Updated January 10, 2020
When you're enjoying your cruise miles away from home, chances are you'll be looked after by crew members who are also a long way from their own countries. But when you disembark, they will be staying onboard for up to eight months more. For many cruisers it sounds like a dream job, but have you ever wondered how the crew members found out about their jobs, what it's like to work on a cruise ship and what happens when onboard employees are back on terra firma?
Cruise Critic was provided with a fascinating glimpse into careers at sea, and life behind the scenes, when Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (RCCL) let us tour its crew training and housing facility in the Philippines. Here's what we learned, including 10 facts about working on a cruise ship you might not know.
1. There's a lot of job opportunity
With the cruise industry expanding, and Royal Caribbean continuing to build new 5,000-plus-passenger ships, the opportunities for people looking for a career at sea are not going to dry up any time soon. Be it captains or childcare workers, dancers or doctors, chefs or cruise directors, stateroom stewards or spa therapists, each Royal Caribbean ship provides around 450 different types of jobs at various ranks.
In common with other cruise lines, Royal Caribbean operates recruitment programs around the world in countries such as the Philippines, China and Indonesia in order to ensure it always has enough staff to fill its employment needs. In May 2016, it opened a new office in Manila with the aim of increasing the number of Filipino crew to a total of 30,000 in the next five years. Additionally, the line says that many potential crew members apply for jobs after hearing about employment opportunities from friends and family members who already work for Royal Caribbean, and there is never any danger of a shortage of staff.
2. Filipinos are popular cruise ship workers
Filipinos, from the island nation in the South China Sea, are the largest single nationality employed by RCCL. In total, the company employs 11,000 Filipinos, making up 14 percent of its seagoing employees.
There are several reasons why Filipinos make good cruise ship crew members. The Philippines has a strong maritime heritage, so many islanders are still drawn to a seafaring life. In addition, Filipinos speak English (the official language of the Philippines) and are renowned for providing service with a smile -- two skills important when working with cruise passengers.
Similarly, Indonesians, Indians and Malaysians have an excellent reputation in the tourism and hospitality industry, and many cruise lines have employment offices or run regular recruitment drives in Asia.
3. New crew members undergo months of training
New cruise ship employees will embark on a residential training course to equip them with all the tools necessary for a successful career at sea. Courses typically last 13 weeks and are filled with practical and classroom-based sessions, a full overview of the department in which they'll be working and job-specific training. During the course they will take part in individual exercises, activities in groups and in pairs, group discussions and role-play exercises.
These courses are held at a variety of training centers that are focused on different aspects of crew training. For example, Royal Caribbean sends staff to a dedicated center for safety and hospitality and catering courses that is situated close to Manila. During the courses, staff are provided with on-site accommodation and all meals.
4. Contracts are long
Upon successful completion of their training, crew members are offered a contract, typically ranging from two to nine months. There are no holiday entitlements, but crew members can choose when they take the six- to eight-week break that automatically comes with longer contracts. In theory, they could work four months, take two months off and then return to the ship for the second segment of the contract, but most choose to work it all in one go.
Although speculation about what crew members are paid is rife on the Cruise Critic forums, cruise lines do not publicly discuss rates of pay or benefits. However, the fact that cruise ships are attractive places to work can be deduced from the number of employees -- often including many members of the same family -- that work for the same lines for many years.
The cruise lines also provide employees with training that enables them to successfully pursue other jobs when they decide it is time to head back to dry land. For instance, many chefs return to their homelands and open restaurants.
5. Crew members do get promoted
Most new crew members start in entry-level positions, but ambitious cruise ship employees can rise through the ranks. Members of staff are encouraged to embark on regular training courses and apply for promotion, and there are plenty of success stories.
For example, we met Dennis Logdat, who joined RCCL in 2006 as a commis (apprentice) chef and got promoted to a chef de partie (line cook) and first chef de partie before taking up his present role as a sous chef. The next step on the culinary rung is executive sous chef, just one step away from his ultimate goal of becoming the executive, or head, chef on a cruise ship.
6. Employee retention is high
While not revealing specific figures, RCCL says its employee retention record is above the industry standard and crew members choose to stay with the company rather than jump ship to another line. In general, employees stick to one RCCL cruise line (such as Royal Caribbean or Celebrity), but some do move across brands. There are many who have clocked 10 or more years of service. Seniority does lead to benefits, such as more flexibility with contracts, getting preference for working on specific ships and career growth opportunities.
7. You'll get to see the world -- but it's not a vacation
It's a common misconception that life as a cruise ship worker is just one big holiday. Regardless of the role employees take, they can expect to work hard. Crew members work every day of their contract, taking time off in hours rather than in full days.
8. It's a family affair
With so many people working for months in close proximity (there will be 2,394 crew members on Harmony of the Seas), relationships form at sea, and cruise lines have been responsible for plenty of marriages. Cruise lines know that happy crew members will stay longer with the company, and give married couples the opportunity to apply for contracts working on the same ship and to share a cabin. Similarly, there are plenty of families who work together on cruise ships (and many apply for jobs after talking to relatives who work in the industry).
We spoke with Camilo De Chicos, from the Philippines, who has been working on Royal Caribbean ships for 20 years and is currently a carpenter onboard Anthem of the Seas. His three daughters have followed their father and opted for a life at sea. Joana Marie is a waitress on Jewel of the Seas, Geraldine is a bell and officer attendant on Oasis of the Seas and Annabelle is a waitress on Legend of the Seas.
9. The crew is not eating the same food as you
Even for crew members, there's no shortage of food on a cruise ship! Staff meals are prepared by dedicated crew cooks in a separate galley. These include regional dishes from the crew members' home countries, fast food such as burgers and healthy options.
And in case you're wondering: No. Crew never eat paying passengers' leftovers. As cruise ship vessels are manned around the clock, crew members have access to food and drink 24/7. The terms of their contracts specify break and meal times, so even the busiest crew members will always have set rest breaks when they have time for a snack or main meal.
10. Cruise lines help employees find homes on land
Working on renewable contracts, many employees find it hard to get loans to buy homes in the mainstream housing market. RCCL provides a long-term commitment to renewing contracts to provide crew members with the financial stability to take out mortgages.
In addition, ACM Homes is a housing developer that provides affordable housing for Filipino seafarers from both cruise and cargo vessels. Founded in 1982, and working in partnership with Philippine Transmarine Carriers, Inc. (PTC), which is one of the country's largest crew management companies, ACM Homes builds housing developments that include green space, community centers, libraries and many other facilities. Units range in price from $43,000 to $165,000. Royal Caribbean even has a street named after it in one of the ACM villages. The crew members own their properties, and their families live there year-round, including when the crew members are on contracts aboard ships.
Cruise Critic met a couple with four children who bought an ACM home three years ago. They work together on Enchantment of the Seas and when they are away their children are cared for by their maternal grandmother, who moves into the house for the duration.