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True Story: I Lived on a Cruise Ship

by J. Money on Thursday, March 13, 2014

portal window cruise ship

[I've got a fun story for y'all today :) I found out one of my blogging friends, Mel, once lived and worked on a cruise ship (!!), and she was kind enough to elaborate on it for us. Perhaps next time we'll feature her story on joining the circus for a year?!]

Some people do crazy things like recycle their toilet paper to save a few bucks. I preferred living on a boat.

Right out of college, I landed a job as a stage manager working for a cruise line. This turned out to be a pretty sweet gig. First, because I got a job working as a stage manager – not a lowly production assistant, or even an assistant stage manager. I actually started out as a stage manager in charge of a 16 million dollar theater. This was clearly nuts. Although if you know anything about ship life, nuts is sort of the norm.

Second, I was actually making more than most of my friends with theater degrees on land AND my housing and food was part of the deal on top of my salary. As well as health insurance. Booyah.

The Financials

I started at the bottom of the pay scale for stage managers at $90/day and finished up at $126/day. This created a weird phenomena where whenever I get offered any salary now, I immediately divide it by the number of days in the year so I know what I’m making per day… and only then does it make sense to me. The only problem was that you didn’t get any paid vacation. So the 2-4 months a year that I would spend on vacation, I made nothing and had to budget accordingly to get by (or side hustle – I definitely rocked that as well).

Unfortunately, we didn’t get any cool perks like a 401(k) or any retirement benefits in my position. The nautical department and some of the other positions that were geared towards lifers did, and if you worked in the corporate office on land you did get some pretty sweet benefits, including a pension. Not the case if you were a lowly stage manager like me.

I considered myself lucky to have that health insurance, and if anything actually happened while I was at sea, I was 100% covered medically speaking. No co-pays, nothing to worry about, even when I didn’t have insurance (because, yes, I was that uninsured early 20-something for the first 3 years I spent at sea). The health insurance was really only necessary to get you through your vacations.

The one thing we had available to us was the option to buy company stock at reduced rates, which I actually should’ve taken advantage of – but my personal finance knowledge in those days consisted of “never carrying a balance on your credit card” and “paying off your student loans.”

Life & Work on a Cruise Ship

drinking with friends

Do you ever remember seeing movies like Animal House and thinking “yeah, that’s what college will be like!” Well, I don’t know what your college experience was, but mine wasn’t like that at all. I remember thinking back on those movies and wondering where the heck those schools were? Maybe they were never really based on colleges, but cruise ships instead. Because when I said nuts was the norm, I meant it in more ways than one.

Within a week of joining a ship, a person knows whether or not they’re a ship person. If you’re not, you either wind up quitting or you’re a “one and done” type where you finish that contract, return to your normal life and never look back. Most of the crew you’ll meet are “ship people.”

Personally, I used to drink a little too much in the Officer’s Bar after a bad day and loudly tell everyone that “this is my last contract.” Multiple times a week, starting with my second week ever on the ship. It wasn’t until five years later that it actually became true.

Despite the fact that days could be rough, I wouldn’t trade my ship experiences for anything. Here was what a typical day out on sea looked like:

  • 9:00 AM – Travel Guide Talk
  • 10:00 AM – Port Shopping Talk
  • 11:00 AM – BINGO
  • 12:00 PM – Rehearsal for evening show.
  • 2:00 PM – Travel Guide Talk
  • 3:00 PM – Shops Talk
  • 4:00 PM – BINGO (cruisers love their BINGO)
  • 5:00 PM – Check e-mails. Attend to paperwork. Make next day’s schedule.
  • 6:45 PM – Check house. Open doors.
  • 8:00 PM – Showtime
  • 10:00 PM – Showtime
  • 11:00 PM – Strike current show. Build next night’s show.
  • 1:00 AM – Go to the bar.

Not all days were smooth though. If you want a detailed look at a rough one that is ingrained in my mind forever, you can check out this post I wrote here on what a day in the life of a cruise ship stage manager was like. It’s pretty crazy.

