Last updated: 02:00 PM ET, Tue October 27 2015

3 Bizarre Realities of Working On A Cruise Ship

Features & Advice | Carson Poplin | October 27, 2015

3 Bizarre Realities of Working On A Cruise Ship

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

On paper, working for Park West Gallery onboard cruise ships is glamorous. You visit exotic ports of call, you enjoy the luxuries of living on a cruise ship and your job is to sell art – an occupation that evokes images of impossibly cosmopolitan women who wear Manolos to work and turn up their noses at Thomas Kinkade.

In fact, I thought working for Park West was going to be a dream job. I was a year out of college where I graduated with a degree in art history and my absolute favorite thing is to travel. For me, the job was a perfect combination of the two things. Turns out, it wasn’t a dream job.

You're Never Really Told What You're Doing

First of all, finding your footing onboard is hard, especially if it’s your first ship. A lot of people work on ships for years at a time, and crew members get to know each other, even across cruise lines. We’d get a whole group of new additions to a ship one day, and they’d already fit in much better than I had by my second month. My coworkers would say things like, “Oh, yeah, I worked with her on the Starship Enterprise.” Or whatever.

Every ship has required training sessions, but it’s not as helpful in your everyday life onboard as you might think. Most of what you learn is how to deal with norovirus and the rest is about fire extinguishers and lifeboats. The problem is, no one tells you exactly where you stand in the cruise ship pecking order.

Among the crew, there’s a strict hierarchy in which each person is ranked by their number of stripes; the captain has the most. The higher your ranking, the more privileges you get; for example, a special mess for officers, the ability to eat in guest areas free of restrictions or an exclusive laundry room. Among the art team, the auctioneer has the highest number of stripes, but even new associates like myself received more privileges than many others.

The only way to figure it out is to go about your business until someone tells you can’t do that particular thing – at least not at that time of day.

You're Never Really Told Where You Can and Can't Go

Time of day is big on ships. When crew members are not working, their access to certain places on the ship is restricted, based on what time it is. If you’re allowed to eat in guest areas (must have two stripes or above!) you may only go after the rush of passengers has died down. And let’s be real, that’s pretty early. I was once told, “The longer the cruise, the older the people” and I mostly did two-week cruises, a far cry from the three-day booze cruises that attract the younger clientele. The buffet area was usually cleared out by 7 p.m.

My first day on a ship, I went to dinner by myself in the guest buffet area. I didn’t know about the hierarchy yet so I grabbed whatever looked interesting to eat. I ended up with a plate of sushi, because why not? When I got back to work I was told, “Only like eight crew members are even allowed to eat the sushi!” Apparently I wasn’t one of the eight.

It Wasn't Just The Dining — Everything Was Strictly Regulated

Same idea applies to the gym. Crew members are banned from the guest gym whenever it might be busy, which is most of the time except when the ship is in port. That leaves two options: Go to the crew gym in the bowels of the ship on Deck 0 (there’s a Deck 0?), where the ceiling is so low that you physically cannot run on the treadmill, or skip a day in port in order to get in a workout. Neither are very appealing.

On my second ship, I learned that there was no crew-only place to get coffee aside from the instant packets they sold at marked-up prices in the crew store. So, naturally, I began going to the coffee bar on Deck 3 next to guest services. The first two times, I had no problem being served. The third time, a different barista told me that only officers were allowed to order coffee in guest areas. I was naturally annoyed; I mean, they were denying someone coffee whose favorite part of fall is the return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks?

I wish I could say I figured everything out by the time my contract was up, but I really can’t. I was there six months and was still surprised by the strange nuances of ship life. I didn’t stick around cruise ship life to earn any more stripes, but next time I cruise I want to be a passenger, because if I learned one thing onboard it’s this: Paying customers outweigh any number of stripes, every day of the week.


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