Traveling the world as cruise ship crew…
Working on cruise ships is one of the most unique jobs there is, and one of the best ways to travel the world. And because it’s such a unique lifestyle, people often ask me what it’s really like. It’s a tough life. I don’t get to choose where I go, and sometimes I get stuck working the same few ports over and over, for weeks or months at a time. I’m at the mercy of my ship’s itinerary, my manager’s scheduling and endless safety drills. But my ship career lasted eight years and took me to over 60 countries – making it all worthwhile.
My position on board was a key factor in determining how I would experience the places we would go. I worked in the Youth Activities Department, which is a great position to have if you love the travel side of the job as much as I do. I often had full days off while in port to explore or go on an excursion. Other days I stared miserably out the window while manning an empty youth Centre. I missed out on Paris and Machu Picchu, had only one hour to explore Malta my only time there, and because of recurring safety drills, all I saw of incredible Kauai through an entire season in Hawaii was the hotel beach right next to the ship. I spent six months on a ship sailing out of the Los Angeles area and never got to see the city itself because US Customs and Border Patrol were so strict that there just wasn’t time for our crew to get there and back before we had to be back on board again. But it works both ways, and sometimes luck was on my side. I spent an entire season in the sunny Mediterranean, cruised Antarctica, and managed to spend the day in Bora Bora (the most coveted of all ports) both times I was there. As many do, my cruise line offers free or heavily discounted excursions for crew, and I was lucky enough to ride an elephant in Bali, snorkel the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, feast on freshly-caught crab in Alaska and much more – all for free.
With so many restrictions, and so little time, I learned to be a smart traveler. I did my research and I hit the ground running to try and get the most I could out of every moment. My greatest triumph was Shanghai. I was working in the morning and the crew had to be back on board extremely early because of strict customs officials, but I was determined. With only about three hours in a city where English is not widely spoken, I managed to get to Yu Gardens, explore the amazing Town God’s Temple, walk along the Bund waterfront, and buy silk wall hangings for myself and a fan for my mother. It was rushed, it was stressful, and I was almost late on board, but it was worth it – I had seen China. As frustrating as it was to have such a short time there and in other ports, it was also incredible because it’s somewhere I never would have ventured on my own. Sampling slivers of lots of different places helped me discover which ones I’d love to explore further – my brief experiences in Bali, Hong Kong and Malta have put them at the top of my travel wish list when they had never previously been places I had thought to visit.
Striking Out on Your Own
It amazed me to see many passengers arriving for their cruise with no inkling of where they were visiting or what they were going to do in each port. With only one day to experience what a place has to offer, being prepared is crucial. It pays to know whether the sights are easily accessible or if a guided tour is the best option, such as in Rome where the ship docks 1.5 hours from the city, time is very limited, and it’s not an easy city to navigate quickly if you don’t know where you’re going. But in so many places, it’s incredibly simple and rewarding to strike out on your own – Barcelona, Hong Kong and Copenhagen. They’re very walkable cities with efficient public transportation that’s simple to navigate. It’s easy to get to where you want to go, see exactly what you want to, and explore at your own pace.
Another thing that shocked me was the number of passengers who would tell me that they were not going out in a particular port because they had been there before. I’ve been here 10 times, I’d tell them, and I’m going. There’s always something new to see and explore, it’s a question of getting off the beaten path. Take Livorno for example – from this humble port you can venture not only to Pisa and Florence, but to incredible Cinque Terre, medieval Lucca, and more. Anyone who quits after seeing the Leaning Tower is truly missing out, as Cinque Terre is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the less obvious choice can be as inspiring as the places you’ve heard so much about. When we docked in Yokohama, Japan, I was pretty devastated when I discovered that all the excursions to Tokyo were leaving early in the morning and I couldn’t go as I was working until noon. So I signed up for the only tour I could – an afternoon departure to Kamakura to see the Giant Buddha. The tour was fantastic, not only was visiting the 36-foot Buddha statue an amazing experience, but we also explored a temple and its grounds where a traditional Japanese wedding happened to be taking place in the outdoor pavilion. I had time to wander the side streets of Kamakura, buy a magnet for my collection, and eat a delicious steamed pork bun. I still want to visit Tokyo, but I got to experience Japan.