Socially, I’m a pretty hardcore introvert. There is no such thing on a cruise ship. Everyone is together all the time. You can stay introverted and hide in your cabin, but you’re likely to be miserable. Because after a 16 hour day where everything possible crashed and some cast member with PMS just screamed at you for thinking she’s fat when you were just trying to help her zipper her costume, vodka becomes your friend. And so does whoever is sitting next to you on the other bar stool too who needs to vent about their crazy day and what madness happened in their department.

Also, everyone rotates out of there on different schedules. So once you’ve finally made great friends with that girl from the Shore Excursions team, inevitably she’ll be disembarking the following week and you’ll have to start making a new friend again. This helped break down a lot of my social anxiety, although I never really knew the extent of it until I left ships and realized that just chatting up total strangers in a bar comes across totally different on land.

Another reason why cruise ships are nuts is that Animal House-esque atmosphere I mentioned. The fact is that there isn’t much for crew to do after work. We watch a LOT of TV. In my position, and for the majority of entertainment department staff, passenger areas were places we could go, but you always needed to put the passengers first and be on your best behavior. You also had to be in your uniform (or a formal outfit on formal nights).

Sometimes you just needed to throw on a pair of jeans and drink a little too much. Which was good, because the only place to hang out on my ships was the Officer’s Bar- where beer was $.90 and a mixed drink would run you $1.40. It always made me laugh to see the painfully hung over Youth Staff at 8 AM, trying to pull it together and look responsible while parents are dropping off their kids for the day. Seriously parents, you have no idea what that chick was doing 4 hours ago – it was hilarious.

What Being a Stage Manager Entailed

cruise ship show

Professionally, I got a head start in my career. Coming back to land and returning to assistant positions has actually been driving me insane.

My job duties at 23 included being fully responsible for all aspects of running all entertainment venues on board our 2,000 passenger ship. That included a 900 seat theater with 80+ moving lights, an automation system and a digital sound system. That kind of theater technology isn’t that easy to break into. And now I can claim to be proficient with a fair bit of it.

I also called shows with insane automation cues that literally endangered people’s lives if I ran the show incorrectly. It was a world of difference from Waiting for Godot in a college theater. I was also responsible for the 200 seat theater and about 10 music venues around the ship. Furthermore, I learned a lot about OSHA regulations because I was responsible for making sure all those venues were complaint. I learned how to do purchase orders and payroll too.

I learned how to do all these things through trial by fire, because I’ll be one of the first to admit they were nuts to hire me. I did not have the experience they actually needed, but I worked my butt off to gain it quickly.

How I Got The Job

Part of why cruise ships are nuts is the high turn over rate. People who hate it will literally just walk off the ship sometimes. That leaves the company in a pickle and lots of times they wind up hiring whoever has a valid passport and can fly to Spain for 3 months the following day (err, don’t be too alarmed, the Captain and his crew don’t fall into this category – although the people watching your children do).

To get my first contract, I emailed my resume in through their website on Tuesday, was interviewed on Wednesday and got on a ship in Alaska on Friday. It was that quick. The previous stage manager had been let go and they needed someone to finish the last 2 months of her contract. I later found out from a friend in the corporate office that they were mostly just hoping I wouldn’t accidentally kill anyone trying to call the production shows. They had no intention of keeping me. Like I said above though, I worked my butt off to make sure that wasn’t what happened.

Other Awesome Perks

coliseum rome

Financially, cruise ships helped me pay off most of my college loans, pay exorbitant rent in San Francisco for the better part of one year and travel the world for free. I’ve been to 5 continents without spending a dime to get there. Our company also had this awesome system where you could defer your flight home. You would submit a paper 2 months in advance and just ask them to change your flight date. I could disembark a ship in Rome or London or Australia and stay a few days, but then the company would schedule my flight home for whatever day I picked.

