“Discover exotic places while you work”, “this is the only job where you actually are on holiday”. With this tempting phrases, working on cruise ships and travelling the world while you save money turns into a very attractive idea. The requirements are: speak a high level of english, experience in the field you are applying for, and be able to do a six to eight month contract. What they don’t tell you is the kind of pressure you will have to deal with.

Generally speaking, cruise lines use small worldwide agencies to select their personnel. First, you have to send an e-mail with your CV in english and a picture ID. If you are chosen, you step into the next phase. You will have an interview with someone from the agency, probably a former crew member.

In this stage you will attend a talk about ship life: all the ports you will visit, the exotic food that you will have access to, and all the friends from all over the world that you will meet, everything without making much emphasis on the load of work that you will face.

In the second stage, the agent will interview you in English, where he makes sure to convince you about this amazing opportunity.

Most of the applicants have the required experience, but most of them fail with the language. Rarely, the applicant’s level of English is fluent —sometimes even the agent’s english is mediocre—. But some agencies seem to be desperate to take their commission for recruiting new applicants. Not having good english might play against the crewmember. Most passengers don’t have enough patience and you can make mistakes that will slow down the excellent service that you are required to deliver.

Ticket to reality

Aruba

Aruba at dusk. Don’t get so excited. Ships rarely stay this late at port.

Congratulations! You have been chosen to work for the cruise industry. You need to apply for a C1/D visa (except americans), have medical exams done by an specific doctor chosen by the agency, that costs about $400 (depends on the country, but that’s what I had to pay in Chile). This medical lasts for two years.

It’s your first contract and probably you will have to buy your own ticket to join the cruise line. If you finish your 6-8 month period, the company will pay you ticket back home. You will end up spending around $2,000 USD, not reimbursable. Most of the companies pay round-trip tickets if you stay with the company and do more contracts.

When you have all your papers done, you will have to wait one, two months —could be more— to get a spot on a ship. At this stage you are anxious and have already studied all the itineraries that you would like to do. Finally you receive that email, announcing that you will sign on in, let’s say, Miami.

You will arrive one day in advance and spend the night in a hotel that the company will pay for. Sometimes you will arrive the same day of your sign on date, so you will have to run from the airport to the port, go to a couple of meetings and start working right the way. Believe me, you really want to avoid this situation.

The next day, you will take a cab and go to the port (ask for a receipt and save it, the company will reimburse you).

Life onboard

It's not strange to see crew hanging around in their pj's

It’s not strange to see crew hanging around in their pj’s

Once on the ship’s entrance, you will have to redeem your passport and wait for your new boss to come and pick you up. He or she will take you to the Human Resources office and then will take you into a very fast tour of the most relevant places: the crewmess, your job area and, the most important, your cabin. It will be very small and you will share it with someone the same sex as you.

You never know if you will have to deal with a drunk dude or some hygiene’s enemy. Respect is mandatory, but is not an easy task considering that crewmembers come from approximately seventy different countries. Different customs and cultures could crash and it will definitely show on your job performance.

If you are part of the staff —dancer, photographer, sales assistant, entertainment crew, etc.— you will have permission to use most passenger’s areas, if you have free time. But if you are crew —cabin steward, cook, waiter—you will have to share a public bathroom and you will not have the same benefits as a staff member. You will use the passengers areas just on working hours. You will eat on your designated mess. Forget about exotic and fancy food. From now on, rice will be the closest thing to sushi that you will have at lunch. If you are an officer, nevermind. The world —and the ladies— will be at your feet.

This is the I-95 (central hall of the crew deck) of the Radiance OTS.

This is the I-95 (main corridor of the crew deck) of the Radiance OTS.

After this, you will not have enough time to unpack, because you already have your first meeting to be informed about the rules onboard. You should go on your uniform, because right after this meeting, you will start working. Now it’s time to guess where is the meeting room —unless you understand directions like walk forward to the I-95, turn left, take the staircase 55 and go to deck 4, just next to the galley, inside a white room—. Other crew will identify you as new. They will smile at you and ask if you are lost. Then you will find out that all this smiley faces are a mechanical thing, taught by the companies. Deep inside they might be cursing your mother, but you will never guess.

If you are a somehow good looking girl, the hey baby will be an everyday thing, at least for the first two weeks of your contract.

At first, you won’t care if the ship is in the Caribbean, Australia or Thailand. All you will want is to sleep.

So the promised dream of discovering the world turns into a hard job, where you eat, work and sleep, all during six or eight months, with no complaints. Anyway, nobody forced you. You have the option to quit, but this might close you the doors to work again in that particular cruise line.

Some crew get to know the ports... from the distance.

Some crew get to know the ports… from the distance.

Glass half full

But don’t let all this discourage you. Your experience on board will depend on a bunch of factors: the itinerary, your job position, your manager, etc. Everything counts. If your plan is to travel, these are the kind of jobs that you should check: sales assistant, casino dealer, dancer, singer, musician, shore excursions team. I’ve done a lot of contracts as a shoppie (sales) and I’ve been in a lot of places and have met amazing people. Also I worked as a recepcionist and… I went back to my old job as a shoppie.  I have had horrible managers, but also some good ones.

