She got paid to travel, but it’s way more work than you think.
Cara Smith spent 10 years of her childhood shuttling between her home in New Jersey and New York, where she performed with the prestigious Young People’s Chorus of New York City. With just one semester left of her five-year program to get a degree in music therapy from Berklee College of Music, Smith was recruited by Carnival Cruise Line to be a singer on one of their ships. A self-proclaimed “wanderluster,” Smith sang on cruise ships for the next 2 ½ years, working first for Carnival and then Holland America Line. She went on adventures like scuba-diving in the Great Barrier Reef and hiking in New Zealand, and planned ahead a few months at a time, every time she renewed her contract. Smith joined Cosmopolitan.com hours after the ship she had been working on docked in New York. Now, Smith is enrolled back in school to finish her degree. She reflects on her time singing aboard cruise ships.
This last semester and all of my living expenses are paid for from the paycheck I got from the cruise lines. It is a great way to save because everything is taken care of [for your contract]. You don’t have to pay housing; they pay for meals. The only extra expenses you have are the things you want to do in port, and you do have to pay for internet on the ship.
On Carnival, I was working six days a week, and on Holland, I was working four to five days a week. I worked on Carnival as a female show band singer; it was always me and a guy. A show band plays sets for guests in lounges. We were doing four to five sets a night, 45-minute sets of high-energy, up-tempo music with 15-minute breaks. On Holland, I was the one singer [in the HALCats band]. I would do two to three sets, 45 minutes with 15-minute breaks.
The first couple weeks of my first shift, I definitely was experiencing vocal fatigue. My first job with Carnival was my first time singing every day. My vocal chords were just really tired. It’s just like any other muscle in your body — if you start exercising it excessively, you’re going to have soreness. But I’m really careful. I’m not a big drinker. I don’t stay out late, which is kind of hard because that’s a big part of ship life. At the end of the day, everybody wants to go to the crew bar and socialize, and the alcohol is really cheap, so it’s easy to get carried away. I was always disciplined, and I always took really good care of my voice, so I never lost my voice.
I tried to maintain a healthy, normal routine, so I would wake up at 9, get some breakfast, take a walk on the outside deck, catch up on some emails, work on a painting or put a dent in a book, or practice guitar, and then I would have lunch. I would go over the music for that night, warm up, and spend a lot of time pampering, which helps me get into the zone. It’s a very relaxed pace. At least for me — not every department on board is like that. [But] most of the entertainers had similar schedules. On Holland America Line, I would play from 9 o’clock to midnight, and on Carnival, it was 7 to midnight.
[On the ship,] you have to figure out how to make good use of your time. I would go to the gym a lot. Working out was really just what helped me stay kind of sane, because ship life is challenging. [It] can be very isolating and very restrictive. You’re on this tiny little vessel in the middle of the ocean and sometimes you’ll be on the ship for a week straight sailing. Carnival Cruise Lines has a learning center for crew members, and you can go and rent a Rosetta Stone program. They also offered typing classes, résumé tune-ups, educational things like that. I would take French classes. I read a lot. And if I had a day off on a port day, I would get off the ship and try to spend as much time on land as I could.
There’s [also] sort of this underground economy that happens below deck. There are barber shops that appear out of people’s cabins, there’s people who offer massage therapy or tailoring. [Some] crew members don’t have guest area privileges and do not have the option of booking an appointment with the spa, [so] these services, offered by crew for crew, allow crew members to get the pampering they need when their only other option would be to go ashore and find a spa in port.
You have to compose yourself a certain way anytime you’re in a guest area. You have to dress smart-casual at all times. We were not allowed to wear jeans or flip-flops or really short shorts. They always ask that you have natural makeup on, and that your hair is well groomed and taken care of. I’m sure we’ve all had mornings where we just want to roll out of bed, have a bowl of cereal, not talk to anybody. You can’t. You have to be social at all times. The only time you’re alone is in your cabin. Everyone is expected to be gracious to guests and represent the company. [Management] wants you to socialize with guests, they want you to be part of the guest experience. So you’re being instructed to have fun but also have the endurance to sing for sometimes four hours straight.
When people go on vacation, they leave their sense of courtesy, their patience, their manners all at home. They’re on vacation mode. So you get a lot of rudeness, you get a lot of lack of common sense, self-awareness. We had a joke — guests were called “cones,” like traffic cones. Like, “Sorry I’m late, there was a cone in my way.” You’re trying to get from one place to the next on the ship, and they’re walking super slowly in front of you because they don’t have anywhere to be. But you have to get to your shift. There’s this huge divide. Like, you’re here on vacation and I live here.
The whole time I was working on ships, I had a boyfriend. It was [mostly] long-distance. While I was on a ship, I would try and message him as much as I could, and we would see each other when I would sign off [a contract]. He’s also a musician, he plays keyboard, and so for two ships, we actually worked together in the same band, and that was great. We had never worked together [before]. I’ve heard stories of couples who get onto a ship, and they are assigned one cabin, and they break up, and they still have to share that same cabin. But they start dating other people. Almost everybody has roommates [but] we each had our own [cabin] because the singers always get their own cabins. The higher-up the position you have, the more likely you’ll have your own cabin.
Cheating and infidelity is widespread on ships. You’re tucked away in a tiny little corner of the world. There’s no connectivity, no consequences. So it’s really kind of rampant and it’s [a] part of ship life that I don’t really like. It’s just sort of accepted: You’re married and you have a ship girlfriend. In a way, you can’t judge these people. You’re far away from your loved one for nine months and you need human contact.Ship life can be very challenging. Don’t sign up for a cruise ship to travel because you’ll just end up being disappointed. Sometimes you won’t be allowed off the ship, or you can get off but you have to be back two hours earlier than usual. Some of it is guest-related, like they don’t want to crowd the process for the guests getting off and on. Sometimes it is a safety issue. You get the U.S. Coast Guard on board and they have to inspect things. And there’s this other thing called port manning. It’s maritime law that when a ship is in port, a certain amount of crew members that have to remain on the vessel at all times. So you get put into this rotation where certain ports, you have to stay on the ship during that assignment.
Don’t sign up for a cruise ship contract because you want to party all the time. You could but you’re not going to last. You’ll either get sick or you’ll get fired. And don’t sign up for a cruise ship contract if you think it’s going to be a paid vacation. A lot of times, it does feel like it, and it’s amazing, but you have to stay focused on why you’re there and you have to stay focused on the best you can be.
[In] two years, I learned over a thousand songs. Each set has 15 to 20 songs. You do that five times [a night], six days a week over the course of two years. Working on ships made me a really well-educated musician. It’s made me very knowledgeable about repertoire. It’s taught me to communicate with live musicians. In the middle of a song, if something goes wrong, you have to think on your feet. My voice is the strongest it’s ever been just because I exercise it every day, and ultimately, it showed me how much I love performing.
I cofounded a music therapy organization called the Ubuntu Music Therapy Initiative, and in between ships, I maintain this organization. I design and host a music therapy service trip to Kenya and Uganda every summer. This summer, we’re going to be meeting up with this couple I met on my last ship, [on] a hike up this beautiful mountain in New Zealand. They are building a hospital in Kenya, and they want a music therapy program implemented, so I’m going to bring my team down there. It was really just a gift from a universe. I definitely will do another ship when I’m done with school and have my music therapy certification. In fact, I’ve just been offered a short contract this December. I went ahead and told them yes — it sails to Singapore and Vietnam. I couldn’t say no.
By Heeseung Kim