If you are considering to venture into the “Work-and-travel” culture, there are many options out there. But, be warned – you will work harder than you ever have. I chose to work for a Cruise Line.
Initially, I went there thinking that I will work for two years and then return. The two years turned into eight, almost nine years packed full of thrills, parties, travel, and loads of hard work and sleepless nights.
I can only speak from the perspective of an on-board photographer and for the company I worked for, but here’s cruise ship life in a nutshell.
How to Get There
There are recruiting agencies worldwide that can assist you in getting a job onboard. You typically only need to submit your resume, but there may be other requirements depending on what you are applying for. You then need to be interviewed and once you pass your interview, you will receive documentation of what steps to take next.
Before joining a ship, you need to pass a medical exam at your own expense. Only once the medical exam is approved and you are deemed medically fit to work onboard, will they send you a contract.
Upon receiving your contract, the excitement kicks in and you start searching online for your ship’s itinerary. On average, a ship could do anything from a 3-day to 8-day cruise. If you are lucky you will get to see more than one destination during your contract.
You need to purchase your own flight ticket there. In my case, “there” was Miami. The company provides you with food, accommodation, and transport from the moment you arrive. You will typically be put up in a hotel for a night or two before joining your ship.
On the day of joining (signing on), you will take a bus from the hotel to the port. There will be many other crew members in the hotel with you, so don’t feel alone. Start a conversation with someone and find out where they are going. You might end up on the same ship.
Joining the Ship
The process of signing on varies from ship to ship and port to port. Some ports are very strict and others more relaxed.
Once you arrive at the port, you will typically check in your luggage. Be sure to keep your contract, medical, passport, and other documentation with you in your hand luggage. On-board, you are met by the Human Resources team who will help to get your documentation in order and give you a name badge and the key to your cabin. Whether you are in casual clothing or uniform, in a crew- or guest area, you should always wear your name badge. The hardest part about day one is finding your cabin and meeting your roommate and team.
You will have lunch in the mess hall and then go to a safety briefing with the officers and HR team before you meet your supervisor. Take this opportunity to ask about the basics.
You will usually collect your uniform shortly after meeting your supervisor. When I joined my first ship, the uniform store was below the water-line. It was a cramped, hot room with poor air conditioning. To add to the discomfort, the ship started sailing while the new crew members were all crammed down there. Sailing away from Miami is one of the rockiest you will ever experience.
If, on a normal day, you get motion sickness of any kind, then working on a cruise ship is not for you. Sometimes it rocks side to side and everyone looks like crabs who are desperately trying to walk straight. At other times, it rocks front to back as it crashes over waves.
Almost all the furniture on-board is secured or bolted to the floor for days like these. You would be walking up a staircase and suddenly it feels as if gravity multiplied. The ship is sailing forward while you are walking to the back and it feels like you aren’t getting anywhere. Some nights, when you are lying in your bed, you will feel yourself shifting from side to side. When you finally get to step foot on land, it feels like you are stepping onto solid ground with the weight of a dinosaur.
Again, if you get motion sickness, don’t join a ship. You will feel horrible for the full duration of your contract.
On-Board Work and Routine
Be prepared to work harder than you ever have before. A typical workday is between ten to twelve hours with breaks in between. You will be working seven days a week for the next six to eight months.
A normal day consists of two to three shifts up to four hours each. As a photographer, you always work at night seeing as that’s when all the guests are dressed up for dinner and shows. You constantly need to be polite, accommodating and helpful with the guests while still getting the job done. You need to push for sales and convince guests to have their photos taken with you. Every aspect of your job comes with targets. You need to meet those targets and maintain a good overall attitude to do well on-board.
Not only will you have to work with guests all the time, but you are thrown into an international team environment. Cultural differences could be a shock to your system and communication gets challenging at times. Most crew members tend to get along though, seeing as you are literally in the same boat. But there’s always the exception. It’s impossible to get along with everyone, and having to work with someone you don’t get along with could add to the already stressful environment.
The areas where you work depend a great deal on your position on-board. Do you have guest area privileges? If so, you are allowed in certain public guest areas on and off duty. But, be warned, there are strict rules for crew members in guest areas and failure to comply will result in these privileges being taken away.
When you are not on duty, you will spend your time sleeping, eating, calling home, doing laundry, or getting off the ship in the ports of call.
Visiting the Ports of Call
One of the great appeals of working for a cruise liner is travel. You will get to visit some amazing destinations you never thought possible. Depending on the ship’s itinerary, you will, on an average dock at between one to four ports of call. If you are lucky, you will get to see more.
Don’t be discouraged. Initially, it’s all about the places you see, but as your contract progresses, it’s all about getting off the ship.
You need some time away from work and the on-board environment. Take every opportunity to step foot on land. Enjoy a swim, go for a walk, shop for supplies, call home, and treat yourself to a restaurant meal. Get out as much as you can! You need these little breaks from reality to keep you sane on-board.
Getting in Touch with the Outside World
One thing to consider when going to work onboard is that you constantly miss your friends and family. Getting connected could be difficult at times. The company I worked for had satellite internet on-board. If you wanted to connect, you had to pay crazy rates for the internet and the connection often failed.
Know that, if you work on a ship, you will speak to your family less. Most ports have crew centers, internet cafés or restaurants with free Wi-fi. Just another reason to get off the ship.
Crew Bar and Parties
On average, you will have at least six hours of uninterrupted rest time scheduled at the end of the day. But most crew members choose to either socialize in the mess hall, hold a cabin party, or go up to the crew bar for a few drinks after work. I’m not saying don’t do it. You need it! But keep in mind that you have to work again the next day.
Drinking on-board is not the same as drinking on land. The air pressure is different and the ship is moving. You will get drunk much faster than you’re used to.
