Ship life is a life unlike any other, and I’m not sure there’s truly anything you can do to mentally prepare yourself for it. I went into it with little to no expectations because I didn’t know anyone personally who had ever done it. I got connected with two friends of friends, and I found a blog friend who had worked on a ship before, but even the information they gave me did little to prep me for what life would be like living and working on a cruise ship.
Each department has its own quirks. I worked in Camp Carnival on two ships. If you’ve been following my blog over the past year, you’ll know that each ship was vastly different, but there were some things that were consistent on both of them.
Side note: Take note that I’m speaking from the perspective of an American female, so people from other countries and males may have or have had vastly different experiences than me.
This is part 1 of 4 in my Cruise Ship Life mini-series! Be sure to check back next Friday for part 2!
I’m not sure there’s anything I can say to truly prepare you for life onboard. Living on a cruise ship is like living in small town. Yes, there are thousands of people who come and go like tourists, but the 1,000 or so of you who live and work on the ship become like family. You would think that 1,000 sounds like a lot of people, and it’s impossible to get to know a lot of them, but you’ll be surprised by how easy it is to make new friends, whether you’re running into them at crew bar, sharing the elevator on the way to work or sharing the same area at your muster station.
Your first day onboard will be hectic and overwhelming AF. First, you’ll have to give security your passport then they’ll have to confirm that you’re actually supposed to be signing on. They’ll give you a sheet of paper with a couple questions to answer, and then you’ll have to send your luggage through security.
You’ll be hustled into a room where you’ll get your room key then your boss or someone from your department will come get you to walk you to your room. You’ll set your stuff down, grab your life jacket then go to the Vessel Familiarization training.
I worked in Camp Carnival on the Elation and Sunshine, so my next step was going to camp and briefly meeting the team before getting assigned to follow someone to a muster station to help put bracelets on all children ages 12 and under. There will be more on drills and safety briefings later in the series.
After the safety briefing, we went back to the playroom to help get the Animators dressed for the Sail Away Party where guests can dance with the entertainment and camp staff, including Dr. Seuss characters. Sail Away was actually one of my favorite parts of every cruise. I love dancing, and it was so fun to do all of the line dances with the cruisers who were all so excited to be there. Everyone told me that that excitement would fade, but I loved it through my whole contract.
After Sail Away, we all went to dinner then I did a bunch of training with my Youth Director.
IT’S OKAY IF YOU’RE A LITTLE CONFUSED AT FIRST
Ships can be very confusing, so getting around will probably be overwhelming at first. It definitely was for me even though the Elation is the smallest ship in the fleet. When you first get onboard, you have to attend the Vessel Familiarization Training. They’re going to go through this information really fast. I didn’t absorb anything until I actually walked around with my boss everywhere. Even then I still got lost for the first month. It took me a few weeks to get the hang of things.
My suggestion would be to walk around and let yourself get lost. The most difficult part for me was learning the crew areas. For the guest areas, they have maps that they hand out to all of the guests, so my advice is to get your hands on one of these (they should give you one at your training), and try to learn these areas. There are also maps posted by every guest elevator to show you where you are on the vessel. When you’re in guest areas, you’ll have a nametag on, whether you’re on duty or not, and guests will ask you to get to certain areas of the ship. Learning the guest areas is crucial. Since there isn’t a map for the crew areas, the best thing you can do is have someone show you around or just wander around by yourself, get “lost” and learn the ship.
Make sure you know the main places you’ll be going, such as your cabin, your work area, your muster stations, the medical center, crew/staff mess, crew bar, crew laundry, etc. Prioritize knowing these important places and how to get to and from them from certain areas on the ship. I have zero sense of direction, so the day before my trainings, I would make sure I knew how to get to the conference room or crew bar from where I would be beforehand. Before my first drill, I followed my station bill card that shows my emergency duties to make sure I knew how to get from place to place and wouldn’t get lost. I’ll talk a little bit more about emergency procedures later in the series.
