.30pm with only a few short breaks. You literally have to peel your uniform off on those days.
On most port days we work in the morning and evening (around 6-8 hours), if we go on excursion it can be an extra 3-11 hours, depending on the length of the excursion.
On sea days we have numerous odd jobs around the ship from lectures to quizzes to “walk the line” (essentially being a mobile guest service agent). Every day there is the mandatory translations, checking the daily program and socialising.
In a nutshell our days most likely average between 6-10 hours but can be as many as 15 hours or more.
What about hours of other jobs?
Hours vary quite drastically from job to job. The Dance Instructors for example only worked about 5 hours a day, and perhaps 7 hours on sea days, if that.
The reception/guest service team had constant shifts of 8-12 hours, occasionally going to 14 hours if things were really busy.
Bar staff worked between 12-16 hours, sometimes more, they had some of the hardest work on the ship I believe.
Cabin Stewards and cleaning staff had set times to clean rooms a few times a day, but were pretty much on duty for most of the day in case one of their assigned guests called for a cleanup. Depending the size of the ship they could be designated between 10-20 rooms each.
Security would often work 24-hour shifts, sometimes longer on embarkation days.
For the most part I think the average number of hours in a day was around 10 for most crew members, but many times it would be a lot higher.
What were your living quarters like?
Most rooms for the normal crew were like inside cabins with bunk beds. On my first ship I was lucky because I got a porthole, natural light made a HUGE difference.
On my second ship, after 4 room changes, I was finally assigned a room with 2 beds that were side to side, and the room was rather big, by most crew standards it was ginormous. It took TWO steps to walk across instead of half. But there was no window, I think I would have traded space for the porthole. Also the rooms with bunkbeds came with little curtains around the bed, so it added to that privacy element which is often difficult to find on the ships.
Most of us have one roommate but there are some cabins on the lower levels that 3 crew share.
Each room has a bathroom with a small shower, toilet and hand basin. Pretty much the cabins for crew have all your basic necessities but not much else.
The coolest thing was that all the walls in the ship are metal, so magnet collecting is a big hobby for crew members and decorating the room is always fun.
Common areas vary depending on ship. The smaller ship I was on only had 1 crew bar and it was a smoking bar. The larger ship had a crew bar (non smoking, with 2 tvs) and a crew disco (smoking with a dance floor and 2 tvs).
There is also the Prua (front point of the ship), also nicknamed Iron Beach, with a tiny round swimming pool that fits between 2-4 crew members (the larger ship I could actually swim in circles).
Finally there is a crew gym, with some basic equipment like weights, treadmill etc., that is open to crew most of the day and night.
Cafeterias, known as the mess, were split up depending on rank. Officers had their own, followed by staff and then crew. Each of the higher cafeterias had a small advantage, like an espresso machine in the Officer's mess.
We had no kitchen where we could cook our own food, but we did have a microwave in the mess.
How well did you feel treated by the company?
This is the only cruise company I have worked for, so I don't have much comparison. From what I have heard other companies do offer better perks, such as a fridge in the cabin, free beer and pizza at the crew party, free coffee and tea etc..
But I think for the most part my line, considering it is one of the youngest cruise companies, does a pretty good job. Having most of its past in the shipping industry there are times we feel more like cargo crew than cruise line crew…But they are trying to improve things and learn.
Just like any job we all wish we could make more money. I am making more as a Social Hostess compared to when I was a vet nurse, and since board and lodging are included I can save the majority of my pay.
We are one of the highest paying companies, from what I have heard, especially for the housekeeping, kitchen and wait staff. For most of the crew they also receive a bonus each month, after the “service charge” aka gratuity, that is automatically added to guests' bills, is divided between them.
We have a lot of trainings, especially safety training. These include general emergency drills at least every 2 weeks, crowd control, boat drills, loading the life boats etc.
I think, just in general, some of these safety trainings should be more role play to simulate emergencies and dealing with guests, but it is also a tad difficult as we do these trainings when guests are onboard, and we wouldn't want to freak any of them out.
Other trainings are job specific, for me there were a lot of customer service, presenting talks, phone etiquette, handling difficult situations etc.. There is often a lot of eye rolling during these trainings, but they are required and secretly we admit there is good info in some of them.
Time off is a tough one. In my position I did often get enough time off. Around 4-5 hours, sometimes more. In the middle of the day on port days meant we could go ashore and explore. Other crew were not that lucky, some of them never got to go off the ship. But a few departments do rotate a schedule to give half a day or a day off to their staff, if it does not conflict with service.
Most crew seem happy and we all end up making some amazing friends. The crew with the more hectic schedules tend to just barely get by, there are a lot of husbands or wives that do this to send a decent check home to the family. There are many who only get to see their children 2-3 months a year, but working on the ship provides a much better life for their families and so it seems like a fair trade.
