To the couple of thousand passengers who troop onto a cruise ship for a carefree holiday, cruising is all about swimming pools and evening shows and eating in specialty restaurants. But there’s another side to cruising, the one below decks where the crew lives. And those who work on the ships have a whole other point of view on the cruising experience.
Some of you may know Carole Rosenblat from her funny, quirky website Drop Me Anywhere, where readers vote for where she should travel next (most recently they sent her to see the Mayan ruins in Mexico). But most people don’t know that during her career, Carole has worked on cruise ships representing a number of major cruise lines. The Travelling Boomer asked her to tell us what it’s like to cruise for a living.
TB: Tell us about your background in the cruise industry.
Carole: My cruise line career spans a couple of decades. I began my career at sea after quitting my job at a bank, where I had worked for seven years. I was 24 and had a guarantee of management in six months, but I ran off to work as a purser on board Windjammer Barefoot Cruises. I was seasick every day for the first month.
I went on to work for Costa Cruises, Chandris Fantasy Cruise Line (the predecessor to Celebrity), Regency Cruises and Holland America. I then took 15 years off ships, but remained in the travel industry. When the economy took a turn I went back, joining Disney Cruise Line as a senior officer in the entertainment department.
All of my positions following Windjammer were in on-board entertainment: cruise staff, sports/activities director, social hostess, youth co-ordinator, teen co-ordinator and assistant cruise director.
TB: I’ve heard that cruise ship crews work around the clock. How true is that?
Carole: The crew works very hard. The amount of work can be dependent on job responsibilities: at Disney I worked 75 to 82 hours per week, though on other ships the schedule may be lighter. The International Labor Union is now in place to be sure cruise lines stick to the rules on working conditions. They can be fined if they break these rules.
Housekeepers, cabin stewards and attendants work really hard, but they are fairly well compensated due to tips received. Working on ships these days is a very different experience than when I began. Most lines have an on-board human resources department and the working conditions, including cabin size and break hours, are much more regulated.
As well, when I started my career on Windjammer, I was one of nine women, total, spread throughout six ships. When I went to big ships, women were definitely in the minority. It’s more even now.
TB: What was your best experience on the ships — and what was the worst?
Carole: The best summer of my life was while working for Holland America on the old Rotterdam many, many years ago. She was known as the Grande Dame of the cruise industry, a truly classic ship. Myself, some other cruise staff, the two youth counselors and some of the singers and dancers formed an informal hiking group. We hiked every day, even climbing Mt. Juneau near the end of the season. We also arranged a baseball game between our crew and a local little league team.
The worst? Wow, I guess that would be in the older days. I was fired from a line after working there for six weeks. It was made clear to me that I was fired because I was female. I was also once almost fired by a cruise director because, as he put it, “You’re not skinny enough.” He told me I would receive a letter within two weeks, which he slid under my cabin door. Luckily, the staff captain had heard about it and summoned me to meet him in the library. He took the letter and told me, “You never received this. You know nothing about it.”
TB: What don’t cruise passengers understand about how the ship operates, and what the crew does?
Carole: I think people don’t realize exactly how much the crew cares. We understand that some people may have saved for a lifetime for this trip, or perhaps it’s their final trip as a family. For whatever reason, they chose to spend this week with us and we really want them to have the trip of a lifetime.
Also, the processes are well thought-out. There are generally reasons for doing things. A good example is the Jones Act, which is a law affecting non-U.S.-flagged ships (which most are, due to costs). It’s the reason many Alaska itineraries leave out of Vancouver, Canada and, if they don’t, why they make a stop in a Canadian port, which causes other stops to be shortened.
And don’t even get me started on United States Public Health (USPH) regulations, which are much stricter than on land and help prevent the spread of communicable diseases. Nobody wants sick passengers — and if enough are sick, the ship can be prevented from sailing. They really do care.
TB: What do passengers do that really annoys the ship’s crew?
Well, they sometimes make up things to complain about. We once had someone complain that the towel animals their cabin steward left in their room were scaring them. There’s a common phrase: “They want a free cruise.” It’s just awful when a passenger is willing to get someone fired in order to get a free cruise — which, by the way, rarely happens.
Also, if you’re upset that there might be a bit of motion, well, it is a ship, not a hotel room. I’ve had people actually blame the captain. Now, why would he want the ship rocking?
TB: As a passenger, what do cruise ships do that annoys you?
Carole: Years ago, when I was in the meeting planning industry, we had a group do a cruise program. Other than onstage, I never once saw the cruise director. I was trained that the cruise director and their team are the people you should see everywhere.
Also, when they don’t try hard enough to resolve a problem, especially since I worked at Disney: it’s not that they never make mistakes, but they’re really good at resolution and recovery.
TB: Tell us some secrets that can help cruisers get the most value from their cruise.
Carole: Read your daily program — that way, you won’t miss out on an activity you really want to do. It also contains really valuable info on dining, ports, sailing times, shore excursions, disembarkation, etc.
Second, choose the cruise that’s right for you. Got kids? Disney has free kids’ programming and free sodas. Love music? Carnival has their Live Concert Series. Tickets to the concerts cost extra, but aren’t outrageous.
Also, consider taking a repositioning cruise. That’s when a ship ends its season in one location and sails to its next home port. These cruises tend to sell for less. While weather can be a concern — Alaska can get cold and rainy at the end of the season — weather is never a guarantee, and if you’re prepared, you can save a lot of money.
TB: What’s the best value on a cruise ship — and what’s the biggest rip-off?
Carole: Value can depend on the cruise line and the activity, as mentioned. But if you consider activities, entertainment, transportation from port to port, port fees, handling passenger immigration to each country so you don’t have to, etc. — well, a cruise is generally a good value in itself.
As for rip-offs — yes, drinks can be expensive (where else are you going to go?). Some shore excursions can be overpriced, but you do get added value as guides have been vetted, you’re pretty much guaranteed that the ship will wait if the excursion returns late and, if you leave your camera on the bus, the cruise line will work with their vendor to get it returned to you.
Alaska shore excursions can be expensive, but it’s a good place to take one as the offerings are plentiful and, if the tour is cancelled due to weather — which can be fairly common on some tours in Alaska — the cruise line will refund you immediately.
TB: Do you cruise now, and how do you find the best deals on your cruises?
Carole: To be honest, I don’t generally cruise — mainly because, while I’m very understanding that the crew really cares, I can be quite critical because I know the rules and I know how well it can be done. If I do go, I’m very lucky to have a few friends on board who can sign me on where I only pay gratuities and port fees. I really do want to try the new Royal Caribbean ship, Quantum of the Seas.
Finding the best deals? It’s a good idea for people to check out multiple resources, such as the cruise line’s website, a cruise-only specialist, a web search, a travel discount site such as Orbitz, Expedia or Travelocity, and also check out RetailMeNot.com for coupons.
While she’s travelling for Drop Me Anywhere, Carole also finds a project or organization with which to volunteer. Then she profiles it on her philanthropic site, www.Rebel-With-A-Cause.org. As well, she has a site that features her humorous observations on the world around her: www.MyOwnAdventure.wordpress.com. Pay her a visit — who knows what she’ll do next?