The number one thing people say when I tell them I worked on a cruise ship is, “Oh, that must be just like being on vacation all the time!”. If you have ever worked in any sort of hospitality job, you know that this statement is straight-up laughable. Sure, it’s awesome waking up in Hawaii every day, but when you’re working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week, it’s hard to feel like you’re living the life of luxury.
Cruise ship work is not easy, and the majority of people who leave cruise jobs do it because the reality didn’t match what they were expecting. This post will hopefully show you some of what you should know before you get onto the ship, so that when you get there, your mind isn’t blown by the size of the bathrooms. Keep in mind that I can only speak from my experience and the experience of those I know on cruise ships, which is primarily people from the Pride of America. There are probably some things I’ll mention that aren’t true of international ships, but from what I’ve heard overall, it’s a similar experience.
Without further ado, here are 8 things that you should know before you ship off to work on a cruise ship!
1. You’re one step closer to being Harry Potter: you live in a closet.
Imagine a college dorm, but with twice the people and a quarter of the space. That pretty much sums up the cabin that you’ll be living in. The average room will hold 3 people, but some hold 4. If you’re super lucky and your department is understaffed (although that makes you unlucky for other reasons), you could have only one roommate, and if you’re even luckier, you might get a room to yourself for a little while. When the room is set up for three, there is one bunk bed and one twin bed, also known as the “Princess Bed”, as you will feel like a princess by the time you get to have it. Generally seniority applies here; whoever’s been in the room the longest gets to be the Princess.
Every bed also has a curtain, so you can have a modicum of privacy. Everyone gets a small closet and a drawer under the bed for storage, and you share one desk and a bathroom with your roommate(s). As for the bathroom… Let’s just say, you could sit on the toilet, shave your legs in the shower, and brush your teeth at the sink without getting up. But hey, it’s free housing, and they even provide you with sheets and towels. You’ll probably want to buy your own sheets and towel anyways, but it’s the thought that counts.
2. When the food is free, don’t expect steak & caviar.
The food in crew mess is free. It’s hard to expect much at that point. But with time you will find the things that you like down there; Taco Tuesdays are the bomb, the fried rice is great, grilled chicken sandwiches are consistent, there’s fresh fruit at every meal, and there are always desserts to replenish the many calories you burn in a day.
If you’re lucky, there are some positions on the ship where you are allowed to eat in passenger areas, like the buffet, sushi bar, or even main dining room if you have a nice break (which is rare, so take it when you can). But crew mess is fun in that you will always run into your friends, or maybe even get a moment of much-needed alone time. It’s where I would always run into Connor before we started dating. It sounds a bit like high school, but that’s par for the course on a cruise ship.
3. Welcome to High School 2.0.
I don’t know what it is about adults living and working in the same space but no matter where you are, gossip and drama run rampant. When I first started hanging out with Connor, I mentioned it to two people the next day. By the end of the week, the entire ship knew. There is no privacy on a ship. With some exceptions, people have nothing to talk about to each other but work and co-workers.
Gossip is pretty harmless as long as it doesn’t affect your job, which generally it won’t. And if you are the target of a gossip bomb, just know that no one will care about it in a few days. People get bored of subjects very quickly, and short term memory sucks when you’re only sleeping 4 hours a night. Speaking of which:
4. Sleep or a social life: you can only have one.
And you’re never really going to get enough sleep anyways, so you may as well choose social life. Well, I suppose that’s not totally true. The company is required to schedule you a sleep break of I believe 8 hours every day, but they often take that very literally, as in that’s all you get. If you’re lucky, you’ll get off work around 11/midnight and be back around 8am. If you’re unlucky, you’ll be back around 5/6am – yes, I did have a friend with this schedule, and he did have a nap break scheduled into the middle of his day, but this left him only time to sleep and work.
For me, I knew that if I didn’t get any social interaction with people of my choosing, it would drive me crazy far more than lack of sleep would. Maybe for you, the lack of sleep would be more detrimental. Know thyself, friends. Just know that you cannot have both. And if you’re like me, you’ll learn just how much your body can take, as far as lack of sleep, sporadic food, and constant strenuous physical activity.
