This is a great question I was asked by passengers almost every cruise but was surprised that so few people actually knew where we lived. I was also shocked by where some passengers thought we lived, which you’ll see below!
So where do cruise ship crew live? All crew members definitely live on the ship. The majority of the crew live on the lower decks below the waterline, with the exception of some staff and officers that live at the waterline (below the passenger decks still) or on decks higher up closer to the bridge.
For example on an average 2500 – 5000 passenger cruise ship, most crew cabins would be on deck 1 (below the waterline), staff and some officers would be on deck 2 (right above the waterline), and most officers on deck 10 just before the bridge (forward).
Depending on your job you’ll find yourself in one of these locations, and the higher your rank, traditionally the higher up you’ll be.
Read on if you’d like to know what the crew’s accommodations and living areas are like on these decks, and about some awesome secret spaces on the ship that most crew don’t even know exist – right behind their walls!
Where do passengers think cruise ship crew live?
Passengers have had some of the strangest theories on where we live.
Some think we leave the ship each night by helicopter and either fly home or live on a separate ship that follows behind. Others have suggested we take lifeboats to a submarine – I wish!
One passenger asked me if we leave the ship at each port, and fly to meet the ship at the next port. I assured him that sometimes we do, but only if we miss the ship!
This always leads to the next question of course, which is, “If you stay on board, what are your living areas like?”
What are cruise ship crew living areas like?
Cruise ship crew areas can be quite amazing – and quite bad, depending on the ship.
Regardless of the ship, you’ll find crew living areas have many of the same amenities.
In no particular order, they are…
- Crew Cabins
- Crew Mess (Cafeteria)
- Officer’s Mess
- Crew Bar
- Officer’s Lounge
- Games / TV Room
- Internet Room
- Crew Store
- Fitness Center
- Top Deck
- Crew Pools
- Secret Spaces
Joining all the different crew areas together, the I-95 is the main corridor from the front (forward) to the back (stern) of the ship, usually located on deck 2.
Passengers can sometimes get a peek of this area when they embark or disembark the ship, or when boarding the ship’s tenders (small boats that take the passengers and crew to and from ports when the ship is docked out at sea).
Named after a main highway in the USA, you’ll also find this corridor has different names depending on the nationality of the cruise ship. On British ships like P&O they called this the A1.
Once, while working on cruise ships…
The I95 is where I would see my friends each day as we were going to and from our shifts. On the larger ships, I was always amazed to see people I’d never seen before – even after 5 months at sea!
This is a whole topic on its own, which you can read about at What are Crew Cabins like on a Cruise Ship? Yeah, it really can be pretty bad!
Crew mess (cafeteria)
The crew mess is where you eat every meal from breakfast, lunch, and dinner, to snacks in between. It’s completely cafeteria-style, so be prepared to line up at the buffet to get what you want.
The good news is that it’s “all you can eat”, but the bad news is that you may not want to eat it all!
The crew notoriously complain about the food, and for good reason – it’s definitely not passenger food quality and can leave a lot to be desired.
It’s often repetitive and without much selection. But, I’m a fairly picky eater and I always found things to enjoy.
Cruise ships are also usually good at providing food based on the cultures of the crew, so look for your favorites and get used to respecting the food styles of those you work with. Personally, I never could acquire the taste of fish heads, but I definitely learned to love curry after a short while!
You can read more about why crew food can be really bad, as well as if we have to pay for it here: Do Cruise Ship Crew get Free Food?
Drinks are the usual assortment of water, juices, and pops, and there’s no alcohol.
You’ll eat at either long tables or circular ones depending on the ship, and you’ll get to choose which table you want to eat at each meal. Most people usually sit at the same table each time, with their same friends.
There are often special meals served in the crew mess on big holidays, like Christmas. It’s not uncommon for the crew, staff and officers to all come together and share a meal. If you’re lucky, you may even get served by one of the officers.
I usually ate in the officer’s mess because of my rank, but I was allowed to eat in the crew mess if I wanted.
At one point I was dating a girl from the casino and we ate with her friends in the crew mess every day. They would particularly enjoy it when I snuck them officer’s mess food! And here’s why…
During my career at sea as an Internet Manager then Communications/IT Officer, I ate mostly in the officer’s mess.
The officer’s mess is almost always above the waterline and the food is definitely better than the crew mess, but not nearly as good as the passenger food – but close.
The officer’s mess has more of a restaurant feel, with round tables, tablecloths, and fancy centerpieces. But it’s still a buffet and we did serve ourselves.
There are waiters as well, but their function is to keep the buffet stocked and sometimes serve drinks if we asked. They would also serve food and drinks to the Captain and other senior officers, depending on the ship.
