Cruise ship workers reveal what it's really like to live at sea

  • Cruise ship jobs have a number of distinctive features that separate them from land-based jobs.
  • Business Insider spoke with 39 current and former cruise line employees who described what it's like to live and work on a cruise ship.
  • They described long hours, bad food, and an intense hookup culture.

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Cruise crew members reveal secrets

1. Relationships between passengers and crew members are forbidden.

Wrote Chockythechipmunk, "Crew sleeping with passengers is strictly (like, kick you off the next day strictly) forbidden."

Echoed another crew member Heapsgoods, "I worked on cruise ships for 3 years and have had three friends sent home over this. Essentially you get busted, you have a Masters Hearing and you're sent home at the next port (on your dime). The cruise companies don't want to be liable for anything and rape accusations are all too real. We aren't allowed to take elevator rides with guests if you're the only two people in it either, for the same reason. Also if you're taking a photo with a guest both of your hands must be visible. It's happens before that a guest claimed she was groped and you couldn't see the crew members hand in the photo (it was on guests back). Luckily there was a security camera that capture them from behind."

2. They're strict about visitors, too.

"I'm sure lawsuits have happened in the past. Sexual harassment and such. All I know is if you're even in the vicinity of a passenger cabin you have to have a sheet of paper on your person that says you're allowed to be there. When my mom came on board the ship and I wanted to visit her, I had a sheet signed by my boss and my boss's boss," ChockytheChipmunk explained on the Reddit thread.

3. Even regular interaction between the crew members and guests is discouraged.

Wrote Reddit user GDH27: "The reason I quit was the relationship between the crew and the guests. We were expected to be ghosts, and couldn't sit anywhere guests were, and would have to move if they wanted to come where we were sitting. I'd see them for their dives and not be acknowledged for the rest of the time except if they wanted something. It's degrading to be honest, and a pain in the arse. Some days I'd be up at work for 3.45, and have to wait until 11 at night for the guests to leave the decks before I could fill the tanks."

4. Quarters are cramped, sleep is limited.

Explained Reddit user Teddersman

"My position shared a bedroom with bunk beds and really small bathrooms. You could shit, shave your legs, and brush your teeth all at the same time. Depending upon your position on board determined if you had guest area privileges. I was allowed in guest areas, but after spending all day with the guests that's the last thing I wanted to do. You're always on duty and your supervisors have 24 hour access to you at all times by just ringing your phone and waking you up in your cabin. Sleep was very limited, so every off hour was spent trying to catch up."

Wrote JMPBass, "On both ships, I shared a room with a member of my band. My first ship, I roomed with the keyboardist, who was much older than me. We got along, but it was apples and oranges. I had the top bunk, which ended up being the best because the bottom bunk was coffin-like. He tried to trade me a couple of months in, I said no. On my last ship, I roomed with the guitarist. He and I were a year apart, it was his first time, and he was totally cool with having top bunk. The beds in our room were in an L-shape, so it was great for space. I also had a double bed in that room, which was awesome. Everyone enjoyed coming to our room because we'd just be hanging out in there most days, doing our thing and not really caring about the gossip."

5. Some even described the living conditions as hell. 

Wrote Reddit user GDH27, "Living conditions were hell. My "cabin" was a box with a mattress smaller than a standard single, the ceiling was so low I couldn't sit up on the mattress, no fan, no air-conditioning, and just 20 cm on one side for me to store my stuff on."

Complained MirtaGev, "The rooms are tiny, and your shower curtain will always be trying to get to know you Biblically."

Explained another user Puss_ParkersWidow: "We got crammed in a tiny cabin with 3 other employees but you have varying hours, so there's people coming and going when you're somewhat asleep- but you worked hard, so you're tired and you might actually sleep. The engine noise tends to be helpful in that regard."

6. It can be a "money pit" for employees.

Explained Reddit user Teddersman

"Crew members are super hard working and work weeks are 70 hours a week without a single day off for 6-8 months at a time. Most crew members rely on tips for their wages. My position was salaried for $58/a day, I was an officer on board working in the guest services office. Came out to roughly $1400 a month after taxes. No one else is taxed besides Americans on board."

Wrote user TickleMafia

"Paying zero rent or bills is a great deal and I've been incredibly lucky that that is an option, but... the pay is almost always less then what you make on land, and if you lose work on land it can be a wash, some lines also try and suck the crew dry, charging extra for necessities like toilet paper, drinking water or over-charging for internet."

