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What Is A Typical Cruise Ship Captain Salary?

Cruise Ship Captain Salary

We see a lot of discussion around how much cruise crew get paid - or realistically, how little. However, one of the other major questions we get asked is, "How much do cruise ship captains make?" The simple answer here is that it can vary based on a number of factors including the length of service, cruise line, education, and size of the ship. Let's take a look at what goes into a cruise ship captain salary ...


Cruise ship captain salaries have been on the increase over the past years. Part of this is that the industry is expanding rapidly, and it needs to attract highly talented leaders who are good managers as well as those like "Captain Kate," who serves as both a brand ambassador for Celebrity Cruises and the master of the ship.

Cruise Ship Captains Are The Best Paid Sea Captains

While the current trends in the cruise industry make it difficult to project with certainty, it is expected that cruise ship captains will continue to be the highest-paid captains at sea.

Pleasure Cruise Captains:

The salary range here runs from $50,000 for captains of small ships offering day cruises out of ports like San Diego or Seattle.

Big Cruise Ship Captains:

For those at the helm of the largest cruise ships, the captain's salary can be as high as $200,000 or more; This is for vessels such as Norwegian Bliss, Royal Caribbean Oasis of The Seas, or Carnival's Mardi Gras cruise ships. Part of the reason for this is that these captains typically have seniority as well as a more complex job since they are responsible for vessels displacing nearly 200,000 gross tons and carrying more than 4,000 guests. However, the average cruise ship captain's salary for a major cruise line is between $110,000-$150,000.

Regardless of the type of ship or region of the world, a cruise ship captain's responsibilities are far greater than just driving the boat. A cruise ship captain is on duty 24-hours a day and quite literally the master of the vessel. This means that he (or she) has responsibility for all aspects of the cruise ship experience from the engine room to the entertainment options. A cruise ship captain is supported in this effort by a team of officers who are responsible for individual aspects of the cruise ship, including entertainment, food, navigation, supplies, and medical. 

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Celebrity Cruise Ship Captains Like Kate McCue:

Increasingly we are also seeing captains being required to serve a PR role that they didn't used to be required to do. This is reflected in both a higher salary as well as the individual captains being able to earn additional income outside of the salary they get from the cruise line. Captain Kate is the most notable example of those. However, Captain Johnny Faevelen aka "HarleyCaptain" on social media is another example of a cruise ship captain who's total annual income is greater than their already significant official annual salary.

Cruise Ship Captains Have a Lot Of Responsibility

For example, a typical cruise ship bridge crew includes the following staff: 

Captain - Master of the vessel

Staff Captain - second in command of the vessel

Safety Officer - responsible for crew and passenger safety drills, and all emergency procedures

Environmental Compliance Officer - oversees all environmental policis and regulations 

1st, 2nd and 3rd Officers - reporting the Staff Captain these officers are responsible for various watch duties as well as navigational responsibilities 

Apprentice Deck Officer - students or graduates who are seeking on the job practical experience on an operating vessel to apply their class-room and simulator experience

Chief Security Officer - responsible for security and control of all access points on the vessel where passengers and crew might enter or exit

Bosun - head of the unlicensed deck crew, schedules all meetings and manages activities not involving officers

Quartermaster - Also known as the Helmsman is responsible for actually controlling the ship based on navigational charts and orders from the Captain and Bosun

Fireman - this officer is responsible for leading and coordinating any response to a fire as well as fire hazard prevention efforts

With a significant and diverse staff like this, plus the ultimate responsibility for thousands of crew and cruise ship passengers, it is easy to understand why a cruise ship captain's salary would be so high. In fact, I almost feel like this level of responsibility should maybe earn a cruise ship captain even more money!

With such a high level of responsibility but also a large range of types of vessels, you can see why the simple question of what a cruise ship captain makes can be pretty complex. After all, a cruise ship captain with responsibility for a $1.4 billion dollar ship such as Oasis of the Seas carrying more than 9,000 people and weighing more than 226,000 gross tons would have a higher salary than a captain responsible for overnight trips with only five passengers.

how much do cruise ship captains make

Ship Size Is A Big Factor In a Cruise Ship Captain's Salary

When most people think of cruise ships, they have visions of the large ocean-going vessels that are essentially floating hotel resorts carrying thousands of passengers. However, when you look at sites such as ZipRecruiter they actually include salaries of captains on smaller passenger vessels as well. Personally, I don't include a vessel with only a handful of passengers to be in the same category as those with thousands of cruise passengers spending a week or more onboard. 


A Captain's Total Compensation Is More Than Just Salary

When considering how much a cruise ship captain might make on an annual basis, it is also important to take a look at other job benefits - this is true for any salary package to be honest. While there are massive downsides to life as a ship captain (such as being away from family and friends for months at a time), one of the big advantages is that while at sea, there are few expenses to worry about. For instance, your housing and food are covered, and most cruise lines also have excellent benefits packages, including healthcare and retirement packages. Plus, they can typically take family and sometimes friends on a free cruise with them at least once per year! This is important to consider since one might look at even an entry-level captain's salary as being lower than they would expect compared to land-based executive leadership jobs.


Cruise Lines Pay Captains Differently 

Not all cruise lines pay their captains the same salary. Additionally, the weekly or monthly cruise ship captain salary might not be the full picture. Generally speaking, the top salaries in the cruise ship industry can be found at Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises, and Royal Caribbean. This generally also correlates with the size of the vessels that a captain might be commanding since the next up are Princess Cruises, Disney Cruise Lines, Seabourne, and Holland America. While there will always be variations in how much a cruise ship captain will make, it is clear that the biggest ships command the biggest salaries to attract the most skilled cruise ship captains.

Additionally, there are likely many other factors that go into the overall salary compensation package for a cruise ship captain beyond just salary. For example, the accommodations on board, stock option packages, and various company privileges that might differ from one cruise line to the next.

For example, some captains have become social media celebrities and essentially play the role of both captain and master of the vessel and spokesperson for the brand. A perfect example of this is Captain Kate McCue, who has amassed nearly half a million Instagram followers. She is one of the youngest cruise ship captains but also among the most highly paid. 

It is estimated that Captain Kate McCue's salary is as much as $200,000, though she makes additional income from her social media work. This places her net worth at somewhere between one and five million dollars, which is obviously significantly above that of any other cruise ship captain today.


Hiring Crew and Officers For Cruise Ships Is Very Competitive

Several decades ago, the industry may have been different. In today's world, hiring the most skilled cruise ship crew and officers is a highly competitive endeavor. This means that factors such as how much do cruise lines pay captains all the way to the bottom of the ship with crew working in the engine room and cleaning cabins is constantly changing. Cruise lines know that it is no longer an issue of simply offering an opportunity, the best crew and officers will go to those ships and cruise lines where they are compensated well. This includes cruise ship captains as well, of course.