IMG 6281 What's It Like to Work on a Cruise Ship?

What’s It Like to Work on a Cruise Ship?

Guest author Mackenzie Ames tells us about her time working on a cruise ship….

Cruise ships: you either love ‘em or hate ‘em… or, if you’re like me, you call ‘em home. For almost three years I lived and worked onboard luxury cruise ships, and that statement alone never fails to elicit dozens of questions from land folk. Here are a few answers to some of the most common ones:

“What did you do onboard, Mackenzie?”

I was the onboard broadcast manager, which essentially means anything you saw on TV came from my office with the help of my assistant. I tuned satellite dishes, input programming from Miami and organized onboard video shoots. It was a pretty good gig for a 22-year-old straight out of college.

This is important because the job you have onboard dictates a lot about the quality of your ship life. You see, it all comes down to how many stripes you have. For example, a captain has four stripes, the cruise director has three and I had one and a half stripes. These stripes are, essentially, your ranking and dictate your privileges onboard. Some positions have no stripes and, naturally, they did some of the hardest work.

“How did you not gain a thousand pounds from all that delicious food!?”

Yes, the food in the guest dining rooms is pretty delicious, but guess what? That is not the food they serve the crew. Not even close. Depending on the ship you’re on, there are several crew messes. Typically, the food is underwhelming. It’s edible… if you can figure out what it is. It’s all buffet style with a sad salad section as the first stop. There may be vegetables, some browning lettuce and salad dressings I could never identify. There’s a white one that is trying to be ranch so I typically went with that one. Next were the buckets of rice. If nothing else, the crew always had mountains of rice. Followed by dishes of unidentifiable meat – chicken? Pork? Maybe beef? And lastly you’d find two-day old bread and sponge-y cake from the night before. My plate was rarely full, and there were plenty of nights where I just made mini peanut butter and honey sandwiches on the softest pieces of French bread I could find.

It really wasn’t all bad, though. Because of my position onboard I was awarded the privilege of eating in guest areas. If I made reservations, I could enjoy a dinner in the main dining room. If the lines were short, I could have dinner in the guest buffet. If there were crew specials going on, I could spend an evening in the specialty restaurants.

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There was a definite strategy involved in finding food onboard. The longer you live onboard, the better you get at finding your meals – or you just go out in port and enjoy being waited on.

“Mackenzie, where do the crew live?”

Crew cabins are hidden all over the ship, but most are near the bottom. Yes, just like in Titanic. Officers live near the top of the ship where all the controls are, but most of us live on deck three or lower. Again, your cabin depends on your job onboard. captains have large staterooms, the cruise director has a slightly smaller cabin but still large enough to have its own living room and I had a single cabin measuring around six and a half feet by nine feet.

This wasn’t always the case. When I first started as an assistant, I was randomly placed in a cabin of the same size with a roommate. Yes, two girls lived in a 6×9 cabin with bunk beds. It’s cramped, stressful and you’re likely living with someone from another country so just wait for the cultural differences to brew. To top it all off, your roommate is typically someone from your own department because what could be better than sharing a room with your coworker?

While I maintain that I loved my three years at sea, I did not love living in a cabin.

Let’s compare this to being a flight attendant. If you’re a member of the flight crew, then you get a nice place to stay. Cabin crew members for airlines get to stay in some pretty nice hotels during their trips.

“Did you ever get to get off the ship?”

Heck yeah, I did! If people go too long without getting off the ship they seriously start to turn into monsters. That’s why crew really hate back-to-back sea days, or, even worse, transatlantic crossings.

Again, I was really lucky in my position onboard. I was basically my own boss and had almost complete control over my schedule. When the ship is docked there’s nothing to film and the satellite channels are stable. So if I wanted to go out to the beach, I did. If I wanted to take a tour to see Norwegian sled puppies, I did. If I wanted to eat Pringles in my cabin and watch DVDs of Mad Men, I did.

The living conditions may not have been ideal, but the places I got to see were beyond worth it. In my time on cruise ships I visited approximately 36 countries in the Baltic, Mediterranean, Norway, Bermuda, the Eastern Caribbean, Alaska, Central America, the Panama Canal and South America. This job changed my life. I’m not wealthy. I didn’t grow up with money, but I did grow up with a passion to see the world. Cruise ships let me live out that passion.

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“Mackenzie, do the crew, like, hang out with each other?”

Nope. We do our jobs, log our time and then sit in our cabins until our next shift. You laugh, but I actually get this question a lot.

Of course the crew hang out with each other. In fact, the crew spend an ungodly amount of time together. We are each others’ best friends, worst enemies, lovers, ex-lovers and family. We live in a bubble dictated by the odd phenomenon known as “ship time.”

The crew have their own bars below decks. Again, yes, just like in Titanic. We have a bar with a pub-like setting and a bar with a nightclub environment. This is where are all the drama happens, and there’s always drama. We’re all cooped up with each other for months at a time so the drama tends to be our only entertainment.

Sometimes crew members date, fall in love and live happily ever after with little ship babies. Sometimes they date, have breakups and strategically find ways to never end up on the same ship again. Ship relationships happen – they’re actually encouraged. They get dramatic, complicated and messy, but they can also be passionate and romantic. When an exotic foreigner is taking you for lunches in Stockholm and coffees in Naples it can really begin to feel like the whirlwind fantasies you’ve seen in movies.

While the destinations were amazing, I can honestly say that the greatest part of my time on ships are the people I met. I still exchange Christmas cards, Facebook messages and phone calls with many of them. This eccentric job brings together interesting people from all over the world, and all walks of life. I consider myself so lucky to have walked with them for just a little bit.

These nutshell answers are seriously just the tip of the iceberg (probably not the best metaphor to use when talking about cruising).

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