Reddit user JustHereforCarterHam said:

"Most of my friends work for cruises, since we work in technical theatre production, it's an easy hire. Cruises are either a great way to save money or an awful one. Your lodging and food is paid for, and you're getting paid, so that's great. But cruises are BORING. Sure, cheap booze and free travel is great for the first little while. But after a while, it becomes like Squidward in that episode where he finds his perfect down. So routine. So boring. Wifi is usually anywhere from $5/day to $10/hour and there is no cell service. So, when you're not working, you're trying your best to find anything to do. So a lot of the time you'll start spending money on anything new, and then you're not saving or enjoying yourself, so there's little point."

"However, many people still enjoy the life of the routine and the travel, and figure ways around spending money. Just know, it's harder than you expect to be one of those people. But if you can be, it's a great opportunity."

Echoed another employee MirtaGev, "US citizens aren't payed that well, but some countries, where the conversion rate is really good, make some serious bank. South Africa, especially."

7. Despite the long hours, some crew members are in it for the ability to travel. 

Explained Too-Tsunami, "It was awesome, though. You travel for free, drink for cheap, and save a lot of money since you aren't really paying for anything unless you want to. I'd suggest it to anyone who has no strings attached, & is willing to work hard for 6-8 months at a time."

Asserted Seastar321, "In 5 years on cruise ships I literally travelled the world. I went to Europe Canada north, south and Central America including Alaska and Hawaii Asia inc China Japan and India Africa. I basically visited every continent except Antarctica, and went to over 75 countries. I took a sled dog ride in Alaska, white water rafting along a river through the jungles of Costa Rica, visited Alcatraz, had an authentic curry in Mumbai, spent a day on a luxury yacht sailing around the Caribbean, snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef, visited the great pyramids in Egypt, been to the lost city of Petra, spent days in Barcelona,Athens, Rome, Kiev, and so so so much more. None of the bullshit you have to put up with on board matters compared to that."

8. Hygiene is a big priority, understandably.

A now-deleted post wrote, "One thing she did tell me is the cruise lines (the well known ones anyway) are very anal about cleanliness. If there's even the hint of a norovirus outbreak, it's all hands on deck and the entire ship is scrubbed down with disinfectant. But while the ship is clean, certain lines will sometimes cut corners when it comes to maintenance of the mechanical systems. Think the infamous "Poop Cruise" from a few years back."

9. There may be a huge discrepancy in pay.

Explained BilliousN, "Totally depends on which country you come from. My wife and I met working on ships. She's Indonesian, worked 10 month contracts without a day off, 12-14 hours a day... and made about $600 bucks a month. Lived in a shared room, ate food that was literally made from the scraps of what passengers didn't eat, never had time to get off ship in port."

"I'm American, worked 4 month contracts, had a solo room, usually worked about 6-10 hours a day, ate with the passengers in the lido, and made around $3000 a month."

"Different roles, but the jobs all have nationalities. On our ships, bartenders were all Filipino EXCEPT the crew and officers bar bartenders were Indonesian."

Echoed Ghotiaroma, "Yup, every ship I have ever been on your job is decided by your nationality. This is one of the reasons no ship I know of registers in the US. They need to be free of any regulations of a civilized world."

10. Yes, there is even an onboard ranking.

Explained Throwawaytheflag, "When it comes to getting assigned to ships, they'll take seniority and relationships into consideration. Once my cousin and another girl with the same job were applying to work on a certain ship that both their bfs had already been assigned to (with this job, it's one person per ship). My cousin got the assignment because she had seniority. But the contracts are about 6-8 months, so it's not the end of the world in most cases."

Wrote SoundTech_157, "It really varies by what position you have on the ships. I worked for 2 cruise lines and worked on 7 ships. There are 3 classes of people on the ship the top rank which is officers. They have their own dining hall and better food gets served there then the other 2 which is staff mess and crew mess. Staff are the entertainment team, child care team, photography and shore excursion any type of non officer management and guest service team. Crew are the shitty jobs like room stewards, deck hands, bartenders, cooks etc."

Asserted JMPBass, "SHIPS ARE A VERY CLASSIST SYSTEM!!! I can't stress that enough. If you're in to social justice, it's a case study worth exploring. Sometimes, the work is exploitative, other times it's demeaning, but these crew have to support their families somehow, and often it's better than what's at home. I've tried to curb my entitlement each time I've been on board."

