While it might be a little while still before cruising on a large scale resumes, (although, with the vaccine(s) and CDC Conditional-Sail-Order, who knows!), I am optimistically looking towards the future. In that spirit, I am starting a new series about what someone might expect and experience on their first cruise ship contract. This one is about getting the process from interview to getting to the ship. I hope you enjoy this look into cruise ship life, and if you are thinking of working on a cruise ship in the future I hope you find it informative.
Part I: Applying, etc.
Working on cruise ships is nearly always exciting but there is nothing like going to the ship for the first time. Some people joining the ship as a crew member have never been on a cruise ship before and some haven’t left their own country before. It’s a big experience in so many ways.
So many people asked me over the years, “how’d you get a job like that?” As a US citizen, it’s really like getting most jobs, you apply for it. Depending on what country you are from there are agencies that work with specific cruise lines. I am going to focus on what my experience was, an individual applying directly to a company versus through various other contract types. Cruise lines are more and more so using job posting sites like Indeed or Glassdoor, but nearly every company has a little spot on the bottom of their website that says “careers”.
After applying you may get emailed to set up an interview. As they hire people from all over the world these interviews are most often held over the phone or, now, by video chat. It was 5 years before I actually met the person that interviewed me, my corporate supervisor, in person. It is most definitely a trust exercise for both parties.
Prior to joining a ship you need to go get a medical exam done. All crew need to have a valid medical certificate – basically a document stating that you’ve had a recent physical and are in good enough physical shape to carry out your job functions and live and work on a ship. I have somehow never had to pay for one, but I’ve known people that have had to pay several hundred dollars to get theirs done.
Depending on your job onboard you may also have other paperwork you have to have in order before joining a ship. For instance, as I was working with children I had to get a background check done.
Normally you receive your contracts (assignments) through email. More often than not I would get a few choices sent to me. I would then look up where each ship was and what their itineraries were. After working for awhile you would also check who else was on those respective ships and specifically who you would be working with. In later years I was mostly just trying to get my schedule lined up as best I could with my husband. There were times that there wasn’t a choice as to what ship or what dates. It was a take it or leave it situation.
That first contract though, you don’t know what you are getting yourself into really and you see the ship and look up the itineraries and can’t believe you are going to get paid to go there. My first contract options were either Bermuda out of Boston or Alaska out of Seattle. I opted for Alaska out of Seattle because it was further from home and it was Alaska! I excitedly looked up the ship, the deck plans, and it’s itinerary.
Then, you get the information for your flights. They used to come through in an email, but now there is a dedicated website to log into for crew travel arrangements. It never seemed crazy at the time, but looking back on it the concept of interviewing with someone over the phone, then going to get on a plane from flight information that was emailed to you, all from people you’d never met, might seem a bit crazy. But, alas, I checked in online and when I got to the airport there really was a ticket for me. Some crew get to fly Business class (the way higher ups). Needless to say I learned that crew flights aren’t always the most fun when it took me three flights to get across the United States from Burlington, Vermont to Seattle, Washington. You nearly always fly out to get you to where the ship will be a day in advance. Flying within the US for me would mean flying out the day before I would join the ship, places further away (like Europe) I would fly out two days in advance of when I would join the ship. Only once have I flown and joined the ship in the same day, and that was just hopping down to Florida.
The night before you join the ship you stay in a hotel. You get a sheet of information telling you how to get from the airport to the hotel. Typically it’s through an airport shuttle, but every once in awhile it is either by private car, a gate agent, or a taxi that you’ll get reimbursed for once you get onboard. You are given a per diem amount for food based on how long your travels were and how long you have at the hotel. That gets reimbursed to you once you get onboard the ship. If you have to pay for luggage (either one or two bags) it is typically reimbursed by the cruise line once you get onboard.
- Pro-tip #1: Sign up for airline loyalty programs and keep your air miles! Usually there are about three major ones to be apart of that the other companies have alliances with. You can add your rewards number to the booking before flying, at the airport, or even after flying. They add up! And, while I have always managed to keep my air miles for my flights, I have yet to get hotel points (even with the big US chains) for my hotel stays. It has to do with how the company books them. Alas, it’s always worth trying.
- Pro-tip #2: If you find yourself at a foreign airport, your phone charges you for international calls, and the phone to the hotel for the shuttle isn’t working, ask someone. People are nicer than the world wants us to think. A very nice man in Venice let me borrow his phone to figure out what was going on, as did a random guy in Peru. Side note: best not to do this during COVID though.
- Pro-tip #3: If you do have to pay for incidentals by credit card, it’s important to have a credit card that will work in foreign countries, and it’s important to have one that won’t charge you fees (as you won’t get reimbursed on your credit card foreign transaction fees). I personally use the Chase Sapphire Preferred but there are many out there.
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Getting to the hotel early in the day means you end up with nearly a whole day to explore whatever city you are in. Sometimes this works out well – like when I had a day in Amsterdam, or an afternoon and evening to explore Venice. Other times, like when I transferred between ships, I ended up at a hotel in Miami with no pool and not near anything for two nights. After a little while you are able to pick crew members out pretty easily in a hotel lobby and find ones that might want to go explore with you. There is nothing quite like walking through the red-light district in Amsterdam to forge new friendships quickly.
After your day exploring (or maybe just trying to adjust to the time change), you get to sleep. You’ve been given the information as to what time to meet in the lobby (it seems to always be before 7:00am). You get to the lobby a bit early to have the breakfast buffet. You see another 50 people or so all with suitcases also sitting in the lobby or getting breakfast. Your first contract you might not realize it, but they are all also going to the ship. You look around at the other crew. You pinch yourself a bit that you are now part of the crew. You feel overdressed. You woke up early to put makeup on. Everyone else is in jeans and sweatshirts except the one slightly older guy that is wearing a blazer, standing, texting on his phone, and looking quite bored.
You get on the bus to go to the ship and as the ship comes into view you panic all at once: What if I didn’t pack the right things? What if I don’t make any friends? What if I hate my job? What will my cabin be like? What if I don’t like my roommate?
My first contract didn’t go quite like all of this though. I got to the hotel on the information I was given only to not have a reservation. When things like this happen there is an emergency number for the crew to call. I get moved to another hotel. I have to take the hotel shuttle back to the airport and then get the hotel shuttle for the new hotel (because yes, I didn’t want to spend money on a taxi that I wouldn’t get reimbursed for). The next morning no one had told the bus driver I was at a different hotel, but thanks to a very nice front desk clerk they got ahold of them to turn around and come and get me. I got on the bus feeling like everyone was staring at me. At that point I assumed they were thinking, “ugh, what is this girl doing messing up our day? Why was she staying at that hotel?” Only later did I realize they weren’t thinking any of those things about me, maybe the other new people were, but anyone that had sailed before wasn’t. They really weren’t thinking anything about me. Everyone was exhausted and jet-lagged. They knew that once they got onboard they would sit through a bunch of meetings before a long day of work. Why I was staying at a different hotel and was the last one to board the bus was pretty inconsequential to them.
You look out the window and see the ship come into view. You’re excited and nervous. The crew around you are now apart of your new family. Some will become life long friends, others will be people you simply passed in the hallway that one contract years ago. The bus pulls into the port and everyone gets off. You step off the bus, collect your luggage, and look up at the ship, your new home away from home.
To find out what the first day onboard might look like, be sure to check in next Tuesday!
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