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Work and Travel on a Small Cruise Ship

Cruise Ship in Alaska
Small cruise ship in Alaska.

If I had a dollar every time I heard somebody exclaim “that’s my dream job!” I’d be a far richer woman than I am today. Working on a National Geographic cruise ship as a massage therapist was, in many ways, my dream job. I traveled to Alaska in the summer, the Pacific Northwest in the fall, and Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico in the winter. The destinations may have been fewer and less exotic than the itineraries of some of the larger cruise lines, but the added perks of being associated with National Geographic were incomparable. We made ample time for wildlife viewing, had special photography focused trips with National Geographic photographers, and spent far less time stationed in port than the bigger ships. Our trips were not called cruises. They were called expeditions.

As the Wellness Specialist on board, I provided professional spa services to the guests such as massages, facials, and scrubs. I also taught a stretch class in the morning to the early risers (when I wasn’t being outshone by wildlife) and led aerobic hikes during our daily excursions to shore. Even though we traveled to the same places with different guests each week, season after season, there were no two trips that were exactly the same. Each trip had at least one memorable or outstanding event. Most had several. Some of my favorite memories from working on the boat are horseback riding on the beach in Costa Rica, touching a gray whale in Baja, and photographing a brown bear fishing for salmon at the base of a waterfall in Alaska.

Touching a whale
Touching a whale.

The ships that I worked on were small, about 62 passengers and 30 crew, so the level of interaction was quite high and I enjoyed getting to know each of our guests. As an employee, I was encouraged to eat meals in the dining room with the guests. When I was not working I was free to engage in any of the guest activities such as Zodiac cruising, kayaking, or snorkeling.  Although I didn’t have a set schedule when working on the ship (I was pretty much “on duty” 24/7), I did have a pretty sweet working calendar. My contracts would typically run from four to six weeks and then I would have between two and six weeks off where I could return home or do some personal travel. During some of my breaks I traveled to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Ecuador, and the Baltic Sea before returning to work on the boat. I considered this a pretty good arrangement.

Hiking in Ecuador
Author hiking in Ecuador.

You may be wondering to yourself, how can I get a job like this? Fortunately, there are a many opportunities to work on cruise ships, but you have to decide which kind of cruise ship you want to work on. Large cruise lines will take you to the Caribbean, Europe, Hawaii, and farther, but it will be a completely different experience from working on a smaller cruise ship or yacht. I only have experience with the smaller ships, so my advice is for those who want a more intimate experience. I started my life at sea as a steward, which is most definitely the easiest way to get your foot on the gangway. There are also plenty of jobs as a deckhand if you’re more interested in the workings and running of the ship. It’s a good idea to start off with a 4-6 month contract to see if you actually like living on a boat. Quarters can be cramped, there’s not a whole lot of downtime, communication with the outside world is often limited if not non-existent, and homesickness (or seasickness!) may be an issue for some. But more often than not, the incredible sights, wildlife encounters, excursions, and making of new friends more than balance out the challenges of living and working on a boat. If it’s something you think might interest you or should you have a yearning to see the world but lack the funds to travel, I highly recommend applying for a job on a cruise ship. Most of the entry level positions (such as stewards or deckhands) don’t require additional education after high school, and the opportunities for advancement are usually pretty high. The majority of the ship officers, at all levels, started their careers as deckhands.

What follows are a few small cruise ship companies to get you started on your search. One of the things I look for on websites is an employment page or “careers” button. Typically they are found at the bottom of the page or under the “About Us” link. I have found that they are invaluable for discovering interesting and unique job opportunities around the world. Good luck and safe sailing! 

Costa Rica sunset
Costa Rica sunset.

For More Information

Lindblad Expeditions: An expedition-style cruise ship company partnered with National Geographic. Their cruises operate in places such as the Arctic Sea, Europe, New Zealand, Baja California, Costa Rica, the Galapagos, Antarctica, and more. All cruises are staffed with a certified National Geographic photographer.

Un-Cruise Adventures: Similar to Lindblad Expeditions, but with fewer destinations, all in the Americas. They also have several smaller, more luxurious, ships with as few guests, and claim to follow the tenets of Responsible Travel. 

American Cruise Lines: Only operating in the United States, these cruises travel along inland waterways and rivers from Alaska to New England. Ship capacity ranges from 50 to 150 guests depending on the ship.

Seabourn: One of the most luxurious small cruise lines on the ocean, Seabourn is renown for its deluxe staterooms, gourmet meals, top-notch spa, and excellent level of service. Their ships travel all over the world from Africa, to India, to the Mediterranean, and South America. Guest capacity is slightly higher (208 to 450 guests), but still way below the capacity of larger cruise lines, which can hold upwards of 5,000 passengers.

Silversea: Another luxury cruise line with a 100 to 540 guest capacity. The job opportunities for Silversea aren’t as straightforward nor plentiful as the ones mentioned above, but their career page is worth a glance especially if you have hospitality or culinary training.

Also check out Viking Recruitment for job postings on private yachts around the world.

Becky Timbers is a past employee of Lindblad Expeditions who relished the freedom and adventure of working on a small cruise ship. Recent life changes have landed her in Seattle at Bastyr University where she is pursuing a masters degree in Nutrition and Clinical Health Psychology. Despite having an actual apartment now, she by no means intends to give up her traveling. Future trips may include, but are not limited to: Japan, India, Australia, and Italy.

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