I Explored Hawaii On A 5-Month Long Cruise, And Actually Got Paid For It!


Around the world people dream of visiting the Hawaiian islands. They fantasize about filling an itinerary with white sandy beaches, lush forests, fresh pineapple, warm ocean water and enough sunshine to make their tan lines last for months.

A popular method to experience Hawaii is through a cruise ship. These days the largest company offering multi-island cruises is Norwegian Cruise Line on board the MS Pride of America which makes port in five locations on four islands. Packages start at $1,349 per person based on double-occupancy, but don’t include airfare which varies depending on where you are traveling from.

Now, there is an easier and more lucrative way to see Hawaii. Instead of booking a vacation package and spending thousands of dollars to pack as much fun and alcohol into seven days as possible it is possible to be paid to see these same islands. That is, you too can be an employee aboard the MS Pride of America, have your plane ticket paid for, set sail around paradise for a five-month contract and save a few bucks every few weeks.

Literally ANYONE can work on a cruise ship. I’ve heard stories where it was near impossible to work on board these ships, or where a separate recruiting company had to be paid to forward a person’s application. For international cruise ships there may be some legitimacy to those claims, but the Pride of America is a US-flagged ship, which means that Americans (and non-Americans) can apply for work just like any other company. And absolutely no experience is necessary, though it always helps. If you just want to see Hawaii for five months and not worry about serious professional development then go be a dishwasher in paradise! Check out their employment website which is constantly recruiting new employees, as the turnover rate for cruise ships tends to be rather high.

The application process does take a few months, and there will be some travel involved to get the appropriate certifications. But once that is all done and NCL (Norwegian Cruise Line) has offered you an employment date, pack your bags!

NCL will fly you to Honolulu, usually. On occasion they’ve flown new employees into Maui but that’s not often. After a long flight you arrive in paradise, a salty and humid paradise full of wild flowers, hula dancers and Mai Tais. Work will begin soon, so take a minute to just look around and take in this exotic location.

Once settled in to your new home you will find an itinerary with fire training, ship layout, do’s and don’ts and general employment guidelines. But by this point, you realize you’re in Hawaii and can actually start enjoying the experience.

Day 1

Saturday – Embarkation, Honolulu, Oahu

Each Saturday morning thousands disembark the Pride of America in Honolulu. Sometime around 7:00 a.m. the ship makes port and begins unloading the previous week’s passengers. Depending on your work schedule you will also have some time to get off the ship and walk around Honolulu or nearby Ala Moana or Waikiki.

The closest beach to relax at is Ala Moana, about a 20 minute walk from the port / cruise terminal in Honolulu. The beach and park are public and not controlled by any hotels like those further away in Waikiki. The water is warm and the beach is ample, especially if you get there in the morning. Later in the afternoon the beach will fill up with families and long-boarders.

Photo of Ala Moana Beach, Honolulu, HI, United States by Steve Carter

Ala Moana Beach, looking toward Waikiki

Across the street from Ala Moana Park is the Ala Moana shopping center, a high-end shopping mall that has great fashion and high-end jewelry between the usual tourists trinkets associated with Hawaii. If a stop at Tommy Hilfiger isn’t in your weekly budget there is also a Wal-Mart about a block behind the mall as well.

Getting Around

Most days cruise employees are going to have enough time off to make their rounds on foot. As the Hawaiian islands aren't very big and most shops set up near the ports on foot is generally a good way to travel. Other times though the shops and restaurants are more than a 10-minute hike so taxis are always waiting at the port to take passengers anywhere on the island. Rental cars are also an easy option to see more of the island, and can either be booked on board the ship ahead of time or at the port as soon as you step foot on land.

After a morning swim and assuming you still have some time before work back on the cruise ship the best place to enjoy libations and friends is the Row Bar, an outdoor tiki bar in the concrete office and condo complex across the street from the cruise terminal. Their flat bread pizzas are quite tasty, and their drink selection is at the dispose of the bartender’s creativity. Now, once you visit a few of bars a few weeks in a row the bartenders will figure out you are indeed a cruise ship employee, to which they normally respond with “That’s rough, have a free drink (or three).” Row Bar was definitely one of these places, and I wish I had discovered this place before my last month in Hawaii.

A good swim, a few bites and a few drinks and it’s back to work. Don’t worry, most employees aboard the cruise ship have had a few drinks before they get to work. It helps the day go by.

Photo of Honolulu, HI, United States by Steve Carter

Departing Honolulu after a tropical storm

Day 2

Sunday / Monday – Kahului, Maui

Saturday evening you leave Honolulu and Sunday morning you arrive (or wake up) in Kahului, Maui. This port and town is much smaller than Honolulu but that doesn’t mean there isn’t as much to see or do. Just a short walk from the ship is a hidden beach that was normally deserted in the day but often held bonfires and post-work parties by fellow cruise ship employees.

