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16 Secrets About What Life is Really Like Working Aboard a Cruise Ship

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If you’ve ever vacationed on a cruise, you might have dreamed about what life would be like to work on one. Laying in the sun, sipping on cocktails, and enjoying exotic vacation destinations might make you never want to leave the ship. But what is life truly like for employees of cruise lines?

Cruises can be the ultimate escape from reality, for both the guests and the employees. Working on a cruise line allows you to meet people from all over the world, visit beautiful travel destinations, and make good money. But these 17 best-kept secrets about working aboard a cruise ship may have you rethinking whether you want to fill out that application.

1. You Live in a Bubble

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Living and working aboard a cruise ship for several months at a time can make you feel cut off from the “real world”. Things like keeping up with the news, your favorite sports teams, television series, or even keeping in good contact with family and friends can be a real challenge.

Working aboard a cruise ship is a like living in a bubble, separated from society. At one point, many employees simply give up trying to stay informed about what’s happening in the world and just try to have a good time on board. After a nine-month contract, it might take some time to readjust to life in society.

2. You’re Constantly on Surveillance

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Yeah, that’s right, Big Brother is on board. Employees know there are no secrets to their actions on board the ship. This is because surveillance cameras are positioned everywhere, due to safety measures. If there’s an incident related to safety, footage can quickly be accessed to pinpoint what happened.

While in one way, the cameras help to ensure a safe environment, but employees could feel uncomfortable with feeling watched all the time, 24/7. Not just for a one-week vacation, but for several months at a time.

Could you handle your life recorded for a one year contract?

3. They Party Hard

The party scene on board a cruise ship can get pretty crazy at times. Many guests take advantage of the fact that they don’t have to drive home and get wasted with their friends. But what many people don’t know is that the crew has a party scene all of its own.

Employees have their own “crew only” bar stocked with alcohol at discounted rates, where the crew can buy cheap drinks. While technically it’s against the rules for employees to get drunk, as long as they are not publicly intoxicated around guests, then it shouldn’t be a problem. When the employees’ shifts end, they are most likely in the bar socializing and partying with their co-workers.

4. Some Live Double Lives

With contracts varying between four to ten months long, not surprisingly, some employees live a double life on board the ship. Working on a cruise ship is the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself while you’re out on the water. However, for some, it’s an excuse to abandon your marital promises and have a fling with someone you just met.

It’s bound to happen that some employees with happy marriages and families will engage in new relationships while out to sea. Good to know if you’re a new employee aboard a ship, not to easily trust someone you want to hook up with – they might have a wife and kids at home!

5. The Hours Are Grueling

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Not everyone is cut out for working on board a cruise ship. Depending on what job you have, you can expect to work an average of 12 hours a day, seven days through, for eight months – no days off. Many of the jobs are extremely laborious, such as working in the kitchen as a chef, or serving tables in the dining rooms.

While cruises are relaxing and fun for guests, the amount of work it takes to create that experience is staggering. The amount of employees who quit their contracts early is quite high, especially those from developed nations who aren’t used to such intense labor.

6. You Won’t See Many American Employees On Board

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Because of the grueling hours and intense labor, people hired from the United States very seldom stay for the entire contract, which might be anywhere from four to ten months long. Working 80 hour work weeks with no days off is not sustainable for most people from developed nations, who are used to 40 hour weeks with weekends. This is why you’ll mostly see people from lesser developed countries working aboard cruise ships.

Brian David Burns, author of Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline described the brutal work life of cruise ship employees in his book. He is so far the only American to have made it through a full contract without quitting on Carnival Cruise Line, and lived to tell the tale.

7. Employees Live Off Tips

Tips are absolutely essential to the earnings of a crew member. Some tips are automatically given to employees, such as for a waiter in a restaurant for his/her dining section, and some tips are given voluntarily by guests.

Brian David Burns, author of Cruise Confidential shared in an interview with Cruise Critic about the importance of tips. He states he only made $60 a month without tips. This is because your shared room and food are considered as part of your salary. He shared that tips make up about 95% of a crew members salary! Remember to tip well next time you take a cruise vacation.

8. The Crew Eats What’s Left Over From Guests

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If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you remember the mass amounts of food offered in buffets and restaurants. The best part about a cruise is that it’s all-inclusive, meaning you can eat as much as you want because you already paid a flat rate. Delicious, gourmet meals are prepared and offered in different locations on the ship, available whenever you’re hungry.

What most people don’t know is that the crew eats whatever is left over from the guests – but only the food that never left the kitchen. They don’t have their own special food prepared. But luckily, there’s always more than enough to go around. In fact, mass amounts of food from cruises go to waste because it’s too much.

