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The truth about working on cruise ships

Updated on November 12, 2015
FreeImages.com/Robert Linder
FreeImages.com/Robert Linder
This is where we used to relax during our breaks. (Instagram.com/deusayara)
This is where we used to relax during our breaks. (Instagram.com/deusayara)

Going abroad became my number one goal when I turned 13. I remember girls in school starting to talk about boys and going to the mall by themselves while I was learning HTML and graphic design to sell some projects and make money. My parents could not afford to send me abroad and I was aware they wouldn't be able to do so any time soon. I was pretty okay with the idea of working for a few years and maybe around the age of 16 or 18 I would just take off. Well, it happened a bit later, not the place I wanted and not like how I idealized it, but it still turned out to be fine. I haven't gone back home for more than one year now.

Fast forward to the year of 2014, when I turn 20 years old. I was very disappointed with my job and the fact that living in the financial center of Latin America and one of the most expensive cities in the world - São Paulo - would never allow me to save good money. I knew people making four times what I used to make and even they couldn't save money. So imagine my desperation.

Apparently, around September of every year cruise lines start looking for crew members for the South American season, which lasts 3 to 4 months, from November to February. After that, the contract continues as the ship makes its way back to Europe. I learned that when I received a random e-mail by a brazilian agency on the upcoming interviews for several departments. I applied on the same day and got an answer maybe three days later asking for my Skype username and giving me a date for the interview.

The whole process was relatively easy. Two interviews in different days, ten minutes each. The first one was more about my English level and past experiences. During the interview, if you are not applying for a specific position, they offer you a department according to your skills and past jobs. I got the shop department, which I don't think it's the best money-wise, but it's definitely lighter work. The second interview was more about brands, customer service, solving complaints.

After being approved by both - the agency and the company -, the harder part started. In order to be eligible to work on cruise ships, you need to make very specific medical exams and a 5 to 7 days course called STCW - Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping. This will require a small investment that, from what I've noticed, really depends on where you live. While I know people who paid less than 200 euro for this course, I myself paid over 250. It is valid for 5 years and it's a small amount if you consider you will make several times this value with your first paycheck.

Yes, by the way, they do pay good money. I guess if you live in Germany or United Kingdom you won't be that amazed by the salaries, but I remember the people working for the bar saying that for one month they made around US$4,000 in Brazil. I guess we like to drink, especially during the Carnaval parties. The greatest thing it's not really the salary, but how you don't need to pay for accommodation or food. It doesn't matter the company, these things will always be free and, let's face it, they are the most expensive things when we are on land. That's why most people save good money working from 6 to 8 months on board, they just buy the essential to survive.

It's common for people looking for these kind of jobs also to wonder about getting to know the places the ship stops by. Yes, you will most definitely have time to walk around incredible cities, shop for souvenirs, eat typical food, sometimes even enjoy the nightlife, if your ship has an overnight for some reason, but don't count on that everyday. Even the shops, that supposedly close when the ship docks, work on inventories, changing layout, windows etc. The maximum amount of hours you should work a day - by the way, yes, everyday, without a day off for months - is 11 hours and sometimes these 11 hours will be during the time when the ship is docked.

Even on the days you don't get to go out, you will still find yourself having fun at the bar and disco for crew. Every now and then they throw theme parties, you'll have karaoke and cheap beer. Alcohol in the cabin is not allowed, or even having more than 4 people in one room. But, well, this you will see with your own eyes. My previous manager used to say "work hard, play hard" was our motto and it was, indeed.

I remember when my cabin mate showed me around the ship and, of course, our cabin, I was in awe by so many details in the passenger area and how small our cabin was. Some people get a bigger cabin with twin beds - depends on how many contracts you have - and some people get a smaller one with a bunk bed. You only share your room with one person of the same sex. The bathroom is also inside the room and you are responsible for keeping them clean. They do check and they do give both people warnings if you avoid their instructions. After 3 warnings, you get sent home. And, yes, I've seen it happen.

Relationships between crew members are not forbidden, but you will only live in the same cabin if you are married. Of course it doesn't stop you from sleeping over somebody's, but as comfortable as I remember the bed was, it was still a twin bed. Now, relationships on board are a tricky thing. First, maybe you don't want a relationship, you want to be with a different person every night, but they are all in the same environment and it can get awkward. Second, most probably you will fall in love with somebody from a different country, or somebody who is going to disembark way sooner than you, or even somebody who is married on land. Make sure you focus on working and making money, especially if falling in love starts to sound more like falling apart.

Overall, the deal with going on board is making money. It was one of my reasons, together with travelling, experiencing new cultures and learning languages. I definitely had a chance to practice several languages, see places I wouldn't even think of seeing - this is not even about having money to travel, some people just don't think about seeing places like Funchal or Cadiz, and you should - and I definitely learned a lot about other cultures, but most definitely about myself. I don't even recognize the girl I was before I embarked. The old me didn't know she could work that hard, sleep so little, have so much fun and push herself to be so much better as a professional. I will never forget the amazing words my manager said to me when I disembarked, I had never been so proud of myself.

It's been 7 months since my contract and I disembarked in Italy. I stayed in Europe for several different reasons, the main one being, yes, somebody I met during my first month working. Of course life on board gets hard every now and then, but I feel like it worked pretty fine for me, so I hope you don't need to ask me if you should consider it. This whole article is my yes.

Have you ever worked on a cruise ship?

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    • Anne Harrison profile image

      Anne Harrison 22 months ago from Australia

      having been on a few cruises, I'm always staggered by just how hard the crew work - and they always seem happy! I admire anyone who can do that. I've often suspected the best parties are in the crew-only areas.