Cruise Ship Workers Open Up About What Happens Behind The Scenes

Cruise Ship Workers Open Up About What Happens Behind The Scenes

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In many ways, cruise ships are a lot like hotels. Everything must run smoothly so that the passengers are taken care of, and that things remains organized. While crew members on a ship may appear to have everything under control, life at sea can come with some challenges that guests might not be aware of.

Photo: Libby

When you’re out in the middle of the ocean, and nobody can leave until the ship docks, crew members must find very good ways of maintaining the guise of ease when things go awry. And afterwards, the crew can laugh about all of the devious nuances of cruise life. Here are some of the secret, behind-the-scenes activities that take place on cruise ships.

Secret Cruise Ship Language

One of the real secrets is that the intercom is used to send coded messages between members of the staff and the crew. We hide messages in seemingly innocuous statements, and the codes vary from simple ones–words with double meanings–to highly complex ones, such as hiding messages in the first letters of words.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons: Jason “Textfiles” Scott

It takes a while to get used to, but eventually, it becomes second nature, and even fun. It feels like we’re tricking the ship’s guests, but most of the time we’re just letting other staff members know that we’re running low on supplies, or need more help in a certain area of the ship. Reddit User: ElGofre

Bodies On Ice

Some ships don’t want passengers to know that anything bad has happened, since nobody wants to spoil their dream getaway. Sometimes this even extends to deaths on board. As it turns out, crew members sometimes die as the result of workplace accidents, just like any job. It’s sad, but what’s crazy is what happens afterwards.

Photo: Laurens

Usually the rest of the crew will stay silent and just keep the body on ice until the cruise docks at the next port. Then, the unfortunate fellow gets unloaded with any cargo, and everyone continues cruising off blissfully to paradise. It’s pretty hush-hush. Reddit User: papi_ajnc

Retiring In Style


I think these folks are some of the most fun passengers to attend, too. They’re just there to enjoy themselves and live life with absolutely nothing to lose. Despite being a bit older, they love to let lose and party. It’s great. Reddit User: ktho64152

Unsanitary Conditions

Babies on a cruise can be even more of a handful than babies on an airplane. One time, I was stuck acting as the lifeguard for one of the on-deck swimming pools, and a parent stuck their toddler in the pool with a regular diaper on. I advised the mother that she needed a waterproof diaper, and she simply laughed in my face.


As you can imagine, a baby doesn’t yet have control over its bodily functions, and sure enough, the pool had to soon be evacuated and cleaned out. Come on people, be considerate. Reddit user: linkhandford

Enjoying Your Time At Port

Often, crew members will visit the same set of ports on every voyage. Those times on shore are a lovely respite from the monotonous life on deck, and we end up enjoying our time there to the fullest. I personally have a “shore girlfriend” at every single port I frequent.

Photo: Man

Do they know about each other? I couldn’t tell you. But if they do, it doesn’t stop them coming back for more. I get to live a different little secret life at every stop I make along the voyage. Reddit User: tesla33

Trash Fires At Sea

Sure, we like to think that cruises are responsible institutions, what once we enter international waters, anything goes. Do you have any idea how much trash the passegers on these ships produce? We’re certainly not going to lug it around with us the whole time. What do we do? Burn it of course.

Photo: Fotios

I’ve seen entire garbage bins full of food scraps, soiled sheets, and even human waste thrown into massive incinerators and burned off without another word. None of the passengers would ever know that this happens behind their backs. Apparently, we make our own rules at sea. Reddit User: tesla33

Off To The Brig

Yes, it’s true that cruise ships have a “brig,” where we can stow unruly passengers. You can’t just have them running around if they’re a threat to the well-being of other paying passengers (or sometimes just too much of an annoyance). Luckily for prospective cruisers, it takes a direct order from the captain to send someone to the brig.


Therefore, It’s pretty unlikely to see this happen. Just getting too drunk is fine. But if you get too drunk and get into a fight, you might end up behind bars (and then booted off the boat at the next port). Believe me, people do get crazy out at sea. Reddit User: justaguyfrom1997

Mysterious Disappearances

Usually the cruises I work on are pretty uneventful. Not always though. Once I was working a voyage to Curaçao and one of our passengers disappeared. She would go on to become something of a household name, as they story gained some national attention.

