What is a Typical Cruise Ship Captain Salary?

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Captain Henrik Loy stands in front of Ovation of the Seas where he will serve

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Cruise ship captains are responsible for the entire operation of a cruise ship. Their role is demanding, requiring years of experience, special skills, and long hours.

A cruise ship captain’s salary is $98,000. A captain’s salary depends on the vessel size, years of experience, and cruise line.

Cruise ship captains also receive benefits such as their cabin accommodations, food, flights, drinks, housekeeping, and more.

Keep reading to learn more about how much money cruise ship captains make.

What is a Cruise Ship Captain Salary?

Trailblazing captain kate mccue standing in front of Celebrity Beyond During Construction
Trailblazing captain Kate McCue standing in front of Celebrity Beyond During Construction (Photo Courtesy: Celebrity Cruises)

An average cruise ship captain’s salary is $95,000, in a salary range of $50,000 to $190,000. New cruise ship captains may start at $50,000, while more experienced captains can make over $150,000.

The exact salary for a cruise captain depends on the captain’s experience, education, the cruise line they work for, and the size of the ship they sail.

There is a wide range of estimates on cruise ship captains’ salaries. Below are some estimates for cruise ship captain’s salary:

  • Comparably estimates the average cruise ship captain’s salary at $93,328 annually.
  • Payscale estimates a ship captain’s average salary at $94,484 per year.
  • Indeed.com estimates a cruise ship captain’s annual salary of $47,491.

The captain is the highest-paid crew member on a cruise ship. That’s because cruise ship captains have a demanding job that requires them to be on call 24/7.

Brothers Tasos and Dimitrios Kafetzis serve as co captains of the upcoming Celebrity Ascent, the line’s fourth Edge Series cruise ship

A captain is responsible for the entire operation of the cruise ship. Not to mention, the captain is responsible for the thousands of lives on the vessel and the cruise ship’s safety.

The ship’s captain’s responsibilities include:

  • Ship navigation
  • Engine room operations
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Crew training
  • Guest Services
  • Ship entertainment
  • Responding to emergencies
  • Social events
  • Ensuring the safety of guests, crew members, and the vessel

The size of the cruise ship is a significant contributor to a captain’s salary. Captains of mega cruise ships earn more than those piloting small luxury vessels.

Not all cruise lines pay the same, either.

Generally, the largest cruise lines, like Royal Caribbean, NCL, and Carnival, pay captains a higher salary than smaller cruise ship operators.

Cruise ship captains work on contract. A typical contract sees captains work for two months on the ship and take two months off between deployments.

Factors Affecting The Salary of a Cruise Ship Captain

Carnival Cruise Line officers and Captain Vincenzo Alcaras standing in front of carnival celebration
Captain Captain Vincenzo Alcaras, Center (Photo Courtesy Carnival Cruise Line)

Becoming a captain in the cruise industry requires a lifetime of hard work, training, and dedication.

I asked our captain how he became a cruise ship captain when we sailed on Serenade of the Seas. He first began working on ships at the age of 18. And it wasn’t until he was 33 that he received his Master’s license, which qualified him to become a captain. He spent two decades operating cargo ships before getting a job on a cruise ship.

I asked the captain why he chose to make the change, and he said that cruising offered the chance to see more of the world.

Here’s how to become a cruise ship captain.

Experience

Experience is the most important factor determining the average salary of a cruise ship captain. It takes decades for captains to acquire the knowledge, experience, training, and certifications required to become a licensed captain.

Most cruise ship captains begin their careers at entry-level positions and climb to the rank of captain.

Aspiring captains take on roles as deck officers or third mates and work their way up. The onboard training they receive is essential to gaining the knowledge required to captain a vessel.

After receiving the Master Mariner Certificate, you can captain a commercial vessel. Most captains find work in the military, Coast Guard, or cargo transportation before becoming cruise ship captains.

More experienced captains are better prepared to handle the demanding responsibilities of managing a cruise ship. So, captains with more years of experience receive higher salaries.

The Cruise Ship Matters

Icon of the seas during sea trials in Turku, Finland, where it is under construction at the Meyer Turku shipyard
(Photo courtesy Royal Caribbean International)

The size, passenger capacity, and prestige of the cruise ship play a role in determining the salary of a cruise ship captain.

Captains of larger cruise ships, like Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas, receive higher salaries than smaller cruise ships. Larger ships have more responsibilities as the captain has more crew members to manage and more passengers to look after.

Not to mention, larger vessels present navigational challenges, especially during mooring.

It takes decades of experience before a captain can helm the largest cruise ships in the world.

Some cruise ships have a unique prestige about them. For instance, the Queen Mary 2 is the world’s last ocean liner and carries a certain elegance in the minds of its guests. The ship’s prestige means that the QM2’s captain is paid more than they would on a similar-sized vessel.

Not All Cruise Lines Pay The Same

Cruise lines have different ideas of determining the salary of the captains of their fleet. Larger cruise lines like Royal Caribbean, Princess Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line pay their captains more because they can afford the higher salary.

The biggest cruise companies in the world want the best captains piloting their ships. So, more prominent cruise companies pay higher salaries to attract the most experienced captains.

Your Location Plays a Role

Like other crew members, cruise ship captains come from around the world. Captains from North America and Europe are paid more because they have a higher cost of living.

There are few people qualified to captain a cruise ship. So, cruise lines must recruit internationally to find the most suitable and experienced captains.

