What It's Really Like To Work On A Cruise Ship

Photo: Getty Images.

If you've ever taken a cruise , you know that it takes thousands of people to make sure you and your fellow travellers are housed, fed, and entertained well while on the trip. But, as travellers, there's a lot that goes into cruise ship hospitality we don't know about.

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To find out what it's really like to work and live on a cruise ship, we spoke to seven current and former employees. The folks we interviewed worked for Royal Caribbean International, Princess Cruises, Renaissance Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line. We talked to a dancer, a pianist and vocalist, a fitness instructor and spa manager, a wig designer and stylist, a groups and event manager, an English hostess, someone who worked with the kids' program and in future sales. Ahead, these women share the best and worst parts about the job and even spill some juicy stories from their time on board.

What was/is the best thing about your work experience?

"I basically got paid to travel, explore the Caribbean, and work on my beauty tech startup. I also got paid daily and only had to work once a week." — Angela, wig designer and stylist

"It was amazing to have a secure, semi-long term dance job while traveling the world with people from practically every corner of the globe." — Katie, dancer

"The best part of my experience was the people that I worked with. We were a tight group nicknamed the Spafia. Amazingly, seeing as we worked together, were roommates, ate, and went out together, we had very little conflict." — Kate, fitness instructor and spa manager

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"I was the voice over the tannoy on embarkation days which I loved! Twice a week within a few short hours we had to get thousands of people off the ship as quickly as possible to enable the teams to clean and reset and then get all the new thousands of passengers on. For the leavers, I gave clear instructions across the entire ship's tannoy into every cabin about what they had to do and when. The other thing I quite enjoyed was the crew muster drill, where I was assistant captain on a lifeboat. The captain was one of the head chefs and was never present so I got to be in charge of my own mini crew and boat! " — Kelly, groups and events manager

What was/is the worst thing about your work experience?

"The worst experience was between having to do a weekly room lottery and the spotty internet service that I had to pay an arm and a leg for. As a creative with a design role, I qualified for a single berth cabin and got to live like the passengers on the ship. So, I had to be flexible and change rooms every week along with the passengers. Going through the check-in and check-out process with everyone else weekly was a drag. Then I saw how the kitchen crew, hair salon workers, and even the dancers were cooped up living four people to a room. It put my perspective in check." — Angela

"It was hard to miss things at home. I missed several good friends' weddings. I was away when my sister had her second child. I did fly home after a family member had a very rocky recovery from surgery and I needed to be back." — Lisa, kids' program, cruise staff, future sales, and loyalty ambassador

"The most challenging part was cabin fever. Even though there are plenty of days spent in port, there is a ton of time spent on the ship, and it's easy to feel trapped after a while. Our cabins were windowless and super small. And you get sick of the food pretty quick. Plus, even though you may love your fellow shipmates, being in such close quarters all the time can wear on you." — Katie

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"For me, it was feeling unvalued. We were the least expensive option for people to cruise around in Hawaii, so we attracted people who wanted a deal. And most of them were not fitness-focused. This meant that the gym was pretty dead 90% of the time. I would have people come to my free classes and workshops, but not the paid ones. I received a small stipend but was mostly commission-based. Having no one paying for my services meant that I didn't get paid. Then I was promoted and my stipend was cut in half so I was working two jobs for less money. I actually ended up leaving fitness for a while, because of the experience." — Kate

Do you feel you were/are paid fairly? What about benefits?

"I did get paid fairly, but I also negotiated everything. I don't think other workers onboard had that same opportunity. I was contracted at about $1,155 (£945) per week. They broke it down daily though. So, $165 (£135) per day for all seven days in a week regardless of if I was working or not. I only worked one day a week... On the ship, I worked as a contractor. We didn't get benefits. I did get free access to all the events on the boat. I also had room and board fully covered. There were no limits to where I could eat or what I could do on the ship. I only had to pay for drinks if I wanted an adult beverage. I also received a per diem each time I had to pack up and leave the ship to switch rooms as well as a kit fee for my wig kit." — Angela

"The pay wasn't great, but for a young person fresh out of university, the free room and board and opportunity to travel the world while performing made it totally worth it. I didn't get any benefits either, but basic medical care was available onboard." — Katie

