It's a gig that many of us have considered - packing up, leaving the office behind and heading to the wide open seas to make a living on a cruise ship. It is a lovely thought to be able to see the world and make a few bucks at the same time. But what is it really like? Is it all that it's cracked up to be?
We at Cruise Sale Finder are lucky enough to have an expert in our midst: Amy, one of our great cruise consultants who spent twelve years working in the food and beverage industry on Princess ships. Here's what she had to say about working in the industry at sea, and some tips for those who are thinking of signing on to a cruise ship waiter job, bar job, or anything of the sort.
Amy, a native New Zealander, went to Scotland in 1999 for an OE - but when her visa expired, she was not ready to head home. She had studied hotel management and worked in hotels and restaurants, so applied for a position with Princess and was hired. A sailor's life it was.
Initially a bar steward, Amy rose quickly through the ranks to become a food and beverage manager, managing up to 23 onboard bars and in charge of up to 70 staff. Amy then stayed with the company for 12 years - an impressive length of time to be living the nomadic life of a cruise worker! In that time she has had the opportunity to see some amazing places and meet some great people.
The hiring process
Amy's application to work with Princess covered a range of jobs, and she was offered several positions after a group interview in Southampton, where a lot of lines have offices (you will likely have to travel to a major port for one of these). She said the process was relatively painless and easy, especially as she had a background in hotels and restaurants and had studied hotel management. Experience and qualifications like those are great for anyone hoping to get a food and beverage or hospitality job onboard - obviously customers and guests on land are pretty similar to passengers at sea!
Here are a few points Amy brought up for those looking to be hired by a cruise line for a food or beverage-related position:
- As a lot of cruise lines are American-owned, many will require their bar staff to be at least 21 years of age.
- Tattoos are generally not looked upon favourably, especially for customer service positions. If you can cover them, do so.
- Be prepared to get yourself sorted with a seaman's visa (C1/D visa). Read up on this first to find out what is required and make sure you are eligible - you can't do it in advance however as you will need the employment letter from the cruise line. Visas are at your own expense.
- Make sure any applicable experience is on your CV, and be flexible with which jobs you can do if possible.
Of course, you should first decide if it's definitely the right job for you. Amy says she would definitely recommend it, but aspiring employees should be generally sociable people as they will have to share cabins with strangers. They should also be prepared to work hard and work often - no dreams of spending hours on the beach in each port!
What to expect onboard
Working as a chef, bartender, waiter or other food and beverage-related position on a ship is pretty similar to the same job on land. Amy did say that the level of service is often higher, especially in customer-facing jobs like bartending and waiting where many workers will get to know passengers' names (this may be a requirement of the job) and their preferences. Friendliness goes a long way - particularly towards getting cash tips on top of the automatically-added gratuities!
The hours are one of the biggest points of difference. Amy mentioned that she never had a day completely free during any of her contracts, and these can range from 6-10 months. Crew might have a block of any number of hours free, but never a day off. Expect to work split shifts and all kinds of odd times - this applies especially to the food and beverage jobs.
Most ships have several crew-only decks, where the crew sleep in shared cabins and enjoy facilities like a crew bar, gym, and pool. The atmosphere amongst the crew is social and can be very fun if you enjoy meeting lots of people, Amy recalls. Making friends from all over the world is one of her favourite memories of the 12 years spent on Princess ships. Cruise crews have quite the reputation for partying, but Amy pointed out that it is actually against the rules on some lines to be significantly intoxicated, as crew members should be ready to help with emergency procedures at all times on the small chance it becomes necessary.
Highlights of life on a cruise ship
Amy's favourite aspects of cruise work were the opportunities it afforded her. Travel of course was top of the list, and despite having to work long hours she saw places she would never have imagined seeing in a different job; Iceland, Greenland and Madagascar were among the most interesting.
Career-wise, she also felt that working on the ships gave her a good work ethic, not only due to the long hours but also because a lot of crew really value the job that they have - and that's a good environment to work in. It is, she says, a good thing to have on her CV as many employers recognise cruise crew as hard workers. She appreciated the structure to move up within the company, and got promoted quickly to her position as Food and Beverage Manager.
Low points of working onboard
Working every day of each contract was of course a difficult aspect of the job, but Amy says you quickly become used to it as it's just part and parcel of life at sea.
Another is that there is no holiday pay or anything like that. When you are between contracts, you survive on savings and have to find somewhere to live or something to do while you relax before the next one. She said that in her position as manager, there was not a lot of flexibility around how long you had off between contracts, as there was only one on each ship. However, for the positions like waiters and bar staff, it was easier to pick and choose your contracts.
Of course, working on a ship means a lot of time away from family or friends. A lot of crew are single, and if they are not, they are often working to send money home.
Other things to think about
Cruise lines sometimes get a bad rap as low-paying employers, but Amy said that she found working onboard a great way to save as she had no expenses with food and accommodation taken care of. This totally depends on your position - and also your nationality, as crew from different countries are paid different amounts. One thing to keep in mind is that cruise wages are tax-free.
Contracts which ended in awesome places like Europe gave Amy another chance to travel. Cruise lines pay for flights to meet the ship and also for flights back home, but it is possible to apply for "local leave" and have the date of your return flight pushed back to enjoy the departure port and surrounding area a little. Amy said that obviously it was up to her to figure out the visa situation for these occasions but it allowed her to see some great places in-depth.
Thanks Amy for sharing your insider's perspective on the ups and downs of cruise ship jobs!
Still keen to try out the sailor's life?
With so much food being served, entertainment and activities happening on any cruise, it's no wonder that there are many jobs going in cruise industry - waiters, bartenders, maitre d's, chefs and more all have a place on these ships which serve as floating home and transport to many hundreds or thousands of guests at a time.
If you want to find out where your skills would fit in best, visit All Cruise Jobs to see what's available.
We'd love to hear from anyone who has experience with the applications process. Please leave your comments below!
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