If you are some sort of masoquist, apply as a photographer. You will take picture after picture, all with pre scheduled poses in front of hideous backgrounds. You will dress as a Caribbean pirate or as a mermaid, so the passengers can take pictures with you. You will melt under the Bahamian sun while you see your friends the shoppies going to spend the day in the beach. The same occurs with recepcionists. Don’t let yourself be fooled by those all-the-countries-I-know-maps on their Facebook’s accounts: spending two or three hours on each port is not really knowing a place.

Anyhow, if you want to gain experience in the hospitality business, try with the reception desk. It’s a very hard job, psychologically speaking. The passengers complain about incredible things, like “the ocean is very noisy” and they will try anything to get a discount or something for free.

Now, if you want to make money, try with the bar. You will work night and day, but, at the end of the day you will learn how to be independent, you will go back home with a lot of cash in your pocket, with an aching back and a lot of stories to tell.

Everybody have different reasons to go on board. Most people need this job to support their families back home. But there is a bunch of us that are in this business because we like it, we want to travel or we already have the crew member’s disease, that one that makes you come back, contract after contract. Anyway, I would recommend not to brag about this. There are people that have to work six to eight months away from home just to bring food to their relative’s table.

Even though there is a negative side in crew life, there is also a positive one. I believe everybody should have this experience once in their lifetime. At least, I don’t regret it and never will.

*My experience and my comments about ship life are based on eight contracts that I’ve done in four different cruise lines.

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Fran Opazo

Journalist with a mention in Digital Communication and has a diploma in History. She considers that speaking in third person is very snobbish, so now it will be me: I collaborate in different media outlets and I do public speaking about the importance of travel journalism and digital media in the tourism industry. I create web content, I'm a Community Manager and I organize trips on request. If you need my professional services, do not hesitate to send an email to lavidanomade@gmail.com. Let's see each other on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

8 Comments

Alana · 23 February, 2017 at 2:07 am

As you mentioned, “your experience on board will depend on many factors” is very true. Your job, your manager, your team, your cabin mate, the quality of food on the ship, management, and lastly itinerary all factor into your experience on board. Everything could be smooth sailing (for real) until your manager goes home for vacation and gets replaced with a completely different personality type. The chef could get fired and now the food in the crew mess changes a bit leaving out your favorite staples. #shiplife isnt for everyone but its certainly worth a try!

Fran Opazo · 14 September, 2016 at 8:53 pm

Send me an email to lavidanomade@gmail.com

MissA · 6 September, 2016 at 6:57 pm

Hello,

Great post.

I am interested in a sales/retail job on a cruise ship.

Kindly point me in the right direction of how to apply.
Thanks

Fran Opazo · 30 April, 2016 at 1:05 am

Thanks Nathan! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Nathan · 29 April, 2016 at 10:37 am

Awesome stuff, was just thinking about doing this.. I’m glad to have found this honest and well-written post!
Cheers : )

Linda Irawan-Berki · 27 April, 2015 at 6:03 pm

This is totally true Christine. Even though I was never an officer so I don’t know that part but the rest is just the naked truth about crew life…

Lex · 27 April, 2015 at 11:48 am

Yup that sounds about right. I was a spa girl for 2 contracts at 9months each. It sucks, money is not that great. The commission structure is constantly changed because they realise that we make more money from tips than our actual salary etc. You are not told that you need to sell sell sell products. The amount of overtime physical work we have to do besides actual treatments is ridiculous. I call it glorified slavery, and the ” travel the world while you work” I call it glitter covered shit. But anyhoo it’s a challenging experience that no one can take away from you. I’ve been off ships for 2 years now and still talk about it. I loved “ship life” even thou it was so shit, how weird. And I think that’s why so many go back to sea. It’s difficult to adjust to “normal life”. Ship life definitely changes you, you grow, you become a better self sufficient individual. I now have a successful business on land (beauty salon) because of what I have gained through the tough times on a ship, and NO ONE can take that away from me. BUT I will NEVER go back to sea again ,lol traumatised much but a survivor.

christine · 27 April, 2015 at 10:37 am

The one thing you left out is the kind of social life on board. I am 33 and celebrated this bday on board last year. But..if you’re not the kind of person who hangs around the bar in your off tine or who can sleep with 3 different guys in 6 months contract, you will not be happy or find a social group you fit in to. When I finished my contract I was well known as the nun onboard. Mind you..I took pride in that status and do did many others. Be sure you prepare yourself mentally. This is not a working holiday . Looking at my bank statement growing, kept me going. I started as an asst. Waitress and then got promoted to officer as asst food and bev manager. This consisted of me working 15 to 18 hours every day. As an officer I could move freely as a passenger, ear where they do, attend shows, ect. But believe me…you rather sleep. Breaking sleep in two sessions. One 3 hours long and the other 4. You get use to it and I took pride in finishing my 8.5 months contract. You learn how far you can push yourself and you get to know yourself much better. But this is not for everyone.

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