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What It’s Really Like to Work and Find Love on a Cruise Ship

by Nickolaus Hines Dec 10, 2020

There are plenty of travel jobs out there, but there’s nothing quite like working on a cruise ship. You’re essentially on a floating office with a rotating cast of people to take care of, along with coworkers who you literally can’t escape. The expression “we’re all in the same boat” hits a little different in such a contained workplace.

Yet while the potential for interpersonal conflict is huge, so is the potential for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Tanya Zaufi found this out first-hand while working three cruise contracts from 1997 to 2001 on Regal Princess, Renaissance Cruises, and Disney Cruises. The lifestyle had plenty of ups (travel, for one, as well as the potential for some people to earn end-of-contract bonuses) and plenty of downs ($12-per-minute phone calls add up). She details her experience in her memoir All Over The Map: Two Lovers, Six Continents, and a Date with Destiny.

As you might guess from the title, romance was in the cards for Zaufi. She found her husband, an Austrian pastry chef named Josef, while they were both working on Regal Princess. It was Zaufi’s first contract, and they spent years going back and forth — love is no easy task when constant travel is just another day’s work.

All Over The Map is an inside look into what Zaufi’s life was like while working on cruise ships. Speaking over the phone from Canada, Zaufi told me all about love abroad, close calls, gorgeous destinations, and the perks of waking up in the same boat you work on.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

In your book, it sounds like the lifestyle took you by surprise.

I think my experience on the cruise ship was a little bit out of the ordinary, which I had no idea because I had never worked on a cruise ship before. When I would talk to people, they would say, “You’re doing what? You’re doing these excursions?”

When I first got there with my roommate, we were both new to cruise ships and they didn’t have a crew cabin for us. They put us in a passenger stateroom and we thought that might be normal — it wasn’t. Rarely does a crew member have a passenger stateroom with two portholes and a bunk bed, and we were there for about a month.

For my husband, he couldn’t believe that we were going on these shore excursions. He said, “I literally threw my bags in my room and ran to work.”

It definitely depends what you do on the ship, and also depends how many hours you work as well. I was fortunate and blessed to be in the position I was.

The excursions seem like a great way to see different parts of the world, but did you ever feel trapped going to the same ports of call all the time?

On the first cruise ship, it was exciting the entire time because it was all so new and I was with Josef. I was in La-La Land a little bit, falling in love.

The Regal Princess itinerary was good because it was 10 days one way and 11 days another way. We always had our overnight in Acapulco, which was always fun because you literally can do whatever you want on your overnight.

Because I was a junior assistant purser working in guest services, I was able to go on excursions that we didn’t have to pay for, too. We would offer help if the passengers asked, but rarely did they. We could take that helicopter in Alaska and go on that seaplane around the Caribbean islands and we didn’t have to pay anything.

Cruise ship

Photo: been.there.recently/Shutterstock

What were some particularly memorable excursions?

On Renaissance Cruises I took lots of excursions as well, like I went to see the pyramids in Egypt. I would never have been able to afford to go to all those destinations if I didn’t work on the cruise ship around the Mediterranean Sea and Israel and the Dead Sea.

When I went to work on Disney, the third cruise ship, where I was in my life was a little different with the love of my life in Austria and me in Canada. That itinerary was a seven-day, and on turnaround day it’s alway so busy that you pull like a 14-hour workday. So every week you have to have a turnaround day and it’s just so much work.

To say I was like, “oh I’ve been to all these places before” sounds terrible, but that was my thought at the time. Every seven days going to the same place and I had seen it all before. But at the same time, Disney was magical because who else gets to have Mickey and Minnie Mouse as your friends on the ship?

Were there any stops that you felt didn’t live up to the expectations of what people thought a cruise ship stop should be?

For me, I’m always a “take the best out of everything” person. Even if I’ve been there before, I enjoy seeing places. Some grand, some not so much. Some ports are maybe not as fantastic unless you go into the city. Our port in Venezuela was La Guaira, and it’s better if you get out of the port and go explore Venezuela.

What’s the work environment like? Was the pay worth it when you consider the benefits like food and travel?

Me being from Canada, we were paid US dollars, and back then the dollar was even stronger so it was really great pay. Also, all your expenses are paid for — your accommodations, your food. You just need spending money, so you end up saving a lot as well.

From my experience it was great, although it does matter what you do on the ship. And that goes back to the amount of hours you work. I worked approximately 56 hours a week in my position, and Josef worked about 100 hours a week. That’s a huge difference, however his pay was a lot more.

If you work in the restaurants or housekeeping, you pretty much rely on your tips. Your waiter and housekeeper are so wonderful and they rely on tips, and they work a lot of hours as well. Because of the hours they probably don’t get to see as much, so they’ll have a different point of view.

You had a near missed connection getting back on the ship. Did anyone you worked with ever actually miss the boat?

I haven’t heard of any stories of anyone missing the boat, which is surprising because you can see how it can happen if you’re stuck in traffic or a taxi cab is slow or whatever.

However, when I was working on Princess Cruises they take all of our passports so we can’t just leave at any port. There was one guy we were working with that was from the States, and when we were docked in St. Thomas, he just never came back because it’s a US territory.

I can imagine the temptation to leave is there. It sounded like it could get lonely and hard to stay in contact. Things are different now, but what was your experience?