11. Crew members are given a physical before they're hired. They also have random drug tests. 

Wrote SoundTech_157, "They do have random tests for drugs every month but I have never had to do one. You are only supposed to have .08 blood alcohol level while not working. But as long as you are not an asshole drunk, you can drink until you don't remember and security won't bother you."

Explained Daftsnuts, "You have to take a somewhat intense physical before getting on board. This includes a drug test. Random drug tests also happen while on board. Moral of the story? If you want a cruise ship job, stop smoking weed 3 weeks ago."

12. Life aboard becomes mundane. 

"We had a saying "Every night is a Friday night and every morning is a Monday morning. Every day is ground hogs day," wrote Rmmyyz.

"The best way to describe no days off is, waking up to your alarm and every single day feels like a Monday morning (for those that actually have normal work weeks)," explained Reddit user Teddersman.

"The thing I remember most from what [my cousin] told me is that there are basically 3-4 channels on the TVs, and they loop the same movies over and over. So you'll end up watching a movie in chunks depending on when you turn your TV on, until they switch out the movies," wrote user Throwawaytheflag.

13. Laundry is hard to come by. 

"Laundry is best done on port days, or at odd hours. Musicians work nights, so I could get away with doing my washing at 3AM, no problem," asserted JMPBass.

Wrote MirtaGev, "You will never find a free washer unless you camp out in the laundry room for a few hours. There are usually about 5 to 15 washers/dryers, and anywhere from 1000 to 2500 crew members."

14. Some didn't see mental health as a top priority 

Explained JMPBass, " I wanted to get in to mental health on ships. Basically, there is none and 0 support system, and it's unfortunate. People get all riled up, there's drama, closed quarters, etc, and things happen. If there was someone on board that was trustworthy and reliable to help educate, support and guide some of the crew, then ship life wouldn't be as destructive as it can be. I don't want to get in to it, but it's a conversation I've had on almost every ship I've been on."

15. Food and social life are better depending on what line you're on. 

Wrote SoundTech_157, "The food is not the same as what the guests eat in both messes. In staff mess we have waiters and if you don't see what you like you can order an egg on a bun or hamburger or something like that. In the crew mess the food is more Asian palate based. Some days there will be fish head soup some days you will have normal cream of mushroom soup. There will always be some sort of chicken that's been sitting out too long and not hot. Some sort of cold cooked veggies, Salad, pasta, dessert and fruit. This does not sound bad and for the first month on board it is not. But it end up being the same food constantly. Ex mondays are fish stick days and Wednesdays are undercooked burger days."

Wrote SirMaximusPowers, "The meals for the crews was pretty bomb, and you could also eat/drink anywhere you wanted on the ship as long as you were off your shift and not in your work clothes. It seemed as if the general consensus was it being a great experience for a short period of time, but it is not something you'd most likely enjoy for more than a few seasons unless that type of lifestyle appeals to you."

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Cruise ship jobs have a number of distinctive features that separate them from land-based jobs. Perhaps the biggest difference is the fact that cruise ship employees live where they work.

That can have advantages, like short "commutes" and close bonds with co-workers, but it also presents potential downsides, like poor food quality and a sometimes excessive party culture.

Business Insider spoke with 39 current and former cruise line employees who described what it's like to live and work on a cruise ship. (Some of those mentioned in this story requested anonymity for fear of reprisal from their current or former employer.)

Here's what they said.

Have you worked on a cruise ship? Do you have a story to share? Email this reporter at mmatousek@businessinsider.com.

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Cruise ship workers reveal what it's really like to live at sea

There's a big party culture, but it isn't always as fun as it seems.

Cruise ships have a reputation for fostering a party culture among employees fueled by long hours and cheap drinks available at crew-only bars.

But social drinking can turn into self-medication, according to Brian David Bruns, who worked as a waiter for Carnival Cruise Lines for 13 months between 2003 and 2004 and wrote a book, "Cruise Confidential," about the experience.

Bruns told Business Insider that the stress and loneliness of working on a cruise ship made alcohol an attractive coping mechanism. During his time as a waiter, an outside observer would likely have determined that he developed a drinking problem, Bruns said.

"I'm sure any third party would observe me and say I had a problem," he said. "It can happen very quickly where you go from a social drink to self-medicating because of loneliness."

Read more: Cruise ship workers reveal the most disappointing things about their job

The food is bad.

Cruise ship workers with lower-paying jobs, like bartenders and waiters, are often at the mercy of the crew cafeteria. There, according to five current or former cruise ship employees, the food leaves much to be desired.