Once a month there is a crew party hosted by one of the departments. They block off a lounge in a guest area, decorate, have a theme and crew members stream through hidden corridors to attend. There is music, dancing, socializing, and crew-rates at the bar.
Accommodation on Board
As mentioned before, the company provides you with accommodation and food from the moment you arrive. But what about onboard?
What kind of cabin you get depends a great deal on your position and the Cruise Line for which you work. In the company I worked for, workers are divided between the crew and staff members.
The crew members don’t have guest area privileges and are typically put up in cabins where five cabins (two people per cabin) share an ablution block. That comes to ten crew members per three showers and three toilets. Getting ready for work could get challenging if all the showers are occupied. They also need to clean their own cabins and change their own linen.
Staff members have guest area privileges and also share their cabin with one other person. Unlike the crew cabins, you will have a cabin steward (who you tip) to clean the cabin and change your linen. You also have your own bathroom within the cabin.
The average cabin consists of bunk-beds with a curtain for privacy, a desk with drawers, a two-sided closet, a TV, and a phone. It’s a small, dark space under the waterline that you need to share. But it really is sufficient. You mostly sleep when you are in your cabin, so you don’t need much more.
If you manage to work your way up the chain of command, you will be given a private cabin with its own bathroom, and a porthole (if you’re lucky).
There are 5 meal times on-board: Breakfast, Lunch, Tea-time, Dinner and MIDNIGHT SNACK! Your shifts should be scheduled for you to at least have lunch and dinner. Break times range, on average, between thirty minutes to an hour. Sometimes you need to have dinner, take a shower, and change uniform in thirty minutes.
The first time you walk into the mess hall to dish up a plate, you will be amazed by the variety of exciting, foreign foods. After a month on-board, you find yourself standing in front of the same food thinking “There’s nothing to eat.”
Midnight snack is the most dangerous meal time of all. They have all the best food out and you are starving after a long day’s work.
Crew Laundry Facilities
All the crew members need to fit doing laundry into their already busy schedules. Most crew members do their laundry when the ship is back in the home port or after work at night. There is a laundry room at the front of the ship with about nine washers and dryers, and ironing facilities. With close to one thousand crew members on-board, you can imagine that getting your laundry done could be challenging.
You wait for a machine to open, throw in your stuff and return after thirty minutes to put it in the dryer. Sometimes, the machine stopped working halfway through the cycle and you have to wait for another machine to open up. Or, you throw your clothes into the dryer and when you return, someone saw it fit to remove your clothes and throw it in a pile on the table. On some nights, you finish doing laundry at 3 am.
Save Some Money!
Looking back, I wish I saved more money during my contracts. I used to go overboard on spending – buying electronics, clothing, and drinking too much. During vacation, I would take road-trips (which I will write about later) and wasted money on unnecessary things.
My advice to you is to save some money. Open another bank account and transfer at least eighty percent of your paycheck to that account. And, don’t touch it! Leave it there until you decide you are done with ship life.
You work really hard for that paycheck and having nothing to show for your time, is pointless. Yes, spoil yourself every now and then, but don’t overdo it.
Time to Go Home
About a month before the end of your contract, you will be notified of your sign-off date. You find yourself counting down the days and declaring it to everyone who is willing to listen. At this point, you are physically and emotionally drained and can’t think of anything else but going home.
Counting down the days doesn’t help. It just makes you aware of how much more time you need to spend on-board. I used to ask my supervisor to give me a one-week notice. I didn’t want to spend too much time thinking of that glorious day. One week is more than enough time to pack your things.
The day before you sign off, you will receive your ticket and immigration documents. On sign-off day, you need to evacuate your cabin around 8 am and then wait around for at least two hours until all the guests have left the ship. Only after the guests have left, do they allow crew members to disembark.
You drag your luggage down the gangway into the terminal building and stand in line for immigration. Once you pass through immigration, there is a bus to take you to the airport and you begin your journey home.
Company flight tickets are the most ridiculous itineraries you will ever see. After dedicating your life to serving guests, you now have to take the longest flight ever to get home. On average, it took me thirty hours to get from the US to South Africa.
When on Vacation…
There’s an ironic declaration amongst crew members: “I swear this is my last contract.” Then, you get home after finishing your six to eight months on-board and sleep for two weeks. After the two weeks rest you try to reconnect with your friends, but life moved on while you were away and most of them are too busy to hang out. Ultimately, you get bored and sign up for “just one more” contract.
Finding a Job After Working On-Board
I joined the ships in May 2010 and returned to “real life” in October 2018. Although I had an amazing time working for the ships, I don’t miss it at all.
Coming back to real life after so much time on-board is an enormous adjustment. I know of many people who can’t survive on land anymore and return to the Cruise Ship’s “easy life”. When working on-board, all you need to do is show up for work and keep the balance. Everything else is taken care of.
On land, you realize the cost of food and accommodation and spend hours stuck in traffic. I have applied for so many jobs with no luck. That’s why I advise you to save as much money as you can. It may take longer than expected to settle into a normal routine on land.
Are You Still Considering Working for a Cruise Line?
Working on a Cruise Line is not for everyone. You will either have an amazing experience or hate every minute of it. The choice to work on-board is not a decision you should make lightly. Weigh up all the pros and cons before signing up for this journey. Decide what your motivation is. Are you going there for the travel experience? Then make sure you see as much as you can. Are you in it for the money? Then save some. Do you want to meet new people and interact with different cultures? Then speak to people who are not from your country. How you experience working onboard is completely up to you.
Have you ever worked for a Cruise Line? What was your experience? Are you thinking of working onboard? Feel free to comment or ask questions.