How Working on a Cruise Ship Works

Working on a cruise ship can be fun -- but it's a lot of labor too.
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Who hasn't gone on a vacation to a tropical island or a cozy winter ski town and thought "hey, wouldn't that be cool if I lived here the whole year around?" Like paying too much to rent a snowboard or developing a lobsteresque sunburn across the small part of your back that you couldn't reach with your own hand, dreaming up a full-time life of leisure is a central part of many folks' vacations. The trouble, of course, comes when reality sets in: Most people need a job to live. That's the kind of thing that can really harsh your chill on the tropical island. Unless, that is, you find a gig that pays you to be a part of other people's vacations. Like, maybe on a cruise ship?

It was all the way back in 1977 that television romanticized the cruise ship worker life with "The Love Boat," a long-running series about a good-times-focused ship crew and the romantic adventures of its guests [source:]. If you watched the show, you'd be hard-pressed to find many scenes in which Captain Stubing, Isaac the bartender and Julie the cruise director actually did any work. They were simply too busy with hijinks and tomfoolery to worry about pedestrian affairs like running a passenger boat.


In real life, working aboard a cruise ship isn't all lounge chairs, frozen cocktails and limbo lines. It's hard work that often requires long hours and the ability to live with your colleagues in close quarters. Perhaps that's why some love it: Cruise staff play a vital role, not only in keeping the vessel running, but also in helping guests make the most of their time at sea. Cruise workers also don't have to consider some of the petty concerns that come with a land-loving, cubicle-dwelling career, like commuter traffic, conference calls and printer jams.

So, how do you get a job on a cruise ship?


Types of Cruise Ship Jobs

The cast of 'The Love Boat' walks along the Great Wall of China in 1983. In real life, ship workers have little time to visit their ports of call.
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News bulletin: Not everyone gets to steer the ship. Generally, cruise workers are divided into two groups: crew members and staff employees. Staff positions include those workers tasked with the physical operation of the ship, getting the vessel from one place to another on time and in one piece, as well as those likely to have the most interaction with guests. The captain and other members of his team are staff members, as are hotel, guest relations and entertainment workers. Crew members, on the other hand, include those in restaurant services, such as waiters, busboys, bartenders and cooks. Housekeepers, cabin stewards and maintenance workers are also considered crew positions.

Not only does the type of position a worker holds determine the type of work he or she does; it also impacts the person's pay and living situation aboard the ship. Staff members typically earn higher wages than their colleagues on the crew. They also get better digs: Staff workers usually live on the upper crew deck, where they have more space and may even get their own rooms. The captain and his or her staff typically have separate housing quarters closer to the vessel's controls [source: Motter].


Crew members, on the other hand, live farther down in the ship's bowels and share rooms with one or more other workers. Unlike staff workers, crew members generally aren't allowed to take their meals in public areas or to wander the ship and interact with passengers during their downtime [sources: Motter, Norwegian Cruise Line].

A third category of workers aboard many cruise ships are those that don't actually work for the ship owner. Concession workers are employed by third parties who operate businesses like gift shops, casinos and various other forms of entertainment. They may also include the ship's doctor and onboard medical workers. These employees' ship access and rooming situations often vary based on the cruise operator for which they work [source: Motter].


Life at Sea

Cruise ships are designed to help passengers relax, but operating a vacation vessel is a lot of work. Staffers and crew members typically can expect to work upward of 70 hours per week, more for cooks and other restaurant workers. There is no such thing as a "weekend" in the life of a cruise ship employee, and there are no days off. Instead, workers usually serve several months on the job, followed by a long stretch of vacation time that may or may not be paid [sources: Motter, Norwegian Cruise Line].

Royal Caribbean, for example, offers most workers assignments lasting from four to six months. At the end of the assignment, each worker gets about eight to 10 weeks of vacation before taking on another assignment. Similarly, assignments with Norwegian Cruise Line range from four to nine months, with several weeks of vacation to follow. Both companies offer paid vacation time to some senior level employees. Other benefits, like health insurance, retirement plans and – yes – cruise discounts vary, based on position.


