Have you ever been on a cruise? Perhaps your first time was on a Caribbean cruise line with thousands of passengers soaking up the sun and sipping on frosty beverages. Or maybe you opted for a smaller, more intimate experience on a river cruise ship. While I have enjoyed both (and many more in between, including a Disney Cruise, which was actually awesome), my initial foray into cruise life was as a crew member.
After university I worked as youth staff on a large-scale cruise ship. I learned to work long hours, relished in the joys of time off in tropical locales like St. Maarten and the Bahamas, and saw every stripe of life at sea. Since I'd never been on a cruise as a passenger, my first experience aboard a ship was an eye-opening introduction to working, living, and playing in a floating palace where you never actually leave your work.
This Is What It's Really Like to Work on a Cruise Line
Passengers see crystal chandeliers, high-thread-count linens, and polished wood, but below deck, there are no Frette linens or plush carpets; the crew quarters are utilitarian. On most big ships you'll find a small gym for working out, a basic plunge pool and sun deck for time off, various cafeterias serving a basic-yet-international menu for staff based on rank, and bunk-style rooms for sleeping.
There's no nine-to-five job on a cruise ship, nor is there really a place to officially clock out (unless you're between contracts on leave from the ship). Because every crew role is created for passenger enjoyment and safety, long hours are the norm — especially for positions such as room stewards or dining room servers.
While it was rare for my job to have a full 24 hours off, I did get a block of time off every day, and if that time coincided with a tropical port of call, it was heavenly (and really nice to get off the ship). When my time off landed on an embarkation day, I'd do errands to pick up basic necessities such as deodorant or my favorite brand of conditioner.
I was also able to partake in a limited version of passenger life in my non-work hours attending shows, noshing at the midnight buffet, and visiting the night clubs, although indulging in these perks was rare, as sleep took priority!
5 Cruising Tips from a Former Crew Member
As it turned out, wearing a uniform at sea — shorts and pressed shirt by day, suit and high heels at night, in case you're wondering! — left me wanting more of the cruise life, and eventually I did an about-face from staff to passenger. Since my stint working at sea, I've cruised on a number of different ships and cruise lines with my husband and children.
Having had the opportunity to dip my feet into life above and below deck, here are a few insights I picked up while working on a major cruise line.
1. Comments count.
Passenger comments count a lot. Because cruising is all about congeniality and catering to the guest, cruise lines look to guest comments, in part, to determine a crew member's fate. In order to see the good ones keep your boat afloat, take a moment to write a comment card about a crew member who gives you exceptional service.
2. Don't splurge on the fancy stateroom.
Unless you're staying in a catered suite on the concierge level, you won't spend much time in your cabin. By design, cruise ships offer large public spaces and small sleeping quarters to draw guests outward. So before you shell out extra cash for a fancier stateroom, decide how much time you'll actually spend in your cabin.
3. You probably won't get seasick.
I struggle with seasickness, but I rarely get sick on big ships. That's because cruise ships are equipped with stabilizers to dampen the regular rock and roll of the open ocean. Then there's the technology: The number of weather- and ocean-monitoring electronics aboard sophisticated vessels ensures that most inclement weather can be avoided with a slightly altered course.
On the off-chance of seasickness, it's a good idea to bring Gravol, ginger pills, or Sea-Bands — also sold in the shipboard sundry store — because every wave pattern is different and you never know how your body will react.
4. Go where other people are not.
One thing I observed working on a ship was that people tend to congregate on the entertainment- and dining-driven decks, which creates crowd-free escapes elsewhere on the boat. If you're craving some peace and downtime — which is possible to find on a cruise — try zigging where others zag at common shipboard escapes.
Hit the spa when it first opens, the lounge adjacent to the reservation-only fine dining restaurants, the adult-only areas, or sunbathing nooks at the stern. And if you stay onboard during a port day when the crowds disperse at the destination, the ship basically turns into your personal yacht. How chic.
5. Think of the menu as a guideline.
When it comes to dining at sea, here's the skinny: Menus are merely a suggestion and you can basically order whatever you want. Because most cruise ships know that the way into a passenger's heart is through their taste buds, there's a lot of leeway when it comes to ordering. Think of the menu as a guideline versus a rule.
To keep the galley efficient, most ships publish a daily list of dishes for passengers to peruse at their meal, but if a guest is craving something that isn't on the menu du jour, most of the time the dish can be whipped up by the kitchen (unless it's a elaborate recipe like lobster thermidor).
This mealtime latitude also works in other ways, too, such as modifying a dish, ordering two appetizers instead of a main, or deciding it's a "dessert night" and requesting five treats instead of one (in this case, just remember to bring stretchy, comfortable clothes).
What are your top insider cruising tips? Tell us in the comments below.