Cruise ship captains do not just pilot boats for the cruise line. They're more like the chief executive officer of a medium-size company, responsible for the enjoyment and safety of thousands of passengers and crew members.
Whether they work for Royal Caribbean, Carnival or a much smaller cruise line, a captain who masters the craft is skilled in many areas. A captain position requires being a nautical expert, decision-maker, leader, legal expert, personnel manager, administrator, cargo specialist and mediator. Luckily, there's a generous cruise ship captain salary paid for ensuring the ship sails smoothly at all times.
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A cruise ship captain is a licensed mariner with ultimate operation of the ship. This professional is also responsible for the transportation of the ship's passengers and cargo – which could be many thousands of people – acting as the final authority for everyone on board. The job is extremely varied from day to day.
For example, you might use navigational aids to pilot the ship, maintain a detailed log, observe all maritime protocols and safety regulations, supervise the ship's engines and maintenance and direct cruise ship workers. You can also be responsible for managing the ship's security plan for malfunctions, emergency evacuations, stowaways, hijackers and other threats.
Other tasks can include ensuring cargo is stowed in accordance with maritime regulations, greeting guests and complying with national and international maritime, immigration and customs laws.
Cruise ship captains complete a four-year program at a Coast-Guard-approved merchant marine academy. The marine transportation program provides a foundation in math, science and marine science alongside specialized sea training and practical maritime operations. You'll also need work experience, with many ship captains putting in thousands of hours as a deck officer before working their way up to the position of captain.
Licensing is required for these professionals. The Transportation Security Administration offers the relevant credential, called the Transportation Worker Identification, while you can get the Merchant Mariner credential from the United States Coast Guard. You'll have to pass vision and hearing exams and a drug screening as well as a character reference check. The United States Coast Guard also offers a certification you may need for the job.
So, what does a cruise ship captain make? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep annual salary data specifically for cruise ship captains. However, it does report a median salary for all ship captains (including commercial and cargo ships) of $81,640 and an average salary of $98,330 as of May 2021. Most captains earned from $37,240 to $159,690 annually.
Alternatively, PayScale – which aggregates data from over 100 self-reports – reported that a cruise ship captain earned an average base salary of $98,113 in July 2022. There was a higher reported salary range running from $47,000 to $191,000. Ultimately, factors like the cost of living in the location, the cruise line and your education and experience also affect your salary.
The cruise captain's job takes place on a cruise ship, but you're unlikely to be at sea for 365 days of the year. Most captains work two months on, two months off, or a similar pattern depending on the length of the cruise.
The job may be more physically demanding than you imagine, as the captain is essentially on call 24/7 while the ship is at sea. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line says a job title onboard can require working 10-hour shifts every day of the week. Therefore, you'll need to be comfortable having less of a flexible schedule and accept that you might not get full days off.
Years of Experience
It takes many years of hard work to become a cruise ship captain. The payoff is a salary that starts high and usually rises fairly consistently with time and experience. PayScale's July 2022 data shows that a typical salary trajectory may look like this:
- 1 to 4 years of experience: $77,000
- 5 to 9 years of experience: $70,000
- 10 to 19 years of experience: $99,000
- 20 or more years of experience: $98,000
Job Growth Trend
There should be plenty of opportunities for cruise ship captains in the coming years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of jobs for captains of all water vessels (including cruise ships) will rise by 13 percent by the year 2030. This solid rate of growth is due to an increase in tourism plus the departure of existing captains, and it offers you an advantage for getting the job.
On the downside, going on a cruise is a luxury that most people have to save for. If personal wealth tanks, then people will have less disposable income to spend on cruise vacations. For that reason, the job outlook primarily depends on the state of the economy.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels
- PayScale: Average Ship Captain Salary
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Water Transportation Workers
- Norwegian Cruise Line: Shipboard Employment: Life Onboard
- Transportation Security Administration: TWIC
- United States Coast Guard: National Maritime Center