FAQ’s About Living and Working on a Cruise Ship

By far what I get asked about the most is what it is like to live on a cruise ship and what my experience was like working on a cruise ship. So, today I have decided to answer the most Frequently Asked Questions I get about our life on board.

For those unfamiliar, I worked on cruise ships for about 5 years total as a Youth Program Manager and Trainer. During that time I met my husband who works as a First Engineering Officer on board. I now sail with him as his “Wife-On-Board” for 4-5 months a year.

Alright… here we go! Living and Working On Board Frequently Asked Question:

Q: Is Stuart still doing that ship thing?

A: Yes. Stuart is still doing that “ship thing”. For whatever reason there is a preconceived notion that people that work on cruise ships are all people in their twenties and they all only do it until they get a normal person job. Think of it like an airline pilot. Stuart (and the other Officers, specifically in Deck and Engine) have gone through a lot of schooling and training to get where they are. To hold one of the higher ranks they have had to pass exams similar to a Professional Engineers or Pilots license exam on land. They are professionals doing professional jobs. Yes, the pictures of us enjoying a beer ashore are a bit misleading to that precedent, but alas, this is Stuart’s planned career path until he turns 60. So, yes. He is still doing that “ship thing”.

Q: Can you ever get off the ship?

A: I have a couple answers for this. I can get off the ship basically any time that I want. I always have a guests first mentality so I rarely get off the ship first thing in the morning (to allow the guests time to get off the ship first) but I can spend nearly all of the time that I want off the ship.

 Stuart’s typical work day is from 7:00am to 5:30-6:00pm, but then after that assuming things are going okay he can get off the ship for the evening. Sometimes if there is a specific port you really want to do something in, or if it is a special occasion he can arrange his schedule so that he can go ashore.

Now, with that there are times that even if you aren’t at work you might still not be able to go ashore. There is something that is referred to as IPM or In-Port Manning though. Regardless of the whether the ship is at anchor (for tendering) or docked, there needs to be a certain number of crew members on board so if there was an emergency it could be responded to. That means that every crew member is a part of a set group of people that have different responsibilities in the event of an emergency, and a set number of people in that group have to be on the ship at all times.

The rest of the story of shore time is that every job on board is different. When I worked in the Entertainment Department I could be off the ship if I wasn’t working up in the kid’s club (and we didn’t have any inspections or additional trainings). So, I was able to get off the ship in port nearly every port day (unless I decided to take a nap instead!) But, in the kids club I wasn’t guaranteed my own cabin, didn’t have a window, made considerably less money, and wasn’t planning on doing cruise ships as a career. Life is all about balance.

On a crew tour in Hobbiton, New Zealand

Another note though is that sometimes if the ship is going to a particularly cool place, or to organize something cool they will have a “crew tour”. These are basically shore excursions in specific ports that are offered so the crew are able to go with just other crew members. Places I have gone on crew tours: Hobbiton (pictured), Petra, Great Wall of China, Bora Bora, and Swimming with Dolphins in Puerta Vallarta, and Stuart went on an Alaskan King Crab tour, and to the Borobudur temple in Indonesia. They have also recently started doing beach clean-ups in various places (although I did a beach clean years ago in Sitka, Alaska after a tsunami in Japan had sent tons of garbage across the ocean).

Q: Wait, he works every day? Like, every single day?

A: Yes! The majority of crew members onboard a cruise ship work every single day of their contract. The day of the week becomes unimportant as there is no weekend! Stuart is on a 3 on 3 off schedule where he works three months on and then has a full three months off. While the three months off are nice, let’s do some quick math before you think he has it too easy, it’s just that the time is split up a bit different, take a look:
Average job is 40 hours/week * 52 weeks in a year = 2080 hours per year
Average job has 2-3 weeks paid vacation/sick days = 80-120 hours off
Average job has 5-8 paid holidays: 40-64 hours off
Average job hours worked = 1896-1960 hours worked per year
3 on/3 off cruise ship job: 70-75 hours/week * 26 weeks in a year = 1820-1950 hours per year
3 on/3 off cruise ship job has one week of required training off ship = 40 hours
3 on/3 off cruise ship job = 1860-1990 hours per year

Q: Where is he stationed out of?

A:  In cruise ship world you don’t have a place that you are “stationed” out of. There is the port that you embark in, either a home port or a turnaround port, and where you disembark the ship. For Alaska season for instance last summer he embarked in Seattle, had a homeport of Seattle doing a two week Alaska run, and disembarked in San Diego as the ship was repositioning for the winter season. This time when he goes to join his embark port will be Santiago, Chile, there is no homeport as it is a World Cruise (a 4 months long cruise), and he will disembark in Fort Lauderdale.

Q: The follow up to this: where do you go?

A: It depends on what cruise you’re on! While I was working as a crew member I spent a summer in the Baltic, the Mediterranean, several in Alaska, I went to Hawai’i, Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada/New England, as well as the South Pacific and Asia. Cruise ships literally go everywhere that water goes. This coming year Stuart is working on the ship that is sailing the World Cruise. We will join in Santiago, Chile, and then be onboard until it makes its way all the way back around to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During the summer months the ship will be doing a one week Canada/New England cruise. So, we go everywhere!