Photo: D4

Nobody ever figured out what happened to her. The pessimists will always assume the worst, but I like to believe that she simply decided she wanted to start a new life, and is currently sipping piña coladas on the beach somewhere, like a boss. Reddit User: Idonthaveaname

Rough Landing

No, every cruise ship is not the Titanic- but yes, some of them do crash, just like any other form of transportation that’s affected by human and environmental variables. And I happened to be on one of them. The captain had been up late the previous night, doing who knows what. Suffice to say, his reflexes weren’t quite up to snuff when we were pulling into port. We didn’t do much damage, but let’s just say he used the “bump method” when he was parking his massive vessel.

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The ship ended up crushing a large part of the port structure, but luckily nobody was injured. And the boat didn’t tip over or anything. I don’t think that particular city will be renewing their contract with our cruise line any time soon. Reddit User: justaguyfrom1997

More Housekeepers Than A Wealthy Suburb

Ever wonder how cruise ships stay so clean? I mean, sure, they’re not that clean, but considering how may people are seasick and vomiting everywhere, they’re basically as good as you could imagine. The lines that I’ve worked on have a veritable army of cleaning professionals on call to make sure that any mess is gone before too many people notice.

Photo: st Class Keenan BerryReleased

Thank god for this. Otherwise, it would be unbearable to travel on a cruise, much less work on them. I’d guess that a pile of vomit is cleaned basically every 15 minutes on a long voyage. It’s pretty disgusting. Luckily, I have not had the job of cleaning it up. Reddit User: tesla33

The Secret Carpet Code

Do you know what distinguishes the passenger areas from the crew areas on a ship? Good, because you’re not supposed to. It’s actually the carpeting. Areas frequented by passengers usually have wall-to-wall carpets, while the areas frequented by the crew are floored with hard surfaces.


Ships are designed for the comfort of paying passengers, not crew members. And, since hard floors are easier to clean, it makes sense that you’d cover as much of the ship as possible in them, without hurting the “hotel” vibe for the guests. Truly, all of the beautiful aspects of cruises are reserved for the guests. Reddit User: TheBaltimoron

The Bar Is Open… For Everyone

There’s a reason you’re paying exorbitant prices for your “all inclusive” cruise ship vacation, and it’s not just to line the pockets of the cruise line owners. Turns out that we–the crew–are drinking the exact same things as the guests, just at a heavily discounted (or free) rate.


Often, the crew has complete access to the bar for no charge at all. Your bill helps support our drunkenness. Which, really, you should be happy about, since it helps us maintain our good attitudes while dealing with all of your antics. Reddit User: ElGofre

Cruise Ship Black Market

Like any economy of significant size, the economy on-board a cruise ship has a functioning black market of goods and services. All you need to do is find one of the many unscrupulous crew members who has managed to sneak something away, whether it’s alcohol, coupons for massages, VIP area entry passes, or whatever else they can find.


Then you have to persuade them to sell it to you, and try to get them to lower their prices a little bit. People get desperate out at sea. Often you can get wildly good prices. Next time you cruise, plan on avoiding the all inclusive option, and barter for your vacation instead. Reddit User: ElGofre


On every cruise ship where I’ve worked, there have been exceptionally few American crew members. The sad reality is that most cruise lines don’t pay their workers well by American standards. And if the line is headquartered abroad or owned by a foreign company, they don’t have to comply with American wage regulations.

Photo: Revel

The result is that American workers don’t consider cruises as viable employment. Cruise lines also try to avoid hiring Americans, since they’re just too expensive. It would be great if the industry could catch up with today’s wages, so that Americans could also benefit from this fun line of work. Reddit User: whatsmyline

Thin Margins

Cruises are not just expensive for guests. They can also be money pits for the companies providing them, which means margins are often razor thin. For example, I worked on a line that went through the Panama Canal, and the fuel alone cost roughly $45 per minute. The all-in cost of just sailing that tiny stretch of water was $300,000.

Photo: author credit)

On average, one ship goes through the canal every 10 days, which is just a shocking amount of money over time. So, in short, you’re probably not getting ripped off for the insane prices. Well, maybe you are anyway, but some of it is for good reason. Reddit User: tniehaus5

Smuggle In Your Alcohol, If You Dare

By far, the most expensive thing on a cruise ship–assuming you don’t go all inclusive–is the alcohol. Luckily, it’s also fairly easy to transport, so my advice would just be to smuggle it on with you. Sure there’s a risk of getting caught, but usually they’ll just take the booze away and let you on board.


