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Updated January 8, 2020
There's a romance to the life of a cruise ship crewmember -- that human engine that keeps cabins spotless, buffets buzzing and bars swimming. Experience the world on a perpetual voyage. Meet fascinating travelers. It's a part of ship life that mere vacationers can never experience.
But what's it really like behind the dining room waiter's unflinching smiles, the cabin steward's bubbly "Hello Mr. Dan!"?
Blowing through the door marked "crew only," American author Brian David Bruns takes readers on an exclusive below-decks tour in his book, Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline. A lone American in a multi-national workforce, Bruns spent over a year in Carnival Cruise Lines restaurants, gutting his way through 80-hour work weeks on four-hours-sleep nights on a three-figure monthly salary.
Through a decidedly Western lens -- college educated, former business owner -- Bruns offers observations on the debauched crew parties, the need for stalwart defense of cutlery and coffee cups, the gratitude shown by passengers (tips and flashers in equal measure), and an ever-changing cast of characters including chain-smoking, video game-playing Asians; zombie cooks who never see the light of day; and hardnosed capos in the "Romanian Mafia." Bruns maintains that he was the only American in the history of Carnival Corp. to make it through a full contract without quitting -- and that there's a very clear reason for the absence of U.S. cruise ship crew. It's a damn hard job, one that breaks down both body and mind.
So, how'd he survive -- and why does he miss the job so much? Cruise Critic caught up with Brian to talk about what it's really like grinding it out in the big-ship buffets and dining rooms, and how the crew live in the bowels of those massive floating resorts.
Background: Why this Job? Getting Hired, Writing the Story
Cruise Critic: What was the basis for the book?
Brian David Bruns: I spent an insane 13 months in the restaurants on Carnival Cruise Lines ships, so the book is entirely about that. In that time, I started at the absolute bottom as a trainee. I was originally promised a low-level management position (assistant maitre d), but I was told I had to crank through every step before that.
CC: It's extraordinarily rare (although not totally unheard of) to see an American working in a big-ship dining room. How did you get the job?
BDB: My application was different than most -- I initially started going through the proper channels [you can find them online, here, for instance] -- but there are no proper channels for Americans. If there's a demographic the line doesn't want, they'll make it almost impossible for you. They'll totally give you the run-around until you give it up. I had fine dining and management experience onshore for 10 years, and I had managed my own software business, but still, the constant response was "You don't understand ships. They'll tear you apart."
I don't blame them -- the track record speaks for itself. There are no Americans who have lasted. The cruise lines spend so much time and money to make it happen -- on training, housing, healthcare -- and every time they make an exception, it fails.
Ultimately, it took having someone on the inside -- my girlfriend Bianca, who happened to know some very high level people -- to get the job.
CC: Why did you want the job so much?
BDB: I wanted this job primarily to be with my girlfriend, Bianca, who worked on Carnival ships. I had recently been through a divorce with my wife and my business partner and was feeling a sense of freedom akin to being let loose from school, and when Bianca knocked my socks off, I had to follow her to the sea. Also, once it was made clear that no American had ever survived a full contract in the Carnival restaurants without quitting or transferring, I was more driven to succeed. It galled me that despite the million reasons why Americans would have no reason to play the game, everyone there thought Americans were just too fat and lazy to do it.
CC: How'd you find time to write?
BDB: I took scrupulous notes on everything. I didn't really have any friends while I was at sea, I had my laptop. I've been wanting to be a writer for probably a decade. I knew that this was something no one else could do, so from the very beginning, I took pages of notes. I knew that this would be incredible, from day one. Every day, I made it a point to chronicle what happened. I refused to go more than two days without taking notes. I was very disciplined about that. So much happens, so fast, there's no way to remember otherwise. I've forgotten hundreds of names and faces. My one great regret is I wish I had my camera.
The Job of a Crewmember: Hours, Pay (Tips!), Hardest Jobs Onboard
Cruise Critic: We know cruise ship crew work extremely hard, but what are the hours like for a crewmember working in the restaurant, and what did the job entail?
