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Cruise special: What's it like to work in cruise?

21 June 2023

With the cruise industry finally starting to resemble its old self after the pandemic, Nautilus has been finding out how members are experiencing life and work in the sector (which includes ocean liners and river cruise). Sarah Robinson picks out the pithiest comments from our interviews

Right now, cruise holiday advertisements are everywhere. Companies are desperate to move on from the pandemic image of cruise ships as floating disease-carriers and return to the good old days of glamour, high-level hospitality and fun.

It seems that the effort to revive the industry is working, which is good news for Nautilus members as more jobs are becoming available. But is cruise actually a good place to work? The best way to find out is to ask the cruise sector crew members themselves, which is what we've done for this article.

This isn't a scientific study – more of a snapshot of opinions and experiences. But we had input from a range of Nautilus members: men and women working at different ranks across the deck, engineering and hotel departments. Those who took part serve on several different kinds of cruise vessels, and we had a particularly strong response from members in river cruise.

The contributors made their comments in an anonymous online interview questionnaire, so they were able to speak freely. If you've been thinking about switching to cruise, here's what awaits you, starting with the big question…

How do the pay and conditions in cruise compare to other sectors?

'20 years ago it was not good. We had to work more days for the same money as on a tanker. Now conditions and free time are good.'

'The pay is almost the same. The difference between rivercruise ships and seagoing tankers is that on the river I have a yearly salary divided by 12 (months) and on the ocean I had an allowance per worked month.'

'The crew wi-fi is the same as on cargo ships, and that means it's poor, but it's better than nothing.'

'Compared to cargo ships, for a master it's more comfortable on , but the other side is the pressure us higher because of the expectations of the guests are getting higher.'

'We have good tips, food and wi-fi.'

What expectations are there about crew behaviour and appearance in the cruise sector?

'You must be very tolerant and accepting of a multi-cultural environment. Immaculate appearance and well-groomed in guest areas, but this has been relaxed a little recently in allowing small visible tattoos and facial hair for men if grown whilst on leave (not onboard).'

'Some owners don't accept crew members with beards and tattoos and in my opinion it's a kind of discrimination.'

'We have a strict uniform policy which includes amount/type of jewellery that can be worn. There are general expectations of presentation standards too – stubble is not really tolerated for example. There is an expectation regarding behaviour too, but this is well laid out. Guests come first in public areas, cinemas, gyms, bar, by the pools etc, and those in passenger facing roles obviously have higher expectations placed on them.'

'Grooming, appearance. Fluency in English.'

'When working with guests you have to remember names, have to answer questions, need to be open.'

What traditions are still kept up on the cruiseships you have worked on?

'Crossing the line ceremony is still carried out and the Captain still hosts a Sunday interdenominational church service and weddings onboard. Occasionally asked to officiate at a committal of ashes ceremony.'

'There is not much time any more for ceremonies, but what stays is the end of season party.'

'Crossing the line ceremonies, or inviting passengers to dine at the captain's table.'

'Crossing the line, welcome onboard instructions at a cocktail party, weddings are back now after the operational pause.'

What do you personally like about working in the cruise sector?

'Working with people, good atmosphere in the company.'

'Visiting so many different places around the world which I could never have imagined, from the Arctic to Antarctica, the tropics of the Amazon to a number of circumnavigations of the globe. Working with a 1000+ crew gives me the greatest pride and job satisfaction and how the "operation" just comes together like a big jigsaw puzzle.'  

'So far I like the contract (unlimited) and good balance between time onboard and vacation (I work a four weeks on/four weeks off rotation schedule).'

'The variety. Every day is different even if you are sailing the same cruise week after week. There are a lot of challenges and a lot of thinking on your feet is required. Making a guest's day is very satisfying but so is teaching a junior officer something.'

'The long free time between assignments, salary still okay compared to other jobs.'

What do you find are the negatives of working in the cruise sector?

'Working hours, and sometimes the accommodation. From time to time I need to share my cabin with other crew members and sometimes we even share across departments.'

'It's hard to make a team with so many nationalities on the ship.'

