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The Truth About Working Onboard

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Social media is a constant highlight reel and it’s hard to tell these days what’s true and what’s a filtered reality. The truth is it’s often a little bit of both.

I’ve been working onboard cruise ships in entertainment for over 5 years. It’s been some of the most rewarding but also some of the most difficult times of my life. Every single contract I question whether it’s worth going back for one more. Looking back though, I’ve never regretted a contract.

Cruise Staff Entertainment MSC Cruises
My last party onboard MSC Seascape :)

If you’re considering getting a job onboard please don’t stop reading just yet. If you’re even interested in giving up your stable life for this nomadic wild adventure it already shows you probably have what it takes to make it on the ships. Before you start packing up your suitcases let me at least let you in on what to expect on this next leg of your journey- All the goods and the not-so-goods that are about to come your way.

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1. The Travel

Good news first? Travel duh. I know you’re thinking that’s why I’m signing up for this. You’re going to get to see so many cool places that might not even have been on your bucket list, to begin with. In my 5 contracts, I got to see the Caribbean multiple times, the Mediterranean, Northern Europe, Cuba…I was supposed to go to Asia but that was during covid era so I digress. So yes- You will have time to play and explore and see new things almost every single day.

That is when you’re not working at least. This is not a Monday through Friday type of job after all. Here’s the flip side- In general, speaking largely of most jobs onboard, you will not have a lot of time.

Time is dependent on many variables- management onboard, the ship's itinerary, the day’s weather…but at the end of the day, even if you have more free time than any other crew member onboard, you can never fully relax. There will always be an all-onboard time. There is always another alarm to set. There’s always a time limit even on the days where you have a little bit more time. This also means you can only explore so far into the countries you’re visiting.

Take that as you may. If you’re anything like me, my wanderlust will take 20 minutes before not leaving the ship at all BUT you will be tired from always rushing. It is an extremely fast-paced life. If you’re looking to work onboard to snooze your afternoons away on the islands this may not be the job for you. You will get your island time for sure, but it will be on a schedule.

2. The Food

The Food is…well…food. Now this isn’t a deal breaker in my books. Food is there for survival and again we’re not on vacation-we’re the ones working. There will be crew messes available to the majority of crew and it changes ship by ship how bad the food is. Sometimes if your rank is a little higher you have better options-sometimes not. On my last ship, it wasn’t the worst. It’s just very simple and very, very repetitive. There are so many nationalities to please so I understand why this is. Lots of pasta, rice, curry, and then typically some basic lunch meats, bread, and salads were common aboard the ships I worked.

I’ve noticed a lot of crew members buy seasonings and sauces outside to flavor the food to their liking. I ALWAYS have a mini sriracha keychain on me! (Yes you read that right it never leaves my side haha) A lot of us buy lots of snacks outside, especially noodles. That way when the food is below our liking we have backup meals. Only a very select few onboard the ships I worked on had a mini fridge in their cabins so dry food and seasoning is the way to go.

Yes, you can always eat outside, but if you’re trying to save money, restaurants in highly populated tourist areas are typically not the best way to go.

3. The People
Cruise Staff Team MSC Seascape
Getting ready to wish the ship a Happy Sea Morning!

Absolutely incredible. I cannot say a bad word about 90 percent of the people I’ve met onboard. You learn the more you travel that cultural differences are just that. Differences. Not problems, not anything to lose sleep over, and not anything to take personally.

Everyone onboard is there for the same reasons more or less. Some to save money, some to travel, and most a little bit of both. Being around so many like-minded people from all over the world is inspirational, to say the least. It’s incredible how onboard ships so many cultures, languages, and different people work together so peacefully. (A majority of the time that is haha) The people are the reason I come back contract after contract. Every time I’ve left a ship I’ve left phenomenal people behind. Friendships that I sometimes feel unworthy of and plenty I still maintain to this day.

4. The Contract

When you work onboard you work by contract, not by salary. This means that you sign up for a certain monthly payment for the course of your time agreed upon. For most of my contracts, I worked 8 months plus or minus 1. That means I could be done as early as 7 months but if they needed me longer they could legally work me up to 9 months without breaking the contract. I know a two-month difference doesn’t sound like much but once you’ve already been onboard and away from home for so long it does make a big impact. I’ve never understood why the contracts couldn’t be a little shorter. I’m sure it has something to do with transporting the crew and the trouble of flights and work visas. However, I would still advocate that even 4-5 month contracts would be much better for mental health, and overall crew wellness onboard.

My contract also states that I cannot work more than 11 hours a day but that is 7 days a week. So when we say we’re tired. We are TIRED.

This also means once your contract is over, the company doesn’t owe you anything- and vice versa. If your end-of-contract reviews are good then most of the time it’s easy to get back on board. I’ve heard some companies let you know your re-embark date before you leave but I’ve never known mine which can be a little stressful trying to plan vacations. That also means the benefits that you have onboard don’t extend to land time. (health care for example) No 401k, no insurance, and no retirement…but if you’re American like me you still need to consider saving for taxes cause the government will still come after that!

5. The Stability

This one is a toss-up. Part of the fun of traveling via cruise is the complete freedom in isolation at times. A lot of times you won’t have wifi or you won’t choose to pay for it. You’ll be very distanced from your friends and family back home no matter how often you try to call. It’s just different.

For me, that was a blessing in disguise. I got the chance to figure out who I was outside of my social groups because I had to stand on my own. I got to find out what I loved to do when I couldn’t scroll mindlessly anymore.

With every new contract, your life drastically changes again. New ship. New countries. New friends. New experiences; Which all are incredibly exciting and fun while simultaneously draining and very heavy. Just because you’re onboard doesn’t mean the rest of the world stops moving. You’ll see your friends grow up around you and choose different paths. They were going to do it anyway, but it still feels isolating when you’re not there. Always being in a new place around new people is fun don’t get me wrong. But sometimes I just want familiarity and maybe a cat. I miss my cat.

I’ve always envied the people that fall in love onboard. They have their home in that person. But if I’m being super honest, lots of them find their difficulties as well and end up heading back towards land the more serious the relationship grows. Sure, you can grow up in the company but unless you eventually head shoreside it just doesn’t seem like a forever job for most people. And that’s okay as long as you know that going into it.

6. The Salary

I left this one for last because I would like to preface that I never started this job for the salary, but the older and older I get the more this one has had to become a bigger consideration. Salary onboard is dependent on a lot of factors. In my first contract, I was able to save a lot of money. I had no expenses back home and no expenses onboard outside of my coffee and beer tabs. (Which mind you are dirt cheap compared to what I would pay at home.) By my last contract, I had quite a few bills back home to worry about. I was paying a quite expensive international phone plan, a car payment, and a couple of medical bills…moral of the story I wasn’t making enough to cover my cost of living back home.

Nationality plays into this as well. Most of us get paid in US dollars and some of us in Euros so if our currency back home has a lower value we can be making way more onboard than on land. Unfortunately for me, that was not my case. I’m more than happy to make less money for a job I’m truly passionate about…money isn’t everything but it is still important to factor into the decision.


What about you? Would you still be interested in working onboard a cruise ship? Or do the cons outweigh the pros for you? Let me know below and make sure to comment on any other things you’re most curious about knowing about life onboard because I want to share it all!

If you’ve worked on board before do you agree?! Or did I miss something big?! I’m so excited to hear all your thoughts. If you enjoyed this read or just love all things travel, make sure to subscribe below! Until the next adventure (contract?)

Sending love from the ship <3

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