CABINS ARE EVEN SMALLER THAN YOU THINK
Crew and staff cabins onboard are teeny teeny tiny. If you’ve ever been on a cruise before, you know how small the guest cabins are. Imagine having a cabin about half that size. That’s how big the cabins are for people who work onboard.
Living alone is a rarity. The higher ranking people onboard have their own cabins, and then if the numbers are odd, others may have their own cabin, but it’s often only for a cruise or two. I was lucky enough to have a cabin to myself for two cruises when I lived on the Carnival Elation, and it was glorious having my own space, albeit a small space.
That said, since the cabins are so small, you have to get along with your roommate. If you don’t, talk to someone about getting a cabin change because living in that close of quarters for an extended period of time with someone you don’t like will be miserable for both of you. I was lucky in that I had six different roommates while I was working on ships, and I only didn’t get along with one of them. It was the longest two cruises of my life.
When you’re getting to know your cabinmate, make sure you set some boundaries. Be clear about the things that bother you. Let them know if you’re a morning or evening person. When do you prefer to shower? Be clear about whose storage spaces are whose.
If you luck out and happen to be in the same cabin as someone in your same department, check your cabinmate’s schedule and see when you’ll get some alone time in the cabin. I usually took that time to shower, listen to music louder than normal, do any kind of craft project that took up a lot of floor space, watch a movie without headphones, take a nap or have people over for a visit.
If you don’t share a room with someone in your department, be sure to have some kind of verbal communication about your schedules. This is especially helpful when you’re on different shifts. You don’t want to come stumbling in loudly in the middle of the day if your cabinmate was up all night working the night shift. If you can, post your schedules in a visible area in the cabin so you can both be aware of them.
The one thing you should be explicitly communicative about is having other people in the cabins. People onboard can be a bit savage if they’re not in loyal relationships and sometimes even when they are *eye roll*), so make sure you’re clear about whether you’re okay with your roommate bringing someone home or not. Trust me, you’ll want to get that conversation out of the way sooner rather than later.
SHIP TIME IS A THING
One great thing about living on the ship is that you get to know people in an expedited time frame. You’re literally living with a few hundred people in a floating city. You work with, live with and see these people every single day. I always called my time on the ship “ship time” because a month can honestly feel like a year. You may meet someone and hang out with them every day for two cruises, and it feels like you’ve known them for months on end. Strangers became friends quicker than they would have off of the ship.
The same goes with dating on the ship as well. On land, when you meet someone, you go on a date on a Saturday then maybe talk on the phone or text throughout the week, but then you may not seem them again until the weekend. On the ship, you literally see them every day, so what feels like a months can easily only be a few cruises. Ship time moves fast.
I honestly think this is a wonderful thing about ship life because you’re away from your family and friends and everything that’s been familiar to you for an extended period of time. It’s important to meet people on the ship that you connect with, otherwise, it’ll be a very lonely six months.
YOUR FRIENDS ARE JUST A SKIP, HOP AND A JUMP DOWN THE HALL
One thing I loved about college was having my friends live just a few feet down the hall from me. It’s the same case with living onboard. On the Elation, I was lucky that there was an unofficial camp hallway, so the majority of the people I worked with who weren’t married or linked* lived right in the same hall as me. On the Sunshine, camp staff was a little more spread out, but no one was ever too far away. You’ll quickly learn where your friends live and how to get to and from their cabins.
(*Side note: When you “link” crew ID’s with someone, it means that the company will try their best to move you from ship to ship together for your contracts. Linking ID’s doesn’t just have to be for romantic reasons. You can also link ID’s with your friends. People with linked ID’s get to live together. Also note that just because your ID’s are linked, it doesn’t mean you’ll get the same sign-on and sign-off date. I’ve known of married couples who signed on and/or off several weeks apart from each other.)
