To most people, “cruise ship” implies a colossal white ocean liner loaded with all the pleasures of paradise and none of the punishment. This is an image that most public relations firms and travel and advertising agencies promote because it sells. Consequently, most job hunters are also sold on this image and only send applications to cruise lines they’ve heard about. However “Love Boat” types of cruise vessels (150 or more crew; 500 or more passengers) are only part of the cruise ship industry story. Those interested in working aboard a ship should consider all the options, from the biggest ocean liners to luxury river boats to specialty sailboats and yachts.
Large ships traveling the world over definitely have their appeal. In every port, spectators line up dockside to marvel at these giant ships. Staff making their way down the gangway are often interrogated by the curious crowds: “It must be a fabulous place to work! You’re so lucky. I’d give everything to work there.” Indeed, it’s impressive to be the recipient of such awe.
Big ships also have the distinction of being out to sea for longer periods of time, circumnavigating the globe. They take passengers to places most others can only dream about, and do it in high style. Large cruise lines often reposition their ships according to seasons or to entice different clientele. For example, several cruise lines send ships up to Alaska in the summer, then reposition them to the Caribbean in the winter months. How does a ship get from the pristine, glacier-clad waters of Alaska to the tropical, sun-drenched waters of the Caribbean? Most schedule a longer cruise trip through the Panama Canal and along the South America coastline to the Mexican Riviera, with stops that include ports in Costa Rica, Belize, Cozumel and Cancun. Heading east from the Panama Canal, a cruise ship might make stops in Aruba, Trinidad, or Barbados. Other ships leave Alaska and cruise to the Hawaiian Islands and then to Asia before swinging back around to the Caribbean. If working aboard a ship with marvelous amenities and fantastic ports of call is appealing to you, world cruise lines are worth investigating. However, keep in mind that working on a cruise ship for extended periods of time can result in a massive case of cabin fever, for which going ashore is the only cure. Time off will depend on your position and duties. Bigger ships have crews large enough to allow for a decent shore leave rotation so members can “escape” from passengers for a few hours.
Another characteristic of large cruise lines is that job duties aboard big ships are more specific. Actually, the situation is quite similar to the assembly-line system invented by Henry Ford. If one person builds an entire car, he or she will perform several tasks in the process. However, when 100 people are working on a series of cars, each person concentrates on a specific task, and, consequently, specialization for that skill occurs. Not only is this system more efficient, its simplicity allows each worker to perform the task at hand with fewer mistakes. A quality product is practically guaranteed each time. When a bar steward, for example, is assigned to a bar, he or she serves drinks in that bar only. That employee is expected to do nothing but serve drinks every night. Again, this ensures that the drinks are well-made and that customer service is excellent. There is potential to earn a lot of money in this situation (the benefits of serving 1,500 tipping passengers, for example), but it’s also hard and often monotonous work.
More and more people are considering river and barge cruises as an alternative to oceangoing trips, or extending their cruise experiences to include these unique waterway vessels. Even if you are committed to working for the biggest and the best megaliners, take the time to read what we have to say about smaller cruise lines. It will only broaden your employment opportunities. Passengers find this form of cruising to have a more informal, intimate atmosphere, especially since some of the smaller river barges limit their cruises to a dozen passengers or so. This arm of the cruise industry has seen tremendous growth in the last decade. And who could argue with itineraries that include pampered rides along some of the world’s greatest rivers? Some of these destinations include the Nile, Amazon, Volga, Yangtze, Mississippi, Columbia, Danube, and Rhine rivers.
The longest waterway in Europe is the newly opened Rhine-Main-Danube, which connects fourteen countries from Rotterdam on the North Sea to Sulina and Izmail on the Black Sea, offering passengers and crew incredible, ever-changing scenery most oceangoing cruises would be hard-pressed to match.
One of the grandest traditions in riverboating just might be the huge wooden paddlewheelers plying the rivers of the United States. These thoroughly modern boats, which carry up to 450 passengers, evoke an era of Victorian style and opulence that was the turn-of-the-century standard for all well-heeled passengers. Their classic wedding-cake composition, tall smokestacks, and luxurious amenities are reminiscent of the boats piloted by Mark Twain, causing him to remark, “The steamboats were finer than anything on shore. Compared with superior dwelling houses and first-class hotels in the valley, they were indubitably magnificent, they were palaces.” Steeped in heritage, history, and adventure, paddlewheelers traverse rivers such as the Columbia, Mississippi, and Ohio with all the dining and entertainment options found on oceangoing cruises. Yet the experience is quite different from sailing on the open seas, where hurricanes and general bad weather can wreak havoc. Moreover, riverboat companies cruising U.S. waterways typically hire Americans for all shipboard positions. One employee who served as a customer service representative for a river cruise company described his work:
“Our cruise ship ran up the Columbia River from Portland, Oregon, through the Gorge all the way to the Snake River in Idaho. We did a little bit of everything on our boat. We served meals, cleaned the deck, cleaned guest rooms, and served drinks. It was a lot like working on a floating hotel, only on a much smaller scale with a really natural atmosphere. It was great being so close to our surroundings, and I think the guests and employees were a lot more laid back and interesting than the people on glittery cruise ships.”