"I think I get paid very well to work onboard. You have to remember too that in addition to a salary, almost all of my living expenses are paid for when I'm onboard — rent (I always get my own cabin with a double bed, which is a BIG deal in the cruise crew world), food (same facilities as guests), medical expenses onboard, laundry, gym, etc. The only bills I really have to pay are for my cell phone and wifi. Another great benefit is that I get to bring one guest at a time, such as a friend or family member, for free, for up to half of my contract, as well as a discount for family and friends that want to book a cruise while I'm on board." — Alissa, pianist and vocalist

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"I worked for a contracted company and not the cruise line. I had great benefits including health insurance, which I hadn't had in a few years. I was largely paid via commission and it was hard for me to entice people to work out, as most never did at home." — Kate

What were/are the passengers like? How did/do they treat you?

"Passengers were pretty cool. I had a lot of free time and had a chance to connect with people from different places. I never had any trouble with passengers. I was also in plainclothes daily and had a pretty cool job on the ship, so I'm sure that factored into my privilege in this area." — Angela

"Often passengers would recognise the dancers and loved to say hi or chat. You kind of end up being a mini-celebrity on the ship in that way." — Katie

"Honestly, most of the passengers I meet are the nicest people in the world. They're supportive, fun, and just happy (Why wouldn't you be?! You're on holiday!) You get to really know some of the passengers, especially on the longer cruises and I keep in touch with many of them via email and social media even when they go home. Many have offered me a place to stay if I'm ever visiting their hometown and many want to know which ship I'm going to be on and when, so they can book their vacations accordingly.

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"Of course, there are always going to be people that just love to — and will — complain about everything. Once, a guest complained because our show gets one night off per week and she was upset we were not performing. Another guest looked me in the face once and told me I was the worst musician he'd ever seen. While reading through comments, I read a guest complaint holding the cruise line accountable for the poor weather conditions." — Alissa

"The passengers were so varied, it is hard to say. The line itself was a bit cheap so the clientele tended to follow suit. There were a lot of complaints. Some were very aggressive. However, the majority of clients were lovely, grateful, and very interested in life onboard." — Bethany, English hostess

What did/do you do with your downtime on the boat?

"It was my first time on a cruise ship so the first week, I enjoyed the cruise just like I was a tourist. I went to the pool parties, saw all the shows, went to all the activities and events. Then I used the rest of the time to get off the ship or to work on my beauty tech startup, CosmoSafe. We were gearing up to pitch to a new business competition at that time. I aced that pitch and won $20,000 (£16,375!) that September when I returned so having that extra time to focus on my business paid off!" — Angela

"On the ship, we would play games when we were not working. I realised I was not great at scrabble, but I can hold my own at chess. Many people played video games and watched movies. We also had our own bar and we had theme parties every week. I loved getting dressed up. My favourite was a toga party." — Lisa

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"I’ve heard things have changed a lot from my time on board and that dancers have a lot more duties throughout the day now. However, when I was working, we had a lot of downtime (opposite from most workers on the ship). Aside from exploring off the ship, I read a lot, binge-watched TV series (before the Netflix days!), studied languages, worked out, did some freelance writing and planned (and went) to parties." — Katie

"Yoga, naps, layout at 'Crew Beach,' a private area under the bridge where crew members would go to tan, explore, chain-smoke, party at the Crew Bar. We didn't have a ton of downtime, but managed to make the most of what we did have." — Bethany

Were/are you allowed to get off the boat and explore the areas it travelled to?

"I was able to explore where we docked. I went scuba diving all over the Caribbean, and we even went diving once in Juneau, Alaska. I went on tours with the ship's photographers, and they gave me photo lessons. I was able to go on many tours through the shore excursions department. I saw Machu Picchu, penguins, glaciers, and even went on a dog sledge!" — Lisa

"Absolutely! As a performer, I have an awesome schedule because I only have shows at night, leaving my days entirely free to get out in port and explore. How much of a port you get to explore definitely depends on your position and schedule, and I know on some cruise lines, performers are given IPM duties, meaning so many crew members have to remain on the ship at any given time, even when in port. " — Alissa

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"Yes, but there really wasn't enough time off to explore properly. We definitely did not have time to join excursions or tours. By the time your shift ended in the morning, you might have a few hours in the middle of the day before being back on shift in the afternoon. This only allowed time to jump off, grab a bite to eat somewhere other than the ship, maybe a stock up on toiletries or essentials. and get back to the boat! It was very clear that if you missed a ship's departure, you were liable for both the organisation and cost to fly to the next port, which is fair enough, but it meant I always made sure I was back way before departure!" — Kelly

"Yes! In my position, we generally accompanied the guests on their excursions. Other languages, like German or French, generally had translating duties. If we weren't assigned to an excursion, we were able to explore." — Bethany

Did/do you have to deal with annoying drunk people on the ship?