9. The Accommodation is Cramped

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If you thought you’d get your own luxury suite as an employee on a cruise, think again. Your accommodation all depends how your job title measures on the hierarchy. Employees on the top of the hierarchy, which include officers and staff members, are entitled to their own private rooms above the water.

However, for crew members (waiters, bartenders, and cleaning staff) aka the lower paid employees, the accommodation is seriously cramped. Your room is shared with three other co-workers, with a room big enough for just for the beds. To make matters worse, the rooms are located at the lowest decks, below the water, and have no windows. Not pleasant.

10. Some Emergencies Can Be Disgusting

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Some of the less glamorous parts of the job might be dealing with breakouts of sickness on board. Being in a contained environment can lead to sicknesses being spread rapidly, and it unfortunately happens from time to time. The flu, Norovirus, and gastrointestinal outbreaks are just a few viruses that can spread like wildfire on board.

When guests are getting sick, it’s all hands on deck to keep the place clean and sanitary. You can imagine what the cleaning crew has to go through cleaning the bathrooms and rooms of sick guests. For the cleaning crew, dealing with vomit and diarrhoea is just part of the job.

11. There’s a Morgue on the Ship

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Okay, this fact is a little morbid, but every cruise ship is equipped with a small morgue in case of deaths while out to sea. And they do happen – around 200 deaths per year occur on cruise ships. Most morgues on cruise ships can occupy five bodies at a time.

The deaths are actually not surprising when you think about how many elderly people go on cruises. It’s unfortunately bound to happen, and the bodies need to go somewhere until the ship docks. It’s a sad fact, but at least the elderly have passed while enjoying themselves on a relaxing vacation.

12. The Crew Parties Are Awesome

As a thank you to all the grueling, hard work the crew puts in day after day, month after month, the cruise line organizes crew parties for employees. Brian David Burns, a former employee of Carnival Cruise Line, shared in an interview with Cruise Critic all the details of these parties:

“The line was required to give two crew parties a month, and it would even close down a guest lounge just for the crew. It’s open bar, although lines are shying away from open hard liquor (gets abused) … and the crew goes nuts. Crew party starts at midnight, and goes until three.”

The hardworking crew definitely deserves to cut loose twice a month!

13. Your Body Clock Can Get Seriously Out of Whack

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Because of the 12-hour shifts and little sleep, a crew member’s body is already running on little fuel. But what’s worse is that a crew member’s schedule can change at a moment’s notice. They might suddenly be given a night shift at a bar or at a buffet that runs in the night.

With the shifts changing suddenly, your body clock would get seriously out of whack. Your sleep habits would have to change at the drop of a hat, which would make it hard to function. The crew members must sometimes feel like zombies, but still have to put on a happy, smiling face for the guests.

14. You Might Have to Worry About Natural Disasters

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Two natural disasters in particular give crew members bad dreams at night: hurricanes and rogue waves. Both can cause unexpected catastrophe for any boat out in the open sea, even a large cruise ship.

A rogue wave is basically a super-sized wave that will knock over anything in its path. They come completely at random and can’t be predicted. Think Poseidon. There is a theory that rogue waves are to blame for large ships that have gone missing in the year’s past.

Hurricanes are easier to predict, but can come unexpectedly nonetheless, especially in tropical locations. Strong winds and choppy water can cause some serious seasickness!

15. You Don’t Want to Get Fired

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Obviously, no one wants to get fired from any job. But the funny thing about working on a cruise ship is that if you’re fired, they kick you off the ship at the next port. Let’s hope you have the money saved up to get a flight home from some island in the Caribbean!

Let’s say you break the biggest rule and hook up with a guest. That would be grounds for immediate firing and you’d be packing your bags to leave at the next location the ship docks. In one way, it sounds fair; in another way, it sounds heartless. Especially for a young person who might not have the cash to fly home.

16. You Make Friends From All Over The World

Every employee agrees: hands down, the absolute best part about working on a cruise ship is the people you meet from all over the world. The person you were when you started working is vastly different to the person you are at the end of your contract.

Brian David Burns shared in an interview with Cruise Critic, “You’ll learn so much about the world and it’s not because you’re traveling. Your best friend, roommate, coworker is from a fundamentally different part of the world with a fundamentally different outlook — so you’re constantly learning about [the] other person’s culture.”

The rich experience you get from working in such a diverse, multicultural environment is what makes up for the long hours and insanely hard work that goes into being a crew member.