How to Cruise Free as a Bridge Director
This is an account of how I became a bridge director on cruise ships and can now travel the world -- almost for free.
I was having lunch about 18 months ago in a local restaurant and ran into friends I hadn't seen in a while. Walking over to their table to say "Hello," I added, "Where have you been? I haven't seen you in ages."
"We're just back from a cruise on the new Queen Mary II."
" Wow! What an experience. How did you do that?"
"Danny was the Artist in Residence," my friend said, and added, knowing that I was a duplicate bridge player, "and they need Bridge Directors."
That's all it took. I was off in search of how to get my free cruise. (Disclaimer: I should add at the beginning that "free" is not entirely accurate. You have to get yourself to and from the port of embarkation and debarkation. And you must pay the Booking Agent a small fee. Still, the cruise is free, including gratuities. And, if you are a Bridge Director, you get a free cabin for two so you can take a guest.)
"You can't sign on with the cruise lines directly," my friend said. "You have to go through a booking agent."
OK, so where are the booking agents. Not too hard to find with a Google search. There were several listed, but the one I contacted was TOSEAWITHZ, a Florida based firm that books with several cruise lines, including Holland America, the one I -- or should I say, we -- eventually went on our first cruise with.
There were forms to fill out, of course, and I hit my first snag: in order to be a Bridge Director on cruise ships, you must be certified by the ACBL (American Contract Bridge League) as both a teacher and a director. Hmmmm! I had been playing bridge most of my life, and a couple of years before this I had re-entered the world of Duplicate Bridge and was becoming a decent player, accumulating points, going to tournaments, etc. But a Director! That was not on my radar screen.
So, I called another friend, who was a director, and invited her over for a cup of tea and a chat. I told her my story and asked for her guidance in becoming certified as a director by the ACBL. Turns out, ACBL was having a national tournament in Louisville, Kentucky (driving distance from my home) in a couple of months, and -- offering the Bridge Directors' Course.
My friend was interested in going, so I checked my available disposable income and signed up. She got the room, and off we went. (Here I'm skipping a gruelling five days of non-stop classes, from 9am until 10pm, and testing -- I can't remember when the last time was I took a multiple choice test.) Anyway, I passed and became duly certified as both an ACBL teacher and director.
For our first cruise, however, time was short and before I got certified, my friend said,"I'd like to do that, too." So we/she signed up with TOSEAWITHZ and we got our first cruise. I went as the guest.
September came and we flew to London where we were sailing from the new port at Tilbury on the Thames. We flew in a day early -- so as not to miss the sailing should the plane be delayed -- spent a relaxing night at a Hilton near the docks and presented ourselves at the embarkation line for the Prinsendam.
"Sorry," the person in charge said, "we don't seem to have you a room assignment."
The guy hauling our luggage, said with a smirk, "I thought that TOSEAWITHZ thing sounded fishy."
My friend and I looked at each other, undaunted. She sat with the luggage while I went to ask more questions. Turned out the taxi driver, who was an Afghani relocted to London and very chatty, had dropped us at the wrong entrance. Bridge Directors are designated "supplemental staff" and must check in with the crew. Whew!!!
Well, from there on, it was all a breeze, for me anyway, my friend had all the responsibility on this cruise. But I helped. I was the "step-and-fetch-it-girl." And I taught the lesson to the beginners. My class was composed of three Australian guys who had never played bridge before but wanted to learn. They hung on every word I said -- because they knew nothing.
We had a marvelous time. The meals were superb, though we chose not to eat in the formal dining room most of the time because single women were mostly seated with couples at a table for eight. We soon discovered that the men expected to do all the talking. So we reverted to the informal dining in the Lido Room on the top floor of the ship. Same food. Better conversation.
After dinner we went downstars and listened to the trio from Rumania or saw a movie in the theatre or attended one of the shows performed by the ship's entertainment staff.
We/she only worked three days, because there were only three days at sea. Lesson from 11am until noon. Bridge game from 2pm until 4pm in the Half Moon Room, which we unwillingly shared with the Mah Jongg players until they got relocated by the Entertainment Director.
Nights at sea and the days (all but three) spent exploring the small ports along the French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian coast lines: Cherbourg, Alicante, Barcelona, Lisbon, and -- finally -- Civitavecchia, where we debarked and headed to Rome for three nights. But that's another story.
It was without flaw, for me, this time. And my friend did a marvelous job as the Bridge Director, so good, in fact, that the Assistant Entertainment Director asked if we would like to sail in two weeks on the cruise that went to the Black Sea. (Didn't work out, but it was a confirmation that we/she got good evaluations and would be invited back.)
In May, I'm going again, on the Prinsendam, crossing the Atlantic from Ft. Lauderdale, stopping in the Azores, Lisbon, and two small ports in France, before debarking at Tilbury on the Thames. We'll see how relaxing this cruise is because I will be "working" for six days at sea and another one or two in between ports. Bon Voyage!