The Crazy Life of Cruise Ship Workers

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 2, 2020 5:30:23 PM ET
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For potential passengers, cruise ships are marketed as a place for luxurious, exotic, relaxing adventure. You may imagine elaborate decor, lively entertainment and exciting activities — and you wouldn't be wrong — but what is the experience like for the people who work on board and spend most of the year at sea?

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The truth may shock you. It’s not easy to maintain the illustrious cruise ship experience for guests, especially under conditions that aren’t always perfect. At the very least, the job is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is sure to be unforgettable.

Alcohol Is Abundant

Although alcoholic drinks aren't free for crew members, they are incredibly cheap. An employee beer costs about $1.50, while a margarita costs $1.75. With those prices, it's no wonder that crew members are accustomed to drinking copious amounts of booze after-hours.

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Drinking is also one of the only fun things to do as a worker on a cruise ship. Cell service and internet access are never very reliable, and you're on board the same floating vessel for months at a time. If the owners took away the alcohol, it might start a mutiny!

Solo Quarters Are Coveted

If there's one thing that anyone covets on board a cruise ship, it's space. Passengers’ quarters may be comfortable enough, but management doesn't go out of their way to make sure the workers are content. In fact, most workers are put in dorm-like rooms with barely enough space to stretch their legs.

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Only those in higher positions — like officers — are awarded single rooms. These lucky few are often sought out by coworkers as buddies or romantic interests, purely for the opportunity to get a taste of their solo living on board. They certainly don't struggle for popularity.

Don't Forget the Floating Morgue

Many passengers never realize their cruise ship has a special place on board for dead bodies. A morgue is now a standard facility on the large boats, but it's not something they like to advertise — no one wants to be reminded of death on their expensive vacation.

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Despite seeming morbid, a morgue on the ship serves a very practical purpose. Some cruises host a lot of elderly guests, and every once in a while, someone passes away while on board. When you think about it that way, it's good to know they have a safe, secure place to take them until they reach port.

The Hierarchy Is Real

As with many jobs, there's an inherent hierarchy to job positions. Managers and officers are at the top, followed by entertainment workers, front-of-house crew and back-of-house crew. Sometimes, however, these hierarchies can become exhausting. After all, you can't escape it, even when you're not on shift.

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Constantly being seen as the low man on the totem pole can quickly wear on a person's nerves, just as always enjoying the privileges of a high-ranking officer can go to your head. But hey, you only have to endure it for two to eleven months a year!

Different Countries Have Different Pay

It makes sense that the origin of a cruise ship would affect the pay the workers receive. After all, different countries have different salary ranges, currency and labor laws. In some cases, the differences can be downright shocking. American cruises tend to schedule workers six to 10 hours a day and pay them around $3,000 a month.

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Head over to Indonesian waters, and you find crew members working 12 to 16 hours a day and getting monthly paychecks of $600. That's a pretty big pay gap, especially for such a grueling work schedule.

Mingling with the Passengers Isn’t Allowed

If there’s one cardinal rule in the world of cruise ships, it's that relations with passengers are strictly forbidden. Sure, all that time hanging out with the same coworkers can make anyone yearn for some new company, but if you're caught getting too close to a guest, you will be put ashore — permanently — at the next port.

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Obviously, there's a good reason for this rule. Management doesn't want to become involved in any lawsuits regarding the misconduct of their employees. It's one of those golden regulations that can get anyone fired immediately.

They Find Ways to Make Some Money Back

When you sign a contract to work on a cruise ship, it seems like a pretty good deal. Not only will you get paid, but you will have your living and dining costs completely covered. That’s right — you don’t have to pay rent or buy groceries!

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Unfortunately, cruise ships do have other ways to charge their workers money. Internet access, for example, can cost $5 a day, and basic things like toilet paper and drinking water are not free. If you aren't careful, you can find yourself spending more of your earnings than you think.

Crew Menus Aren’t So Great

Crew food on cruise ships is notoriously unappealing compared to the guests’ food. Most of the budget for food goes into preparing meals for the passengers, so crew members are left with the cheapest options. Usually, meals are repetitive day after day and not the most nutritious.

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If you're someone with an unadventurous palate, this might be a problem as well. The dishes often reflect the dominant ethnicities working in the kitchen, so that might mean chicken legs and fish heads are on the menu for dinner. Learn to like it or stick to the salad.

You Won't Believe This “Special Sauce”

This cruise ship secret is one that might just turn you off from ever vacationing on board a ship ever again. According to some ex-crew members, it's not uncommon for cruises to serve their guests a "special sauce" with their food — and no, that doesn't mean it's extra-delicious.

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There's no easy way to say it — the "special sauce" makes passengers' waste softer so there won’t be any issues with the plumbing. Looks like keeping those pipes clean is a pretty big deal! Try not to think about it the next time you’re dining on board, of course.

