What it's Like Working as Cruise Ship Lounge Singer
About 11 years ago, I was a struggling singer desperate to find a job doing what I love. As a teenager, I knew I would move out of from Boston to pursue a career in performing. Would it be New York, Nashville, or LA? After strongly considering trying to "make it big" in Nashville, I settled on something safer and more viable. I moved to a tourist town in east Tennessee where there were plenty of performing jobs and a much better likelihood of being able to find real work as a performer.
After my move and struggling through the first year, I caught a small break and got my first theater job as a singer! Even though I wasn't a full-time cast member, I was elated. I would simply fill-in for either of the two lead female singers if/when they needed time off and it was a perfect start.
Early the next year, I went into "audition-mode" again and after several no’s, I finally received a yes! It was at a theme-park where I had auditioned the two years prior and I finally got noticed. I was even going to get to be in my favorite show in the park. It was exciting until I had to learn choreography. You see, I wasn't a dancer in any way shape or form. That is where my struggle came in when I went and auditioned for these various jobs. However, here I was! I was determined to suceed.
I learned the dances, songs, and vocal harmonies the best that I could at the time and I think I dis very good considering I hadn’t gone to theater school or dance classes like the other performers. I enjoyed that year immensely and was even extended to stay through the end of the year. Once again, feeling charmed, I ended up in my favorite Christmas show In the park! That was where my dancing ability (or lack thereof) and inability to follow choreography like everyone else posed a problem. The choreographer of the first show that year was kind, caring, patient, and encouraging to me trying my best. This choreographer, well, not so much.
Despite having a beast as a choreographer, I persevered and made it through the season. After being around the other cast members so much backstage, I realized that not all appreciated the job. A few of them complained of wanting more money and being bored performing the same show several times a day. I loved the job and I couldn't understand why anyone would complain about it. I guess for a lot of them, this wasn't only their first performing job, it was their first job...ever! They didn’t know what a blessing it was to do what they love for a living. I was new to being a paid performer, but not new to working. At that point, I had already been a hostess and a waitress at 3 restaurants, worked at a tanning salon, and a box office. I knew how special this was.
Before the end of the season, I asked for a meeting with the entertainment director and expressed my gratitude for working there and that I would love to come back. He was kind, but when the next season rolled, I was never asked back. I was the only one out of all the people I had worked with that wasn't asked back.
Heartbroken, I went back to work at the tanning salon I was employed at when I got my beloved performing job. I was incredibly defeated and sad. Those are both gross understatements for how my 22 year old heart felt. I was also mortified. I was ashamed that for whatever reason, I wasn't good enough and everyone I worked with knew it. I auditioned for a few places later that year that turned up nothing.
Early 2008 and without a performing job, I set out to find a performing job at any cost, even moving away from my fiance. My prayer was answered when a well known luxury cruise line responded to my video and resume that I had sent them. They wanted me to be a lounge singer on one of their ships from May through September doing an Alaskan cruise. I immediately said "yes!" I had less than a month to get prepared!
The day came and I packed the biggest suitcase I had, said goodbye to my family, fiance, cats, and home. My fiance dropped me off at the airport and I boarded a flight to Seattle where my "chariot" awaited. I had not flown since I was a child, now I was flying alone. I was shy and venturing far away from my family. I also had no idea what to expect from my new job.
I somehow found my way from the airport in Seattle to the Double Tree the cruise line booked for me. I got a few hours of sleep and planned on getting to the ship at 7:00 am. That's what time my agent said to be there. I wasn't allowed on the ship until much later and I quickly realized that life as I knew it was going to be very different for the next four months.
I wanted to share my experience with you because a) people always ask me questions about my experience and b) I want to honestly share what my experience was like. I can't say that this is exactly how it is for everyone. I can only recount what I experienced during my time as an entertainer on board and what it was like in 2008.
There are so many unknowns if you're taking a cruise for a vacation, let alone, making a cruise ship your home and employment for several weeks, months, or even years. If I can answer even just one question or shed light, even a little bit, on one unknown, this article will have done what I intend for it to do.
Where did I live/sleep?
I know this seems obvious to most, but I lived on the ship. On my ship, most of us in the entertainment department lived on deck B which is right below the lowest passenger deck. My cabin was comfortable but not fancy. The halls are bare and, instead of fancy carpet, lights, and art, we have white and blue painted metal hallways. Guests are generally not permitted in this area, except at times when there is a gangway to get on and off the ship on one of these decks. I was on the same level as the employee laundry, the crew mess hall, and the crew bar. We also had elevators and stairs to get us where we needed to go. If you have ever cruised as a guest, you know that you have a card that is your identification and how you pay for things on-board. We have a similar card that we use the same way.
As an entertainer, even though I was on an employee deck, I had certain extras. One of those was we we had out own cabin steward who cleaned our cabins, made our beds, gave us fresh towels, and re-stocked the toilet paper in our bathrooms. I
How many hours a week did I work?
Of course this depends on what you do on the ship. For instance, servers and housekeepers work long hours. As a lounge singer, I was contracted to no more than 5 hours a day, seven days a week. My contract length was four months. This all can vary greatly depending on your contract, but that was what was in mine. I had 2 or 3 different cruise directors and with each one, my scheduled changed quite a bit. With one cruise director, I performed 30 to 35 sets a week. With the next cruise director, I only did 11 to 15. As far as contract length, that can vary greatly. I have known people that were on the ship for a month and have talked to people who were contracted for 11 months.
Did I make good money?