There are many crew who become ship lifers, I have met folks who have worked in guest services or the restaurant for over 10 years. Once you get hooked to the relatively simple lifestyle (work, eat, sleep, and party) it can be very difficult to leave.
How is the food service for crew?
All food in the mess is free, buffet style with coffee (if you can call it that), tea and juice (we went through a period where there was only grapefruit juice….).
There is also cereal, milk (hot and cold) and condiments (a lot of ketchup and mayonnaise is used to alter the taste). We all get excited on days that have things like chicken nuggets or ravioli or pork ribs, then there is the rest of the time when identifying the food is part of the ritual.
There are even days where you walk in and walk out to the crew store to buy some ramen. The food for crew is okay, but it could be better.
There is always plain rice and sambal for the Indian and Asian crew in the staff mess and in the Crew Mess they usually have (halal, kosher) options to meet cultural needs.
Luckily for some of us we can also go to the guest buffet to eat. But then again after 4 months even that food gets boring.
There is a crew store with a few basic things like hygiene, chocolates, ramen, canned products, medicine, even jewelry and watches.
What can you do during your time or day off?
Time off usually involves napping for most of us, that or finding a place outside to eat. I loved the Mediterranean for that, so many choices from so many nations. There is some comfy lounge chairs in the crew bar (non-smoking), so I would often curl up in one and read a book. The gym was another big one or hanging out on iron beach.
Most likely if there was enough time off on a port day the crew would rush ashore in an attempt for free wifi and cheap food.
We could also do excursions, but often this was difficult to time with your schedule (unless it was part of your job like it was for me), and your supervisor had to contact the manager of the excursion dept and then if you went as an escort you needed the excursion uniform. There was a small discount for crew if they wanted to go as a normal guest, but it all depended on space.
Laundry was another off duty activity we performed.
Are there computers or wi-fi for crew on board?
On my first ship there were computer terminals in the gym, very aromatic when the guys were trying to show off, and it would take a small fee from your crew card everytime you used it.
Otherwise you could purchase internet time for your own device. Not as expensive as it is for the guests, but still up there (24 hours for $58). Often the ship wifi can be very slow or shut down half way through, so trying to make sure you logged out is very important.
Most of the ports had wifi, if guests asked where to go I told them to look for the crew members lining the sidewalk.
Considering room and board are included, how much do crew members need to spend and how much can they save?
Working on a cruise ship is a great way to save money and also a great way to spend money. I could save one third of my salary easily and have a decent amount to spend during the month before the next pay day.
Others like to buy all the latest gadgets, or the newest fashions, but for the most part if you had at least $200 to cover things like the occasional drink at crew bar, putting money on your laundry key and buying internet it still gave you a little to spend in each port.
There were many crew who would send their entire paycheck home.
Do crew members really get all those mandatory tips?
On every guest bill there is a service charge, usually US$12 per adult per day and US$6 for children. This is actually the gratuity that goes to the crew involved in the major service areas such as bar, restaurant and housekeeping.
Also included in this are the crew members who truly keep the ship going and who you never see, the cooks, the garbage guys, the laundry and many more. I have been told that the Captain also gets a small share, but as far as I know all of the service charge/gratuity goes to these crew members.
Departments such as Guest Services, Security and Entertainment (my department) do not take part.
While we do not recommend guests tip extra I have discovered there are usually 3 kinds, those who are happy to pay and leave it that, those who ask to have it removed as they wish to tip individuals (only problem with this is the support staff see none of those tips) and those who love the service so much that they tip above and beyond what is already on their bill.
There are also guests who tip bartenders for drinks as they go, usually more out of habit than anything else.
These tips can really make a difference to crew, often adding US$300 or more to their pay each month. However, if the crew have accrued warnings or had legitimate complaints against them, this “tip” money is partially withheld for that month's pay.
Of course the departments left out would love to be on the recieving end of this bonus, but we make a lot more than the crew who do receive it, so ultimately it is fair.
What is the language situation like?
Even though our ship is an Italian company, English is the main language on board and all crew are required to have a working knowledge of the language. In fact, when we arrived in Miami all crew (1,300 of us) were interviewed one by one by a US corporate officer of the company to assess our English levels. We both giggled a bit when I went in for my interview and he asked me my position…luckily I passed!
For our company, especially, having a basic knowledge of Italian can also be helpful, but is not necessary. Crew who work for Guest Services are required to have at least 2 – 3 languages, but many have 5 or more that they are more than proficient at.
As the English Social Hostess I speak English and Afrikaans (the Dutch offshoot spoken in South Africa), I also have a basic understanding of a few other languages and am fairly good at using body language to understand and make myself understood (often resulting in quite a few laughs with guests).
How well does the crew get along and is there a social scene?
We all become a big family for the most part, of course there are those few territorial disputes, drunken misunderstandings and such but for the most part many of us stay in touch and even visit each other in between contracts.
We have a weekly crew party, one in the crew disco and then, the following week, in a guest area with music played by crew who act as DJs and a bar with prices from the crew bar.
