Life on a Cruise Ship - Traveling
In my 2 posts about working as a cruise ship musician, I first discussed what it is like to live on a cruise ship and secondly gave an overview about my job as trumpet player. This time around I'll discuss something many people are curious about - the traveling. Common questions include how much time I have to get off the boat, what I usually do in port, and what it’s like to travel for a living. Even though I won’t be discussing any specific locations, I’ll touch on all of those questions as well give a thorough breakdown of my current thoughts on seeing the world in this fashion.
For those of you who haven’t been on a cruise ship before, I think it would be best to give a brief description of how one usually works. If you’ve been on a cruise then you already know this, but please bear with me. I actually didn’t know how it worked until I got onboard for my first contract! Sometimes I’m still confused.
To begin, passengers get on and off the ship in what we call a home port. A home port is simply where a boat begins and ends its cruise for a given time. Some cruise ships operate exclusively out of 1 port, while others are constantly moving. Home ports I’ve operated out of are Miami, Southhampton, Civtivvechia, and Barcelona. Instead of a dedicated home port, it’s also common that ships have a home region like the Baltic, Mediterranean, or Caribbean. That’s how my current boat operates. Boats also might do runs through multiple home ports or regions per year, depending on the season. For example, my current ship’s last 8 months looked something like this:
Summer (now): British Isles/Baltic
Winter: Africa to South America to USA
The cruises I’ve done generally last in the 10 day to 2 week range, with perhaps 90% of the days being in a different port of call. A port of call is where the boat will dock for the day. Sometimes we have an overnight where the boat docks for 1 night and 2 days. Brilliant, right? There are some ships that operate exclusively from Miami to Nassau, which takes 2 days, and there are ships that do world cruises which can last up to 80 days. It just depends on what the client wants out of their cruising experience.
The time a boats is docked for varies, but a good bet is that ships will arrive around 7 am and leave around 5pm. This schedule lets guests enjoy the port during the day and the amenities of the ship at night. If a ship doesn’t have a port scheduled for that day, it is called a sea day. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Sea days are the best way for passengers to enjoy the amenities of a ship, but generally it means more work for crew.
It’s also common for ships to do a crossing, also called a reposition. This is where the boat crosses one of the oceans in order to relocate to a different home port or region. It depends on the path taken, but a crossing will generally take about 5-6 days of straight sailing. I’ve done 2 so far and by the end of the both, the cabin fever was real. Literally. It’s exciting to cross an ocean, but by day 3 or 4 you want nothing more than to be off that boat.
Ok. Obviously one of the biggest perks of working on a ship is visiting different ports. I will say musicians are particularly lucky because as we work mostly at night, there is lots time during the day to explore. Sometimes getting off is more difficult due to rehearsals, trainings, drill, or a random set, but overall the entertainment team has many opportunities for shore leave. As a note, some companies implement the rule of In Port Manning, or IPM, where a certain percentage of crew members are required to stay on board in case of an emergency.
IPM or not, I’ve been able to see the many new places in a very short amount of time. In only 5 months of working on ships, I’ve been to 25 new countries! By the time I finish my 3rd contract in November, that number will be closer to 40. Just the sheer quantity of different places I’ve been able to go has been a life changing. My favorite things to do in port include lots of walking, taking photos, and drinking obscene amounts coffee.
Now that I’ve given a general description of how cruising works, I’ll dive into my current thoughts on seeing the world in this way. As with other aspects of my job, people’s perception about traveling on a ship is generally skewed towards glorification. It’s easy for someone to hear that I work on a cruise ship and consequently piece together a narrative about how they think it is. I will just say it’s different than it looks or how you probably think it is. While reading the section below, please don’t think I dislike traveling in this way - I very much love it and will cherish these experiences for the rest of my life. However, it is unique and has required constant mental readjustment and reevaluation. See you at the end.
Before diving in too deep, I will say I've been very fortunate in my life travel experience thus far. One way I think my experience has been unique is the variety of ways I’ve been able to travel. Within the last 5 years I’ve gone on trips with my family, girlfriend, school groups, friends from home, different bands, some random solo adventures, and of course the cruise ships. I don’t say this as a brag or commendation of my own experiences, but so you know I have a credible background from which to compare the traveling I get to do on a ship to the more regular methods.
When I first started getting to these ports, I was appalled that many crew members wanted to go the mall, get some internet, and eat a burger. I kept thinking, “you’re in $%#@!^ Norway (or anywhere)! Go sightseeing, eat some local food or do anything!”. How naive I was.
Think about your most meaningful travel experiences and what made them special. My most memorable trips include a family vacation to Italy, a 10 day journey to Cuba with my college jazz band, and a week long backpacking adventure with good friends in Yellowstone National Park. I think these trips have been memorable for me because I was able to get to a particular location and stay there. Settling down, per say, allowed me and those I was with to go deeper than the surface: past the photo ops, the sight seeing, or even the local food and drink. Of course I enjoy all of those things, but they’re temporary and privy to mass production.
Instead, I remember the people I was with, the attitude of the city, and the feelings associated with both. For example, I couldn’t tell you about every meal or every glass of wine I had with my family in Italy. To be fair there were many wines… BUT, I also don’t think I’ve looked at most of those photos since I took them in 2015. What I will remember, though, is the deep familial love cultivated and expressed throughout our trip. To me, those feelings and memories will always be more sacred than a photo, glass of wine, or famous building. These things can be representative and perhaps symbolic, but the I think the bulk of quality lies deeper.
