Life on a Cruise Ship - Everyday Living
I’m frequently asked about my life as a cruise ship musician. It is not such a rare job in my usual circles, but some of my friends outside of the jazz community didn't even know working a cruise ship was possible. Even my girlfriend, whom I talk with more than anyone and has a music degree, isn’t always clear about “what I do”. Given this, I have decided to write a series of posts about my life as a living and playing music on cruise ship. I’ll try to touch on the big topics people have generally been curious about, such as everyday living, the music, extensive traveling, and how I got the job in the first place. This first post will be about the general experience of living on a cruise ship.
If there is a trend in people’s reactions when they hear about my job, it is towards glorification. I’m happy people are interested in what I do, but through these posts I would also like to clarify and bring attention to some aspects of working on a cruise ship that some initially exaggerate or don’t consider. Sometimes, people's curiosity is unknowingly matched by their misunderstanding.
I think the best way to describe a cruise ship is as a giant floating hotel. Not like a Holiday Inn hotel, but a fancy boutique, "you don’t have to worry about anything when you step through the doors hotel”. Once onboard our giant floating hotel, guests can enjoy a variety fancy of hotel-ish amenities. The big hitters are multiple high end restaurants, extensive entertainment options, a comprehensive spa, a full casino, and an open air pool and hot tub complex. And those are just the big ones. Naturally, there are scores of people behind the scenes helping each of these amenities run smoothly. Much like a hotel, a guest will never see most of this activity. That’s how it supposed to be. However, behind and below those ‘staff only’ doors is a completely different and wholly fascinating world.
Some crew members work exclusively in guest areas and some in crew areas. As a musician I work exclusively in the guest areas, while an engineer or galley cook might only work in crew areas. This brings up another important distinction of Hotel versus Deck and Engine. Hotel work is mostly concerned with the guests and their experience, such as dining, entertainment (me), housekeeping, bar staff, etc. Deck and Engine on the other hand is concerned with the actual running of the ship. That includes navigation, engine maintenance, environmental affairs, repairman and plumbers, among others. Of course there is some crossover, but that general division applies to most of the ship.
On my current boat there are about 550 crew members from 45ish different countries. The exact numbers are always changing. It’s not uncommon to walk into our crew bar at night and hear 4 or 5 different languages happening at once. The official language of the ship is English, but Spanish, Russian, Filipino dialects, Chinese, and Indian dialects are all popular as well. For reference, I am one of maybe 5 or 6 Americans. Most crew come from Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines or India. There are also large contingencies of Russians, Ukrainians, Colombians, and South Africans.
9 times out of 10, the onboard food is the first thing people ask me about. A typical interaction might start with the person giving me a dramatic hand on the shoulder or roll of the eyes saying, “I bet the food is SOO good”. It is if you pay for it! And by pay for I mean you pay for a cabin and are a guest. Yes, dining is one of main features of a cruise ship, but it is mostly reserved for those who shell out the money. Sometimes food will trickle down to one of our messes (cafeterias) from a big event such as the ‘Seafood Extravaganza” or the ‘Grand Deck Barbecue’, but that can't be consistently relied upon.
The quality of the food for crew is generally good, but not amazing. People are usually a bit shocked when I tell them this, but there are more factors in play. First off, food onboard for crew is free. It is possible that a crew member not spend any money on food for the duration of their contract. Of course items like beer, candy, and other snacks cost extra, but even those are highly discounted. Our messes are served buffet style 3 times a day, so one could theoretically eat as much as they wanted for no cost every single meal. Even though the selection and quality sometimes leaves something to be desired, it’s still a pretty good deal overall.
A second factor to consider is the amount of food that the ship is required to produce. Especially on my current ship, which for guests is all inclusive and offers multiple buffet style venues, there is a massive demand for high quality food at all times of day. It is understandable then, that the food for crew isn’t up to the same quality as the stuff that gets served in the guest restaurants. Guestrants..? Oof. It just makes sense given the amount of food necessary each day and the extremely tight time frame in which the galley crews have to operate. One final factor regarding food, which I only recently considered, ties back in to the diversity of the crew.