I could also escort shore excursions for free; I ate so much free crab in Alaska that way. Man. I miss that crab. And I mentioned how much it cost to hang out in the bar. While on board, I would receive a weekly bar bill. On average, I spent about $30 a week and was making more than $700. I’d often spend another $50-$100 going out in port with my friends, but I was still coming out pretty far ahead.

Like I mentioned in the beginning, cruise ships aren’t for everyone, but if you’re looking for an adventure, or even a weird way to spend just a few months of your life, look into it! There are all sorts of positions on board from performers, youth staff, librarians and fitness instructors to IT technicians, carpenters, plumbers and waiters. Just Google a few lines and click through their career links.

——–
Mel blogs at brokeGIRLrich where she explores topics like how to not panic over adulthood, working in the arts, and retirement strategies that don’t involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass. She was also once a member of the circus.

Like interesting jobs like this? Check out the one we did on being a mortician :)
Or if you’re looking for more part-time stuff, our side hustle series.


{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

1 a terrible husband... March 13, 2014 at 6:02 am

Pretty awesome. Every time I go on a cruise ship I daydream about what it might be like. But in the end I’m pretty sure it’s not for me… maybe when I was in college, or right after if I hadn’t entered the workplace, but especially now with a wife and two kiddos around — unless they start allowing families to come along for the ride (without buying tickets, of course:) )!

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2 J. Money March 13, 2014 at 7:38 am

Yeah, I’m in the same boat there (pardon the pun). Much easier to do w/out a family! Or at least wee ones… But man I’d still give it a shot for like a month if I could :) Would be nice to downsize and minimize!

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3 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 10:17 am

Oddly enough, you can bring your family onboard with you – but you all have to cram into one little cabin. I have no idea how some folks do it. You’re right though, it’s much easier to pick up and go without all those attachments.

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4 a terrible husband... March 13, 2014 at 11:39 am

Good to know, Mel. I’ll have to let my wife know… hm…. do they need marriage keynotes and busy professional business/life/relationship coaches on cruise ships? We can cram if it gets us out for one month during the next Snowmageddon….

And J$ I totally agree… one month would be sweet!

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5 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Actually, they need keynote speakers on all sorts of topics, but they don’t usually get paid. It’s more of a barter for a free vacation.

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6 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:08 pm

That would still be cool!!!

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7 Clarisse @ Savvy Scot March 13, 2014 at 6:37 am

My father used to work on a cruise ship before, but that was lasted for only a year. He said working in a cruise ship was extremely fun, where you can meet different people and visit lots of countries.

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8 J. Money March 13, 2014 at 7:39 am

I bet! That would probably be my favorite part – meeting all the people :) And then, of course, all the different countries and ports.

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9 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 10:20 am

I think your dad nailed the highlights. Usually when you think you want to join a cruise ship and wander the world, you sort of stick out among the people you know, but on the cruise ship, that’s actually everyone’s story.

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10 Dave @ The New York Budget March 13, 2014 at 7:52 am

I have a friend who used to dance on a cruise ship. I think she had the same love/hate relationship with it.

Mel – I definitely want to hear the full version of your circus life someday as well!

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11 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 10:22 am

I used to be so jealous of the dancers. They definitely worked really hard to get where they were and they had to go to the gym every day to stay in shape, but they were pretty much the only people on the whole cruise who only worked 4 hours a day/3 or 4 days a week.

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12 Michelle March 13, 2014 at 8:04 am

I think this sounds like a great job! I met someone recently on an airplane who said she lived on the island of St. Thomas, but she also lived on a cruise ship because she was a singer. She made me extremely jealous of her life!

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13 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:09 pm

So neat!!

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14 Jon @ Money Smart Guides March 13, 2014 at 8:15 am

That’s funny that you now break down pay in terms of days instead of an hourly rate. I have always wanted to try a cruise ship but just can’t get over the fact that I am on a boat all the time. Plus the shows about the “rogue waves” scares the heck out me. Oh, and the stories I’ve heard of people coming back and even though they are on land, they say it feels like everything is still rocking back and forth.