Brian David Bruns: During the training phase, the first month, we were working a minimum of 12 hours a day, plus homework ... seven days a week. So it would average 14 to 15 hours a day, break for lunch, break for shower, but even on our breaks, we were constantly studying. This schedule was done intentionally because the line wants you to know right away how tough it is. They want to weed folks out who won't be able to handle it.
Once you're officially working on the ship, regular shifts are three shifts a day, seven days a week, 80-plus hours a week, with no days off for eight months. There's not a set schedule because every itinerary is different, but on a regular weekly sailing, you're going to work breakfast, lunch and dinner -- with probably a lunch off. On some ships, every other week you'd get two of those lunches off. That, of course, is all you get, ever. When I worked on Carnival Legend, which did eight-day cruises, I would have one lunch off every eight days. That's it. NOT a happy time.
When I was there, they didn't have time clocks (they actually added them right after I left). Technically, my shift could have been summed up as 10 hours a day. Realistically, you have to come in an hour before meals to make sure no one steals your silverware [more on that below], polish everything, fold napkins, etc. Then after meals, everyone had a side-job -- which were supposed to be equal. Collecting salad tongs from every waiter would take maybe 10 minutes. An "equal" side-job, like cleaning the escalators [which connect the galley to the dining room] would take far, far longer, what with the required power washing and mopping. Management would use that as a punishment for people they didn't like -- and those things are off the books, off the "time clock."
CC: Can you talk a little about what a crewmember earns and how tips play into it?
BDB: Tipping is serious stuff. It represents well over 95% of what the crew makes. Carnival gave me something around $60 a month or so when it was all said and done. "Salary" also included the cabin you share, plenty of food and two crew parties a month. There was also an unfulfilled promise of medical care, but I knew several waiters who either got sick or had some sort of chronic condition who were immediately sent home indefinitely without pay. A few women who became pregnant while working onboard were immediately sent home without pay, as well. I don't remember the exact amount, but it was less than $80 for sure.
Tips were everything. Auto-tips were a Godsend, because anyone who thinks he/she tips enough voluntarily is usually wrong. The auto-tips were figured by how many guests are assigned to your dinner section. If you had a small section, say only 18, you were constrained by that number. The biggest sections were 22 or 24, which are a whopper of a section. But there is a lot more money to be had for that extra strain during dinner. Thus, even if the guests don't go to dinner, you get those auto-tips. They are automatically split between you and your assistant waiter for the cruise. Since you work breakfast, lunch, midnight buffet, and room service without any specific pay, those tips are well earned even if the guest opts out of the dining room constantly (by going to the supper club, for example, or eating in port).
I am not aware of Carnival ever taking a slice of this particular pie. And the timeclocks the waiters use nowadays? You don't get paid by the hour, they are just there to prove that they are not slaves.
CC: Besides the long hours, what's the hardest part of the job?
BDB: I really pride myself on being adaptable ... cheery under any circumstances. What was hard for me was that I'm very opinionated. I come from an environment of empowered people, empowered employees. On the ship, any new ideas -- memos to superiors to improve the job, for example -- were met with absolute concrete walls. They shut me down, even when it was my job, as the assistant maitre d, to try to improve things. I sent them countless reports, memos for improving efficiency. All were ignored. Then they would say, "We didn't get enough reports for you!" They didn't give a *&^%^ about any of that stuff. They literally promoted this guy who was always drunk -- I mean missing shifts while in his cabin vomiting. You're suppose to earn a set of stripes -- and it usually takes three years to get an extra half stripe [the next level up in crew hierarchy] -- but they immediately notched him up after a couple weeks. He was great at what he did ... when he made it to work!
CC: Any idea why this guy had such an unfair advantage? Was it a question of jealousy?
BDB: It's difficult for most to comprehend just how disruptive my nationality was. The entire fleet reacted and there was a tremendous pressure upon the management to get rid of me. I know how it sounds like "it's all about me," but it was really overt. Leo, my South African pal, was never a threat to the company in any way, whereas I was challenging the status quo constantly. Americans have a nasty habit of contacting the media before anyone else when they don't like something, if not their lawyers. These are serious threats to an organization that otherwise has complete and total control of their employees and any situation imaginable. Leo kept his mouth shut and followed orders. He was also from the bar department, which was rare, and was subsequently a pet project of the food & beverage manager who also came from there. Coming in to work drunk was something everyone did from time to time, so it was a small price to pay for a snub that should have sent me packing. Management, quite simply, thought I was going to quit. They said it to my face, after all. I am a college graduate who had co-founded a company good enough to secure international investment. I came with 10 years of fine dining experience, including management.