So it’s not that bad of a gamble. If you do manage to get a copious amount of alcohol on board, you won’t just save money. You’ll also immediately become the most popular passenger on board. So if for nothing else, do it for the love. Reddit User: tniehaus5

“Man Overboard”

If you’re imagining a daring rescue situation when someone falls off a cruise ship, you’re picturing the movies. Most people who go overboard are difficult to recover, as the fall itself is enough to knock you unconscious when you hit the water. Add that to the fact that often times, nobody notices that someone has fallen.

Photo: Communication Specialist 3rd Class David A. Cox

For this reason, it’s important to stay far back from the railings. This isn’t an over-exaggeration for the sake of frightening a potential cruise-goes, it’s simply the truth, based on years of experience on many ships. Reddit User: Pr0cedure

Heated Disputes At Sea

A man once nearly accidentally threw his brother overboard in the heat of an argument that turned physical. We heard a commotion, and walked in just at the right time to catch the brother. One brother was apparently very upset at the other for losing 44 thousand dollars at the ship’s casino.

Photo: Yudica

It’s a good thing we saved this guy from himself, as who knows if cooler heads would have prevailed? Thankfully the brothers ended up getting through it, and they both stepped off the ship together once we docked. Reddit User: [Redacted]

Faulty Regulations

If you think that your American or European cruise ship is governed by American or European law, you’d be making a large assumption (and usually an inaccurate one). Most ships, since they’re traveling in international waters, fly under what are called “Flags of Convenience.”

Photo: Mills

Like big, multinational corporations, they just register wherever the costs and regulations are most favorable. Although this does help keep the cost of your ticket from exploding, it also means that the safety standards are sometimes less than rigorous. Oh well, just get drunk, roll the dice, and have a great time. Reddit User: Phantomsplit

Super-Power Toilets

Because the toilets on board need to keep functioning in the face of extreme distress, most ships fit their cabins with high-powered suction flushes. Those systems can handle pretty much anything. The flip side of this is that passengers know, and will flush the most absurd things down their toilets whenever given the chance.


While on board, I’ve heard of maintenance staff finding everything from t-shirts and shoes, to pool noodles and plastic containers in the sewage system pipes. Whatever you want, the toilets have it. Disgusting. Reddit User: [Redacted]

Check For Cameras

Most of the cruise ship is being monitored 24/7. And no, you can’t always see the cameras easily. So, if you’re one of those daring passengers who wants to push the limits and get a little frisky in public places, do yourself a favor, and check carefully to make sure nobody is watching.


Even if you don’t get reported, it’s a good bet that the crew is watching and enjoying it heartily. The most funny situations were the ones where the couple on camera would notice midway through. Usually, someone would look up, utter an expletive, then flee as fast as possible. Too late. Reddit User: pumpin69

Sea-Sickness Psychosis

Did you know that a little-known side effect of seasickness patches is temporary madness and psychosis? Usually, it’s not a problem since people wear them for short periods of time, and not many people wear them in the same place. But this is not true on cruise ships.


When you have hundreds of people wearing them for a week, something is going to happen. If you see someone running around flapping their wings like a chicken, or screaming uncontrollably, maybe ask their travel partners if they can quit the patch for a bit. Vomiting is definitely better than delusional insanity. Reddit User: Rojaddit

The Food Is Not Good

The sad truth is that if you’re a halfway decent chef, you won’t work on a cruise ship. The problems of a regular restaurant kitchen are all still there–the heat, the long hours, the brutal customers–but you’re stuck at sea for months. And the pay is awful. So, passengers and crew alike, beware, it won’t be tasty.

Photo: C.

You’re also liable to get sick from it. Not just because of the cooks. Just imagine all of the passengers at the buffet who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, and you’ll start to understand what you’re getting yourself into. Reddit User: ElGofre

College Dorm Rooms

The cabins–even the premium ones you pay exorbitant sums for–just aren’t that nice. I mean, it’s a natural result of the cramped quarters and lack of space on the ships, so there’s nothing to get upset about. But you’ll feel more like you’re in a college dorm room than at home.


They’re pretty cramped, and don’t have any storage for your things. Most people get used to it pretty quickly and it’s just part of the experience. But either way, get ready to downgrade your definition of luxury. Reddit User: ElGofre

Pee In A Cup

If you want to work on a cruise ship, be aware that the drug testing rules are fairly strict. Not only will you have to pass an unannounced drug test sometime in the lead up to joining the crew, but the entire crew is usually subject to the threat of random drug tests while they’re on board.