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15 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 10:23 am

I’ve only actually seen one of those shows and it was the night before I was boarding a new ship. I watched like 45 minutes and then was like “what am I doing!?!?!” and turned it off.

I actually like that I break my pay down to what I make per day because when I’m spending stuff it’s sort of easier to instantly track it too.

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16 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:10 pm

I love that you think in daily terms too :)

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17 Kelly March 13, 2014 at 8:39 am

A librarian on a cruise ship traveling the world — My dream job! Hmmm….. What would I do with the husband and kids????

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18 Jacquie March 13, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Heh, I wonder if this is the librarian Kelly that I know?!

If I was to work on a cruise ship it’d definitely be a library position too :)

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19 EL @ MoneyWatch101 March 13, 2014 at 9:18 am

Never been on a cruise ship. I can only imagine the gossip on one of those cruise ships. Great story and thanks for the heads up with the drunk babysitters. I will not leave my kids until after lunch time.

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20 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 10:24 am

Oh gosh, it occurs to me that a responsible cruise ship youth staffer may read this blog and be really irritated at those comments – some of them do exist! Usually the slightly older ones or the program coordinator. ;o)

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21 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:10 pm

Yeah, you’ve officially freaked out my wife w/ that statement, haha…

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22 Amanda @ Passionately Simple Life March 13, 2014 at 9:32 am

Seems like a blast! It’s something that definitely is only for a group of people. I don’t know if I’d ever be able to live on a cruise ship for months and years on end.

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23 Brian@ Debt Discipline March 13, 2014 at 9:33 am

Great story Mel! Family and I when on a 5 day cruise a few years back. I think I still full from the amount of food I ate on the trip. We had a great time.

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24 Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life March 13, 2014 at 9:46 am

Mel already knows this, but I had a 9 month contract on a ship as a performer and had to quit after 2.5 months because of how unhappy I was and the fact that I was being harassed by both cruise ship staff and guests. I did get to see South America and Antarctica, but it was so bad that I was willing to give up the entire Mediterranean and the Middle East.

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25 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 12:12 pm

I totally meant to tell J that if he wanted the other side of the story he should talk to you about a guest post too! ;o)

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26 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:13 pm

WOWWWWW that sucks!! Good for you for a) Giving it a shot though, and b) Dipping out when you knew it was a bad environment. I don’t know if I could have done that…. Then again, I’m a guy and we rarely get harassed in the way I’m sure you’re talking about :)

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27 Becky @ RunFunDone March 13, 2014 at 10:01 am

I applied for a cruise position once, but no one ever called! When I got older, I realized how much it seemed to be a party culture, and I realized that I probably would have hated it! But, I wanted to see the world for cheap, which is what you say you got to do! That’s a pretty big perk!

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28 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm

You know, it could really be either. If you were just set on seeing the sights, you probably would’ve partied a lot less. Or just done one or two contracts and gotten out. There are a few spots I’m still kicking myself over missing because of something so stupid as a hangover.

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29 Rick March 13, 2014 at 10:11 am

I had always heard how little the staff were paid onboard cruise ships and how the mandatory tip applied to the bill would “offset” that wage. I understand but would opt out. Personally, I’ve felt that when I received great service, I would go out of my way to say 1) thank-you and 2) tip. This just confirmed those stories.

Mel, just for you… Thank-you & where do I send the check?

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30 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 12:17 pm

Hah. You know, I never once received a tip from a passenger. Sometimes some companies would rent out our ship for a week and usually their production staff would tip me and my crew though and that was always awesome.

I disagree with mandatory tipping too. I think it makes everyone lazier. I knew plenty of INCREDIBLE waiters and housekeepers who deserved excellent tips and plenty of terrible ones who didn’t deserve a penny extra. I think it was also easy for Americans and Europeans to not realize how far an extra $5 or $10 tip would go for a Filipino or an Indonesian sending their paychecks home.

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31 Sam @ Frugaling.org March 13, 2014 at 11:12 am

What a cool story!! Sounds like exactly the adventure I need right now. Haha.