It was hard that I couldn’t talk to family and friends on land, but at that time I was younger and a little more carefree. I wasn’t thinking about it as much and just enjoying every minute. I couldn’t believe I was essentially getting paid to travel and see the world.

But back then, you would have to go on shore and call collect. It’s funny how times have changed and I really age myself in the book where I write about my first Christmas away. I called home from the cruise ship, and it was a 20 minute call and that was $240 — $12 a minute. But you just don’t think about it and enjoy the moment.

Let’s talk about the romance side of your book. How common were romantic relationships on the cruises you went on?

They were common. Maybe it’s because people are away from home and want that interaction, but also, you’re all in the same mindframe and in close quarters. However, bringing the relationship back to land is completely different.

You’re living a fantasy life on the cruise ship, exploring all the exotic ports of call and living the dream, and then reality hits and it’s like, well you live on the other side of the world than me, how are we going to do this?

In my cabin, I had two different cabin mates and all three of us are married to the person we met on the ship. We kinda joke that it was the cabin of love. We’re like, maybe it really was the love boat.

Are there any romantic relationships between crew members and passengers?

Never. That’s taboo, and you’re not allowed to fraternize with guests in that way.

In my position, I was allowed out to the restaurant or the disco. You can talk to the passengers and go to island night on the deck, but you leave that there and go back to the crew. If you’re caught fraternizing with a guest you’re terminated, and then you have to pay your own way home.

What’s the crew bar like? It sounds like a local spot, but on a cruise.

If you wanted to meet up with people, that was where you met. When I was just getting to know Josef, I’d go and kind of wait for him there. They always have different events going on — game night, disco night, special occasions to keep the moral up.

You get to meet all of the different people from the ship, and it’s interesting the different friendships you form.

Was there any tensions with all the coupling off, or was it understood that this is what happens?

I never experienced it, but you can see how it can happen: Somebody had a relationship that’s not working out anymore and then you have to work together and the other person starts dating someone else. I knew someone in the casino who that happened to.

You just have to carry on and finish out the contract and put that aside. That’s how it is because we’re literally stuck on the same boat together, right?

So you’re kind of forced to accept whatever happens then?

That’s true. You can meet somebody and maybe they’re not your favorite person, but you’ve got to see them every day. It’s up to you to make the best of the situation. Because you’re together 24/7, they become like your family.

It was a tight relationship with my friends I met because of what we experienced all together. It’s different than any other fast forming friendship. On land, everyone gets busy and you have to make the effort to see each other, whereas on the ship you’re already there. I think that’s why the friendships are so tight knit.


Photo: ackats/Shutterstock

What was the food situation like?

For my position, I was lucky. On Princess Cruises we could order off the menu and I was like, are we at the right place? I’m not a passenger but we could have the shrimp or the lobster? I honestly don’t think they do that anymore. Renaissance wasn’t like that, and Disney wasn’t, and I’m assuming Princess isn’t anymore.

They have different quarters and areas for the crew to eat, so the officers have the officers’ mess and there’s other crew areas as well depending on position. So they kind of keep you with the people you’re working with.

Do you still keep up with the industry?

I’m always interested in talking about it, because it was fascinating and people are always interested. Even before going, I hadn’t known anybody to go on a cruise ship either.

Same with my husband. He went around the world seven times on many different cruise ships. He’s seen a lot and he did a lot from working on the cruise ships.

Have you two been on a cruise ship for pleasure together?

I still have not been on a cruise ship as a passenger! I can’t believe it.

We have two children, a son who’s 12 and a daughter who’s 11, and of course they want to go on a Disney cruise because they’re younger. I told my husband we should do it sooner rather than later because they’re only young for so long. To experience a Disney cruise, it’s pretty magical with all the characters running around.

The future of cruises is a bit up in the air now. Where do you think cruises are going to be as one of the hardest hit travel sectors during the pandemic?

I feel like some of the smaller ones, I don’t know if they’re going to be able to make it because it’s been so long. How much longer can they hold out? The bigger cruises, they’ll be OK.

There might even be a surge later because people are dreaming of what they can do once the doors are open. I think once we’re allowed to, it’ll pick back up and maybe be better than before. Still, it’ll be a few years for sure.

I’ve got a couple rapid fire questions for you. First up: Favorite cruise ship destination that people wouldn’t expect as a favorite?

Malta. It was just so diff because it’s a walled city and so unique. If I was going to answer what’s my favorite stop overall, it’s Santorini.

What’s the best destination for someone’s first cruise?

Something in the Caribbean. St. Thomas is just such a neat place.

What are the roughest waters?

When we were going through the Strait of Gibraltar, we came into a storm. Our ship was smaller, and the waves were rocking the ship like I’ve never felt before.

For Disney, we cruised from the Caribbean to Norfolk, Virginia, where we docked. A storm there was so crazy it felt like the waves were going to the seventh deck. We could see them out of the window they were so high.

What else do you want anyone considering cruise ship work to know?

It’s an amazing experience. You work hard, but you play hard, too. When you’re ashore and maximize any time off, you get to go experience that island or stop.

But you do work a lot, and it definitely depends on what position you do. If I had to work 100 hours a week, it wouldn’t have been as exciting so there are different perspectives. Some people, their experience is that they’re so tired they just want to sleep. And that’s what I felt like after a six and a half month contract.

Still, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to see anything near to what I did otherwise. I was young, and I feel blessed to have been able to experience it.

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