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Cruise Ship Work: The Secret to Not Going Overboard

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By  August 9, 2016

Working on a cruise ship means long hours, late nights and its own kind of party culture. Here's how to stay on the deck and out of the infirmary.

One evening, as the Carnival Inspiration was preparing to set sail from the docks in Long Beach, a passenger asked me where I lived; “You know, when we return home and the ship is docked for a few days?”

It was a typical passenger question; the kind we rolled our eyes at in private. Politely, I laughed and explained that the same morning one group of passengers disembarks, another boards in the afternoon.

Hit by the realization that we both work and live on the ship, her eyes grew wide. Then, there was a pause before she asked the standard follow-up question.

“For how long?”

“Six months straight,” I said. Her eyes grew wider.

My answers weren’t what she expected—but cruise ship work wasn’t exactly what I expected, either. Working on a cruise ship sounds amazing—and it can be. There are opportunities to sail around the world, to make great international friends and even to save money. But the truth is that working on a cruise ship isn’t, well, a cruise. It also involves hard work, long hours and a lot of lifestyle adjustments.

Here’s what you can expect from life on the high seas:

When packing, don’t forget to bring a high alcohol tolerance level.

Ship life definitely has a party culture of its own, complete with exciting ports and international co-workers. Every boat has at least one crew-only bar that is open until the early morning hours. They’re a great place to relax, meet crew from different departments, and even throw parties for special occasions. On many ships, crew are also allowed to purchase alcohol at a discount in the ship's duty-free liquor stores.

In tight living quarters, days may start to blur together, particularly if you go long stretches without disembarking.

Combine this late-night drinking culture with the long work hours and limited sleep, and ship life can quickly become unhealthy. Shifts may run for up to 15 hours, with sometimes less than eight hours of rest in between, so it’s very common to use port time as a way to catch-up on sleep. A whole night, morning and afternoon spent sleeping in a small cabin with no windows—before another evening of work—is a normal part of ship life.

Whatever you do, don’t get sick.

When it comes to medical care on-board, the less time spent in the infirmary, the better. While ships have a full medical team, they are notorious for simply handing out packets of painkillers and seasickness tablets, and then sending crew back to work. It's incredibly difficult to receive a day’s medical leave. (Unless, of course, you happen to be friends with the doctor. Ship life is much better with connections, so be sure to befriend the security team and someone in the kitchen while you’re at it.) This means that you can expect to work at least a portion of every single day in a six-month contract.

Angelica Haggart, who worked in youth activities and entertainment on the Disney Magic, advises that if you have any sort of health conditions, ship life might not be for you. “Living this kind of lifestyle while also trying to take care of yourself is next to impossible if you require extra self-care,” she says. Haggart, who has bad knees, found it much more difficult to manage on-board.

Now that you’re on the ship, get off.

It can also become difficult to manage mental health in tight living quarters. Days may start to blur together, particularly if you go long stretches without disembarking the ship.

The best way to avoid feeling the negative effects of ship life is to take advantage of any available port time. (Some positions have more free port time than others—gift shop and casino being two of the best.) While the idea of staying on the ship, saving money and getting some extra sleep may sound appealing, enjoying a walk outside is not only free, but a great way to stay healthy and happy.

Disembarking is also a good opportunity to find some new food options. Although the ship mess is filled with cafeteria-style dishes that reflect the diversity of the crew, options can be limited. Many foods repeat fairly often and good choices of fresh produce are limited. (It was always an exciting morning when the scrambled eggs were real eggs and not made from powder.) Picky eaters or health-conscious individuals may struggle, especially if they don’t have “guest-area privileges” and the ability to occasionally eat upstairs at the guest buffet.

Want to date on-board? There may be rough seas ahead.

While guests are strictly off-limits, staff relationships tend to develop quickly. This can be exciting, but it may also feel like high school all over again. Stories travel quickly between departments and since most crew work on six-month contracts, friends and significant others will always be coming and going.

There are also strict distinctions between social groups. Crew (waiters, chefs, bartenders, cabin stewards) often only date crew. Staff (cruise directors, excursion assistants, retail and entertainment employees) date staff, aspire to date officers and avoid dating crew. Officers essentially have the run of the place and date whomever they choose. Given the circumstances, it can be difficult to maintain proper, long-lasting relationships, but some people do and even begin to request assignments on the same ship as their partner. 

It can take some time to develop your sea legs, but if you’re looking to see the world, there’s no better place to do it than on a cruise ship. By the time you return to land, you will have more stories than you will know what to do with.

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Published in Work Abroad
Ashley Ann Mentley

Ashley Ann Mentley is an artist, writer, world traveller and adventure seeker. She studied in England and Canada, where she is now working as a videographer. Her goal is to always have visited more countries than she is years old.

Website: instagram.com/ashley_annu

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