In contrast to large U.S. riverboats, European river vessels have long and low profiles with masts that fold down in order to clear the many bridges found along the way. Barges, which cruise primarily through European canals from April through November, are even smaller than their river counterparts. They serve mainly as first-class water hotels. Passengers go ashore on their own during the day, returning at night for a gourmet dinner. Despite their sometimes ungainly appearances, barges are highly sophisticated and beautifully outfitted with custom-built furniture, rich fabrics, and crystal service ware. Because of their popularity with North American passengers, European river and barge cruise companies have been known to employ English-speaking crews to handle a variety of duties. However, applicants should already be living in Europe to be seriously considered for employment with such a company. Most will not pay for an employee’s transportation from the United States to Europe. Applicants who can speak German or French, in addition to English, will have a definite advantage as well.
Working aboard sailboats and yachts offers a different environment from large ocean liners and even riverboats. Yachts and sailing ships generally have smaller crews, so each member is expected to perform a greater variety of tasks. If it is an open-water sailboat, the entire crew will likely need to know how to sail and be expected to work the riggings and lines. On such a boat, a deckhand might also serve breakfast, clean cabins, and lead tours ashore. Many people prefer this variety to the same daily routine of the larger ocean and river vessels.
Working aboard a large oceangoing vessel is much like working in a luxury hotel.
On the plus side, they offer more space, facilities, and stability in rainy or cold weather situations. Aboard a small vessel, your relationship to the water will be more intimate, and bad weather will have a much more profound effect on both the crew and passengers. Many of the smaller lines are registered in the United States and hire American crews, even for their entry-level positions and housekeeping staff. Moving up the ladder on smaller ships is also a lot easier than with the big cruise lines. For example, to become a purser with a major cruise line might take five to ten years of prior ship experience. However, small vessels have been known to hire college graduates with hotel and restaurant or accounting backgrounds and make them pursers immediately. Some smaller excursion companies also hire their cruise directors straight from their hospitality staff, or from tour staffs in their land tour and shore excursion divisions. So even if your ultimate goal is to be a cruise director with a major line, small ships might be the best route to gaining the experience you need. Because of their ability to travel to remote, secluded areas, many smaller ships have found an appropriate niche for the environmentally aware ’90s market: “eco-touring.” Eco-tour itineraries typically involve some kind of nature and ecology-oriented cruises to primitive wilderness areas. Tours of the Northwest Passage along the British Columbia coast, Alaska, and numerous areas in the South Pacific and South America have become very popular. These cruises are a far cry from the luxury cruises featuring 1,200-foot ships with ballrooms and casinos. One eco-cruise director describes his ship this way:
“We use small, yacht-like cruise ships that carry no more than 100 people at a time. It’s an intimate, naturalist, educational style of cruising-there’s no band, and no discos, magicians, bingo, shopping, or casinos. We also don’t have black-tie dinners. Our entertainment consists of educational tours and lectures on local history, marine biology, ecology, and botany.”
Another eco-cruise veteran says:
“The focus of our trips isn’t on our ship. The boat is essentially a base for our tour operations. Our clientele is younger and more adventuresome than the typical cruise ship guests, and we organize lots of really active hikes and trips at our destinations. The atmosphere is pretty informal, with a lot of interaction between the ship’s crew and the passengers.”
While the jobs for most small cruise lines aren’t usually seasonal, they offer a great opportunity for someone who’s willing to take some time off from school or their regular job and see interesting new places. These jobs are rewarding and give a great taste of life at sea, but they can be difficult. As one personnel officer puts it:
“It’s tough work. You’re on duty every day, ten to fourteen hours, seven days a week, with six weeks on and two weeks off. There’s no place to go, no personal space, and not much free time. People are away from their home, their cat, their stereo, and their friends, and many people just aren’t cut out for the job.”
But according to one long-time cruise manager:
“We have a lot of American crew on our ships that work as deckhands, stewards, or maintenance people. Usually they’re recent college graduates looking for a break and are eager to see places like Baja or Alaska in a unique way. The work can be tough, but the camaraderie is great, and with little to spend their money on, they save almost all of their income.”
Eco-cruises don’t usually hire traditional cruise staff, at least not in the sense of the entertainment-oriented staffs of the large cruise ships. Instead, they tend to hire for more lecture-oriented positions-a cruise director on these ships is much more likely to be at the bow with a microphone lecturing on passing sights than introducing a comedy act.
Some companies, like Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West, look for experienced tour guides, or people who have worked as shore expedition personnel, to fill their cruise staff positions. They’re more interested in a person’s communication and organizational abilities than particular academic knowledge. There is a growing need, though, for lecturers and people with knowledge of the environment and biology. In addition to lecturers and naturalists, companies specializing in eco-tours will often hire expedition leaders. According to one former expedition leader at a successful nature cruise company:
“Our itineraries were very flexible, because we had so many small, out-of-the way ports to visit and we had to really work around wind and weather conditions, find where the wildlife was, and work with the captain on all the scheduling. Basically, along with the captain, I decided where to go, and organized all of the shore side activities, the naturalist lectures, and the landings. It was pretty demanding, but I got fantastic management experience while traveling the world.”
Small ships can be more personal as well. You often get to know the passengers by name. The drawback is it’s not as easy to escape from your responsibilities. Having said that, if you don’t like being around people, you should probably reconsider going to sea on a cruise ship of any size.