"The passengers were friendly drunks! The employee bar had discounted drinks for crew members, and that's where the action happened! The drunk crew members were more entertaining than the drunk passengers because of their drama." — Angela

"Not too much when it comes to passengers. For the most part, I wasn't required to be in passenger areas so it was easy to escape. As for crew, well that's another story. There was partying pretty much every night and booze was super cheap for crew, so drunkenness was pretty par for the course." — Katie

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"The cruise line I have worked for is not known for attracting as much of a 'party crowd' as other cruise lines are notorious for, so annoying drunk people onboard are not a daily occurrence, but of course, they come with the territory. I'll never forget trying to perform while a very intoxicated 80-year-old woman was running around the venue, throwing her shoes at security." — Alissa

Did/do you ever get seasick?

"Ugghh, yes! The first few weeks on the boat, I was okay. I had a sea view room. Then I was transferred to hidden a part of the ship where executives stay. I had windows there, so I didn't get sick. Then I got stuck in a room with no window. That's when the seasickness came swiftly and without mercy for a week." — Angela

"When I first started working on ships, I would get seasick all the time and trust me, I've tried every remedy — ginger, green apples, wrist bands, ice. It is something you definitely get used to though, and now, I rarely deal with seasickness unless the water is particularly rough." — Alissa

"There were a few occasions that the sea got the better of me. I remember laying in the fitness studio on a mat for an afternoon. I kept some ginger snacks around to help out." — Kate

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"Definitely. In the case of rough sea, prevention techniques included pasta, beer, bread, and apples." — Bethany

What is the grossest thing about living on a cruise ship?

"The grossest thing was that I was hopping around from room to room in utter fear of encountering a bed bug. The turn around time between guests isn't that long. I had to request new sheets a few times because I saw mine weren't clean." — Angela

"Norovirus! Thankfully I never experienced it personally, but it's a nasty stomach virus that's super contagious. When you get it, you have to be quarantined and can't leave your cabin for any reason. On ships, it spreads quickly when people don't wash their hands and then touch the food serving utensils and other shared items." — Katie

"Any time you have that many people in such an enclosed space, it becomes a breeding ground for germs. The crew works very hard to keep everything spotless, however, I still wince when I see people getting in the evaluators barefoot or reaching behind a glass divider while in line for food to serve themselves when clearly, an attendant is there to serve them." — Alissa

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"A ship is never fully clean and the potential of catching something is big. A lot of the staff food wasn't that appealing, but we were able to eat in the guest areas. " — Kate

Do cruise ship employees’ social lives get tangled up? Like, have you ever dated a co-worker with all that time together at sea? Was/is there other interpersonal drama among the people you worked and lived with?

"YES! I dated many of the people I worked with. I explain that living on a cruise ship is like living in a college dorm, but no one has any homework. If you are not working in your department, you have free time. We never went to the supermarket, the dry cleaners, or cooked dinner. When we were in port, we went to restaurants, hikes, and tours. I went scuba diving while some of the other cruise staff would golf or go to the beach. Sometimes the person you were dating would go on vacation or to another ship and there was drama. It felt a bit like a reality TV show, but overall, it was really fun." — Lisa

"Oh, definitely. I used to joke that cruise ship life would be the best reality show. People date, break up, cheat on partners back home, you name it. At the same time, I know a lot of happily married couples who met on cruise ships." — Katie

"Working on a cruise ship is a bit like being back in high school. There are cliques, and the rumour mill is immensely active. I don't like to date where I work, but I apparently had several relationships that I didn't know about. A few friends did have significant others on the ship. There was quite a bit of cheating on the ship. One guy I knew had gotten married a week before he decided to join the ship. He had several women that he was involved with." — Kate