5. Your passengers are Well-feds, Newlyweds, & Almost-Deads.
This was a phrase I was told early on on the ship, and I will probably never forget it til the day I’m one of those Almost-Deads. I don’t think I really need to explain what this means, but know that it nicely sums up your clientele, with the exception of some families, solo travelers, and occasional very large tour groups all of one nationality.
I assumed when I came to work on a cruise ship that everyone is happy when they’re on vacation. I was overwhelmingly wrong. Sure, there are a few people that are genuinely and consistently happy on vacation. Usually, in my experience, they are Australian. But the overwhelming majority of people on vacation are streeeesssed oooouuut. If one thing doesn’t go their way, they will flip out at whoever is closest, and they won’t stop until everyone feels their deep, unending pain. This is the bane of hospitality jobs, so it is not unique to cruises, but passengers on cruises also have the unique quality of having turned their brains off, so that is an added struggle. Plus we’re all trapped in the same big metal box.
6. The hottest bar on the ship is the Crew Bar.
Most parties in the passenger areas end around midnight, maybe 1am if it’s a real rager. But that’s when the party just gets started in the Crew Bar. Everyone’s had a long, stressful day, and the best way to wash that away is by knocking back a couple of $2 glasses of wine or $1 beers.
I could talk about it more, but all you really need to know is that Crew Bar is awesome. You get to meet and hang out with all of your crewmates, all of whom are relieved to be done with work for the day and just happy to be with friends. The first week I was on the ship, I went to the crew bar and met Connor, which he doesn’t even remember due to his sleep deprivation. But I still have fond feelings towards crew bar. It brings everybody together. I love that.
7. Dating is hard, but it’s awesome.
Working on a cruise ship is an intense, challenging, and exhausting experience, and if there’s one thing that makes it better, it’s having someone to sit there and listen at the end of the day and make you feel like everything’s going to be ok. If it wasn’t already obvious, I had some experience dating on a ship, and while there are some difficulties, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. That is, if you have a good, healthy relationship; otherwise, more drama.
The biggest obstacle for dating on the ship is getting private time together. The management certainly don’t take your love into account when they’re making a schedule, so if your schedules don’t line up, you’re kinda just screwed. And then when your schedules do finally line up, you go to his or her cabin – and there’s their roommate! Some would settle this by renting a $300 hotel room for a night, but I think the best way to handle it is just by making the best of the time you do have. Do something together every chance you have. If you have the energy, get off the ship; it’s good for your mental health.
Overall, a final note: be careful who you date, and/or who you sleep with. They will still be working and living in the same place as you the next morning, so if things go south, you will not be able to avoid them. End things on good terms as best you can, because believe me, the last thing you’ll need is more drama.
8. If everything sucked, no one would work here.
I’ve mentioned a lot of challenges about working on cruise ships, but the truth is, if everything was as terrible as some people claim, there would be no one left. I know at least a dozen people who are still there from when I first got there a year and a half ago, and while that doesn’t sound like much, with the turnover rate the PoA has, it’s pretty good.
There are a lot of benefits to working on a cruise ship: you meet some amazing new friends, you get to see beautiful places every day that some people wait their whole lives to see, you learn just how much you are capable of, and of course, you make them dolla dolla bills, y’all. On the PoA, American labor laws apply, so I’m talking 40 hours of overtime a week sometimes. It adds up, believe me, especially when you have no living expenses.
In conclusion, cruise ships have their pros and their cons, like any job. But as the HR Manager put it when I first came onboard, “whenever someone is telling you how much they hate their job, ask them, ‘Why are you still here then?'”. Your experience on the ships entirely depends on you, and what you want out of it. Focus on the positives, figure out why you’re there, and let that motivate you through the hardest days. But keep in mind that it’s not the worst thing in the world if you realize that it’s not a fit for you, and that life is too short to do something that makes you miserable forever. Live your best life. Only you know what that means for you.