The icing on the cake, though, was that when I joined Carnival, I trained from doing dishes to being a busboy to being a waiter and was Leo's trainer! Leo was 24 years old, had been a bartender for six months, and never set foot in a dining room. I was denied my one stripe. He was given one and a half, which usually takes multiple years of experience. Talk about a slap in the face designed to make one quit....
In my experience working in the States, good ideas can come from people on the front line. That wasn't a Carnival policy ... onboard, petty politics ruled. So the most frustrating part for me was the political maneuvering.
CC: Are there worse jobs to have on a cruise ship?
BDB: Absolutely there are jobs way harder than the restaurant. Cooks work incredibly hard. Food and beverage managers, when they start out, I have never seen anyone so abused in my life. They have to learn everything about every bar, every restaurant, every galley, how to properly dispose of all the food waste, and the bureaucracy that runs through it all. Those guys, wow, I have never seen so many zombies in my life, working 18 hours a day, sleeping in their clothes. But once you make it to the top, that's where the hotel managers are [one of the top jobs on the ship]. These are the top brass in terms of management jobs, and the pay reflects that.
Life at Sea: Sleepless Months, All-Night Parties, Lessons Learned
Cruise Critic: Were you prepared for the intensity of ship life?
Brian David Bruns: I'm pretty sure that nine out of 10 employees were prepared for it because they learned about the job from fellow countrymen. It was nothing new for the second and third worlders. Personally, I had a hunch it might happen, but definitely not on this level.
The thing that's so weird about working on cruise ships is that you need to think about yourself as a sailor. In the navy, it's always been about harsh discipline -- and you're always "on." They structure the cruise ship in the same manner. You have to follow orders. Management can switch your schedule at any time. If they add you to the midnight buffet rotation, then you have to immediately change your sleeping habits. They can move you around with impunity.
CC: You mention how hard crewmember work. Can you talk a little about how hard they party -- the part that regular cruisers never see?
BDB: Well, with the parties, you need to understand who the crew is. They are very young people who are certified squeaky clean -- they can't get on if you're not very, very healthy. They have a pocket full of cash and they're surrounded by other young, beautiful people. It's the same mentality that college kids have, that they can do anything. So on a ship -- compared to a college -- parties are only more intense because of time and space constraints. You're already light headed because you haven't had enough sleep in four months. The attitude becomes Why not have another shot?"
CC: So what kind of crew parties did Carnival throw?
BDB: Crew parties are very different from line to line, but it's been my experience that Carnival really takes good care of its crew, and gives awesome crew parties. The line was required to give two crew parties a month, and it would even close down a guest lounge just for the crew. It's open bar, although lines are shying away from open hard liquor (gets abused) ... and the crew goes nuts. Crew party starts at midnight, and goes until three.
I'm positive that the important crew members are forbidden to drink to excess (able seamen in charge of lifeboats). Carnival is a freak about safety. And if you're working you can't go. For example, I was in charge of midnight buffet on Carnival Conquest, and they would close off the back pool. My crew would slink away and everyone was getting wild half naked and drunk. Of course they were allowed to have their break ... but they didn't come back! And the thing about management was they'd always turn a blind eye. If crew came in drunk from lunch, they didn't mind. "They work so hard -- let 'em play."
CC: In theory, working on a cruise ship sounds like a great way to travel the world. But as restaurant staff, you're working such long hours and it's so draining. Do you actually have time -- and energy -- to explore ports?
BDB: Most people do not. There's a difference between crew and staff. Staff -- like entertainers and musicians -- get lots of free time. A singer in the production show might have nothing to do during port days. This also applies to casino workers. There's no gambling allowed while the ship's docked. But the vast majority of crew -- all waiters, bartenders, able seaman and chefs -- have it different. With chefs in particular, a lot of those guys never even see the light of day. Here's the thing: On an average Carnival weeklong cruise, we'd visit three ports, and of those three we'd probably have to work two lunches. So you'd have one lunch off during a port day.