In our messes there is usually a decent variety of options, but I'm always surprised at the various Asian dishes, specifically those that are fish based. I connected the dots that since most of the crew is from Southeast Asia, it would make sense that the majority of the food is from that part of the world. Duh. Furthermore, as most cruise ship workers come from areas by the sea, it also makes sense that fish be an important part of their diets. Many crew members enjoy seafood very much, taking some almost at every meal. I on other hand, having not grown up with copious of seafood, tend to only gravitate towards it when there is something I feel strongly for. That could all be conjecture, but it makes sense to me.
The other thing I’m frequently asked about are my sleeping accommodations. On our 14 deck boat, there are 2 main decks dedicated for crew living, which are decks 2 and 3. Deck 1 is all engine, while everything else is essentially for guests. Crew generally live two to a room, but on bigger ships there might even be four to a room. If you are of high enough position, you can get the coveted single cabin, which might be on deck 3 or even higher, again depending on your position.
I live on deck 3 in a double cabin with our guitar player, Andrii. The orchestra musicians all live in the same hallway, which is for pivotal for communication and beer drinking. My double room features bunks beds, 2 sizable desks, 2 chairs, 2 closets, a mini fridge, various hooks for hanging stuff, and 1 tiny tiny bathroom. If pressured for specific measurements, I would say my room is about 8 feet across and 15 deep. I know it sounds small, but the rooms are designed to maximize space and are actually more comfortable than you might think! It’s just a matter of getting used to the situation. But...
About the bathroom. It’s very tiny. It is about 7 feet high and not including the depth of the shower, maybe 4-5 feet at it’s widest. Also, I can’t do a 360 in the shower without running into something or stepping out. Also, also, no matter where I put my clothes for after my shower, they inevitably get wet. Also, Also, Also, Sometimes your shower drain will clog and then the entirety of your bathroom is flooded until a plumber can get down to your cabin. Not that I would know from experience or anything…
People complain about the bathrooms.
The crew laundry machines are usually of quality, but lacking in quantity. I think there are 4 washers and dryers for our 550 member crew. It is not uncommon to wait a few hours or even all day to get access to a laundry machine. That being said, it is possible to get your laundry done by the crew dry cleaning, but it costs money depending on what you want to have dry cleaned or again, your status. Everyone does gets their work uniforms dry cleaned for free, however.
Other amenities for the crew include a gym, spa access, an open air area on deck 14, ping pong, foosball, discounts at the boutique, and the ever infamous crew bar. At crew bar, beer is $1.00 and a shot of liquor is $2.00. Thankfully, most people don’t take full advantage of that on a nightly basis but it's there if you want it. Crew bar is one of the equalizers on the boat- you can walk in, meet and talk with some new people, share a drink with your supervisor, and in general BS around with your co-workers. It's the most popular evening hang for those looking to socialize and have some fun.
One unexpected perk of my job are the highly discounted drinks I get in guest areas. As you can imagine, the drink menu on a luxury cruise ship is quite impressive. And me, being a frugal, value driven individual, have finished many nights sipping something I would have no business drinking at home. I will say since I’ve joined this ship, I’ve developed a taste for cognac, single malt whiskey, and oddly enough, tequila based cocktails. Another perk is the onboard TV and Movie service. Each cabin has a TV where you can access a Netflix-ish service with a decent amount of TV shows and an excellent variety of movies. My favorite movies I’ve watched so far are Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, All 3 Matrix movies, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Goodfellas.
Living on a cruise ship has been one of the most interesting and educational experiences of my life. It is also a different way of living than many of us are used to which requires steady adjustment. Your well being and success on the job really depend on your ability to not only adapt to the necessary changes in lifestyle, but accept and embrace them. There’s very little you can change about your circumstances on the boat. Your choices are to either be okay with them or find a different job.
I hope I answered some questions you might’ve had before reading this post. If there are any ideas that popped into your head while reading, please let me know by saying something below or sending me an email! My next post in the series will be about my actual job of playing trumpet on the ship. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you found this writing enjoyable and worthwhile. Until next time!