When staff and crew members aren't working, most ships are equipped with facilities designed to help workers make the most of their downtime. That often includes an employee gym, lounge, library, game room, Internet café and mess hall. It also likely entails at least one crew bar, where many ship employees like to put the "work hard, play hard" philosophy to the test. Although most ships operate under strict fraternization rules prohibiting a worker from being alone with a passenger, those rules do not apply to co-worker relationships. Ask a cruise ship veteran what it's like working aboard a vessel and they're likely to trot out some tired cliché, about the ships being like Las Vegas: What happens there, stays there.

Work Authorizations and Payment for Cruise Workers

Filipino cooks preparing meat in the commercial kitchen of a cruise ship. Most cruise ship crew members are from developing countries.
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Many cruise ships, even those that depart from U.S., Canadian and European ports, fly under Bahamian, Bermudan or other flags, meaning that the boats are officially registered in a foreign country [source: McGee]. The good news is that work authorization requirements are based on where a worker boards the ship, not the country in which the vessel is registered. U.S. and Canadian workers who board ships in those countries need not obtain a work visa. Citizens of other nations, however, must obtain a C1/D crewman's visa. This nonimmigrant work authorization allows foreign citizens to enter the U.S. to work aboard ships that depart from or operate in the country [sources: Ruggero, U.S. Department of State].

Most cruise ships require all workers to have a valid passport, which expires more than six months from the date of departure, regardless of citizenship. Some cruise companies also require their workers to undergo medical testing before joining the ship [source: Royal Caribbean].


Of course, you're wondering about the pay. Wages for cruise employees vary widely, depending on the ship and the job. A chief engineer may earn $9,000 per month. On the other hand, a cleaner might earn $800 a month [source: Cruise Ship Jobs]. This is one reason why crew members are largely workers from developing countries – wages that may seem low to Americans are more acceptable to them. However, bear in mind that cruise ship employees don't pay anything for food and lodging, and many crew members (waitstaff and housekeeping) can supplement their wages with tips. Some positions, like cruise chaplain and "gentlemen hosts" (men who dance with unaccompanied ladies) don't have any salary at all – candidates are just offered a free cruise in exchange for services.

Cruise operators pay their workers at designated intervals through the course of employment and provide a number of ways for workers to access that cash and send it home. Royal Caribbean workers are paid twice a month, for instance, while Carnival employees get their paychecks every two weeks. Carnival also offers workers the option of receiving their pay in cash or via direct deposit to a specialized crew payroll card that works like an ATM card and allows workers to send some of that money home via online transactions.

Just don't spend it all at the gift shop.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Working on a Cruise Ship Works

If you're like me, the idea of spending months on a cruise ship is some form of cruel and unusual punishment that should be reserved as a last-ditch alternative for getting information out of suspects implicated in heinous crimes. It's sort of like the Hotel California. Sure, you can "check out" when you're off the clock, but you can never leave. There is a reason I stay away from shopping malls. Hopping aboard a sea bound one to work long hours in cramped quarters just doesn't float my boat.

Related Articles

  • Askin, Dan. "Q&A: 'Cruise Confidential Author on the Life of a Crewmember." Cruise Critic. (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Carnival. "Team Member Facilities." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Cruise Ships Jobs. "Shipboard Position Descriptions, Requirements and Salaries." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • McGee, Bill. "Why are cruise ships registered in foreign countries?" USA Today. Jan. 8, 2013 (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Motter, Paul. "What's it Like to Work on a Cruise Ship?" Fox News. Jan. 9, 2012 (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Norwegian Cruise Line. "Shipboard Employment: Frequently Asked Questions." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Reddit. "I Work on a Cruise Ship! Ask Me Anything." June 14, 2014 (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Royal Caribbean International. "Shipboard Careers: A Day in the Life." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Royal Caribbean International. "Shipboard Careers: FAQ." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Royal Caribbean. "Shipboard Careers: Recognition." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Royal Caribbean International. "Shipboard Careers: Working Onboard." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Royal Caribbean. "Ship Fact Sheet." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • Ruggero, Renee. "Passport and Visa Requirements to Work on a Cruise Ship." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • "The Love Boat." (Jan. 4, 2015)
  • U.S. Department of State. "Crewmember Visa." (Jan. 4, 2015)