As crew, we’re always looking for a place to get away, somewhere that isn’t overrun by tourists. If you’re ever on a cruise and want to find the best spots, ask the crew. Of course, they may not tell you, since that would defeat their purpose of escaping the passengers for the day. But they may respect that you’re not a tourist trap sort of traveler, and let you in on their secret restaurant, where the nicest part of the beach is, or which café has great coffee and free WiFi (ship internet is incredibly expensive, even for crew). Sometimes it’s as easy as keeping your eyes open and walking just that little bit further from everyone else.
In the somewhat rundown port of Ensenada, Mexico on the main street is a Papas & Beer franchise where you can eat Tex-Mex and do tequila shots upside down while listening to extremely loud music. It’s always full of cruise ship passengers and other tourists who have no idea that right next door is Mexico Lindo Taqueria and the most delicious, authentic tacos and burritos for a fraction of the price. In Grand Turk, in the Caribbean, it’s as simple as walking to the end of the beach – past the cruise village and the ever-popular 500-seat Margaritaville restaurant a half-minute’s walk from the pier – to Jack’s Shack, a beach front bar and grill with awesome drinks, renowned jerked chicken and a famous swimming, hole-digging dog named Topher. It’s a great place to spend the day on a gorgeous part of the beach, and so many people miss it because they plop down at the first spot they see.
Another perk of being in a different place each day is the food. You learn where to find great cuisine for good value either by word-of-mouth or just by wandering around. You look for smaller and more authentic places, avoiding chain restaurants or those catering to tourists. Many cruise ship passengers fail to take advantage of these potential culinary and cultural experiences, either by being too cautious to try new things, or unwilling to spend money when they can eat ‘for free’ on board the ship’s buffet.
In places like Greece and Turkey, where the food is not only fantastic, but can be very cheap (you can get a delicious gyro or kebab on the street for about two euros), it boggled my mind to see passengers returning to the ship for lunch, or worse, heading to the nearest McDonald’s! Food for cruise ship crew can be notoriously bad, but once outside you have the chance to taste an endless array of cuisines. I’ve eaten fresh pasta in Italy, crepes in France, Korean barbeque in South Korea, and in New Zealand a Maori hangi feast where the food was slow-cooked underground – there have been so many delicious meals. But of course, I’ve missed out on some things too. As a huge sushi fan, I didn’t get to eat a single bite of it in Japan, and the closest I came to having the dim sum I dreamed of in Hong Kong was a single (though delicious) barbeque pork bun. But I discovered the world’s best burger – at Burger Queen in Ketchikan, Alaska – and my all-time favorite ice cream flavor: Tutu’s Anniversary, a delicious mixture of coconut, raspberry and passion fruit only available in Hawaii. I still think about that burger, and though I’ll never be in Alaska again, I make sure others who are going know where to find that tiny burger shack so they can share in the deliciousness.
Working on cruise ships is an amazing way to travel and a great way to save money. It’s also exhausting, stressful and frustrating. You go to work for six months at a time, working seven days a week, living, working and socializing with the same people, sharing a tiny room, eating a lot of bad food and never getting enough sleep. You need to have the right personality and the right mindset and be able to embrace an unorthodox lifestyle. If you do, you will love every minute of it and have some incredible adventures. I’ve settled down now, and am living the land life in Copenhagen, Denmark, but I haven’t stopped traveling and I will never forget my incredible experiences exploring the world with a ship as my home.
Images by Caroline Coupe
BIO: Caroline is a passionate traveler, photographer and aspiring travel writer. From Canada, she recently settled in Copenhagen, Denmark after spending eight years working on cruise ships and nine months working at a boutique hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland. Caroline has launched a travel blog, LoveLiveTravel, based on her experiences around the world. It can be found at www.lovelivetravel.co.uk, and is also on Twitter at @lovelivetravel.