Some described their distaste for the food as a logistical issue. Since many ships employ crew members from around the world, the food served in the crew cafeteria can reflect that variety, making it difficult for some to find food similar to what they would eat at home on a consistent basis. Others described food of poor quality, like chicken with a rubber-like texture or sauteed fish heads.

"The food sucks," a former employee for Norwegian Cruise Line and Holland America Line said.

Workers would keep tuna, granola bars, and other snack foods in their rooms or favor simple foods that require little preparation, like fruit, cereal, and sandwiches, she said.

Not all of the cruise ship employees Business Insider spoke to disliked the food in the crew cafeteria. Two former cruise ship employees said they enjoyed both the quality and variety of the food served to crew members.

Read more: 8 things cruise-ship workers want to tell passengers but can't

You work long hours.

Rather than working traditional five-day weeks, cruise-ship employees often work seven days a week for the duration of their contracts, which can range from about two months to 11 months. Between four and eight months was the most common contract length cited by 31 current and former cruise-ship employees who spoke with Business Insider.

The hours can also be intense, from about eight to nearly 20 hours a day. The employees Business Insider spoke with reported an average of about 12 hours.

A former waiter for Carnival Cruise Line who said he worked about 12 hours a day described his schedule as "crazy" and said it led to fatigue and stress.

"We don't get enough sleep," he said.

Employees have a lot of sex with each other.

Among the many distinctive features of a cruise ship job is the fact that you live with your co-workers. That can result in unusually close bonds among employees and an unusual amount of sex between them.

"There's a lot of sex on cruise ships," said a former casino manager for Holland America Line.

Some compared the hookup culture as being similar to, or even exceeding, that of a college dorm.

But the permissive sexual culture on cruise ships can also lead to aggressive or inappropriate behavior. A former Royal Caribbean Cruises employee who now works for Carnival said one of her managers on Royal Caribbean would make comments about her sexual orientation and criticize her for never changing her hairstyle.

Royal Caribbean did not respond to a request for comment.

Romantic relationships start and end quickly.

Romantic relationships among employees develop and end much faster than on land, which, along with frequent turnover, can make long-term relationships difficult.

"One month on a ship is maybe like two years on land, because you spend so much time with these people," said Taylor Sokol, a former cruise director for Holland America.

But the close proximity between employees can make it difficult to maintain a healthy amount of space from a romantic partner, Sokol said.

"It's kind of hard to give someone their space when you live maybe 10 feet away from them."

Almost all of the passengers are pleasant, but some are annoying.

Current and former employees had largely positive things to say about passengers, characterizing the vast majority of them as pleasant and respectful.

But some employees described frustrating tendencies they've noticed in passengers, like being too rowdy, asking annoying questions, and talking too much.

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SEE ALSO: A lawyer warns of a legal nightmare you can face on a ship

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Secrets about Disney cruises
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Secrets about Disney cruises

The cast-to-guest ratio is impressive

With 1,250 staterooms, the Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream can each accommodate 4,000 guests—and each ship has 1,450 cast members (Disney's name for its parks' employees). That means that when the ship is at full capacity, the ratio of cast members to guests is 1 for every 2.76 guests.

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Cast members come from all over the world

Just like in the Walt Disney World parks, cast members on the cruise represent almost every nation around the globe. On a recent sailing, there were cast members from 66 different countries, ranging from Poland and Serbia to Indonesia and Jamaica.

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Your server will speak your language

Those international cast members come in handy when it's time to order dinner. When you register for the cruise, you'll be asked which language you speak. You'll then be paired with a server who speaks the same language. And if you're American? No worries. All cast members, no matter from which continent they hail, are required to speak English. These are the three words Disney cast members can't say (in any language).

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Your servers will rotate through the restaurants with you

Don't be surprised to see a familiar face or two each night at dinner. Your head server, server, and assistant server rotate through the three main restaurants—Enchanted Garden, Royal Court, and Animator's Palate on the Fantasy—with you each night. "That helps us get to know your likes and dislikes," says a head server. "For example, if you like lemon with your water or your child wants apple slices, we can have it waiting at the table when you arrive." Heading to the park? These are the 10 new foods at Disney World you must try.

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Tipping is optional

On the Disney Cruise Line, tips are automatically added for dinners, beverage purchases that aren't included with your fare (alcohol, specialty coffee, fresh juices at the spa, and smoothies), room service, and spa treatments. In addition, your stateroom host will be tipped at the end of the cruise. Even though the tips are automatically included, guests can opt to have that amount lowered or raised at guest services at any point during the sailing. Don't miss these 14 ways to save on your next Disney trip.