Beware of the Onboard Jail

Not only does your cruise ship have a morgue, but it has a makeshift jail as well. Ideally, the workers never have to use this small, padded room — but all too often they do. Inevitably, a passenger goes off the rails and becomes dangerous, belligerent or violent, at least temporarily.

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Usually, a passenger only has to spend a day in the jail room before coming to their senses — or sobering up. If the issue is more substantial, they are held in the room until arriving at port. Depending on the severity of what the passenger has done, the cruise might have to take legal action.

Promiscuity Prevails

The truth of the matter is life behind the scenes on a cruise ship is a hot bed of sex and romance. The crew may not be allowed to sleep with passengers, but that certainly doesn’t stop them from sleeping with their fellow coworkers — and that's exactly what they do.

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Workers have described crazy love triangles, dramatic betrayals and lots of action among groups of people that essentially get freaky for six months at a time. Sure, not every worker engages in such lascivious activity, but many of them do. After all, what else is there to do?

The Crew Gets Stir Crazy

Anyone who is cooped up on a ship for months at a time is sure to go a little stir crazy. This is part of what contributes to the culture of promiscuity and drinking, but workers sometimes find other means of amusement as well.

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Drugs are another source of entertainment for crew members. Some ex-cruise entertainers have admitted to regular marijuana use on board, and port stops can result in an influx of other illegal drugs. Boredom on a cruise calls for creative ways to have some fun, and the things they find to do are not all safe or legal.

You Can't Beat the Travel Opportunity

Despite the many less than ideal working conditions for crew members aboard a cruise ship, no one can deny that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel the world. Spend a few summers working for different cruise companies, and you are likely to set foot on just about every continent.

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Many crew members claim this is the best part about working on a boat. If travel is your main priority, this is a gig you might really love — as long as you don't mind mediocre food, close quarters and prolonged boredom at sea. Those port stops just might make it all worth it!

Pirates Are a Real Thing

Believe it or not, pirates do still exist — and they are a threat to cruise ships. Granted, the chances that pirates will attempt to attack a giant commercial ship are slim, but crews have to be prepared all the same. They undergo pirate attack training and are briefed on what to do in the event of an attack.

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Ships are also equipped with anti-pirate technology, including large water cannons and piercing sirens. How often these items actually get used is irrelevant. The crew loves to boast about it to passengers, and you have to admit, it is pretty cool.

Catch a Cold? You're Quarantined!

Sickness is one of the things the staff worries about most on cruise ships. In such confined quarters, even a common cold can spread like wildfire and ruin everyone’s vacation. When visiting foreign countries, illnesses much worse than a cold can easily find their way on board.

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If a crew member gets sick, they are immediately sent to be "quarantined" for a week or more. They receive doctor's visits, but unless they recover quickly, they risk getting fired and left at the next port. Cruise ships don't mess around with sickness!

There's No Escaping Your Crew Mates

One of the hard things about working on a cruise ship is that at the end of the day, there's nowhere to go to get away from everyone. You can't simply head home and decompress in your own space. You have to spend every waking minute surrounded by your coworkers.

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This can result in lifelong friendships, but it can also make people go a little crazy. For this reason, things are known to get pretty dramatic behind the scenes on a cruise ship. Conflict, romance and even an occasional tragedy are sure to take place.

Tough Schedules Are the Norm

Things aren't always fair for employees on a cruise ship. Many have complained about inadequate pay and long hours with little chance for change. Contracts can require workers to put in more than 70 hours a week and go without any days off for six to eight months.

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Due to the nature of cruise ships, workers are often exploited and unfairly compensated without much recourse. These tough conditions are enough to send some of them packing — but there's always another unsuspecting applicant eager to take their place. Sadly, fighting the system won't get you very far.

The Mafia Is on Board

A whole social world happens on cruise ships, with many passengers completely oblivious to it all. Some ships have more than a thousand crew members on board at once, and that means a lot of cliques can develop. In many cases, workers group together based on where they normally live.

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These groups can grow into what the crew calls "mafias," which means they wield some sort of power. Sometimes, the Indian mafia has a monopoly on the soft drinks on board, for example, or the Filipino mafia always make sure there's enough food at the party.

The Guests Run the Game

If you have ever been a guest on a cruise ship, you know the crew takes your comfort very seriously. It's their job to serve and look after every passenger on board, and the best workers don't take that responsibility lightly.

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In fact, a worker's relationship with guests is so important that it can greatly influence their pay. If they get mentioned in a passenger's sparkling review of the cruise, they will likely get a bump in their salary. If they get a complaint, on the other hand, they will have some explaining to do.

It's a Cool Place to Let Loose

You may think that passengers on a cruise ship have a wild time, but it's nothing compared to the shenanigans that workers get into on and off the boat. Inexpensive alcohol and mind-numbing boredom lead to a lot of after-work parties, and many find themselves going a bit crazy.