'Poor standards regarding training, record keeping of work/rest hours, safety at work.'

'It's a lot of ship to manage. People often have very negative perceptions of cruiseships, their officers and their workload, and one of the worst perceptions I saw was that "female officers work there for an easy ride" (paraphrasing).'

'Crew issues, it's too hard to get good and engaged staff. As a manager on a ship you have to accept what the office sends you and since Covid, professional staff are rare. You have to keep and train them which is not easy since ships are fully booked, and you have to keep up the standards.'

If you have worked in the cruise sector for more than 10 years, how have things changed since you started out?

'Vacation leave got better.'

'Salary and free time better, accommodation and internet onboard better.'

'When I started, we had only two nationalities; now we have over 15 in a crew of 50 persons.'

'Things have changed massively. Attitudes have changed, lessons have been learnt. The cruise industry is constantly trying to do its best with regards to diversity and environmental aspects, which wasn't always the case.'

'An important point I would like to raise is about inclusivity and diversity, which is not a new thing for the Merchant Navy; these were always largely embraced long before they became "fashionable" ashore. This is not suggesting that there is not room for improvement, but we do need to be careful of promoting one group over the other and inadvertently creating "positive discrimination" against the other group. This is nowadays the common chatter/concern in the mess.' 

How was your job in the cruise sector affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

'Covid curtailed a lot of guest interaction, but most has returned including cocktail parties – but not shaking hands yet or hosting dining tables.'

'My work was secure because I had the Swiss contract... and it doesn't seem to be much different than it was before.'

'I stayed as a watch on the ship and got my normal salary. 60% of the nautical crew stayed at home on furlough.'

'Things have slowly gone back to the way they were before... only everything is much more expensive, with higher taxes.'

'I was one of the lucky people that was not financially affected by the Covid-19 pandemic but the push from my company for taking the experimental so-called "vaccines" was really hard to dodge.'

'I was stuck onboard a ship for six months during the initial lockdown and the operational pause. For the most part things are pretty much back to normal – just companies trying to repay the debts they have after all the ships were laid up for nearly two years.'

'Ships are fully booked, but crew is half as professional as before.'

'Guests have changed, they are more demanding and most of them just want to cruise without experiencing what comes with cruising, like being together with hundreds of other guests, eating together, joining excursions. Or they just don't want to miss anything since they didn't travel due to Covid, and they feel obliged to join everything.'

Do you think all ranks and roles have been treated fairly on the ships where you have worked, or are some crew members at a disadvantage?

'Utility are sometimes not respected, they work hard and clean all the dishes.'

'Crew from different departments have different contracts and tours of duty, which is the norm on cruiseships and the way supply and demand in the global HR cycle works in reality. More and more Filipino crew contracts are being reduced to six months, which I think is a positive step which will help with a healthier and even happier work force.

'There is a long time struggle by the nautical staff to be recognised as of equal importance as the hotel staff by the management.'

'Different roles onboard have different access to amenities, but I don't consider that a disadvantage, just part of their position, and the expectation of that position. Everyone has the right to speak up and this is encouraged. There is a confidential reporting hotline which can be called from any phone. Everyone has access to the HR manager and to the crew assistance programme too.'

Would you recommend working in the cruise sector to other Nautilus members?

'Yes, it's a great industry. The important thing is to find a company that fits your values and it needs to feel good.'

'Well, I cannot answer that. But I could definitely encourage people to try working on the river instead of the ocean.'

'I do not have any regrets about my time at sea; I have made great lifelong friends, seen parts of the world I would never have otherwise seen, gained greater appreciation of cultures and people all around me. We all get bogged down in paperwork and day-to-day bureaucracy, but I still feel that it is still a most professionally and personally rewarding career and I would recommend it to anyone.

'With a serious company, I would say yes. A good company will take care with your working hours, pay fairly and on time and give enough holidays. But there are still some "black sheep".'

'Yes I would. It's a great opportunity to see the world and work with a wide variety of people. There's lots of opportunities to further yourself.'

  • Read our review of Cabin Fever – a new maritime book about the horrors of Covid onboard cruise ships


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