Thanks for sharing it,
S.

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32 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 12:20 pm

Yeah! I always advocate for adventure. Go for it!

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33 Lauren March 13, 2014 at 11:28 am

It does sound like an awesome experience for someone right out of college. I did something similar- spent 3 summers working in a cruise ship port town in Alaska, which has it’s own crazy culture. You meet people from all over the world, plenty of characters. I’m pretty introverted too, like Mel, but that kind of environment really makes you become more open and outgoing.

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34 Angella March 13, 2014 at 12:04 pm

This is pretty cool. I’m not sure I could do it, but I would give it a shot. We’ve been on 3 cruises, and 2 of those were nightmares. Our most recent one was awesome. I’d love to travel for free and have few expenses to make saving easier. I didn’t realize they could bring their families – is there a charge for that for employees? I also wondered, after paying $89 for 4 hours of internet, if workers were able to use it for free or not.

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35 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 12:20 pm

No, the internet was incredibly frustrating. Right before I quit I made a list of all the things making me angry and that was near the top. It was like $40 for 10 hours… which was better than passenger rate, but still. Really? And it was horrible quality. You could pretty much check Facebook and write emails with it. On a good day. It was slower than the dial up my parents had in 1994. Most of the time you’d find crew using free wi-fi in port. If you’re ever on a cruise and wondering where in port you can find that, just ask. All of the crew will know.

Actually, employees can cruise with their family, but the family has to all fit in the one cabin. The highest officers have pretty large cabins that make that more feasible. Also, if your children are under 18, one adult must be onboard with them and not working.

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36 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:15 pm

Woahhh really???? Okay, I guess I have to 100% strike this down then…. would be hard to still blog on the side w/ crap internet :(

Pretty neat about the family living situation though!

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37 Holly@ClubThrifty March 13, 2014 at 12:19 pm

That sounds like an awesome job for someone right out of college. I don’t think I could live on a boat, though. Ugh, that sounds awful. I’m actually surprised that they let the crew drink at all, although I guess it would be really hard to stop people.

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38 Mel @ brokeGIRLrich March 13, 2014 at 12:22 pm

There have been movements towards going dry… but I honestly think there would be riots. I’m pretty sure alcohol is the only thing keeping the crew sane. The line I used to work for banned hard liquor for the crew about a year after I quit, which seemed ridiculous to me. Drunk is drunk. The only thing that it really achieved was a large loss in revenue in the crew bar.

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39 Grayson @ Debt Roundup March 13, 2014 at 3:10 pm

I enjoyed my time cruising in Alaska, but not sure if I would want to work on a ship. I do think some of the perks are pretty awesome, like being able to travel the world without paying much and the deferment of your flight home.

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40 Bridget March 13, 2014 at 3:22 pm

ummm this sounds amazing!

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41 Mr. Minsc March 15, 2014 at 8:54 am

“There are all sorts of positions on board from performers, youth staff, librarians and fitness instructors to IT technicians, carpenters, >>>>plumbers<<<< and waiters."

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, I happen to hold a Red Seal in plumbing up here in charming Canada. Crazy ideas are creeping in to my head.

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42 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:15 pm

GO FOR IT!! :)

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43 J Walton March 17, 2014 at 5:36 pm

I’ve met some of the nicest cruise employees onboard…maybe they have to be but don’t kill my vibe. There was the husband & wife servers, who were from Antigua and after that contract, were transferring to a ship that was in New York. There was also the bartender from the Philippines, who was a HUGE Twilight fan because of his teen daughter. I learned how they celebrate Christmas in the Philippines and how he couldn’t wait to be with his wife.

I’m glad brokeGIRLrich shared her experiences.

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44 J. Money March 18, 2014 at 4:16 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed the article :)

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45 Christine @ ThePursuitofGreen March 19, 2014 at 12:40 am

Crazy job! It sounds like it worked out for you. I think I’d rather stay on the other side:P

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46 Al December 10, 2014 at 8:06 pm

How was work condition for Information Technology guys?

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