CC: What did you do in port during your few hours off?
BDB: To make the most of your limited time, everything you do can be prefixed with "power." You only have three or four hours free -- and that's your sleep time too, so you cram it in! It's power-napping, power-drinking, power-eating. If you could get out with a few people and have a few drinks, you'd hammer a few shots for that instant calm. We'd visit places close to the dock, like Fat Tuesday's and Senor Frog's.
CC: In the book, there's a lot about crew "romance." What's it like for those crew who are dating? And what happens when they have to head out on different contracts?
BDB: Honestly, I don't know a single couple who has dated successfully on ships. I don't know a single couple who was married coming in and survived. I'm sure they're there, but I've never seen them. The only time you have to see each other is when you shower and brush your teeth. You're not going to get the same ships, the same contract ... but you can get the same vacation.
CC: You mention a few things done on the sly (waiters eating multiple entrees in secret during shifts), but what's the worst thing you've ever seen in terms of crew behavior in front of passengers?
BDB: Worst I ever saw was when one of the waiters snapped about how obese Americans are compared to rest of world. Cow animals are what some crew call passengers.
CC: What happened to the waiter?
BDB: He was pretty well reprimanded. Management took away a lot of his privileges. He was a head waiter and they took away his good side jobs (like collecting all the bread baskets, for example). He was made to clean the soup wells [massive soup cauldron] (when would have otherwise been at crew bar. The thing was, during the incident, all the managers were laughing -- but you have to make an example. He was way out of line.
CC: Moving in a different direction ... Working with people from all over the world -- with different customs, habits, beliefs, etc. -- do you feel like the multicultural experience has a positive effect on everyone? Or do a lot of cliques form among the crew?
BDB: Overwhelmingly, the international thing is the best part of ship life. Like a lot of things in life, the best parts are not what you expect them to be. You'll learn so much about the world and it's not because you're traveling. Your best friend, roommate, coworker is from a fundamentally different part of the world with a fundamentally different outlook -- so you're constantly learning about [the] other person's culture. The rules of the cruise line were that you do not talk about politics and you do not talk about religion. But we all loved to talk about those things!
No one who works on a ship comes back as a conservative. Most of the barriers I saw breaking were ones that I applaud -- especially women's roles, which of course caused most of the divorces. Women were equal on the ship. They were doing the exact same job for the exact same money. If you want the men's money, you want the men's job. The vast majority of Europeans had traditional female roles, and those roles were completely destroyed working onboard.
CC: What question do people ask you most frequently about your stint as a regular crewmember?
BDB: Everyone comes up to me and asks, "What's it like working on a cruise ship?" It's a pretty wide-open question. I usually say, "It's a sweatshop building entertainment." And I think that's exactly what it is. It's a sweat shop, but it's a fun sweat shop. It changes you in such wonderful ways.
CC: How has working on ships changed you?
BDB: There's this cruise culture -- and every ship is its own nation. Whenever you actually leave your country of origin, you learn about your country of origin. There's so much you don't know about your own culture, and when you go to sea with this band of gypsies, you learn so much. Ethnocentrism melts away real fast. I feel more qualified to say why I love America and why I moved back to the States than ever before. I didn't realize I would be leaving my country. It's exhausting, degrading labor with long hours for low pay, but ... there's a line 3 kilometers long for people that want the job.
America is the land of opportunity, designed from the ground up to be that way. Having left it, I understand far better what that means. There are always opportunities here, and there are just not opportunities, flat out, elsewhere. Everyone else wants to come here, and now I understand. Lesson at sea: "Comfort is overrated" strip away all comfort in all ways, physically uncomfortable, hot, uncomfortable uniform, and so that's what you find the real joy in.
CC: After working on cruise ships, could you possibly take a vacation on a cruise? What type of travel do you like?
BDB: I told myself that I would never pay for a cruise after four solid years cruising. But I am dying to get back to sea. I have a hunch I'm going to be one of those lifetime cruisers. I miss the sea something fierce.