Photo of Maui, Kahului, HI, United States by Steve Carter

Hidden beach near Kahului, Maui

Although the cruise ship operates 24 hours a day most of the employees have schedules that are mostly subject to meals times (breakfast, lunch and dinner). So getting away to enjoy the beach or the strip malls in town is definitely possible. There is also a movie theater across the street from port in Maui so that’s another nice escape from ship life.

Another option for tourists (and employees if you have the time) is renting a car and exploring the island. Car rentals can be secured through on-board agents on the ship, or representatives will also be present just steps from the ship to anyone looking to make an impromptu reservation. With the means to drive your itinerary can include Kihei (a popular destination for employees looking for alcoholic alternatives to Kahului, as bars and restaurants are limited) or exploring the mountains of Maui in the West Maui Forest Reserve, which is a stark contrast to the stereotypical beaches of Hawaii.

Day 3
Photo of West Maui Forest Reserve, Wailuku, HI, United States by Steve Carter

One of the many parks in the West Maui Forest Reserve

Photo of West Maui Forest Reserve, Wailuku, HI, United States by Steve Carter

In the mountains of the West Maui Forest Reserve

Fishing and scuba diving excursions are also available at each stop, but personally I wouldn’t recommend them on Maui. This was the windiest of all the islands I experienced, and the constant rumor was Tiger Sharks liked to frequent the beaches because they were unprotected by any reefs and the sharks fed on sea turtles that liked to gather along the shore.

Day 4

Tuesday – Hilo, Hawaii

All day Tuesday is spent in the port of Hilo which is on the northeastern side of the big island of Hawaii. This port is rather lack-luster to be completely honest. Port is about seven miles from the town of Hilo and requires at least a taxi or bus to reach. A friend and I did make the trek on foot one Tuesday morning, only to spent almost two hours walking with just enough time to explore the local outdoor market (a total tourists trap) and a sports bar named Coquis that did admittedly have really great burgers and drafts. Tuesday is also a good day to get your laundry done on board, as there are about five machines for every two hundred employees, so finding a free machine with time to monitor it is sometimes a rare opportunity.

The main highlight for Tuesday night is passing by Kīlauea and seeing the active volcano. Tourists and employees alike line the ship’s decks to see the liquid fire flowing into the Pacific Ocean. The windows in the crew bar are a perfect location to have an after-work brew while enjoying the show. And by the way, wine and beer costs just $1.50 in the crew bar so even if you’re not able to enjoy the off-ship bars very often there is a sufficient stock of cheap alcohol aboard to make plenty of bad decisions.

Day 5

Wednesday – Kona, Hawaii

As the cruise hits mid-week and its fourth destination of the itinerary you reach Kona, also located on the big island of Hawaii. Kona is especially known for growing unique crops of coffee in lava fields that add specific nutrients to the coffee blend resulting in unique flavors.

Unlike most other ports Kona is too shallow for the ship to park right at the dock, so it anchors further out and smaller boats called tenders make runs back and forth to shore. Each Wednesday the first tender at 7:00 is reserved for crew who have the morning off and wish to make their away around the coastal town.

Where to Eat/Drink

At 7:00 a.m. there isn’t a lot to do just yet, except enjoy the dozens of Kona coffee shops along the main coastal road. My personal favorite was a small coffee shop located in the Kona Inn Shopping Village. I wasn’t much of a coffee drinker just yet, but every Wednesday morning before anything else would open I would be parked next to the ocean drinking my volcano-grown coffee with a slight breeze and not caring about anything else in the world.

Photo of Kona, HI, United States by Steve Carter

Kona, Hawaii after a tropical storm with the Kona Inn Shopping Village in the background

Photo of Kona Inn Shopping Village, Kailua-Kona, HI, United States by Steve Carter

A brave lizard takes a drink from the water coming off my coffee in Kona

Photo of Kona, HI, United States by Steve Carter

The Pride of America, as seen from Kona, Hawaii

After coffee and a stroll through the rest of Kona it gets to be about 8:30, just in time for the bars and restaurants to start opening their doors. Just like the crew these businesses know the ship’s itinerary exactly and cater their business to tourists and crew alike.

At 8:30 you can stroll into Lu Lu’s bar and grill. Now, a bar at 8:30 may not sounds appealing at first, but once again this establishment sympathized with those working on the cruise ship and would offer free breakfast to anyone who said they were a crew member. Loco moco (rice, gravy, eggs and sausage) paired perfectly with a tall beer, or three.