Of course I love traveling for my job, but I haven’t yet found that deep, robust traveling experience, similar to the one I had in Italy. I think this is so for 2 main reasons.
The most obvious is that crew members simply don’t have the time. When we're docked for an average of 8 hours there is only so much you can do. Also, just because you are docked for the day doesn’t mean you will have a full day to explore. There could extra rehearsals, drills, trainings, meetings, or any number of things that need attending to. Trying to delve into a city or region in this limited timeframe just isn’t possible.
My other reason is that I believe it is impossible to have a life changing travel experience every single day. I’ve tried and each time quickly tired out and lost my enthusiasm. When I first started, I was giddy and full of wanderlust. In those first few weeks my knowledge of the world expanded more than ever before, but now I believe I have reached a certain cruising altitude. Aspects of the job excited me at the beginning now somedays seem mundane and commonplace. It’s not that the places aren’t interesting, it’s just the capacity for growth and what is found exciting and worthwhile changes upon constant exposure.
On that note, I also have to admit that some days I just don’t care about the port. All I want to do is sit at a cafe, drink a coffee and use the internet. I want to talk to people back home, watch some youtube videos, catch up on baseball, or download some new music. I think to sustainably and effectively work on a ship, you need to do things that make you feel like a regular person. Of course seeing so many places is excellent, but after doing it every day for 3 months I understand why crew members go the mall, find some wifi, or get a burger from McDonald’s.
Yes, trying to see all the things, taste the famous food, or see the show can be highly rewarding. I’ve even gotten through everything on my sightseeing lists a few days in a row. I certainly enjoyed those days and felt I gained enough to knowledge about those cities to know if I wanted to return or not. However, sustaining that voracious pace of touring hasn’t been personally sustainable for primary 3 reasons: My priority is to perform well and improve at my job, I have the desire to do other things, and frankly it’s just plain stressful.
For me to be successful and continue to improve at playing trumpet in this environment, I need to hone my fundamentals, practice new skills, and learn new repertoire. For me this is essential and non-negotiable. Secondly, if I devote most or all of my free time to extensively exploring these ports, I literally will not have the energy to do other things I find valuable and enjoyable. If I tried to wring every port for it's worth, some of my favorite hobbies such as reading, writing blog posts, playing piano, or having a post set drink would all be in jeopardy. Finally, I think it's stressful to be constantly running around trying to find the best food, best museum, etc, etc. With limited time and internet access, along with an aversion to spending lots of money on transportation, finding and getting to some of these locations can be quite a chore.
A note on stress:
I have had to get over a certain type of traveler's perfectionism. When I began my first contract I was very concerned about seeing and doing everything famous. I thought I needed to be doing those famous things, so much so that I was actually spending more time stressing about not doing them than I was enjoying myself. Driven by this anxiety I saw some famous things and places, but there was always this nagging feeling that I had to go to the next sight, museum, or restaurant. I sacrificed light hearted, genuine, exploration for the Trip Advisor tour of a city.
A note on Trip Advisor. Or anything similar.
I think TripAdvisor and similar sites have their benefits. However, they can easily rob a great deal of experience when they become your exclusive source of where to go, do, eat, etc. For example, at the beginning of my contract I used to only want to eat at places I found on TripAdvisor. This eventually bled into a certain paranoia about only eating at locations that had the green owl sticker in the window. I thought this sticker directly translated to quality and signaled I was optimizing my experience in each city. While built off decent intentions, the problem with this method is that it completely bypasses any genuine exploration and discovery. While I have found some good food and sites via Trip Advisor, my favorite activity of curious wandering has actually yielded far better cuisine, conversation, and overall camaraderie. Of course touring this way opens the door for duds, but as a whole, unplanned meanderings have revealed to me more than any singular mission to a highly rated restaurant.
Instead of trying to milk every port for what it is worth, I have relegated to a running list of places I would like to come back to. I gave up on trying to do everything I thought I should be doing and since then, I’ve actually enjoyed my shore leave more. I’m not trying to make my visits to these places ‘the omg I might never be here again let’s do everything possible’ visit, but more of a ‘I know I’m coming back here someday’ preview.
I realize I might be coming off as heavy handed, repetitive, or perhaps jaded. I don’t mean to be and don’t think I am in actuality. Sometimes I do have to pinch myself that I really get to travel the world playing music - it is quite literally a dream come true. The above diatribe is so you understand my how thought process has developed regarding this unique style of travel. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to say or think you might do it differently. However, coming from someone who originally thought that way and tried doing what you think you would do, my money is on you changing your mind.
Come to the Dark Side...We have internet.
Since I started this job it’s not the traveling that has been my biggest teacher, but living on the ship. When I look back at this time in my life of course I will have photos of the world, more facebook friends, and a few souvenirs. What I will truly cherish and remember, though, are the people I have gotten to share these experiences with, on and off the boat. 10, 20, 30 years from now, I know I will be more changed by these relationships than any city, building, or restaurant.
This wraps up my mini-series about working on a cruise ship - Thank you for reading! I hope I answered questions you might have had as well as brought up some ideas you might’ve not initially considered. As always, thanks for reading and I hope you found this post enjoyable and worthwhile. Until next time!