Perks and Benefits of Becoming a Cruise Ship Captain

Captain Kate McCue poses for a photo on the bridge of Celebrity Beyond

Life at sea as a cruise ship captain includes exclusive perks and benefits. Here’s a deep dive into some perks and benefits of becoming a cruise ship captain:

  1. Competitive Salary: A cruise ship captain’s salary is generally the highest-paid position among cruise ship workers. The competition between cruise lines to hire the most experienced captains creates one of the highest-paying jobs in the maritime industry.
  2. Accommodation: Captains enjoy living in spacious cabins near or adjoining the bridge. A captain’s stateroom is less luxurious than the passenger suites, but they are the largest and most comfortable crew staterooms. The captain’s quarters usually feature multiple rooms, a kitchen area, a large bed, and high-quality furnishings.
  3. Meals: All meals are included. But unlike other crew members, the captain can order food from the ship’s higher-end restaurants. They can also dine in the restaurant if they wish, instead of the crew hall.
  4. Travel Opportunities: Captains get to sail to some of the planet’s most beautiful and sought-after places. Few jobs take you to the sun-kissed Mediterranean ports or the icy fjords of Alaska. While a captain’s schedule is busy, they often have time to explore the ports of call.
  5. Generous Leave Periods: Maritime jobs have unique schedules. After extended periods at sea, cruise ship captains enjoy long breaks, sometimes several weeks or months. The gap between contracts allows captains time to spend with family and recover from their demanding jobs. Many captains work on a two-month contract followed by one or two months off.
  6. Prestige and Recognition: The captain’s uniform itself commands respect. Being the figurehead of such a massive vessel is a well-respected career. Captains are well-respected figures not only among the crew but also among the passengers.
  7. Health and Fitness Amenities: Captains have access to fitness facilities. The state-of-the-art gyms ensure they can maintain their physical health even at sea.
  8. Family Benefits: Senior officers, including captains, can bring their families on board at no extra fee. The captain’s family can experience the cruise ship like any other passenger. The captains’ long work hours mean they don’t see their family much. But it’s an incredible perk, considering captains can spend up to six months at sea, away from their families.
  9. Laundry and Housekeeping: Cruise ship captains enjoy complimentary laundry and housekeeping services. The services ensure the captain’s living quarters remain pristine and their uniforms freshly laundered without everyday chores distracting from their already busy schedules.

What Qualifications are Required to Become a Cruise Ship Captain

Becoming a cruise ship captain requires years of training, education, and experience. Steering a colossal vessel across boundless oceans and ensuring the safety of the passengers, crew, and ship.

It takes around 15 to 20 years to become a cruise ship captain.

A captain’s education begins at a recognized maritime academy or university. Candidates pursue a Bachelor’s Degree in Maritime Science or Nautical Science. The formal education teaches navigation, naval laws, ship construction, and safety at sea.

After graduating, aspiring captains must get several certifications mandated by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Essential are the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW), and often, a Master Mariner Certificate.

The career path from a deck cadet to a captain is long. It requires 15 to 20 years of experience and progressive advancement through the ranks of Third Officer, Second Officer, and Chief Officer before becoming a captain. Each position brings increased responsibilities and a chance to learn the skills required to helm a vessel.

Building a network with experienced mariners and gaining insights from mentors in the industry is invaluable. Participation in industry associations and networking at maritime events can bolster an aspiring captain’s knowledge and opportunities.

Being a captain is more than navigating waters. Captains of cruise ships must be able to lead a diverse crew and ensure the well-being of thousands of passengers. Experience in leadership positions and solid communication and crisis management skills are essential for a successful career as a cruise ship captain.

How Many Hours Does A Cruise Ship Captain Work?

Cruise ship captain navigating Panama Canal from bridge
It can take 20 to 22 years for someone to become a captain. Cruise ship captains must have an in-depth knowledge of navigation, logistics, federal laws, maritime laws, organization, and management.
Becoming a captain in the cruise industry requires a lifetime of hard work, training, and dedication. Here’s how to become a cruise ship captain.

Cruise ship captains work up to 12 hours a day, although this can extend to 12 to 16 hours, depending on the vessel’s size and itinerary. The exact number of working hours varies with the type of cruise line, vessel size, and the specific itinerary of the voyage.

Maritime Labour Convention 2006 regulates the working hours of cruise ship captains. The convention stipulates that the maximum work hours can not exceed 14 hours in any 24 hours and 72 hours in any seven days.

The daily working hours are irregular. Weather conditions, travel itineraries, and unexpected emergencies demand the captain’s attention at different times of the day and night. So, a captain rests whenever they find downtime.

Cruise ship captains work on shorter contracts than most crew members. The shorter contracts help captains avoid burnout from their demanding duties.

A typical contract for the captain is two to three months of work. After the contract finishes, captains return home for two to three months of rest.

Marcello De Lio
Marcello De Lio

Marcello's been cruising since he was 12 years old. He loves the freedom that cruising provides, meeting new people, and exploring amazing new ships. Marcello created High Seas Cruising to share his passion for cruising and travel with readers and grow a community of passionate voyagers.

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  1. The picture for your site that appears in a Goodle search for cruise ship captain shows someone with 2.5 stripes on their sleeve. That is not a captain…who would normally wear 4 stripes.

    • Thanks for correcting that mistake. I got so excited by the great photo that I forgot to check that it was a captain. I’ve now updated the featured image to one of a cruise ship captain.