FAQs About Living and Working on a National Geographic Cruise Ship as a Steward or Deckhand

Lindblad Expeditions, Costa Rica

I get a lot questions about my experience working on smalls ships - Specifically the National Geographic cruise ships - so I put together this FAQ to help answer some of those questions.

Since 2007, I have lived and worked on several small National Geographic cruise ships through Lindblad Expeditions. It has been an amazing experience and I’ve done and seen things that many people only dream about. I’ve kissed a gray whale in Baja, I’ve watched humpbacks bubble-net feed up in Alaska, I’ve witnessed a pod of orca on the hunt in British Columbia, and I’ve transited the Panama Canal too many times to count. As you can imagine, I’ve gotten a lot of questions from curious travelers about my experience of living and working on the Lindblad National Geographic ships. What’s it like? How much time do you get off? Where do you travel to? Etc… I love answering these questions and helping young adventurers decide whether ship life is right for them, but I do get many of the same questions time and time again. So, I’ve compiled a few FAQs here with the hope of answering some of those inquiries and maybe even helping you jumpstart your own adventure at sea! I love helping young (and old!) adventurers get out into the world and live their dreams. If you still have questions after reading this post, feel free to reach out to me directly.

Kissing a whale in Baja

But first, a brief history of my career trajectory on the ships: in 2007, I started as a steward (serving meals and cleaning cabins) on the NG Sea Lion. Then, after two months of doing that, I was promoted to Senior Steward which is a rotational position. That meant that I worked two months on and then had one month off. During those one month off stretches, I explored the world as I pleased and then returned to either the Sea Lion or the Sea Bird for another eight weeks of work. After about a year of being Senior Steward, I wanted to continue working on the ships, but in a grander capacity, so I went back to school for massage therapy and returned to the ships as the Wellness Specialist. I did that for about 4 years full-time, working 4-6 weeks on, then getting 2-6 weeks off.

While the days of living and working on the ships full-time are behind me, I return to ship life every so often to pick up contracts in Alaska, Baja, and Costa Rica/Panama. It’s a lifestyle that’s hard to quit. 

So here are some questions that I get asked on a regular basis:

Working on a National Geographic cruise ship sounds amazing! How can I get a job there? 

In many respects, working on these ships is amazing. You get to travel to places few people ever get to travel to and you get to experience things that few people ever get to experience: mega-pods of dolphins, breaching humpback whales, bears catching salmon in a river, swimming with sea turtles, and so much more.

BUT working on these ships is not all humpback whales and sea turtles. There are a lot of things to consider when applying including the hardships of the job. Skip down to the next FAQ below (What are some of the cons to working on a small ship) to see whether you really want to do this. If you do, come back here and I’ll give you some tips on how to apply. 

Did you check out the cons? Still interested in applying? Great! I started as a steward and while it was a ton of work, I loved (pretty much) every second of it. 

Want to read some more pros and cons about living and working on a ship? Check out this post

Here are my tips on how to apply:

  1. Decide which side of shipboard life you want to be on: the steward department or the deckhand department. Stewards serve meals, keep the common areas tidy, clean guest cabins, put away laundry etc… The deckhands do basic shipboard maintenance and chores like painting, offloading trash, spraying down the decks, and other projects around the ship. Many of the deckhands also learn to drive the Zodiacs, which are small inflatable boats we use to get to and from shore. Both stewards and deckhands work long, hard hours, so it really depends on what your personal work preferences are and what your past work history is.

  2. Highlight (or get) relevant experience. Have you waited on tables, worked at a summer lodge, driven a tour guide boat, taken a class on knot tying? As you put together your application, think about what your previous experience is and how that might help you as a steward or deckhand on a small ship. If you don’t have any pertinent work experience I recommend spending a season getting some. That way, you increase your chances of getting hired and you also won’t find out that you hate waiting on tables after you’ve signed a 7 month contract at sea. 

  3. Make your schedule wide open. Initial steward or deckhand contracts are 6-7 months straight and Lindblad is pretty strict on that time frame. You won’t be able to go home for your best friends wedding and you won’t be able to cut your contract short to go back to school in the fall. If you can commit to the dates they’re asking you to take, you’re more likely to get hired.  

