This post is brought to you by cruise ship employee Iris from LifeOfIris.com.
When you think of food onboard a cruise ship you might imagine fancy dining rooms and incredible buffets, but what about the crew? Do cruise ship employees get free food? Is the food the same as the passengers?
In this post, we will answer some common (and not so common) questions about eating on board as a crew member.
Do Cruise Ship Employees Get Free Food?
All cruise ship employees get free food onboard cruise ships. Maritime law states that there needs to be adequate and nutritious food provided for the crew at no extra cost.
Maritime Labour Convention law also stipulates that there must be access to clean drinking water and that the food served should take into account cultural and religious sensitivities.
Some crew members are allowed on special occasions to eat in one of the specialty restaurants or to order items like gelato or specialty coffees.
While some crew members have onboard perks that cover these expenses the majority would have to pay for these “extras” just like a passenger would.
How is it Decided Where Crew Members Can Eat?
There are a number of different crew dining venues onboard; however, which one a crew member can eat in is based on their rank. The rank of a crew member is determined by their job onboard.
While there are lots of differences and subtleties to this amongst the cruise lines it’s usually in three to four main categories: crew, petty officer, staff/officer status, and officers.
On some cruise lines, it is broken down even further. This is done to afford additional privileges to officers of a certain rank and above, for instance, 2 or 3 stripes or more.
There are often separate dining rooms for each of the main rank categories.
Where Do the Cruise Ship Employees Eat?
Most cruise ships have multiple areas where the crew can eat. How many exactly depends on the cruise line as well as the size of the ship. The majority of cruise ship crew members eat in what is called the Crew Mess.
Smaller ships will typically have less and larger ships will have more. Some of these mess rooms (or at least some of the extra seating of the mess room) will also double as crew bar areas depending on the cruise line and what their crew bar setup is.
What is The Crew Mess on a Cruise Ship?
The majority of the crew eat in an area called the Crew Mess. The Crew Mess, along with a number of other crew areas, is located on a crew deck down below the passenger decks.
The Crew Mess is the largest crew dining area and is set up buffet style. They tend to look a bit like a cafeteria, although cruise ships lately have been moving towards using booths for seating which makes it feel a bit more like a restaurant.
There is also usually a TV on the wall and the mess is located so it can have portholes to allow some natural light in.
What is The Petty Officer / Staff Mess on a Cruise Ship?
The Petty Officer (PO) / Staff Mess is set up somewhat similar to the Crew Mess. There is a buffet and then some booths or tables and chairs. There might also be a TV and usually a couple of portholes.
The biggest difference is that this dining area will be smaller as there is less crew able to eat there. Whereas technically everyone can eat in the Crew Mess, the PO / Staff Mess is only for the crew that has that rank and above.
Where do Officers Eat on a Cruise Ship?
Some lines have an Officer’s Mess room where officers can eat. The officers may have the option to order their dinner off of the dining room menu and have it brought to the Officer’s Mess.
These rooms usually have tables and chairs that are a bit nicer than the other crew dining areas. Again, most often they will have portholes to allow natural light in.
Can Cruise Ship Crew Members Eat in The Buffet?
You may have also noticed on some cruises various crew members eating in the passenger buffet.
This is a privilege most often reserved for officers or a category known as “staff” or “officer status/privilege” depending on the cruise line. Those in the latter category are usually entertainers, part of the Entertainment Department, or other front-of-house positions.
Most cruise lines allow this to encourage these various crew members to interact with the passengers.
Can Cruise Ship Crew Eat in Speciality Restaurants?
On occasion, you will see crew members eating in a specialty restaurant. More often than not this is for a special occasion, based on availability, and with prior approval. Remember – guests come first!
Can Cruise Ship Crew Use Room Service?
Depending on rank and cruise line, some crew are able to get room service (except at breakfast).
They may or may not have to pay for this depending on the cruise line and would be expected to tip the room service steward.
What Kind of Food is There in the Crew Dining Areas?
In the Crew Mess, it’s not uncommon to find Eastern-based foods such as curry’s, fish head soup, and lots of rice. While the more specialty items of the day tend to rotate, there is usually a cooked veggie option, a small (and quite basic) salad station, and a dessert option.
The food for each mess room takes into account the most common nationalities and tastes of the people that will be eating there.
Pretty much all of the dining areas will have food on a rotation of a week or two weeks. This rotation can get a bit monotonous. Almost everyone has a favorite day on the rotation though and when that day comes up it is quite exciting.
The food in the Petty Officer/Staff Mess tends to incorporate more Western foods than the Crew Mess. You’ll often see some currys and such, but also pasta, pizza, or sometimes even a hamburger. There’s usually a small salad station and either ice cream or a dessert of some sort.
Is the Food for the Crew on a Cruise Ship as High Quality as the Passengers Food?
The food that the crew eats on cruise ships is different than passengers’ food but the quality is still high. Presentation is not a priority and the focus is more on Eastern foods.
Some cruise lines have better crew food than others. The quality between the mess rooms is pretty similar with the exception of the officer’s mess/when they get meals from the dining room.
The specialties like lobster and steak are pretty much reserved for the passengers. Crew food isn’t very fancy and there isn’t really anything in the “cooked to order” category.
It really comes down to the cruise line trying to accommodate so many different styles of food. It’s hard to make all the food exciting every day for everyone from every culture.
Every once in a while they’ll be something special and you learn to appreciate those days. The days when there is something extra special tends to be when a quantity of something gets ordered incorrectly for the passengers.