Cabin numbers can be a bit confusing at first depending on what ship you’re on. In America, we’re used to hotel room numbers having the floor be identified by the first number. That’s not the case on the ship when it comes to staff and crew cabins. I still got lost after seven months of living on the Elation, but you’ll learn to find the cabins you need to. It’s really convenient to be able to knock on your friends’ doors or give them a quick call when you need to borrow something.
If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant or a bar, when you went to eat or drink there, you always tipped your co-workers well. It’s pretty much the same concept on the ship. Even if the people who are serving you aren’t your close friends, you’re still working and living together on the ship, and you want to treat each other well. You know how hard it is to work every single day for several months at a time, and tipping people onboard is just one way to show your appreciation.
If you eat in any of the restaurants onboard, tip just as you would on land. There are some restaurants that don’t cost extra for the guests, and if you eat at those restaurants, I suggest being extra generous because you also get to eat there for free. If you’re eating at onboard restaurants that cost extra money, they usually include a gratuity, but you’re definitely welcome to tip more if they’re a friend or they go above and beyond. The same goes for ordering drinks at any of the bars. Always tip your bartenders.
If you live in a staff cabin, you’ll have a cabin steward who comes to your room everyday (with the exception of embarkation day) to make your bed, take out the trash, clean the bathroom, sweep, vacuum, replace your towels, etc. They even send your work clothes out to laundry if you request it. Cabin stewards have a tough job, and you show your appreciation for what they do by tipping them. The minimum is $1 per day, but if they do a really good job, of course feel free to tip more. I always did. I also liked to give my cabin steward gifts for certain holidays or if I found something fun while I was off of the ship. A little bit goes a long way with everyone on the ship.
Please respect your room steward. They have a tough job. I always learned the names of my room stewards and said “hello” when I saw them around the ship. The nicer you are to them, the better job they will do. I once asked my room steward for a duvet, and he quickly delivered. Your kindness is your currency, and it will be rewarded in the long run.
FIGURE OUT YOUR LAUNDRY STRATEGY
Laundry onboard is completely free, so no need for a roll of quarters or anything like that. You can even get laundry detergent and dryer sheets from the laundry facility that cleans all of the linens, towels, etc., but many people opt to bring their own. My suggestion is to get Tide Pods. They’re just so convenient and much easier than hauling a gallon of detergent back and forth.
There will be some trial and error, but you have to figure out when the best time to do laundry is. Usually embarkation day is a great day because most of the staff is working, so if you’re lucky enough to have the morning or afternoon off or early evening, embark is usually your best bet.
Port days are also a pretty good time to do them because many people get off the ship. On the Elation, if I was port manning* in Half Moon Cay, I always tried to do my laundry because hardly anyone was on the ship. Many people had to get off the ship to work, and then of course everyone onboard was working, so the laundry room was usually pretty vacant. (*Side note: At any given time, a certain amount of people have to remain on the ship in the case of an emergency. If you’re port manning, you have to give your ship ID to your boss, and your card will be put in the port manning slot according to whatever duty you’d have if an emergency took place onboard while the ship was in port.)
If there’s a drill, my suggestion would be to put your laundry in before the drill, and then after the drill you can switch it over to the dryer. If you can’t put your laundry in beforehand, you can usually still get a washing machine if you go right when the drill ends.
Again, it’s a lot of trial and error. You can usually ask around and see when the best times to do laundry are. Laundry rooms will be too small no matter how big of a ship you’re on. You just have to figure out what works for you and your rotating schedule.
Pro tip: Dry your clothes with the “permanent press” setting. The whites/colors setting doesn’t always dry your clothes thoroughly. The first time I did laundry, I had to do two 45-minute cycles. If you use permanent press, the dryer gets a lot hotter, and your clothes are bound to be dry after 45 minutes.
There’s so much about cruise ship life that I’m excited to share because there weren’t very many resources when I was looking up advice and tips about living and working on a ship. Be sure to check back next Friday for part 2 of 4 of my Cruise Ship Life mini-series!
What questions do you have about working on a cruise ship?