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"I could (and did) write a book about this. Everyone wanted to date officers. They made more money and had single cabins. They also had better connections, so if you ever got yourself into trouble or needed something that you couldn't bring onboard, your officer boyfriend or girlfriend could generally help you out. It was common for many crew members to have an onboard partner in addition to a married partner at home and/or on another ship. It sounds terrible, but ship life can be a suffocatingly lonely life and a short term contract romance can generally ease the pain. It was also common for many crew members to have two onboard partners simultaneously. Usually one, if not both, was not aware of the other. Nothing is secret. Stories, true or not, spread like wildfire and anyone can fall victim. Crew definitely slept with passengers. There is a lot of jealousy. It's like high school." — Bethany

Do you have any particularly wild stories from your time working on a cruise ship?

"I had a stalker my last few days on the ship! I met a bartender who was trying to hit on me. He was from an island and started telling me his whole life story when I bought a drink at the regular bar. Somehow he figured out what room I was in. He called my room repeatedly and told me he was in love with me. I had to unplug my room phone! I was scared. I knew he only worked at that one location on the ship six days a week for long hours so I just avoided that area. Then, I was hanging out at the pool one day, but he came and found me. I think he had people watching me! I hid out on my room the last three days on the ship." — Angela

"One of the 'events' we would put on was jello wrestling. Someone would fill a kiddie pool with jello and people would wear crazy costumes and wrestle. I never participated, but the crew loved it." — Katie

"Most of my stories involve one of my managers. She knew that we were all pretty tight and would play all these weird games to try to create drama and break us up. She developed this system to schedule the spa staff where the people who sold the most product were booked up first and the person who sold the least was booked up last to create competition. Yet, the majority of our team were massage therapists and most of the customers didn't want to buy face cream or whatnot. The one guy who wasn't in our group was always in the front, which also set him up to be in the lead again because he had more clients. The competition also ended up being against him more than anyone else. She also started sleeping with the head security guy so she could spy on us. (Yes, she was married.) It took us a while to figure out why she knew things that she shouldn't." — Kate

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"Hundreds, most of which are NSFW. However, one of my favourite embarkation experiences was in Malta. It was early morning, 8 a.m. or so, and some of the passengers had been waiting hours in the terminal for the ship to arrive. When I came in to announce that the gangway was open to embark, one man lay on a chair and wouldn't wake up. Staff was getting concerned that he was either dead or dying, and we called the medical crew to check him out. With the doctor on his way, one of the security staff went over and picked up the sleeping man. An empty bottle of vodka fell out of his bag and onto the floor. The guard turned to the man's two friends who, now obviously wasted, explained they had arrived at 3 a.m. to the terminal and had proceeded to drink the multiple bottles of vodka that they had purchased at the airport to pass the time. The two friends picked the man up by his arms and literally dragged him on board. He was unconscious the whole time." — Bethany

What do you wish people knew about working on a cruise ship?

"Understand that my fun and exciting experience working on the cruise ship is extremely rare! My pay rate was also uncommon. Other people you talk to might have a gloomier experience because of the poor pay and harsh living conditions below the boat. I do know that there are a lot of international workers on these ships that are highly stressed out, lonely, and sad. Most of them aren't getting paid well enough according to U.S. standards and have to bunk in tiny rooms together. They rarely ever get a moment to get off and explore the locations like I did." — Angela

"Beyond working and traveling to new places, cruise ship life can be transformative. For me, living and working with people from around the world was the most impactful part of the experience. It's a type of education that's hard to find anywhere else. I always say it was the best of times and the worst of times, but I wouldn't change anything." — Katie

"For the right person, it is a dream job. However, it takes a very particular personality to work on a cruise ship — it's an introvert's worst nightmare. The three hours or so I'm performing each day is the easy part, however, I still have to be ON those other 21 hours. Whenever I leave my room, even if it is just to run upstairs and grab a quick lunch, I represent the company and need to dress and act like it. The performers especially get recognised during the day by guests, meaning any time you are in a public area, you need to be engaging and willing to socialise." — Alissa

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"Its damn hard work! Yes, it's fun and exciting and not at all boring, but I still had to use fake tan as there wasn't much time for laying on any beaches!" — Kelly

"If you can work on a cruise ship, you can handle anything life throws at you. However, stop after three to five years. More than that, you'll get stuck in the lifestyle and find it next to impossible to live on land." — Bethany

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