Ever thought about working on a cruise ship? Check out this list of things to know before you go!
Welcome to part 4 of 4 of my Cruise Ship Life mini-series! If you missed part 1, click here to read all about what to expect on your first day onboard, what living in a cabin with a roommate is like, tipping and laundry strategies and more! If you missed part 2, click here for advice on what to pack for six months away from home. If you missed part 3, click here to read about all the fun you can have both off and onboard as a cruise ship employee.
When I first got hired to work on a cruise ship, I scoured the internet for resources, looking for advice on what to pack and what life would really be like onboard and just any information about working on a cruise ship, only to be met with a bunch of vague blog posts and unhelpful YouTube videos. I was pretty disappointed. That’s why I wanted to create my own series to share as much information as possible for anyone else who was in my shoes and simply just didn’t know what to expect when working on a cruise ship. For the last part of this mini series, I want to share some general and helpful information to know to prepare you for life onboard.
STAFF VS CREW
There are many tiers to the different rankings onboard, especially within each department, but the main distinction you should know about when you first start working onboard is staff vs crew.
Crew members are those that work as cabin stewards, bartenders, servers, etc. They usually stay in lower level cabins without a bathroom. They have community bathrooms that are shared with people of the same gender. They also have less privileges than staff members and can’t go into guest areas when off duty unless given special permission. Crew members have a separate area for meals called the crew mess.
Staff members are those that work in entertainment, youth staff, casino, guest services, gift shop, photo, spa, etc. Cabin locations vary from ship to ship, but they do have their own bathrooms with showers them. They are allowed to go into guest areas, but must be dressed appropriately. They can usually eat in the same areas as the guests, but sometimes the times and/or meals they can eat are limited. Staff members can have meals in either the staff mess or the crew mess.
There are also officers onboard that have a separate officers mess, and they have more privileges as well. As far as I’m aware, they have their own cabins, and they have to be dressed in their full uniform when in guest areas.
YOU’LL HAVE TO TAKE A PCS TEST
To this day, I couldn’t tell you what PCS stands for, but basically, everyone has to take this test within a certain time of being onboard (usually within your first two cruises), and you’ll have to do it every time you start work on a new ship. The information is important, and it’s a lot at first, but once you learn it the first time, it’s hard to forget.
Honestly, the test isn’t that hard, but the information is important. They’ll give you a pamphlet at the Vessel Familiarization Training with all the information you need to know, and this is for all personnel working on the ship. It includes the announcements and signals for different types of emergencies, types of fire and fire extinguishers and when to use them, the locations of the muster stations*, the different types of doors and how to operate them, etc. They’ll go over the information with you before the test, and the written portion is multiple choice and relatively simple.
(*Side note: A muster station is where guests and crew “muster” or gather in the case of an emergency. More information about emergencies is below in the “Safety Briefings and Drills” section.)
When you’re done with the written test, you’ll be verbally quizzed by an officer, and I’ve known some people who have failed during this portion, so it’s important to know the information that they give you. They may quiz you on information in the pamphlet, information on your station bill card or information about the life boats and life rafts.
It’s nothing to freak out over, but the first time you take it, make sure you know the information, and then after that, it’ll be part of your life onboard, and you’ll know it forwards and backwards. The things you learn for your PCS test will come up more often than you think.
YOU’LL HAVE TO PARTICIPATE IN SAFETY BRIEFINGS AND DRILLS
This is where some of the information from your PCS test will come into play. Safety onboard is super important because in the case of an emergency, it will be the responsibility of the cruise ship employees to get all guests and crew to safety. While you’re participating, it might seem monotonous, but being prepared is actually really important in case something does happen and you need to abandon ship.
You will have safety briefings at the beginning of every single cruise. Every guest is required to attend the safety briefings, and they will have to go to their assigned muster station, which can be found on their Sail & Sign cards (if on a Carnival cruise). Muster stations are assigned according to cabin numbers.
Staff and crew members all have assigned duties for safety briefings. This information will be on your Station Bill Card, which is given to you during your first cruise to show you your safety duties. You may be assigned to stand in a designated public area to help direct guests to their correct muster stations. You could be given a tablet to scan Sail & Sign cards when people get to their muster stations. You could be one of the people that guides guests to their correct muster station. If you’re working for Camp Carnival or Camp Ocean, you’ll be given a specific muster station, and you’ll have to put a green wristband on every child that is 12-years-old and younger. Your safety duties will be written clearly on your Station Bill Card, and if you have any questions about it, you can ask anyone in the safety office or your direct supervisor.
At the safety briefing, you’ll have to check-in with one of the people in charge of your muster station before you start performing your duties. The cruise director and ship captain will explain important information to the guests, certain people who are assigned to demonstrate how to put on a life jacket will do so and then people will direct and guide guests to their muster stations, so they’ll know where their final destination will be in the case of an abandon ship order.
Safety drills are conducted during scheduled port days, and they do not involve guests. This is for cruise ship employees only, but only certain groups are required to participate during certain drills. On Carnival, we had four different types of drills, and Camp had to participate in three of them. Drills usually take about an hour.