After an hour or so at Lu Lu’s it’s time to start walking back to port, with one more stop. The Kona Brewing Company is located about a block uphill from port and opens at 10:30. Here you can sample over a dozen of Hawaii’s finest brews and enjoy their homemade pizzas, which are absolutely amazing. My personal favorite pizza was BBQ chicken, paired with a Long Board beer.

Photo of Kona Brewing Co, Pawai Place, Kona, HI, United States by Steve Carter

The Kona Brewing Company became a regular Wednesday stop

Now, by some chance if you still have time to spend in Kona there is a plethora of activities to do, most notably scuba diving. There are many dive shops located in Kona, many of which take reservations through the cruise ship so calling them direct is not necessary. If you do not have a reservation though finding someone to take you out can be troublesome, so that’s when you head straight to the docks next to the port.

Walking around the docks locating scuba diving boats is easy, you just have to spot the boats with oxygen tanks strapped to their back decks. On a random Wednesday off a friend and I were able to walk through the dock and find a man who would take us diving. The conversation went something like this:

“Do you take people diving?”

“Yes I do! When would you like to go?

“Does now work?”

“Yeah, just let me make a phone call and we’ll be on our way!”

When finding a dive guise this way make sure you have enough cash on hand to make trip, in this case about $120 per person for three dives off the coast of Kona.

By the time you get back to the ship you’ve had quite the day already. Going to work is the last thing you want to do, but this is the main reason you are in Hawaii. And just remember, you’re getting paid.

Day 6

Thursday / Friday - Nawiliwili, Kauai

Kauai is the final stop of the cruise before heading back to Honolulu, and is also a favorite of many cruise ship workers. The ship docks sometime around 7:00 in the morning, so if you don’t spend too much time at crew bar the night before you can make an early day out of it, grab some breakfast in crew mess and head to the beach before it fills up.

Photo of Nawiliwili Harbor, Lihue, HI, United States by Steve Carter

Nawiliwili Beach, owned and operated by the Marriott Hotel

Photo of Kaua'i Marriott Resort, Rice Street, Lihue, Kauai County, HI, United States by Steve Carter

Nawiliwili Beach, before it got crowded every day

Nawiliwili beach is amazing. The water is warm and there are often five or six-foot waves coming through the harbor. The waters are also protected by an artificial reef so there won’t ever be any sharks or unwanted sea creatures to worry about. There are a few paddle board rental shops along the beach that would stay busy all day.

Around 11:00 a.m. the beach would fill with people from the cruise ship or the nearby Marriott Hotel (who owned the beach, yet tolerated the shenanigans of the cruise ship employees). By this time you’ve had enough time in the water or on the sand soaking up the sun that some sort of lunch seems appropriate. Next to the beach is JJ’s Broiler, another beach side restaurant that served burgers, seafood and alcohol. But like other beach side restaurants near ports they also recognized the life of cruise ship employees and after visiting them for a few weeks in a row will gladly turn your mojito into a double or triple for no extra charge.

Thursday afternoon in Kauai is reserved for getting through work as fast as possible. The faster you get your work done the faster you can get to the ABC store for alcohol before they close and get back to the beach! Every Thursday night there would be at least a dozen different parties going on along the beach, and you are free to join any one of them or the club in the Marriott. My evenings were generally spent on the beach with friends who would finish their work shift at different times.

Friday mornings in Kauai were generally spent either back at the beach or sleeping in to recuperate from the night before, whether you’re crew or guest. Most ports the ship would disembark later in the evening, but Friday afternoons the ship would leave around 3:00 and head to its final show - the Nepali Coast, a true gem of Hawaii.

Day 7
Photo of Nāpali Coast State Wilderness Park, Kapaa, HI, United States by Steve Carter

The Nepali Coast along the northeastern side of Kauai

One final pass by Kauai and it’s time to head back to Honolulu to disembark and head back to wherever you came from, for the tourists at least. For the crew this means one more night before it all starts again. One more night before waking up to thousands of guests leaving and boarding the ship. One more night before reloading on necessities to keep your cabin hospitable. And one more night we get back to Row Bar where the cute Asian bartender will be working who will undoubtedly give you and your friends free drinks.

A few Tips

This is the life of a cruise ship worker in Hawaii, one week at a time. You may not be spending your entire day on the beaches of Hawaii, but then again you are getting paid for the experience.

Although this may feel like a vacation at times, this is actually a job. The distractions are limitless but keep a level head and remember to show up on-time.

Have fun. Have a drink. But most of all have an experience you’ll always remember!