Cruise Ships vs. Bus Tours
A performer’s guide to two very different touring gigs
You’re a dancer, singer, musician, or all three. You like travel.
Cruise ships and national/international tours are fun, adventurous, lucrative ways to see the world and practice your art for a wide audience. Having done two national tours and 3 cruise ship contracts as a dancer-singer, I think I can shed some light on the pros and cons of each.
Cruise Ships: Pros & Cons
Cruise ships can be really amazing, and in some ways they can be really shitty.
Free travel to some kickass places. You can travel to every continent on a cruise ship. You can overnight in Copenhagen, Stockholm, Sydney, Venice, Quebec City, or the Greek Isles, to name a few. You can do free excursions: hiking in the Alaska mountains, snorkeling in Mexico, kayaking in Costa Rica, guided historical tours in Berlin.
An international network of new friends. You’ll meet pals who will house you and tell you how to get around in places you’ve always wanted to go…Australia, Indonesia, Holland, Ireland, South Africa, and all over North America too.
The ocean is stunning. Salty sea air and an endless expanse of blue waves to look out at, plus a good chance you’ll see whales/dolphins, and learn a LOT about the nautical world if you’re into that kind of thing.
Glorious free time. As a cruise ship performer, even with safety drills and any extra event duties you might have (usually schmoozing with guests), you will have all the free time you’ve ever wanted. Sleep-ins, library days, gym time, movie nights. You can learn to play piano, sing in your cabin, mingle with crew and guests, have date night in one of the restaurants/lounges, get sloshed in the crew bar, order room service, play basketball, get a discount spa treatment, or binge watch every season of everything.
A decent plan for saving lots of money in 8 months or less. I have bankrolled entire audition seasons on money saved from ships. **This is not guaranteed. There are ways to blow all of your monthly-earned funds that plenty of ship crew deploy regularly and with ease.
4 to 8 months in a tiny, windowless cabin maintained by fairly intense inspection. No cooking. No waking up with the sun. Drill alarms ring in the morning a few times/week. The bathroom is absurdly small and you are not guaranteed a fridge. Once a month the captain will visit and if your door stopper isn’t fastened correctly or you don’t have the regulation power strips or you’re hoarding dishes from room service or it’s just too messy in there and he’s in a bad mood, you might get a PIN (Performance Improvement Notice. 3X = Fired).
The fishbowl experience. Internet on ships is terrible. Remember you’re in the middle of the ocean. You’ll pay $20–40 for an internet card but you won’t be able to stream or download. Facetime will cut out if it works at all. Because of this your first prerogative in most ports will be to find wifi. Sh*t internet combined with seeing the same few hundred people every day in port and at sea will make you feel like you’re living in a fishbowl, generally cut off from the outside world. This can have potentially crazy-making effects. **The gossip is RAMPANT. It’s important to observe and counteract this feeling with something. Letter writing, yoga, excursions, self-love. T-Mobile helps because it costs nothing to get data/texts pretty much anywhere in the world. I recommend T-Mob’s to anyone who travels a lot.
While you are on a ship step-touching to show tunes, your friends on land are booking Broadway. This is sort of what you relinquish when you sign on for the fishbowl to save money and get free time. If you can stay motivated and not let this bother you, you are killing it. *More advice: when you come off of the ship, give yourself a solid week to adjust back to land life. Get your sleep schedule back on track. Allow yourself to crash and burn at an audition or in class. Make time with friends and family you’ve missed.
Constantly being at the mercy of military-style naval hierarchy and rules. As a musician or cast member, your job is totally sweet, but you still have to answer to a host of uniformed officers, a hotel director, a cruise director, and an entertainment manager, on top of the actual show captains/directors. The smooth operations of the ship rely on a system that works most crew members to exhaustion 7 days/week, and reminds them of their status in the strict hierarchy with uniform regulation, curfews, cabin assignments, access to privileges and guest areas, and extra duties. Performers have a decent status but may still be subjected to intimidation by superior officers, hours of safety drills and classroom exams, and punishments for ridiculous rules no one has heard of unless they’ve done ships. It’s all for safety and consistency, but it can feel like nonsense on the daily.
Other ship things to note:
1. The stage moves with the motion of the ocean, which can be a challenge. It can also cancel shows and leave you with seasickness/vertigo. It can also be kind of awesome and make you feel like you can fly. I guess that’s why I wouldn’t consider it a true ‘con’.
