Over the last several years I have been asked many times what it's like to work on a cruise ship. I have been talking about that a lot, but finally I decided to write it down, so anybody who is considering a cruise line job can find some interesting information here. But, before you start reading you should know that I am a chef, not a professional writer, so if you find any mistakes in my writing I kindly ask to be excused, or you try to cook 300 meals for Saturday night and then complain about my writing.
I worked on cruise ships for about a year and a half during the years 2000-2001. Contrary to what many people believe, cruise line jobs are not too hard to find. I don't think that working on a cruise ship is as glorious as someone might think, but as it is with life, job is what you make of it. I feel fortunate to have seen almost all of the Caribbean, met thousands of people from around the world, cooked some very nice food in large quantities and enjoyed myself almost all of the time. Being a cook or a chef on a cruise ship is not even close to a great job moneywise, but when you take into consideration that you don't pay tax, grocery bills, rent, don't spend time shopping for groceries or time to cook for yourself, then it starts to look more worthwhile. Average salary can be around $600-$1000 for cooks, $1000-$1200 for first cook and chef de partie, and $1400-$3000 for the different grades of chefs.
Kitchen staff usually sign contracts for 70 hours work per week, but I worked 80 hours for most of the time without being compensated for the extra time, let alone overtime. This can be frustrating sometimes, but you must realize that nobody cares how many hours you work since you are not required to sign in and out.
Although the cruise line was advertising itself as an equal opportunity employer, it was obvious to me that nationality played a big role in their decision how much to pay to their employees. If you are from an under-developed country you most likely will be offered a lot less than what a candidate from the first world will get for the same experience and qualification.
I had never had any doubt in my mind that I want to be a chef, even though the most ridiculous server was making 3-4 times more money then me. If you are not in love with cooking, I strongly recommend some other cruise line jobs such as server, bar waiter, gift shop assistant, security guard, au-pair or something like that. Waiting tables on a cruise ship is a very intense job, too, but much better paid. A server's salary was $60 per month (yes, I mean month), but the rest came from the tips. (By the way, kitchen staff does not get any tip-outs for their efforts.) Usually a server gets a section of the dining room with about 16-24 customers, who sit at the same table for the entire cruise. He/she serves them through the entire cruise and during the last dinner puts an envelope on the table for each of his/her guests for the tip.
A few customers would put less than recommended and a few would put more, but usually a server would end the week with a respectable amount of tax free money in his pocket. Some guests who didn't want to tip would eat at the pizzeria the last night. I know for sure, because the last night of every cruise was the busiest night at the pizzeria.
Some of the best departments to work for were Gift Shop, Photo, Entertainment and Casino. Why? Because when the ship enters any port, including a US port, the casino and gift shops had to close until departure. So, if you work in any of those two departments you will be in a better position than a customer because you are free to go out on the islands (and unlike the customers, you know where to go), and can get a shore tour for free as a crew member. In other words, if the ship visits a port from 10am to 8pm, that means you are off almost all day for that day, and there is no any danger to go over 40 hours a week. Needless to say, they were better paid than cooks. Some entertainers had only two shows a week and enjoyed the cruise for the rest of the week.
I had the opportunity to go out on almost every port of call, too, but sleep was nearly non-existent during that time of my life. Most of the time I worked between 4am to 9am, and then again 4pm to 10pm every day for seven days a week. So, when I went out during the break from 9am-4pm, I was left with only about 5 hours of sleep for the night. Sometimes even less, because I had a girlfriend who later become the mother of my child. Unfortunately, I don't know where we met first - the ship was somewhere between Jamaica and Cayman Islands. She was a casino dealer and her schedule was quite different than mine. On top of that the company did not want to accommodate our request to live in the same cabin, so after more than a year of living this way we decided to move ahead with our life. However, we thoroughly enjoyed the time we were on the ship. We had a nice two-month vacation together between our first and second contracts.
She had a good job on the ship, not that my job wasn't good, but cooking on a cruise ship is a very strenuous job. Thankfully I love cooking, if I didn't I wouldn't have been able to work in a place like that for long.
Life on the ship is very close to normal if you don't mind living in a small cabin with another roommate. For your convenience there is a crew mess with breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight buffet for the staff, very cheap crew bar, free laundry, gym, small pool for the crew, TV with free movies (I hope you don't use it much), free island tours and so on. If you want you can save all your wages and still have fun. If you like to drink a couple of beers or any other drinks from time to time, their price in the crew bar is just $1. For me this is not a selling point, but some people might like that - at least once a month there is a crew party with unlimited open bar. As you can see, if you work on a cruise ship you can have a lot of fun, see many places for free, meet many people and hopefully save some money. But again, whether you have fun or not is totally up to you.
It is impossible to fit all my experience with the cruise ship job in one page, but if you have any questions regarding cruise ship jobs and employment do not hesitate to contact me and ask. I have never been on a cruise as a customer and would be interested to publish your reviews from your cruise vacations. If you would like to send me a review, please use the "Contact Chef George" link below.
P.S. Due to the high interest in this article and numerous emails with questions that I am receiving, I decided to address those questions on a separate page. To find my answer to questions such as "How to get a job on a cruise ship?" or "Am I too young to apply for a cruise ship job?", visit this page.