While working on a cruise ship can be grueling, with long shifts and little time off, it remains a common dream job for many Filipino seafarers because of the attractive benefits it provides.
Like 29-year-old Kyl Montero from the small island of Camotes in Cebu, Philippines, who now enjoys working on a cruise ship as a hotel assistant, which allows him to travel globally, his dream since he was a child.
Montero took up a Bachelor of Science degree in Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management, and is currently aboard the Azura under P&O Cruises. He had always dreamed of traveling the world and working on a cruise ship became his passport to travel to various countries for free.
“Traveling has been my dream for a long time. So, when I found out that working on a cruise ship would allow me to travel, it was a lightbulb moment for me,” Montero told Maritime Fairtrade.
“I love exploring places since I was a kid. I grew up very idealistic when it comes to the job I was supposed to have. I knew that at some point in my life, I would travel, but [at first] I wasn’t sure how to start. Until I became a seafarer. The rest is history,” he added.
Montero realized that there is no better way to make a living than to engage in a job you love. “Growing up, I had that gut feeling already that I would travel around the world. That was my goal. I’m always daydreaming about the places I [want] to go and that’s what motivates me. I know what I want and I’m very stubborn with my vision,” he said.
Traveling for free
One of the primary reasons why many people choose to work on cruise ships is the opportunity to see the world as they get to travel to countries, which they might not otherwise have the chance to see. This is probably the biggest and most notable perk of working on cruise ships.
Filipino sailors like Montero take advantage of free travel and are able to explore destinations they once only dreamed of visiting.
Crew members aboard cruise ships typically work on renewable contracts ranging from six to ten months. Although they don’t receive a lot of time off each week, they do have the opportunity to explore their ports of call. At the end of their contracts, they can sign on to another ship going to new destinations.
“You know what’s surprising? In just the first contract, I have already visited more than 50 ports,” said the young seafarer who started making his dream a reality.
Pros and cons of working on a cruise ship
While most cruise ship passengers enjoy ocean views from their cabins or eat comfortably at the buffet table, things are different for those working behind the scenes.
Oftentimes, life on a cruise ship is intense for its crew. They work long hours, with no days off until their contract ends, demanding guests, small living quarters, and little or no privacy.
Most crew members also agree that being away from loved ones is the hardest aspect of working at sea, especially when homesickness hits them.
“Some of us are having a hard time overcoming homesickness,” said Montero, recalling his onboard-ship job as a hotel utilityman where he had a bit of a hard time with the new life at sea.
“During my adjustment period, I sometimes thought that the 10-month contract was too long and that I couldn’t do it. I was overthinking how I should adjust to the people on the ship. That used to be a challenge for me,” he added.
At sea, Montero was able to get a glimpse of his colleagues’ struggles. “Some of them have cracked due to the intense pressure caused by misunderstandings with superiors and other crew members, experiencing anxiety, among others. Each crew member has a different story to tell,” he said.
“Some of the crew suffer from depression due to family problems, cheating partners, and financial problems. As they say, life on a cruise ship is not for the faint of heart,” Montero said.
Asked how he managed to overcome these typical sea adversities, Montero said, “A cruise ship community is huge and you just have to find your tribe that attracts your vibe. So, you have at least one person to share your sentiments with after work.”
According to Montero, life at sea can be tough, but once you get past the adjustment phase and start making friends, you’ll find ways to enjoy life onboard.
“Sometimes, we get beer and wine after our duty. We go offshore to eat and visit some restaurants. There is also an organized tour for all crew members in each port. Those are simple joys for us,” he said.
Despite the difficulty of working on cruise ships, and overseas, many Filipinos still choose this way of life as it offers a highly competitive salary, aside from unique benefits.
“The pros would be the salary, of course. You also get to travel around the world, with food and accommodation for free,” said Montero.
In fact, having a naturally cheerful personality and talent to boot, the young seafarer caught the attention of his superiors. “My most memorable experience was when they asked me if I could choreograph a dance number to be performed in front of thousands of passengers in the ship’s atrium,” Montero recalled happily.
“The passengers really liked it and we got a lot of positive feedback and we were booked on almost every cruise,” he added.
Pinoys dominate the crew on cruise ships
The Philippines has become an important source of service personnel for the cruise line.
For decades, the country has supplied the largest portion of seafarers on both cargo and cruise ships. Filipino culture has been brought to various countries, from food to songs and sports.
“Filipinos have a warm spirit. We are approachable and friendly. I witnessed how hard we work. We don’t usually complain about the work we are given. That is why foreign superiors and ship owners prefer to work with Filipinos,” Montero said.
But the European regulatory warnings for many years threaten Filipino sailors of being banned from working on European-registered vessels due to training concerns.
Unlike cruise ships that only require the most basic training, cargo or tanker vessels have a lot of training to go through to get the necessary certifications.
“This is a threatening issue for all Filipino seafarers. Many of us may lose our jobs. Let us hope for the better,” Montero said reacting to the issue.
Meanwhile, Philippine Migrant Workers Secretary Susan Ople recently assured the country’s manning community that the government will ensure that Filipino seafarers will not be decertified by the European Commission this coming March.
Gradual return of the cruise industry
The cruise industry—one of the tourism sectors hardest hit by the pandemic—resumed operation in mid-2022 after two years of uncertainty.
Like many others, Montero said, the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown was the hardest part of his seafaring journey.
“That was really the hardest process. The waiting part. I was supposed to join in February 2020 but the pandemic started in mid-March of that year. I didn’t have any backup plan at that time. I don’t know what to do and how to survive,” he said.
But Montero realized that his mantra in life was to trust the process if he really wanted to fulfill his dream of working on a cruise ship and traveling the world.
“Learning to trust the process is something I carry with me every day. That’s my mantra. I pray that I learn to wait and be patient. Not every situation works out according to our plan because sometimes it’s just part of the process for us to become stronger and wiser,” he said.
Montero said he learned how to trust the process while doing his best, from his first contract as a hotel utilityman to becoming a cabin steward on his next contract. And it paid off when he was promoted and his salary tripled.
Asked what advice he could give to aspiring Filipino seafarers who want to work on cruise ships, he said: “Never stop working hard to pursue the things you really want. It took me seven years to finally work on a cruise ship. Trust the process because it will be a long one. Don’t be too hard on yourself, know that it takes time. Your time will come. Don’t compare your journey to other people and lastly, Pray- that’s the most important part.”
“Keep going. It’s going to be a long ride” Montero added.
Top photo credit: iStock/ vale_t
All other photos credit: Kyl Montero