2. The food is really salty. And there’s no real breakdown of what exactly is in it — anywhere. But it’s not bad, and there are always takeout/grocery options in port.
3. Ship goggles —the same as drunk goggles but amplified by the fishbowl effect. In a tiny pool of prospects, people you wouldn’t normally find attractive are suddenly egregiously desirable. Just take your goggles off before you agree to a long term relationship (easier said).
Bus and Truck Tours: Pros & Cons
Waaay different from ships, so different perks and drawbacks.
One show to commit to. One piece, one concert, one production to throw yourself into the world of, to practice and be present in. As opposed to multiple shows in a cruise or smaller productions within one season at a regional theatre.
Nearly 24/7 cell service & wifi. As a former cruise ship employee I never take this for granted.
Seeing an inordinate number of places and people. So maybe you’re not in Venice but if you don’t mind living out of a suitcase you’ll have fun seeing attractions and eating food in cities and towns you wouldn’t normally get the chance to visit. And the best part of touring is, in my opinion, the time and travel resources (and cellphone reception) to contact friends across the country and visit them. It’s just so gratifying and heart-warming to have people you love (and don’t get to see enough) come to your show and catch up with you before you go back on the road.
More time in the places you visit. You’ll always spend at least one night in a place, with time to get a meal and do some proper exploring, maybe even plan a group activity. Depending on the tour, you might have 1–4 weeks just in one place, which is lovely. You get a more full experience of a place rather than just a vacation-style day trip. It’s good way to check out places you might potentially live in later in life (when you’re not busting your ass to make it in NYC or some equivalent).
You get a per diem and can eat what you want. Lunch stops aren’t always rife with your favorite options and a dependence on Yelp as a lifesaving food-finder might develop but you aren’t ever resigned to just eating from a provided buffet like a ship. You get a little bit of untaxed daily allowance just for food and you can spend it how you like.
You could potentially lose something at every stop. You are responsible for remembering your chargers/wallet/toiletries etc. every time you leave a hotel room, a theatre, or a bus. Bring extras of things and guard your valuables with all your brainpower on those hangover days and 5am bus calls. Don’t spend too much time mourning the loss of your water bottle, razor, scarf, hdmi cord (all things I have so far lost on this tour).
You are constantly packing and unpacking. Forever rechecking the weight of your suitcase and reassessing what should come and what could be left behind or shipped home. Sometimes this is a good wakeup call for me: didn’t wear that shirt in 3 months? Bye.
It can be hard to save money. Speaking strictly from a non-equity point of view, it can be tricky to balance your limited per diem and savings goals with maintaining your quality of life.
Buses are not comfortable when you’re on them all day. Foam mattresses and comfy bedding in tow, you can curl up in your seat or even on the floor but the cramped, recycled air of the bus is hard on your body and spirit sometimes. Eat well and change positions often on these days. Stretch a little before getting back on.
Other bus tour things to note:
1. The fishbowl experience is subtler, but still relevant on tour. Cast and crew gossip and drama is inevitable but a little easier to fight with good outside communication and access to family and friends for grounding purposes on layoffs/day trips.
2. Every hotel is different. Some are 4 and 5 star dreams. Some are mouldy, shady, isolated, unfriendly, haunted, or a grubby combination. Don’t spend too much time scaring yourself on yelp reviews beforehand and know that no matter how terrible or amazing each place is you will be leaving it fairly quickly.
3. Sickness can spread quickly on a tour bus, but you can stay healthy/recover quickly by being preventative and giving your body as much rest/water as possible.
Tour life on any vehicle carries so much reward and a lot of strange things to adjust to. Travel on ships and buses and in general gives you a constantly refreshing perspective on life that you can take with you forever. Everything is worth trying once. Plus with each gig you connect with good people who have something to teach you about the business.
I think the cons displayed here are tricky because they are important challenges that can better us and therefore become pros in the long term. Having dealt with some unique stresses, it takes a great deal of effort and circumstance to stress me out, and I still tend to recover quickly. I have been fortunate enough to experience some beautiful adventures, and am also much more open to new ones. Travel is getting to know the world, and equally so, it is getting to know yourself. Being able to spread joy and art and practice your craft while getting paid along the way makes it that much more special, and really allows you to appreciate the comforts of home when you return.