So don’t even think about bringing anything with you. It’s certainly interesting, since drinking alcohol (sometimes to excess) is extremely common among the crew. But drugs are a big no no. I suppose some crew member may go overboard with drinking because they can’t do anything else. Reddit User: daftsnuts

You’ll Have To Disconnect

The wifi is not going to be up to par with what you’re used to back home. Even on all inclusive ships, you often have to pay for service, and they’re usually terrible. They advertise that you can use it for streaming, but only if you want to wait for your show to buffer every five minutes.


It’s pretty terrible. The sad part is that this is also true for the crew. It actually makes it much harder to stay in touch with friends and family back home while you’re at sea. The upside is that it’s a time to disconnect from your phone and just enjoy the time at sea. Reddit User: teddersman


Being on a cruise–as either a crew member or a passenger–means you’re stuck in close quarters with a lot of people who you don’t share that much in common with. Naturally, people will self-segregate into groups that align with their interests and backgrounds. And naturally those groups will compete with each other.

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Does it sound at all like high school? That’s because it is. Get ready to be thrown back into the school lunchroom every time you visit the ship’s cafeteria. Cruse are known for being very cliquey, and cliques often don’t want to associate with others. Reddit User: JMPBass

Class Conflicts

Much of the time, the guests we serve on board are fun-loving and kind. They’re just there to have fun. Too often, though, you get some overly entitled person who thinks they’re better than you simply because they have money. They’ll talk down to you, order you around like you’re a personal servant, and issue scathing insults when you do something they dislike.

Photo: International Pub. Co.

I’ve worked in restaurants and it’s not much different in terms of how people act. The main difference is that, on a cruise, you’re stuck with the annoying people for a week at a time. And you have to be nice to them if you want to keep your job, which is not always easy. Reddit User: JMPBass

An International Crew

Because the ships move around, provide housing, and usually don’t tax their crew members (unless they happen to be American), they’re great ways for people to make money to send home to their families. On the ships that I’ve worked on, this has been particularly popular with Filipino men sending remittances back home.

Photo: Nations Photo

The people who are in it to support their families are always more serious. Definitely not the “let’s get drunk all the time” kind of crew members at all. The Filipino men I know on the ship are the hardest workers I know. Reddit User: zakalwe_666

Being A Musician Has Benefits

You can work in a ton of different jobs in the crew on a cruise ship, but being a musician is by far the most lucrative (except being an officer, of course). One reason is, whenever the ship docks at port, you can hop off and play gigs in the local bars and clubs. Sometimes they pay way better than the ship itself.

Photo: (no author credit)

Obviously, this varies depending on where your particular ship is traveling. The more crowded the port where you dock, the better the port gig pay will be. But, on the other hand, the competition to book gigs will be more stiff. The best gigs are in the European ports. Reddit User: TickleMafia

A Barter Economy

Since the internet and streaming ability on board is so awful, the ability to entertain yourself becomes a hot commodity. Often, both passengers and crew members will hop on board with large external hard drives full of movies and TV shows, which they can then trade for anything they want–free services, alcohol, you name it.

Photo: Viinamäki

It actually functions almost like the cigarette economy in prison. You’re trapped in a confined space with a restricted ability to use real money. Of course something like this will develop. In fact, cruise ships are like prison in a number of ways, now that I think about it. Reddit User: zakalwe_666

Don’t Plan On Doing Laundry

If you’re a passenger, just bring enough clothes for the week. There are very few washers and dryers, and let’s just say that the average person who goes on a cruise for a week is not the sharpest tool in the shed. Someone is always breaking something in the laundry room, whether it’s putting too much detergent in the washer or putting something plastic in a hot dryer.

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Believe, it’s absurd how stupid some of the passengers are. Just don’t count on needing to use a laundry system, or be happy wearing dirty clothes, since the odds of you accessing a functional laundry service are slim to none. Reddit User: too-tsunami

Smaller Boats Are Closer To Paradise

I worked as a personal dive instructor on a small, yacht-style cruise for a bit. There were only about 10 crew members at a given time, so the quarters were much less cramped, we all had enough food, and we always had access to basic living essentials like washing machines.