Although not always encouraged, one of the perks of being in the officer’s mess is that you could order from the passenger menu from time to time. I would order steaks as often as I could!
The crew bar is one of the most fun and exciting places on the ship for the crew.
It’s open all day to hang out, but the real action begins at night when most are finishing their shifts and ready to unwind and party for the evening.
The lights go out, the music gets loud as the crew let go and dance late into the night (and early morning!).
There are special events going on all the time, like organized formal parties for every holiday you can imagine, impromptu birthday parties, and any other reason to hang out.
On some of the larger ships, I remember there being a birthday party at least 2 – 3 times a week, as there were so many crew members.
Some of the themed parties included Talent Contests, Karaoke Night, Crew Bingo Games, Dress Like Another Crew Member, Toga Night, Halloween and more.
Once, while working on cruise ships…
During one of our “Dress Like Another Crew Member” parties, I almost got a written warning for my inappropriate outfit.
The senior officers didn’t feel my “cockroach” outfit was in the spirit of the event!
During my time at sea, most parties would end around 2am, but it really depends on the ship.
Now most ships end parties around 12am – 1am, and enforce a much stricter alcohol policy – some are zero tolerance.
A dedicated bartender serves alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, which you usually have to pay for (except at some special events and at a fraction of the cost the passengers pay). You’ll find snacks and cheap cigarettes too.
Be careful not to party too much, as it may just catch up with you.
I’ve seen people fired for being drunk, or doing things they normally wouldn’t do when sober.
As the ship saying goes, “Every night is a Friday, and every morning is a Monday”, and you defintely feel it after months at sea!
Unlike many countries that ban smoking in most places, cruise ships tend to allow smoking in all the crew areas, like your cabin and especially the crew bar.
Cigarettes are also very cheap and inexpensive for the crew, resulting in a record number of new smokers or people smoking more than they normally would on land.
Try to avoid places where there is excessive smoke as best as you can – you’ll appreciate it later in life!
Like the crew bar, the officers also have their own lounge to hang out and relax.
This is an “Officers Only” area on most ships, so sadly the regular crew is not allowed to be here, even if invited by an officer. The exception is the rare case when a full crew party is held here – in which case all crew and staff are invited, and hosted by the officers.
Officer’s uniforms are usually required here as well, so it’s a little more formal (and dare I say stuffy) than the crew bar, and definitely not as fun in my opinion.
The decor is usually a little more proper as well, with nice couches and lounge chairs.
You’ll also find a staffed bar, with drinks you pay for and snacks too.
Games / TV room
The Games / TV room may or may not be part of or in the crew bar, and it’s another place where you can hang out with friends and watch movies or TV shows.
There are usually tons of DVDs bought by the ship, left by passengers, or from previous crew members. We would often start a season of whatever show we all agreed on and meet as often as we could to binge-watch.
Or a movie night. I recall doing a transatlantic crossing and everyone decided to watch The Titanic right in the spot it went down. Creepy!
There are also loads of games here as well, from foosball to ping pong, board games and more…
Sadly, no pool tables. As you can imagine, round balls on a flat surface tend not to stay in place when the ship is being tossed about.
More and more crew have their own phones, tablets, and other devices, but many still prefer to sit at a PC to stay connected online.
The internet room will have a number of PCs and a printer, for you to do just this.
Buy minutes using an internet card from a nearby internet card machine, log in, and you’re good to go.
I personally took care of these rooms as the Internet Manager, so be sure to take a look at my upcoming post “5 Ways for Cruise Ship Crew to get Faster Internet” for the inside scoop on how to maximize your internet use, AND my trick for getting free minutes at sea.
If you have any questions, be sure to ask the Internet Manager – we always love to help.
Also, the keyboards and mice are rarely cleaned, so make sure you use sterile wipes before using them, or it’s norovirus-ville for you.
Often a small section of either the crew bar, internet room, or games/TV room, the library is where you can catch up with free books to read.
Thanks to past crew members and generous (or forgetful) passengers, there’s usually a well-stocked library with all sorts of titles from romance to sci-fi and everything in between.
Unlike a traditional library, you won’t have a library card (or the Dewey Decimal System) – just browse and take what you like.
Once, while working on cruise ships…
I brought a brand new copy of the well-known book “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho. I mentioned really liking it to a few of my friends who then asked to borrow and read it too. Quite a number of us read it and we had a great time talking about it.
I finally got it back – extremely worn, underlined and dog eared. Before leaving, I dropped it off at the ship library and hoped the next set of crew members would enjoy it too.
The crew store is exactly what you’d expect – it’s a tiny space filled to the brim with daily essentials like toothpaste, toothbrushes, hygiene products and every form of contraception!
You can also get drinks like water bottles, pop and a rationed amount of alcohol.
