Working On Board a Cruise Ship: the Pros and Cons
My official title here at Covered Traveler is “Travel Expert” which is a pretty fancy way of saying “Person That Travels A Lot.” I don’t know if I’d I would consider myself an expert on every facet of the industry, but when it comes to working on cruise ships, I think I’ve got that one down.
See, I’ve spent the better part of the past two years living and working onboard two gargantuan floating cities: the AIDAmar and AIDAperla. When I’m not galavanting around the globe, I’m usually singing or performing in some capacity, and working onboard AIDA I got to do both. I was hired as a singer for 2 of the company’s show ensembles which brought me to their headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, and from there, the world.
My time working on ships has given me some of the most life-changing moments I’ll ever have...for better and for worse. Now, my experience should in no way be taken as the end-all-be-all for all cruise ship workers; everyone has unique conditions that contribute to their time onboard and I certainly don’t speak for all crewmembers here. That being said, there are some pros and cons to the experience that are pretty universal, and if you’re thinking sailing off into the sunset, it’s best you learn about them ahead of time.
Read on to get your nautical knowledge underway!
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Pro: You Will Travel...A Lot.
There are many reasons people are attracted to working onboard; competitive pay, comprehensive medical coverage, extended vacation time with job security, but by far the most popular draw to the job is the ability to travel for profit. It’s one thing to vacation for free, maybe with your parents or a benevolent grandparent, but to get paid to travel is a game-changer.
And travel, you will.
In just 2 contracts, I was able to visit 36 countries in 4 different continents. If I had stayed on board for just one month longer, that number would have been 46. So, yeah, you’re gonna get your fill.
The best perk to working on a ship is you usually get to chose where you go, too. When deciding on a contract, many companies allow you to request specific ships and itineraries so you’ll be crossing some stuff off your bucket list while you get that paper!
Con: Rules, Rules, Rules
Okay, so it’s not all fun and games, just mostly. Though you’re not signing up for the Navy, working on a ship means dealing with a lot of rules. That may not sound like an issue at first, but remember that this is where you’ll be living, in most cases for 6 months or more. If you have any problems with authority, this is probably not the job for you.
Hierarchy is huge on board; those stripes aren’t just for show. Anyone walking around with those bad boys stitched onto their uniform can tell you what to do, or make your life hell whenever they want. Sometimes people choose sailing for the travel as aforementioned, and others choose it for the ability to exercise power over subordinates.
Yeah, that actually happens.
Pro: International Friends!
Some of my best friends in the world are people I’ve met on board, folks I never would’ve met if I hadn’t decided to work on a ship. We’re talking friends from Sweden, Ukraine, Serbia, you name it; if you can think of a place, I probably have a friend from there. These aren’t your average friendships either.
Think of living in a giant college dorm, floating in the middle of the ocean. Depending on your itinerary, there may be times when you don’t dock (stop on land) for over 2 weeks. Most cruise ships I know have laughable wifi at best, so you won’t be able to facetime your home-friends or have any meaningful contact with your social circle back home until you find port internet.
Your friends on board will be all you have. You will live with them, work with them, unwind with them, travel with them, you will do all this with only them for the better part of a year. I can’t overstate how strong your bonds will be with these people and your relationships with them will make or break your experience. Don’t be afraid to get to know crew outside of your department or those that have a different native tongue than you; beautiful friendships come in all shapes and sizes and that’s a lesson many land-dwellers would do well to learn.
This may seem arbitrary, but trust me, drills get old, fast. Drills typically occur once or multiple times a cruise, which could mean an early morning wakeup call by way of a siren blaring through your cabin speakers once or twice a week.
Not all drill stations were created equal, either. Some of your friends may be on a simple muster station (where passengers assemble with crew members to be accounted for) while you get stuck on evac (checking an assigned section of the ship for straggling passengers, suspicious objects, etc) on deck 16. And no, you’re not allowed to take the elevator. Try waking up with a crew-bar induced hangover at 8 AM and walking up 16 flights of stairs and tell me this isn’t a con.
Depending on how long pax (passengers) take to get to their muster stations and individual crew teams are able to complete their drill duties, you could be standing around thirsty, exhausted, hungry, and just plain bored for well over an hour. No thanks.
If you’re looking for ways to save money, travel’s not typically something that tops the list for penny-pinching. Fortunately, working onboard is an amazing way to generate savings for yourself while still indulging in an adventurous lifestyle.
Ships provide all crewmembers at least three meals a day, but most have an additional “midnight snack” mealtime as well, where extra food from the guest restaurants is provided for the crew. If you don’t want to spend any money on food off-board, you don’t have to! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all included in your job description.
You will also save any money that would typically go towards living expenses like rent, utilities, car payments or public transportation costs, etc. Your cabin onboard will be small, but it will be free! Additionally, medical services are provided on board at no additional cost. Any doctor’s visits, outside procedures, or medication will, in most cases, be covered by your crew medical insurance.
For those that find their checking account depleted after too many nights out can also rest easy; ships also have exclusive “crew bars” where pax are prohibited from entering. It’s where your colleagues and you will relax and have a beverage (or 5) for less than 50% of their price anywhere else onboard. Translation: $5 bottles of wine that aren’t Franzia.
Con: Post-Ship Life Disappointment
Homesickness is one thing, but shipsickness is a whole other beast.
Remember all those international friends I mentioned before? The downside to making connections with people that live halfway around the world from you, is just that: they live halfway around the world from you. You will miss your onboard family, terribly, and chances are you won’t see them regularly ever again.
The “land lifestyle” will also be hard to readjust to. People will be curious about your adventures, but in most cases, they won’t really care. This feels similar to the average post-study abroad experience but maximized by 10. Not having others around you who really know what it was like, all the ups and downs, the exhilarating and the exhausting, will slowly start to make your memories feel like more like dreams.
Chances are, your life on land just won’t be as adrenaline-fueled and exciting as being at sea. There’s a stark difference between going to a new country every day, constantly being in motion (literally), and living life as a giant excursion versus going back to a day job in the same city, surrounded by the same people every. single. day. It can start to feel...monotonous.
All in all, ship life is not for the faint of heart, but something tells me if you’re reading this, that’s not a very accurate description of you anyways. If you seek a life full of adventure, new experiences, thrills, and a bonus of financial security, there just isn’t a better job.
I won’t downplay the bad; rough-sea is nauseating, privacy can definitely be an issue, and depending on your job title you can be looking at 12-14 hour workdays every day, most of the time with no days off. However, it is by far the most fun, once-in-a-lifetime, freeing experience I’ve ever had. The people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen have changed me as a person in all the best ways possible.
For all the cons, I wouldn’t change my time onboard for anything.
If you have any other questions about ship-life or just want to chat, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org and as always, Travel Safe, Travel Covered.
Alexa Lieberthal is a professional actress, singer, and writer from Boston, MA. Though her passions are many, and range from fitness to Star Trek, the biggest of all is travel. Alexa is based in NYC, but has spent the past 4 years exploring and performing in places all over the world, including Western Europe, the Caribbean Islands, and the U.K. Most recently, she spent two years seeing the world by working aboard AIDA Cruises, singing and sailing and savoring the earth. The next place on her travel bucket-list is Berlin, Germany! You can follow Alexa's adventures on Instagram @ny.see and her website areneeact.com.