Photo: author credit)

The guests were still crazy, and often treated the crew horribly, but it was a totally different experience from working on a big cruise line. If you love the sea and have some experience, definitely try to opt for a smaller cruise ship. You’ll feel much calmer during the trip. Reddit User: GDH27

Hiring Discrimination

I’ve been on a bunch of cruise ships, and each time, the job assignments (and corresponding pay grades) were basically determined by nationality. The Americans and Europeans usually got the glamorous jobs–officers, entertainers, etc.–while the folks from poorer countries with more lax labor laws, like Filipinos and Indonesians, got stuck with the harder, lower paying jobs–bartenders or cleaners.

Photo: EMPL

Unfortunately, this is a very real issue in the cruise ship industry. Since there’s little to no oversight of the industry, the companies get away with it. And the jobs, even the bad ones, do pay, so people are willing to put up with the issues. Hopefully, this issue improves in the near future. Reddit User: BilliousN

The Shopping Discounts

If you have a bit of extra spending money, then working on a ship can be a great way to get discounts on luxury products. All of the stores on deck have fancy stuff–nice watches, top shelf alcohol and perfumes, luxury clothes–and as a crew member, you usually get a fixed, percentage-based discount wherever you shop.


Something to note is that, even though products, are discounted, expensive products will still be expensive. Most of the crew members are simply too poor to make much money off of the deals, but if you’re on board just to have a cool job and see the world, you might as well also get a Rolex out of it. Reddit User: [Redacted]

Custom Yachts Are Insane

I never worked on a cruise ship, but I helped design personal yachts big enough to basically be considered cruises. The billionaires who buy these things have some very interesting desires, and my job was to make them into realities. I’ve done drawings with some wacky additions, like dining tables with poles on them.


These personal yachts are basically a playrooms for people who have so much money that nothing is out of reach. If you can imagine it, someone has probably put it in a mega yacht. Rich people really can do whatever they want. Reddit User: Boroviack

Working On A Cruise, Not For A Cruise

On many ships there are crew positions that are sponsored by companies at the ports where the ships stop. For example, I worked as a “port shopping ambassador,” which meant my job was to accompany passengers onto land whenever the ship docked, and persuade them to buy things from specific stores.


The job was perfect. I didn’t have to do the hard work that the rest of the crew did, and the passengers pretended to respect me since I had the energy of knowing about luxury goods, so I seemed kind of rich. Plus I got to travel for free. A win-win. Reddit User: greenmanmarket

There’s A Reason Some Have Worked For Years

I worked on a cruise ship for a relatively short period of time (just a few years, with breaks in between). I found a very interesting mix on board, including students doing six-month stints to see the world, and older folks who had been in the industry for decades.


I usually found out that the older employees were often running from something back home. Whether it was a nasty divorce, alcoholism, or problems at their last job, it was usually something. You don’t spend your life on a cruise without a solid reason. Reddit User: rothmaniac

Quality Medical Staff

Basically anything can happen on board a cruise, and the medical staff has to be ready for it all. The staffers are usually trained EMTs, and there are always at least a few doctors on board. They’re paid extremely well, and live in cushy quarters. The company has to do something to lure them off the land.

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There is a limit to what they’ll do for you on the boat. For instance, if you need a surgery, you’ll probably be taken to a hospital when you get to port. But for what they can do on-board, you’ll get a good service. Reddit User: jahitz

Never Work On The Engine Crew

The crews doing the maintenance work that keeps the ship running may be paid reasonably well, but the lifestyle is brutal. You’re stuck below decks almost the entire time, mostly isolated from the rest of the crew, and totally isolated from the passengers.

Photo: CNA C6F

You’re also usually too tired to properly party when you’re shifts are over. Unless you’re a trained mechanical engineer who literally can’t get any other job, I’d probably pass on this one. There are much better ways to experience the cruise life. Reddit User: ArabianGoggles

Over Time, The Sea Becomes Home

I was originally a dancer from Scotland, but then I spent several years (okay, 10 years) working as a dancer aboard a big cruise line. I traveled all over the world, and spent close to three quarters of every year on deck. I recently got married and moved back to Scotland to give up the sea, and it’s been rather difficult to adjust.

Photo: Gadal

Not only do you have to lose your sea legs, but there’s something romantic about sleeping in a different place every night that is genuinely hard to give up, even when something fantastic is tying you down at home. I’ll miss my life out on the seas. Reddit User: zakalwe_666