Look out for other snacks like chips and candy bars – usually local to the countries the ship has just been through.
Once, while working on cruise ships…
I was brought before the HR Manager because of the excessive amount of alchohol in my cabin.
Eight cases of beer, 10 bottles of hard liquor, and an assortment of coolers.
Once they realized it was for the crew party we were hosting in the crew bar that night, all was forgiven!
Crew members usually have their own Fitness Center, but be warned, the equipment here is usually old and incomplete.
But, if you like bench pressing an unequal amount of weight on each side of the barbell, you’re in luck!
You should also find free weights, yoga mats and balls, and other equipment as well.
Luckily, you might be one of the privileged crew members who have access to the passenger gym where the equipment is state-of-the-art. Your access will be limited to certain times of the day (like early morning or late at night), and most likely not on sea days, but it’s at least something.
Once, while working on cruise ships…
I noticed the passenger gym was located right near the dining room entrance. As the Captain was passing by to the dining hall on his way to dinner, one of the engine crew came out of the gym – smelly and sweaty in his shorts and a ripped t-shirt.
The Captain was livid from the sight and he banned all crew from using the passenger gym until after the dinner was officially over at 11 pm. We were all very disappointed as there was no crew gym on the ship.
A week later we found out all crew was indeed banned, except any crew that needed the gym for medical purposes. And guess what? The very crew member that got us all banned, was the only one who had a medical need to use the gym during dining room hours. Go figure!
Although you’ll have your own uniform that the ship will clean for free, you’ll want to make sure you wash your own personal clothes.
The ship’s crew laundry is the perfect place for this, and it’s a free service for you to use.
You’ll find an assortment of washing and drying machines, as well as ironing boards too.
On all the ships I’ve been on, there never seemed to be enough machines though, so you might have to run back and forth from your cabin a few times to find a free one.
Sometimes if I didn’t get back immediately after the load was done, another crew member would often take my clothes out and start their own load, leaving my clothes in pile next to the machine – wet or dry. Argh!
Another option, if it’s part of your privileges, is to use the paid crew laundry service, which can really help if you haven’t made it to the crew laundry machines in time.
The ship will simply deduct the cost of your laundry from your pay.
Once, while working on a small expedition cruise ship…
I had just joined the ship and was about to start my first shift but noticed my fresh new officer’s uniform shirt and pants were badly wrinkled and unwearable.
The HR Manager suggested I run down to ship’s main laundry (where passenger laundry, linen and every other main item of laundry is handled) and have one of the laundry personnel iron it.
After getting down there, they were so busy no one had a moment to help me. So, I stood there in my underwear and did it myself. And why not – I do my own ironing at home anyway!
The top deck
Along with the “below the passenger deck” areas, the crew may also have their own top deck.
It’s inaccessible to the passengers and often very close to where the radar and satellite dishes are.
Complete with sunbathing chairs, this area provided a great place to get some sun and hang out with friends during my hours off.
I also have great memories from when many of the ship’s crew would gather here to see Alaskan glaciers or rare destinations like the fabled Picharin Island of the HMS Bounty crew.
Sadly, I noticed not many crew members would use this space as I thought. Most seem to spend their time off catching up on sleep or hanging out in the crew bar – which is too bad considering the amazing views here!
Passengers will often look over the front decks and see a pool (or 2!) hidden away near the bow of the ship. These are the crew pools, and off-limits to passengers.
Don’t expect an Olympic sized lap pool, but the small 8 x 8 feet pools really help cool you off in hot destinations.
There are usually sunbathing chairs as well – the perfect place to work on your tan and catch a nap between shifts.
And yes, bathing suits are mandatory.
The secret spaces
There are the usual crew areas I’ve spoken about above that all the crew knows about. But there are also some secret spaces that only a select few have discovered.
Here are some of the ones I was introduced to or stumbled across.
On one occasion I was brought into the carpenter’s workshop as I needed some assistance with a broken chair from the internet room. Deep in the back of the workshop was an unassuming door that I noticed a few of the crew periodically coming in and out of.
Every time the door opened, I heard a wave of loud music and live singing. So I went in. To my surprise, there was an entire karaoke room in there – complete with a huge TV, dance lights, microphones and stands. This old storage area had been completely transformed into the wild karaoke night club before me and became a favorite place to hang out.
On another ship, one of the massage therapists found a very narrow 1-foot wide panel at the back of her cabin wall. When pushing it open and squeezing through, we found a 9 x 9 square space behind it backing right on to the ship’s hull. Quickly nicknamed “Narnia”, this became our instant party room for the rest of our contract.
The crew areas are definitely not as fancy and luxurious as the passenger areas, but we’ve got everything we need to live and be entertained – it’s a whole world down there!