  4. Decide which ship you want to work on. The Sea Bird and Sea Lion are smaller (64-passengers) and less ‘new’. They’re more informal and more intimate, in my opinion, in that camaraderie is often high. The Quest and the Venture are larger (100-passengers) and definitely swankier. However, at the time I’m writing this, they are both fairly new ships and the the crew is definitely working out some managerial quirks. You can read more about the individual ships and where they go here. (Note that US citizens can only work on these four US flagged ships). Also know that when you apply, there might not be an option on which ship you get placed. Go with the flow!

  5. Everything still sounding good? Ready to apply? Below are the links. Good luck!

    National Geographic Quest and Venture

    National Geographic Sea Bird and Sea Lion

Bubble net feeding humpback whales, Alaska

What are some of the cons to working on a small ship? 

It is A LOT of work. Especially if you start as a deckhand or a steward, which you probably will. The hours are long, the work is demanding (physically and mentally), and even if you’re ‘off duty’ you may still be asked to get something for a guest or cut your break short if there is a change to the schedule. In other words, you’re always ‘on’ even if it’s your day off.

Being away from friends and family for long periods of time can also wear you down. The initial steward or deckhand contract is 6-7 months. Yep. Six or seven months on the ship with no break. If you become part of the rotational crew (usually not until you’ve finished an initial contract) you’ll work two months on, one month off. Needless to say, you need to be ok with not seeing family, friends, or significant others for extended periods of time. 

Low moral is a real thing and sometimes life on the ships sucks. Maybe it was a week where everything seemed to go wrong, maybe tips have been crappy, maybe you’re homesick (or seasick), maybe the weather is rainy, cold, and gray, or maybe everyone is just in a bad mood. There will be stretches of days, a week, or even a couple of weeks at a time where all you’ll want to do is jump overboard or throw your shipmates (or guests) overboard. But the good news is that moral gets better (sometimes with the help of a night out dancing) and in many cases, your crewmates become lifelong friends.

Working on the ships can be exhausting, it can be mentally draining, and it can be immensely frustrating. But it can also be one of the best experiences of your life if you come into it with the expectation that it’s going to be a challenge and that there are going to be lots of ups and downs. 

That’s a lot of cons… What are some pros about working on the ships? 

There are a lot of pros to working on the ships as well. You get to travel; you get to see things very few people ever get to see out in the wild; you make lasting friendships; you can save quite a bit of money because there’s really not many places to spend it while onboard; once you complete a contract you can travel with Lindblad as a guest to your destination of choice; you will learn new skills… there are lots of great pros to life at sea! It’s a lot of work (I stress this again) but it’s also a lot of fun. 

waterfall in Alaska

Can I get off the ship and do the fun things guests do? 

For sure! As long as your work is done and you’re not interfering with the guests’ experience. You can go hiking, kayaking or standup paddle boarding, join a Zodiac cruise, or simply relax at the beach. It’s actually encouraged for crew to get off the ship and partake in the daily activities because it boosts moral. You aren’t there simply to serve meals and wash down the decks, right?    

Where will I travel to?

As a steward or deckhand you’ll work on the US flagged ships - the Sea Bird, Sea Lion, the Quest or the Venture. These vessels run trips in Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, Baja, Costa Rica/Panama, and Belize/Honduras. Depending on when your contract starts and what ship you’re on, you’ll work one or two of these destinations. My personal favorites are Alaska and Baja. 

Is it possible to move up in the company? 

Absolutely. There’s actually quite a bit of growth and promotion from within the company. I started as a steward then moved to senior steward then to wellness specialist rather quickly. It’s common for stewards and deckhands to move all the way up to officers or even switch over to the staff side of operations like I did. Naturalists, photo instructors, expedition leaders, or video chroniclers all are other possibilities. 

What else do I need to know? 

There is a strict alcohol policy onboard. You’re allowed two drinks a night and if you go over that limit and get caught there is a zero tolerance policy. In other words, you’re fired and get sent home. This is for safety reasons. If there is an emergency on the ship and the crew is drunk, it’s bad news. 

Also, if you decide to quit during your contract, you are responsible for your airfare to and from the ship and perhaps a few other expenses. So make sure this is really something you’re ready to commit to! 

Baja, Lindblad Expeditions

And there you have it! I hope I answered some of your questions about living and working on a small Nat Geo cruise ship as a steward or a deckhand. The two main things I want to stress are that: it is a lot of fun and it is a lot of work. If you’re up for it, definitely apply and start your adventure at sea. Good luck!

Have more questions? Feel free to reach out here