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Some workers even choose to work on cruise ships with the intent of cheating on their spouses at home or getting away from controlling family members. Going to sea for months at a time definitely ensures no one else has any control over your actions.

The Crew Eats Your Leftovers

Remember how crew meals aren't very appetizing? Well, for that very reason, workers will descend on leftovers from passenger meals like vultures. It's their only opportunity to enjoy some higher-quality food while at sea. And to think the guests complain about their overdone chicken!

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This is why entertainment workers, servers and other personnel head to the kitchen when they know the food has been cleared from the dining room. Everyone wants a piece of the action. So, don't worry, all that extra food you see isn't going to waste.

Workers Are Shown Little Mercy from Management

When a crew member gets fired, they are kicked off the boat at the next port stop and left to fend for themselves. That's right, they are simply abandoned in a foreign country and expected to get home on their own dime. The worst part is that workers can be fired for petty reasons and still face this issue.

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Unlike many jobs back on land, labor laws for ships are less comprehensive. Managers are often strict — sometimes even downright mean — to their employees. Crew members are also watched at all times via the ship's cameras.

The Crew Has a Coded Language

Pay attention to any announcements made on the deck of a cruise ship. Did they make any strange statements or say something you didn't understand? That would be the crew's code language, designed to make sure only those with insider knowledge will understand what's happening.

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This ensures the passengers don't panic when they hear anything concerning. Sometimes, however, the crew might use it to talk about guests without them noticing or understanding. So, essentially, they could trash talk someone right in front of their face — and no one would know.

It's Not Easy to Save Your Earnings

Because lodging is covered for workers on a cruise ship, many people think it's a great opportunity for saving money. That’s true — as long as you have some strong self-discipline. As many ex-cruise workers have described, a lot of people end up spending a considerable amount of their earnings on alcohol.

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Many also blow a lot of their money during the different port stops. They are one of the few times the crew gets a chance to actually leave the boat, so it's understandable that they tend to splurge. Workers looking to save must watch out for these spending traps.

The Sea Is a Tricky Place — Legally

It's true that stepping on board a cruise ship — or any ship for that matter — means you're entering new territory physically and legally. The sea isn't exactly a lawless place, but the laws in place are rather haphazard. Basically, the captain of a ship has the highest authority, and he or she can do whatever is needed to keep things running smoothly.

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That means that murder on the high seas can get sticky. No single country has any real jurisdiction, and investigations can fizzle out fast. Yes, sadly, murder does sometimes happen on cruises.

Follow the Crew During Port Stops

When the long-awaited port stop comes along, wait a little longer than usual to leave the ship so you can follow the crew members. They are the ones who know the best places to shop, eat and drink, and they can lead you to places other tourists don't know about.

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Of course, you can also simply ask crew members for their advice for where to go on land, but that's less fun. And who knows? They might be reluctant to divulge their insider knowledge and risk crowds at their favorite spots. Either way, they are the ones to pay attention to at port stops.

Port Stops Are Their Hail Mary

Imagine you have been trapped in the same hotel for an entire month, with the same group of people, eating the same food over and over again and getting snapped at by cranky customers. Then, suddenly, you're allowed a brief reprieve in a brand-new city. Now you understand how crew members view port stops.

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For workers, a port stop is like an occasional breath of fresh air that keeps them going for the remainder of their contract. It's often the only time they get off work (beyond late at night) and the only opportunity they have to escape unwanted company.

The Crew Keeps an Eye on Drunk Passengers

Crew members may like to get more than tipsy after work, but passengers don't have quite as loose of a leash. Workers aren't allowed to let passengers get too drunk, and they will quickly cut guests off if they see them getting too rowdy.

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Sometimes, this can cause problems with passengers. After all, some people purchase an unlimited drink package, fully intending to drink until they pass out if they choose. That isn't actually allowed, and the crew may inform you that they can't serve you yet another shot of Fireball.

They Write Down Funny Passenger Questions

As you can imagine, workers on a cruise ship get asked some pretty funny questions. Some of the questions are just too good to ignore, and they save them all in the ultimate "burn book." This book is where unruly passengers, dumb questions and crazy incidents are permanently recorded.

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For example, some things workers have heard on board include, "Is the toilet water drinkable?" and "How long does it take workers to get home every night?" Needless to say, the crew likes to look back and laugh every once in a while.

There Are Genies at Sea

The highest-quality cruise experiences include workers who are called "genies." Genies are tasked with catering to the highest-paying passengers who hold VIP status to make sure they are never underwhelmed. Often, these passengers are celebrities looking to get away from their work for a while.

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Genies help them get into concerts on board without being seen, decorate their rooms to their liking and deliver whatever they request. It can be a tough role, but it's one that is highly valued by the customer — not to mention generously compensated as well.