Q: When do the next passengers get onboard?

A: A cruise ship operates 24/7/365. Some years it has dry-dock, which means that it won’t have passengers on it during that time and will be undergoing necessary maintenance and upgrades, but other than that, there are always passengers on board. Passengers will typically come onboard at lunchtime (11:00-1:00pm is the busiest time, with some more coming on for the next couple hours), and then on the day they disembark it is between 7:00am and 9:30am(ish). So, that means that in just a couple of hours the crew needs to get the ship ready for new passengers, and get ready to make those passengers feel special, and not like you just did this exact same cruise last week.

Q: Does it pay well?

A: Why do people ask this? One, it’s rude. Two, it’s none of your business. The answer: It depends on what job you do on board.  My experience is that people are paid somewhat in accordance with what their responsibilities are as well as what their qualifications are. I will say that jobs that are more “career” jobs (officer positions) typically pay better than those jobs that people do in their twenties and then head off.  Working for ClubHAL I would not make enough to pay rent in the majority of cities based off of that pay alone; however, I used my time in ClubHAL right out of college to live at home, and since my mom didn’t make me pay rent, and I waitressed while I was at home, that ClubHAL money ended up being my down-payment on a house. So… it is what you make of it.

Q: Are you treated well?

Dinner out on the ship for Stuart’s Birthday

A: Working on a cruise ship is hard work. Very hard work. But, as long as you don’t mind hard work, it’s not so bad. In the passenger facing positions there are days when you go to work with a fake smile plastered on your face and you have nothing left once you get back downstairs. Each position comes with its own set of perks and rules that you need to follow. The higher ranking you are the more perks and privileges around the ship you have.  Overall in my experience the crew are treated well.

Q: Is your room tiny? Do you have to share your cabin? Do you have your own cabin? Do you have a window?

A: A quick answer to that: Our room isn’t tiny, it’s quite comfortable. We have a desk, a small couch, a tiny bathroom, and a mini-fridge. However, the majority of crew cabins are very small. My cabin while working in the kids club had a set of bunk beds, two closets, a small bathroom, and a small desk. I sometimes shared that cabin and sometimes had it to myself. Stuart and I do not have a roommate, as his position is guaranteed to have his own cabin, but the majority of crew members do. Yes, we have a window, but the majority of crew members do not, and quite a few of the crew cabins are actually down below where you can have a window as they are either below or at the water line.

Q: Are there are a lot of American’s on board?

A: There are a lot of passengers from the United States. Crew? Not so many. A few summers ago over the Fourth of July with a crew of about 600 we counted about 15 US crew members. However, what is fun is that in that crew of 600 there are typically about 40 nationalities represented with just as many languages spoken. However, all crew members need to be able to speak English to both be able to talk with guests, but also to respond to instructions in an emergency.

Q: Do you always go back to the same ship?

A: Stuart and I have been going back to the same ship for the last about four years. He has been going there a bit longer than that. An Officer going back to the same ship for several years is pretty common. For the majority of other positions though you are likely to go to a different ship each contract.

Q: Aren’t you just on vacation?

 A: As crew – no, you aren’t just on vacation. There are different jobs that allow you more time ashore and there are some jobs that require you to stay on board a lot more. Overall though everyone on board is working very, very hard. Remember, the pictures you see posted are from the good days – the fun dinners, or the great times ashore. They aren’t the days when everything went wrong and you have nothing left to give.  It is not a vacation. Think for a second about the people you have seen while traveling. Think of them complaining about this or upset about that. Now, deal with that for somewhere between 3 months and 9 months every single day and tell me it is not work to keep smiling. I will say though, that those days are the outliers, and that the staff and crew on board do love their jobs. They love helping people have these wonderful adventures. But, like with any job, there are days that are just plain hard. However, for my part – sailing as Stuart’s wife on board, I am for the most part on vacation. 🙂

Q: What is “Wife-on-Board”?

Me and some of my favorite Girlfriend-On-Boards in Naples, Italy (note – they still work, too)

A: Also known as “Spouse-on-Board”, the majority of cruise companies offer the benefit that if you are a high enough ranking officer you can have your spouse come sail with you on the ship. While I am onboard sailing I stay in Stuart’s cabin, and am free to participate in the majority of passenger activities, as well as some crew activities. There is one caveat to this: while there is always room in Stuart’s cabin for me, there needs to be enough capacity in the lifeboats and life rafts for me as well.

On paper this sounds pretty great – and so much of it is – but it is also really hard. You do not necessarily “fit” anywhere on board. You are not a crew member so you can’t lament with the other crew about your day – you don’t have a “team” that you are a part of. You are not a passenger, and you can’t most of the time truly be yourself around the passengers (incase you say something wrong). You don’t get to spend an inordinate amount of time with your spouse, and most of the time when you go ashore you will be going ashore alone or with other friends that you make, as your spouse will probably be working. There are great parts of it and I am SO grateful that I am able to sail with Stuart and get the time with him that I do, there are a lot of parts of this lifestyle that are incredibly challenging. Long distance (months apart), time differences, less than great ship-board internet, just to name a few.

What questions do you have about cruise ship life? Feel free to ask and if I am able I will happily answer!

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