As a student nearing graduation, it's not a question of if but when you're going to wake up one day and realize you need to see the world. But we're not all Kardashians, and plane tickets are pricey. How do you bite the travel bug back without bankrupting yourself?
You make like Jack Sparrow and go to sea, aboard one of those floating pleasure palaces we know as cruise ships.
“Cruise jobs are not only for travel students,” says Mary Lendway, professor and program coordinator of Tourism Management, at Humber College’s Travel Industry Services program, in Toronto. “There are many different positions available, such as: counsellors for kids' camps, assistant pursers, bartenders, shore excursion leaders, photographers, and retail store sales people.” Ships need to hire everyone from lifeguards to servers, bartenders to Blackjack dealers, musicians, dancers, AV technicians, and many more.
Sara Law had just graduated from McMaster University with a degree in Fine Arts and English when she shipped out. “At that time, my cousin had worked on cruise ships for several years and really enjoyed it. I wanted to travel, but didn't have a lot of money to spend. It seemed like the best option,” she says. After applying through an agency and enduring an extensive hiring process – including a health screening and an intensive training camp – she landed a job in her field, as an art associate in one of the galleries common to many larger ships, working solely on commission.
Lendway says lots of her students seek work on cruise ships after finishing school, but warns it's not all fun in the sun and fruity drinks with paper umbrellas. “You need to be committed, hard working, adventurous, flexible, fun loving, and a team player. Most cruise jobs are seven days of work a week for the duration of a contract that is usually a minimum of six months.”
Stephen Belyea, a Seneca College grad from New Brunswick, had been interning on land before he got his job on a cruise ship as a broadcast assistant and AV technician. He says the biggest challenge of the seagoing life was the culture shock. “There was a definite and all-consuming class system on a ship that comes from a navy-style hierarchy. The captain was the all-powerful ruler and his top guys could get away with whatever they wanted, while every step below got fewer privileges.”
If working on a cruise ship sounds more like an episode of Survivor than a vacation, then you're getting the right picture. Expect long days, cramped living quarters, and no privacy. And expect to leave the experience a changed person.
“I hadn’t been outside of Canada and the US before I worked on the ship, so I really had no concept of how other cultures genuinely lived,” Belyea says, describing the ports he explored in Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia during his contract. “The whole experience definitely burst my early-20’s full-of-myself bubble.”
“For five months, every day I was able to enjoy a new country. How many people can honestly say that?” Law reminisces. “I had great friends and met people from all over the world. I experienced things and explored places I never would have been able to otherwise. I had free room and board. If you talk to seasoned crew members, you find out about cheap, awesome places to eat and relax on shore. The experience wasn't always easy, but it was great fun.”
Due to family business that he couldn’t be away from, Belyea left his job when his contract was up. “But while it lasted, I got to see the pyramids, get pursued by Somalian pirates, climbed mountains in Oman, get robbed in Bangkok, drank in the streets of Hong Kong, and toured the memorial and museum for the Hiroshima bombing. I ate and drank exquisitely foreign things at every possible moment — and I made damn good money while doing it.”
Not so hot on tropical seas, screaming kids, and old people playing shuffleboard? A cruise job could still fit your travel dreams. Many cruise lines now sail to more exotic locales, like the Galapagos or Antarctica. But those ships are much smaller, so competition is fierce. You'll need a stacked résumé and some experience under your belt before you cast off.