How long are crew contracts on cruise ships?

Aug 11, 2023

Landing cruise ship jobs means committing yourself to work far away from home for many months. But not everyone spends the same amount of time on board. Contract durations change from one cruise ship company to another and from position to position.

On board a cruise ship, employees are divided according to departments: activity and shipboard entertainment, deck and engineering, service, and hospitality (including food and beverage, purser, housekeeping, and hotel administration), personal care and medical, and sometimes corporate.

Contracts tend to be longer when you start working on a cruise ship – typically at the bottom of the hierarchy, depending on your experience in hospitality. Princess Cruises offers contracts that can last up to 10 months, with work schedules demanding as many as 10 to 13 hours a day, seven days a week.

Royal Caribbean Cruises contracts that average around six months. Carnival Corporation, similarly, offers eight to nine-month contracts to staff in positions such as galley supervisors. A stateroom steward can expect seven to eight-month contracts with the same company.

Roles with more responsibility can come with shorter contracts. Disney requires chefs de Partie to spend around six months on board and commit to at least two to three contracts before considering a promotion. Sous chefs with big companies like Royal Caribbean typically work around four months per contract.

Disney's chefs de cuisine, one of the higher level positions on board, enjoy four-month contracts with two months off and medical and life insurance, disability insurance, and retirement plan benefits as long as a return contract is signed.

No matter what the duration of the contract is, most employees in the service and hospitality sector can expect to work very long hours – longer than similar positions on land. Even executive chefs are on their feet most of the time, even if they may not be doing as much actual cooking as, say, a line cook. They must visit every restaurant under their watch, do food tastings, and sometimes put the final touches on dishes before they go out for service.

There are no holidays on board for anyone. It's a seven-day week, and once your contract ends, so does the payment. This holds especially true for entry-level jobs where cruise ship companies have thousands of applicants and can replace staff at the drop of a hat.

Most staff can indicate whether they would like to return for another contract, and the cruise ship company will send them the details at the requisite time. It is then up to them to choose whether or not they would like to continue, just as in a land job.

In countries like India and the Philippines, many work multiple contracts, rising through the ranks and gaining valuable experience while they are young and able to handle the demanding pressures of the job. They can then use this experience to join a high position at a land-based resort or company or start something independently.

In entry-level positions, contracts allow for around six to eight weeks off between contracts. Often, one does not receive any salary for this 'vacation time.' However, in top positions, depending on the type of contract and company, one may get paid for the time off. Usually, this can last up to about two months.

Many cruise ship companies like to sign rolling contracts with their employees. Rolling contracts are the opposite of fixed-term contracts, where employees are brought on board for a certain period. A rolling contract continues until one party – the employee or the company – ends it for whatever reason they see fit. This works well for both parties.

What are the requirements for onboard employment?

While specific position requirements depend on the job you are interested in, there are some essential requirements that all crew must meet to work onboard:

Be 21 years of age or older

Be able to pass a criminal background check

Hold a valid passport

Have a US C1/D visa (if you are not a Canadian or US citizen/resident)

Have a cruise line-specific pre-employment medical exam certificate

Meet the English fluency requirements relevant to your position

What is a C1/D visa?

Also known as a seaman's visa, some nationalities need this to work onboard a ship and travel to certain countries. This visa normally lasts between two and five years. You will be required to make an appointment at your nearest US Embassy to gain this visa; your manning agency will supply all paperwork for the appointment.

How do I get to and from the ship I am assigned to?

At the beginning of each contract, the company will provide flights from your designated airport to your assigned ship. After your contract, the company will also arrange for your travel back home. It is your responsibility to get to the airport from your home, but from there, we will provide any necessary accommodations and transportation to and from the ship.

How long will I be onboard?

Contract lengths vary by position but range between four and ten months. After each contract, you will receive approximately 60 days of vacation before your next assignment. Your daily work schedule while onboard will depend on your position, but you can expect to work seven days a week and anywhere between 10-13 hours per day.

Can I get off and go home during the contract?

Time off during the contract is not permitted. In case of family emergencies, most cruise line companies understand that additional time at home may be needed and accommodate these requests on a case-by-case basis.

Will I have my own room?

Accommodations vary depending on the ship and position. Those in non-management positions generally share a cabin with one to three other roommates, whereas those in most management positions are entitled to a single cabin. Cabins include a storage space, TV, and DVD player.

What is the power voltage in my cabin?

All vessels have 120v US power, and some vessels also have 220v European power.

Can I drink alcohol onboard?

Yes, alcohol is available for purchase during time off. However, most cruise lines have a strict alcohol limit, and at no time can a crew member be intoxicated.

Is there a drug policy?

Cruise ship companies have a zero-tolerance drug policy. All crew are subject to random and reasonable-suspicion drug testing. Violation of these policies will result in termination.

Is there a curfew?

There is no set curfew. However, the crew who are out late should be respectful of other crew members and guests nearby.

Can I bring a family member or friend on board?

Crew members who meet specific length-of-service criteria can request "relatives travel," a benefit that allows family members to sail onboard for a limited period of time. Some restrictions may apply.

Will I have access to guest areas and amenities during my time off?

While some officer-level positions allow restricted access to guest areas, most facilities are for guests only. However, we have a variety of crew-only facilities, such as a crew pool, whirlpool, gym, bar, and Crew Club, a communal room where you can gather to watch movies, play games, sing karaoke, and much more.

Once onboard, how do I stay in touch with my friends and family back home?

Postal mail services are available while onboard. You will also have access to computers in the crew training areas. Wi-fi Internet is also available in the crew areas if you bring your laptop or tablet. Most cruise lines offer discounted rates for phone and Internet cards so you can stay in touch with those at home. But remember that satellite capabilities are sometimes limited while the ship is at sea.

Can I have mail delivered to the ship?

You will be provided with mailing addresses for ports where mail can best be delivered.

Is there an ATM onboard to use?

There is an ATM in the guest areas; an ATM charge will apply. You can also cash checks in the Crew Office onboard to get cash.

Do I pay taxes?

US citizens will have federal taxes automatically deducted and may be required to pay state taxes, if applicable. All other nationalities are responsible for filing their tax forms upon returning to their home countries (as they are self-employed).

How do I pay for items onboard?

You will be provided with a bar account number, which is your number for the duration of your contract onboard each ship. As the entire vessel is cashless, even for guests, you will provide your account number at the bars, salons, and shops in guest areas. In the Crew Bar, you can purchase a CrewCard and add money to it for purchases. At the end of every month, you must settle your account.

What about the laundry?

There are crew laundry facilities where the washers and dryers are free of charge—you provide the soap. You can also use the dry cleaning onboard, but there is a nominal cost.

What happens if I get sick while working onboard?

While onboard, all crew are medically covered and can visit the Medical Clinic for health concerns. If you need to be medically disembarked during your contract, the cruise ship company will provide transportation to a land-based medical facility and repatriate you back home.

Can I visit the ports while working onboard?

If you are not scheduled to work when the ship is in port, you can disembark the ship with your supervisor's approval. Occasionally, there are crew-specific activities or tours to participate in.

Safety requirements dictate that certain crew members be present on each vessel at all times. As such, there may occasionally be times when, although not scheduled to work, you must remain onboard while the ship is in port.