We also have things like crew bingo (not very popular), crew karaoke (quite popular) and very occasionally crew movies. Once every few months the theater entertainers perform one of their shows for us (which means they perform 3 times in one night) and maybe once every 6 months we have a talent show, you will be amazed at the talent our crew has.
I remember the first talent show I saw where one of my favorite buffet attendants (I called her my personal dessert chooser) sang and played the guitar, I didn't even recognise her at first and my jaw hit the ground when I realised it was her.
Can you socialize with guests when off duty?
Socialising with guests outside of a work environment is not exactly encouraged, but if you are out and about and a guest invites you for a coffee there is nothing wrong with accepting.
I have made quite a few friends with the guests and even stayed in touch with a number of them. I have had repeaters on the ships who recognise me and get excited when they see me.
Other crew members will have regulars who often treat them like family and I have even seen some guests arrive and remember a crew member from years ago or request a certain waiter or cabin steward because they made a connection with that crew member on the last cruise.
In general how well do passengers treat the crew?
I would like to say that for the most part guests treat the crew equally and with respect, unfortunately this is not always so. We have our favorite amazing guests who treat us with respect and show appreciation, but there is an equal number of, well, assholes! The ones who yell at you and act like they are entitled royalty expecting you to bow to their every request.
I personally have had a passenger scrumple his bill up and throw it in my face when I did not speak German (I sighed and turned to the next person asking how I could help them). Another Italian passenger kept yelling me that it was my job to speak Italian, even though I was trying my best and could have answered his question if he had let me (I pointed to my name tag and stated that I was the ENGLISH Social Hostess).
The worst I think I have ever experienced was a couple who were so entitled I was almost in tears at how rude they were, they had also made complaints about every department on the ship claiming they “knew” people…. I really wanted to turn around and say “Attitude gives what attitude gets”, but had to take the high road and step back, way back, before I really told them what I thought.
The most amusing thing is, when faced with guests like these it is amazing how kind the guests behind them will be, feeling quite embarrassed that the previous person had acted like that.
I have not had anything too weird asked of me, that I can think of, occasionally a guest will ask me to go above and beyond, hunt down some luggage or research something for them. Of course there is always a crew member with some amusing story of a guest asking them to do something out of their job description.
How many crew members are ready to quit after their first contract?
There are a few number of crew who quit after their first contract shaking their heads and wondering why they ever thought working 15 hour shifts 7 days a week for 7-9 months seemed like a good idea. Others break part way through and run away screaming.
Others, like me, swear we will never do another contract, then once at home, sit impatiently at home waiting for news of which ship and location is next as we hear about all our friends embarking without us.
Then there are those who have been doing it for 10 years, 15 years or more, and I am not talking about an officer who has made this a career, I am talking about a cabin steward or waiter or butler, some just love the job and serving people, others provide for families back home, many come to sea to earn money and discover that time flies when out of the realm of “normality”.
An amusing tale of going back home was told to me by one of our captains who was heading home to Sorrento. We asked if his family was excited to see him, he said “they always are…for the first week, then it appears I interrupt their usual schedule and they look forward to me going back to sea.” He had been at sea for over 30 years.
What was the most surprising positive aspect about working on a cruise ship?
For me I would have to say the international dynamic onboard. Before I went to sea I would never have imagined meeting anyone from Slovenia or Macedonia, let alone discovering life long friends. Add to that a bunch of Romanian photographers, a group of South Africans, a Canadian, a couple of Mexicans, 2 Belgians, all the German hosts and hostesses I have met and many many more.
I have always seemed to feel more at home when I am faced with diversity and interacting with cultures other than what I am used to, and so I guess that the ship becomes a place that is more like home in many ways.
What was the most surprising negative aspect about working on a cruise ship?
One of the first things I was told by many experienced crew was “don't trust anyone.” We all seem like friends but there are a number who will do anything to get ahead, in actuality it is very much like high school and there are a number of mean girls still out there.
Add to that the obvious sexual tension all over the ship, new meanings are given to statements like “come and watch a movie” or “let's go somewhere and chat.” Hookups are left, right and center and honestly you can never trust that someone is being honest about their relationship status, and it's not just ship boys!
In fact it is exactly like being back in high school, just in the enclosed environment of a ship. This could be bad, but it can also be amusing to sit back and watch.
Any quick tips for those considering work on a cruise ship?
- Go through the company if possible, versus a recruiter.
- If you love travel, give it a go at least once!
- Never trust anyone but keep your mind open!
- Explore as much of the ports as you can!
- Sit and watch the sunset or sunrise as often as you can!
- Talk and learn from your fellow crew members!
- Life is never too short to do something crazy like spend 6 months working 15-hour shifts 7 days a week, you never know who you will meet or where you will go!
Follow Trekker's new cruise ship adventures and more at her blog, Trailing Trekker's Travels.