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From Gratuities To Below Deck, Cruise Ship Crew Member Tells All

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We’ve all heard stories about what goes on behind the scenes of a cruise ship. But when we wanted to know the unvarnished truth, we sat down with a crew member to ask a few burning questions.

From whether they know if you remove the daily gratuities, to how much action happens below deck, we asked. They answered. As for the crew member’s name and the ship on which they work, let’s just say the names have been left out to protect the innocent.

Listen to the interview here:

Q: Let’s start easy. What’s the best part about working on a cruise ship?

A: The best part is that you have a chance to develop a career on the ship and meet people from all over the world. Maybe even the love of your life, who knows? It is a unique experience where we can earn some money and see destinations that we would not see by staying back home. It is a life-changing experience, for sure.

Q: And what’s the downside?

A: When we take a job on a ship, we are aware that we will face a hard job. There are rules to follow, and it can be a big change. We work every day, 10 hours a day, for months. Contracts are from 6-10 months, depending on the department. We also spent time training, taking part in three or four safety drills a month, plus the time we need to do laundry and other personal stuff. The truth is, we do not have enough time, and the lack of sleep is the most common problem for crew members. But as we say, that’s ship life.

Q: Let’s talk about the daily gratuities charged to customers. Does the crew get all of that money, or is some reinvested to cover the cost of flights home, training, etc?

A: If the guests pay, the money goes straight to the salary of crew members.

Want to show your appreciation to a crew member? Cash is always welcome!

Q: You said, “if.” Does the crew know if a guest has asked to remove the daily gratuities?

A: Yes, that’s not a secret. [Laughs] The line that we see at the end of the cruise in front of Guest Services is 85 percent, maybe even more, people who are there to remove gratuities. Sometimes, we as crew members understand when it involves bad service or some issue about customer satisfaction.

But in many cases, we know that they just have no money, or they spent a lot in the casino, so they remove it, thinking that they are taking it from the company. But it’s coming out of our pocket.

Q: How are gratuities actually distributed?

A: In my opinion, and this goes for many of my friends who work on the ship, they should not be called “gratuities.” Many departments — for example, housekeeping and waiters — have salaries based on the gratuities. When guests remove gratuities, they are taking our part of that salary. At the end of the cruise, when guests leave the ship, we are provided with lists of our guests who paid and those who removed gratuities.

This is how the company shows us why our salaries are lower or higher. Imagine the situation when a guest goes back on the same ship and have a waiter who knows that last time, they removed gratuities. But the waiter will serve them again with full respect and do his best, because that is his job, even if he knows they will remove the gratuities again. If half of the guests remove their gratuities, then we get just half our salary.

Crew members work their tails off in an effort to ensure that every guest has the best possible vacation, no matter the ship or the line.

Q: How do you think the system should be changed?

Gratuities should exist like this, and it is okay if guests remove them. But we crew members believe that our basic salary should be provided by the company, and it should be higher. Then these issues with gratuities would not be a problem. That is why I say that they shouldn’t be called “gratuities.” It should be made clear that this is part of the crew’s salary, so people know what it is. We never blame guests for removing gratuities. As long as there is an option for them to do so, it is legal and allowed.

Q: If a guest tips the headwaiter, does that get split with the servers who help them care for that table?

In most cases, if you take care of the headwaiter, he’ll take care of his assistants.

A: The headwaiter is like the father of the waiter’s station. Sure, they split the tips. In some cases, they even give it all to their team, because the headwaiter is the one who has the biggest salary.

I’ve heard stories where some headwaiters took money or they were bad to their team, but these individuals are very, very rare. Even in those cases, assistants can request… a new headwaiter and these issues can be easily solved.

Q: Do the positive write-ups get you promoted or help when it is time to negotiate a new contract?

A: Every positive comment that guests leave for crew members, or when they tell managers about them, is directly beneficial for us as crew members. It doesn’t mean that we will get the promotion right away, but it means a lot. It’s a huge plus, especially if these positive words or writings repeat.

Not all superheroes you find on cruise ships wear spandex. Many wear uniforms and big smiles. (photo: Disney Cruise Line)

Q: How are the contracts negotiated?

Maybe there are differences in the contracts in some other departments, but what I know is that most of our first contracts are eight months long. After the first contract, we are able to request a six-month contract, and you can also request to extend it to 10 months. There is not some big deal about it. We work six, eight, ten months then we have between five and eight weeks of vacation back home. Then we go back on board.

Q: How hard is it to eat the food in the crew mess when there are so many dining options available to passengers and the officers?

A: Hmmm. Yes, the food in the crew mess could be better. There are a variety of nationalities there, I think more than 60, and chefs are trying to prepare a variety of food so anybody can find something. But usually, Asian food is most present. The kitchen in the crew mess is also working hard. I was there in the beginning, but the quality is what is missing. Quantity is not a problem.

Q: What is the best way for a cruiser to show their appreciation to the crew?

A: First of all, nice behavior. Be kind. This is the most important. Then, tips and nice words to managers would be a great way to show appreciation, of course, if you think that some crew member deserves it.

Q: Are you able to bank your paychecks to save them?

A: We have ship debit cards, where we keep and receive our salaries. We can withdraw or keep it there as long as we wish.

Q: What is the “Filipino Mafia” like below deck?

A: [Laughs] Filipinos are good people, most of them that I met. The most interesting thing about Filipinos is that when you see them in the crew mess, they all take full plates of rice. I never saw someone eat that much rice! [Laughs again] After work, they usually spend time talking on WhatsApp with their families back home, doing laundry, walking around in the crew area or sleeping.

Q: We’ve all heard stories about how it’s like high school, with lots of gossip and people sleeping around. Are the stories true?

A: No, it’s more like the outside world. The only difference is that people can’t hide it easily. Many crew members have partners on the ship, and many of them got married and still work together on the ship or they are engaged. There are a variety of situations. Couples can request cabins to live there together, that is normal, but it is not even close to being like what people and many ex-crew members say.

They are just [looking for] attention, probably, wanting to sound like bad boys. It is normal, adult people working and living there. So to be in a relationship or even if some of them had affairs, it is not like Sodom and Gomorrah! It’s just normal life.

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