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Your server is a wealth of info

Because tipping is optional, a good server will go out of his or her way to find helpful tips to share with you. "We know where the best spots on the ship are to view the fireworks on Pirate Night (always on the starboard side) and which of the shows are worth catching (Don't miss Aladdin on the Fantasy or Frozen on the Wonder)—or skipping," says a cast member. Here are 12 etiquette rules Disney employees need to follow.

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The ship's decor is a secret code

Not sure if you're on the starboard or port side, or facing forward or aft? (That's boat speak for "left," "right," "forward," and "back.") Look to the doors and the carpet. The staterooms on the starboard (left) side have fish sculptures as door markers, and those fish are swimming aft (toward the back), while the staterooms on the port side has seahorse sculptures that are also facing the rear of the ship. As for the carpet, the point of the star and the North point on the compass are pointing to the ship's front. Speaking of secrets, discover the hidden spots you never knew existed at Disney.

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The kids' clubs are a hot spot for unique character spotting

If your children are big fans of a Disney movie or show, including Toy Story, Star Wars, or Doc McStuffins, make sure they're in Disney's Oceaneer's Club or Edge during the activity corresponding to the movie, like Space Ranger training or Jedi recruitment. Beloved characters will often make a surprise appearance, so your little one just might get to be face to face with Toy Story's Jessie or Star Wars's BB-8. Unfortunately there are no autograph books or cameras allowed, so this is one experience at Disney that will live on only as a happy memory.

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You can skip the photo package

At $149 for ten photos, the professional photos the ship's photographers take are one of the items on the ship with the biggest markup. Instead of shelling out for the official photo of your child meeting Anna and Elsa, stand behind the photographer and take the exact same shot with your camera or smartphone. Learn what else you should skip (or splurge on) during Disney cruises.

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We get eight weeks vacation

The majority of crew members are on a four-to-five-month contract, after which they must take a mandatory eight-week vacation. "Let's face it, it's hard work being 'on' six days out of seven. It's good to go home and see our families and recharge our batteries," says one crew member. They do also work on different ships and might be asked to change ships at a moment's notice.

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They eat a lot of chicken

Each week before setting sail, the ship is loaded with about 12,000 pounds of chicken, 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of beef, and 10,000 to 12,000 bottles of wine, according to Disney Cruise Line hotel director Alberto Boscoe.

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You can order off any of the restaurants' menus

If you loved the chateaubriand from Royal Court so much that you want it again the next night in Animator's Palate, even though it's not on the menu, chances are, your server will give it to you. Check the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app to get a preview of the nightly menu.

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Working in a specialty restaurant is a coveted job

With only 12 servers each, Palo or Remy (on all four of the Disney Cruise Line ships) are the most desired restaurants for servers, but the job does come with an added challenge. "Because there are only 12 of us, it can be hard to get along," says one Palo server. "The benefit of being in the larger dining room is that if you don't like someone, you don't have to work with them."

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Your opinions count

On the last day of the cruise, guests are asked to rate all their servers and stateroom attendants on a comment card. "Our managers really do read all of those, and if we've made a guest unhappy, we'll definitely be reprimanded," shares one cast member. On the other hand, share if they did something that made you happy, because praise counts too.

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White uniforms don't signify we're steering the boat

Unlike on many other ships, wearing a classic white uniform doesn't mean staffers are the captain or even first mate; it means that they're managers, explains one cast member. The epaulets hold a clue as to which department they're in: theatrical masks are for entertainment, a propeller is for traditional ship crew, and an oval means they're part of the deck team. Learn about 10 dress code rules all Disney employees have to follow.

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Skyline Bar holds some surprises

The backdrop of the bar Skyline changes every 12 minutes, rotating through the European cities where the Disney ships have port calls, including London, Paris, and St. Petersburg. If you look closely, you'll see that the people on the city streets are actually characters from Star Wars. "My favorite is London, where Darth Vader has the flat above Mickey Mouse," shares a cast member. Check out these other awesome perks adults will love about Disney cruises.

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Even we don't know about the next top-secret ship launch

Only very senior cast members know the name and itinerary of the ship that will be launched in 2019—and they're very tight-lipped! "I'm hoping for Japan," shares one server. Only time will tell. Don't miss these other 23 secrets Disney employees won't tell you.

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