This is relative of course. You definitely can. I made an average amount of money. It honestly depends on your situation. Financially, it wasn't worth it for me at that time. The reason was that while I was on the ship making an average salary, my household at home was going on without me. The bills were getting paid in a house I wasn't in. My car insurance was being paid without me being home to drive. Food was being bought that I wasn't home to eat. Electricity was being paid that I wasn't using. My fiance was home and we had bills that he had to pay. I wasn't gone quit long enough to make any drastic changes to my life at home. My fiance also worked, but whether I was there or not, I was half of the household. However, It is GREAT for people who don't have a rent or mortgage back home. If it's something you want to do a lot, you can stop your car insurance or forgo having a car altogether. If you don't have a household at home, you can save a huge chunk of change every month so for a lot of people it's a great way to save a bunch of money. There are a lot of people from other countries that work as housekeepers, bartenders, servers, and other jobs and it is great for them too because they often make more money than they can in their country and send it back home to help their families. It just depends on your situation. There are a lot of guest entertainers (magician's, comedians, specialty acts, etc...) that make big money for their craft and they can work for a couple weeks/months at a time and make what they need for a year in half the time.
Who pays for what?
In my case, I didn’t have to pay for flights to and from the port to start and end my contract, my hotel the night before boarding, housing while working on board, food (as long as it is in certain places on the ship), and basic medical care. I received an optional flu shot when I first boarded that was free of charge. I had gotten strep throat at some point during my contract and the infirmary treated me with a doctor's visit and antibiotics.
The cruise line I worked for preferred everyone in the entertainment department to eat among the guests. All of my meals/beverages on the Lido Deck were free. It included a breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffet. Some cruise lines have a late night buffet, sandwich station and ice cream stations, as well as a place to get burgers. I also had access to iced tea, hot tea, coffee juice and water. Pretty much, if the food/beverage was free for the passenger, it was free for me. If I wanted an alcoholic beverage, soda, specialty coffee from the cafe, or a fancier sit-down meal, we got charged a discounted rate for those. They were a nice treat on occasions. I could also make purchases in the on-board shops.
There was also a crew mess hall but anyone who worked in entertainment wasn't supposed to eat in there. It was for the other employees (housekeepers, servers, bartenders, etc...) There was a crew bar that everyone was allowed to enjoy. You could get sodas and alcohol very cheap.
If I went off the ship, I was responsible for all purchases. Sometimes there are guidelines as to what can go off the ship and what can come back on so be aware and know your ships/country of port rules.
Did I get days off?
No. I pretty much worked everyday. Now, as a singer, I was contracted for up to 5 hours a day. That means one day I may have 4 (45 minute to hour long) sets all together in the evening or spread out throughout the day. It may also mean sometimes I may only do one hour long set in the afternoon. So although I didn't technically get a full day off, I wasn't always working, a singer can only sing so much. I don't know how it works for other employees so I can only speak for myself and what my job was. I'm sure other professions on the ship have longer hours.
Could I get off of the ship in port?
Of course! If I wasn't working, I could go out and enjoy things that the port has to offer such as, shopping, restaurants, finding free internet, and even excursions and sightseeing. As an entertainer, I had a good amount of free time. Servers, bartenders, and housekeepers of course work more hours making it more difficult, but not impossible to get out in port. There was a thing on my cruise line (I don’t know if this is true for all of them) called in-port manning. When the ship is in port, there needs to be a certain number of employees on the ship just in case there is an emergency. That meant we all had a port or so a week where we had to stay on the ship. For me, it was usually a different port every week. One week I wasn't able to get out into Juneau,Alaska and the next, I had to stay on board the ship in Ketchikan. It was a rotating schedule.
How did I communicate with loved ones back home?
My contract was 11 years ago and honestly, my information may be slightly outdated. I had a phone in my cabin and I could purchase a phone card to make calls from my cabin, but it was expensive.It cam in handy one time when the ship was sailing and I needed to meltdown to fiance back home about how poorly I was treated by my band leader. Other than that one time, I would wait until I was in port to call family and friends on my cell phone. Luckily, I was in the United States being in Alaska so it was easy for me to mindlessly make calls without changing my cell phone plan. If your itinerary is to a foreign country, unless it's a U.S. territory, you may need to check with your cell phone provider and change your plan accordingly. I believe now though, after being passenger on ships in recent years, I know guests can purchase on-board cell phone packages that allow them to use internet and (I think) make phones calls on their cell phone without any surprises. I would imagine that, these days, they have something like that for employees as well. That certainly would make communication easier.
Although I didn't have a laptop at the time, a lot of people did. I would use the computers in the employee computer room and purchase minutes to check emails and Facebook messages. If I had a laptop, I could have done it from the privacy of my cabin. Something employees relished was finding free internet off the ship. Some ports have McDonald's and other places that offer internet and people will use that time to do catch up.
Like I said, I'm sure it is even better now than it was then and I would strongly suggest you take your smartphone,tablet and/or laptop and you will definitely enjoy being able to have that sense of normalcy. Keeping in touch with people is imperative when fulfilling a long contract on a ship, even for people who aren't normally clingy to family like me.
How did I pack for four months away from home?
Lighter than you would expect! You can do laundry on-board so that part is like being at home. As a lounge singer I had packed 7 outfits I could wear on-stage. I also had a mild dress code for when I was roaming around the ship. So I a couple pairs of pants (khaki's in a couple different colors) and polo shirts. I also had a few items I could wear off the ship or in the privacy of my cabin. As an employee, I couldn't walk around the ship (unless I was going into port) in jeans or sweatpants. I did my laundry once a week because I packed pretty modestly by most people's standards. You also have to keep in mind that even though you can purchase things while you are contracted, you have to get them home! I knew a lot of people that bought extra suitcases and/or shipped things back home.
Please feel free to ask me questions that you still have about my experience while working on the ship.
I hope this was helpful and/or interesting! I find that whether people are considering working on one or not, they are interested in this part of my performing career the most.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Jessica B