Courtesy of Nataly Vargas
- Most jobs onboard cruise ships require grueling hours, cramped cabins, and no days off.
- But for some workers, the friendships, travel, and rewarding work can make it all worth it.
- Insider talked to 5 cruise workers about the best and worst parts of their jobs.
Cruises are back — and they’re hiring. But working on a cruise ship should not be confused with a perpetual vacation, Natalie Grillo, a 25-year-old Third Officer at a major US cruise line, warns.
“Everyone thinks that working on a cruise ship is easy,” Grillo told Insider. “But I’ve worked in the oil field, on research vessels, and on small boats, and working on a cruise ship is the most difficult job I’ve ever had.”
Insider spoke with five cruise ship workers including a dancer, musician, chef, and photographer about the best and worst parts of their jobs.
Marco Goetz, a corporate executive chef on Carnival’s Princess Cruises and Holland America Line, said the most challenging part of his role isn’t working 11-hour shifts seven days a week — it’s figuring out how to navigate the invisible systems behind the scenes of the $25 billion industry, including a rigid staff hierarchy and intricate company operations.
“To understand the system, that’s the most difficult part, because you are not like a land-based hotel,” Goetz, who has worked in cruise ship kitchens for over 20 years, said. “You are more or less in the army — and everybody has their own stripes.”
Crew burnout and exhaustion make living away from home even more difficult
Third Officer Natalie Grillo said it’s important to have a strong support system at home in order to thrive in a career that requires you to be at sea for months at a time.
Courtesy of Natalie Grillo
For others, the lack of sleep and poor work-life balance are the most difficult parts about working and living onboard a cruise ship, multiple cruise workers told Insider.
Cruise ship employment contracts can range from three months to ten months long. And nearly all cruise workers — with entertainers being a notable exception — do not have protected days off until their contract is complete.
With shifts as long as 14 hours, the grueling schedule below deck can easily cause employee burnout and mental health issues, cruise workers told Insider. Pay varies drastically by position — as of this January, the minimum wage for international seafarers has been raised to $658 a month.
While there are various agreements and conventions protecting cruise workers’ rights at sea, cruise lines are known to circumvent labor laws such as overtime pay and minimum wage through a widespread business practice called a “flag of convenience.”
Less than 1% of commercial vessels are US-flagged, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Several cruise lines headquartered in the US, including Disney and Carnival, have ships registered in the Bahamas, for example — meaning crew onboard are not protected by the US justice system.
“People think I’m crazy for working on a cruise ship because I’m an American and I could get paid a lot more working on American flagged ships,” Grillo, who receives a salary of around $1,700 a week and no overtime pay, said. “But I like my job. So I stick with it.”
Foreign-flagged cruise ships operating in the United States are still subject to inspection by US authorities to verify compliance with international rules, the Cruise Lines International Association says.
Nataly Vargas said the professional development she’s gained working as a cruise ship photographer makes the challenging work environment worth it.
Courtesy of Nataly Vargas
Nataly Vargas, a Holland America Line photographer and videographer from Colombia, said she typically works nine to 10 hours a day, but may only get three to four hours of sleep during busier cruises. Her base salary is $700 a month, with additional wages earned through sales commission, she told Insider.
After the pandemic, she considered leaving the cruise industry for good, but decided to return mainly for professional development, she said.
“There’s no work on land compared to working onboard a ship,” Vargas said. “If you really want to meet new people, travel a lot, see different cultures, it’s the perfect job — but it’s not going to be easy at all.”
As with most jobs at sea, cruise workers spend months away from their family and friends back at home, a challenge every person handles differently, Vargas added.
“Socially, your life changes massively. I’ve got little nephews at home and I’ve missed every single one of their birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings,” cruise musician and content creator Bryan James said. “But when you are home, you don’t have a job so you spend that time really intensely with people.”
For some, life-long friendships and travel opportunities can outweigh the challenges of working on a cruise ship
Sequoia Harris, a 24-year-old dancer from New York City who completed a 10-month contract with Royal Caribbean in November, with her castmates.
Courtesy of Sequoia Harris
Similar to a college dorm room, living in close proximity to your coworkers naturally lends to tight-knit friendships. Multiple cruise workers said they’ve made friends in nearly every part of the world that they can now stay with while traveling.
“Why would I get out of my comfort zone to go and live in a small cabin with a roommate when I have never had to share a room before?” Vargas said. “At the end of the day, it’s part of the experience. These people become your family.”
For many, the unique jobs available on cruise ships are a more intriguing alternative to 9-to-5 desk jobs. Cruise contracts can allow entertainers and photographers whose end goal might be a full-time gig on land to build their resume and save money.
Sequoia Harris, a 24-year-old dancer from New York City who completed a 10-month contract with Royal Caribbean in November, said the job was a great way to travel with nearly zero expenses while gaining professional dancing experience, saving money, and making lifelong friendships with her fellow castmates.
Goetz, a rare multi-decade veteran in the cruising industry, said his favorite part of working on cruises is being able to take photos at the different ports, on top of the fact that the career allows him to travel and cook for a living.
According to James, who started working on cruises in 2017 and is currently onboard Royal Caribbean’s largest ship, the Wonder of the Seas, performing on cruise ships allows him to live more of an anxiety-free existence than hustling for gigs on land.
“That’s kind of what everybody is searching for in life,” he continued. “To do something they’re good at, something they actually like to do that pays them well and they don’t have to stress — and that’s what I’m finding on ships.”
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