I have enjoyed a few delicious fish and chips nights thanks to that! The food is overall fine and it is a great opportunity to try food from different cultures, although I still can’t say I’ve ever tried the fish-head soup.
If You’re Allowed to Eat at the Passenger Buffet, Why Wouldn’t You?
One reason: passengers. I say that in jest, but it’s true!
Think about it this way, if you only eat in the passenger buffet, before you can grab your morning coffee you need to have your makeup on, dry hair, in full uniform, with a smile on your face.
Not only do you have to do all of that, but you will also be interacting with the passengers and need to be “on”. Now, interacting with passengers isn’t bad. There are just times when you want to sit and have a quiet cup of tea on your own.
This isn’t to say that passengers shouldn’t interact with the crew in the buffet. Almost everyone that works in a passenger facing position actually enjoys the passengers.
Absolutely say hello and tell them what a great cruise you’re having!
But, if the crew member looks like they’re only half awake or seems like they’re in a rush, maybe don’t tell them your whole life story right there and then.
Crew Members Have to Wear Uniform
The other part of this is that to eat in the passenger buffet, crew needs to be in the appropriate uniform. For a lot of crew (especially in the technical department) they get dirty while they are working.
To eat in the passenger buffet they would have to change into their clean uniform (and likely shower/clean up) whereas in the crew areas they can stay in their working uniform.
This creates enough of a time constraint that isn’t worth it for every meal.
When do Cruise Ship Employees Eat?
Each of the crew dining areas has set times. Most often it is something like:
5:30/6:00am-8:00/8:30am for breakfast
11:00am-1:00pm for lunch
4:30-6:30/7:00pm for dinner
There is also often a late-night snack available.
The timing for each mess room is different on each cruise line and the dining times would be set to accommodate the schedules of the most crew members onboard.
There are times that a work shift is over the course of the entirety of a mealtime. If this happens the supervisor would schedule a half hour or so out to go and get some food.
There are also various crew events thrown to help improve camaraderie as well as crew welfare. While the “crew party” is the most well-known, there are things like ice cream sundae/dessert party, noodle night, and on a rare occasion a wine and cheese night. These mostly happen late at night so that more employees are able to attend after finishing work.
The crew aren’t required to attend meal times though. Often they will skip a meal in favor of sleep. It might be a quick nap at lunchtime or sleeping a bit longer in the morning!
Can Cruise Ship Employees Bring on Food from Land?
It is not uncommon to see crew members bring food onboard from land. It might be a pizza, a burger, or some delicious local fare to enjoy.
More often than not it is some small snacks for the cabin.
If it’s a frequently visited cruise port with a favorite restaurant, crew members might order food as a group and send one person ashore to pick it up for everyone.
A staple of this is Burger Queen in Ketchikan, Alaska. There’s usually a rule that any hot food (and not packaged food) has to be consumed in one of the mess rooms.
Can Cruise Ship Crew Eat in Their Cabins?
The majority of cruise lines would say that they frown on crew having food in their cabins. This is in an effort to keep the crew from letting food go bad (and the corresponding pests that this might bring).
In spite of this, most crew members have some snacks in their cabin. It might seem odd to buy food ashore when the food onboard is free.
However, it is often nice to have something different when you are on board for 6 months or more. Plus, the snacks come in handy when you miss a meal in favor of sleep!
Can Cruise Ship Crew Bring Alcohol Onboard?
A little known fact: Some cruise lines will also allow the crew to bring on (some) alcohol – and they’re allowed to consume it on board.
If you cruise regularly, you know that most cruise lines do not allow passengers to bring alcohol onboard to consume. Rather, if you bring it onboard it gets stored until disembarkation. For the crew, the rules are a bit different and each cruise line has slightly different rules.
To learn more about which alcoholic drinks can be brought onto cruise ships by different cruise lines, check out this post: You Can Bring Alcohol on These Cruise Lines – Cruise Line Guide.
Many cruise lines don’t allow the crew to drink hard liquor at all.
Others will even monitor alcohol content in beers and wines and nearly all lines have limits to what is allowed to be kept in crew cabins. So, while they might be allowed to bring some alcohol onboard from shore, it is typically closely monitored and with a lot of rules.
Can the Crew Dine with Passengers?
The short answer to this is… sometimes. It’s largely dependent upon what role they have onboard. If their position is allowed (on special occasions) to eat in the passenger dining room or a specialty dining room, then they would probably be allowed to “host” a passenger’s table.
The crew regularly hosts tables Gala/Formal evenings, but some lines allow it to happen on other occasions when requested by a passenger.
If you aren’t sure what the policy is for the cruise line you are on, just ask!
2020 Cruise Ship Layup: During the cruise ship layup caused by the coronavirus pandemic, things are different. All of the crew are eating in one dining area – whether that be the passenger buffet or the Crew Mess. While the food in both of these areas is conventionally buffet style, during the cruise ship layup all food is being served to the crew to help mitigate the spread of coronavirus.
Cruise lines try really hard to accommodate a lot of different cultural tastes. The food might not be as fancy as passenger food, but it’s good enough.
Rank plays a big role in who can eat where onboard a ship and even though there are multiple crew dining areas onboard every cruise ship, not every crew member can eat in every one.
About The Author:
Iris has spent approximately 1,100 days at sea between working, living, and sailing on cruise ships. Iris shares her time between the United States and Scotland, and a cruise ship where she often sails with her cruise ship engineer husband. You can read more about Iris and her travels on her blog www.lifeofiris.com and find her on twitter here.
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