For safety drills, you have to make sure you’re wearing your life jacket and any safety gear needed to perform your specific duties. In Camp, we had blue hats we had to wear to show that we were part of the Youth Staff, and any children that weren’t reunited with their parents or guardians in an emergency would be kept with us.
During the drills, you will follow exactly what your Station Bill Card says to do in the state of an emergency. The cruise director and ship captain will give orders over the loud speaker and alarms will sound as if the ship were experiencing an actual emergency. You’ll have to know what each of the alarms mean because you’ll need to know when you need to go to your next station.
The reason there are different drills is because they all serve a different purpose. We had for different drills. For Drill A, it would be a learning session. The person in charge will teach and review things that you would know about emergency procedures. This can include where the nearest phone is, where the nearest fire hydrants are what are they used for, what do the different emergency alarms mean, what to do with a child who can’t find their parents, etc. Drill B was for special scenarios, such as medical emergencies. Camp didn’t participate in this drill, so I don’t know much about it. Drill C was for testing. An officer would pick certain people to answer questions. They would write down your ID number, ask you questions and score you. It was usually about 4-5 people, and you were asked three questions. Drill D was a full run-through of all of the drills to make sure everyone knows exactly what to do in emergency situations.
Side notes: Don’t use the elevators, and make sure you have your Station Bill Card with you. Also, your emergency duties can change at any time. This is because people are constantly signing on and off of the ship, and they have to make sure all of their bases are covered.
YOU WILL BE ASSIGNED TO PORT MAN
When the ship is in port, a certain amount of people have to stay onboard just in case there is an emergency. They have to make sure that there are enough people to do what needs to be done to keep the guests and crew safe. If you’re port manning, that means you’re one of the people assigned to stay onboard for that cruise. You’ll be required to give your ID to your boss, and they will place it in the port manning box which will show what your specific duty will be in if anything happens when the ship is in port.
Port manning duties will rotate, so you won’t have to stay onboard all the time. In Camp, we always had to make sure there were at least three of us onboard to perform the duties concerning the youth.
DON’T GET TOO FRIENDLY WITH GUESTS
This is grounds for getting fired, and trust me when I say it’s not uncommon. This doesn’t just me hooking up with a guest. You aren’t permitted to get too friendly with guests in any way, shape or form. You’re especially never allowed to go into guest cabins. They’re very clear about that during training.
When I got home, people often asked me about this, and I told them that I was lucky in that I worked with kids, so the majority of the adults I met onboard were parents. The temptation wasn’t there for me. I know some people that didn’t fare so well though, and someone I worked with on the Elation actually got fired for being too friendly with the guests, so just be wary.
BE FIRM WHEN IT COMES TO UNWANTED ATTENTION
I’m admittedly awkward when people hit on me, and I’ve been working on saying a firm “no” when guys come up to me with their cheesy pick-up lines or touch me inappropriately. On the ship, especially if you’re new, guys can be like vultures. If you’re not interested, you have to make sure you’re firm and blunt because there are cultural differences. The boundaries are different, so what may seem innocent to them may not be so for you. Make it blatantly obvious that you’re not interested if that’s the case.
One thing that was repeatedly said to me throughout my contracts was to watch out for the Italians. I’m not going to give this advice because it’s so stereotypical. Instead, I’m going to say you should do your research with any guy you may be interested in because you never know if someone may have a wife, girlfriend or family at home.
THERE IS A MORGUE AND A JAIL ONBOARD
These are things I never really thought about until someone brought it up to me while I was living onboard. A sad fact about cruise ships is that people die on them more often than you’d think. It’s not just people jumping off (this only happened once during the year I spent working on ships); people suffer from heart attacks or other medical conditions. Some older cruises simply pass away from old age. There has to be a place for these people to go when they pass away, so each ship has a morgue onboard for bodies to be kept in until the ship gets back to the home port.
There also has to be a place for people who commit crimes onboard, such as trying to sneak illegal substances back to the United States. There is a full security team, and any time someone needs to be kept in the ship jail, they will rotate times to watch the prisoner until the ship reaches the home port. There are also times when it’s used for a temporary holding cell for guests who have gotten too out of hand (usually violently so). Both the morgue and the jail are in crew areas, and their locations are usually kept pretty hush hush because they don’t want anyone lurking.
YOU CAN GET MAIL ONBOARD
My advice would be to ask the person who hired you for the mailing address. Whoever is sending you mail will need to include your full name, employee ID number and your department along in addition to the full mailing address. Keep in mind that mail will usually take about 3-4 weeks to get to you, depending on where your home port is. For Carnival, all mail was sent to a central location in Florida before it was distributed to go out to the different ships. The further you were from the home port, the longer it took for you to get mail. Also, mail is usually only distributed every other home port day.
To send mail, you have to find a post office in one of the ports. When I was on the Elation, I thought it would be easy to find a post office close enough for me to send mail, but this wasn’t the case. I actually ended up sending mail in Nassau in the Bahamas because I could walk to the post office from the ship. Other ports that had easy access to post offices were St. Thomas and Key West. You may have to do some research to figure out where you can send mail. If you plan on sending packages home, these will need to be cleared by customs before you can take them off the ship.
What else do you want to know about cruise ship life?