Cruise Ship Captain Salary: Here’s How Much Cruise Captains Make



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Fancy yourself as the next captain of the cruise ships of the future? Sailing the high seas, commanding a magnificent ship, and raking in the huge salary that comes with it?

Well, you might be wondering how much that salary actually is, and whether it’s a career worth striving for. How much do cruise ship captains make, and what do they have to go through to reach that position?

Let’s take a look.

P&O Captain Chris Kennedy
Captain Chris Kennedy

How much does a cruise ship captain make?

Cruise ship captains make on average around $95,000 per year. Depending on the experience of the captain and other factors, a new captain may make around $50,000 per year while the most experienced captains for the biggest cruise lines can make up to $400,000 per year once you factor in bonuses.

There’s no denying that being a cruise ship captain is a good-paying job, but it’s not spectacular, especially when you consider the responsibility on their shoulders. They are responsible for the safety of thousands of lives, and they don’t get days off from that responsibility while on board.

$50,000 per year is a good salary but there are plenty of jobs where you can earn more. $400,000 is an excellent salary, but the amount of work needed to get to that level means that you won’t enjoy that salary for 30+ years.

As Captain Mickael Degerlund explained when I went to see his talk onboard Bolette, it takes a very long time to become a cruise ship captain. His seafaring career started as a deck boy at the age of 16, yet despite continuous education, he didn’t earn his Master’s licence (captain’s qualification) until the age of 30.

Captain Mikael Degerlund explaining what it takes to be a captain
Captain Mikael Degerlund

The average cruise ship captain’s salary depends on your source, but it’s always in the region of around $92,000 to $96,000 per year.

American pay reference website Payscale lists the average at $94,484 per year in 2023 while one of the UK’s largest job websites Indeed lists the average salary at $92,125 per year.

Here’s a breakdown of those salaries in more detail.

Cruise ship captain’s salaryDailyWeeklyMonthlyYearly
New starter$137$962$4,167$50,000
Average$260$1,827$7,917$95,000
Experienced captain$521$3,654$15,833$190,000

Factors Affecting The Salary of a Cruise Ship Captain

Here’s a look at the factors that can impact the salary of a cruise ship captain:

Experience

The most important factor in determining a cruise ship captain’s salary is his or her experience in the role, and their experience in other related roles as they climbed the ladder. 

Suggested read: 15 Best Cruise Ship Jobs For Women

Cruise ship captains are under a lot of pressure to handle their ship safely – if they’ve been doing it for years already, then the cruise line knows they won’t be phased and can act calm under pressure, increasing their value.

Less experienced captains are still a safe pair of hands – you can’t be promoted to a captain role if you’re not ready for it – but the longer you’re in the job, the higher a salary you justify. And of course, with more and more cruise ships being built, the best captains need to be retained by cruise lines to prevent them ‘jumping ship’ (sorry).

Prestige of the ship

The prestige of a cruise ship will determine the salary for a cruise captain. Some ships have a reputation which makes them special, and therefore the captain (and the other officers onboard) can demand a higher salary for taking good care of the ship and the lives onboard.

A ship like Icon of the Seas – the biggest in the world – is a famous ship and therefore worthy of having a captain onboard who doesn’t feel the pressure of looking after something so valuable to the cruise line. Hence, a bigger salary.

Icon of the Seas
Icon of the Seas

Size of the ship

The bigger the ship, the more responsibility a captain has. It means they are looking after more lives, and they have a much larger team of crew to manage. 

While they have officers and crew to help man the ship, the captain is ultimately responsible for making sure this giant, floating piece of metal gets from port to port safely. And the bigger the ship, the more challenges that presents.

This of course is tied into the experience of the captain as well. No brand-new captain is going to be trusted with the very biggest ships in the world unless they have many years of experience in related roles. But because the experienced captains are the ones given the biggest ships, that means they are paid more.

Captain on a ship in the Panama Canal

Size of the company

It’s not just the size of the cruise ship that determines a salary for a captain, but also the size (and success) of a cruise ship company. The biggest companies will pay more because they can – and because they want the best captains to work for them.

The only way for a large cruise company like Royal Caribbean or Carnival to successfully look after the millions of passengers they whisk away each year is to make sure they have the finest people at the top of the ships’ hierarchies, looking after everything onboard. And so they pay well, to make sure they’re attracting the top talent.

Read more: Best Cruise Lines to Work For

Captain Nicholas Nash - Royal Princess
Captain Nicholas Nash

Location

Cruise ship captains are sourced from all over the world, but the home base of the captain may determine their salary, even if they live on the ship for months on end. Captains from Europe and North America will be paid more, typically, because they have a higher cost of living.

This is just based on the job market, and it’s why cruise lines cast a wide net to find crew for their ships, including those who only demand a lower salary to work. But when it comes to captains, there aren’t a huge number of qualified people around the globe, and so those from the US, Canada or Europe can get the work and be paid handsomely for it.

Captain Mikael Degerlund
Captain Mikael Degerlund

Gender

You may be surprised to learn that cruise ship captains may be paid differently depending on whether they identify as male or female.

I received an email from the captain of a well-known luxury cruise ship, who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. He said that women sometimes make more than men for ‘PR reasons’.

Here is his email…

You need to add that captains,   in some companies can make up to 350 000  even 400 000 usd, including bonuses , retirement plans and annual share bonus( to make sure that we do not leave the companies).And funny fact ,  now some women are making more than man for PR reasons and due to  the very few woman in the buissness in higher position Please do not mention my name as I want to stay anonymous Best regards
Captain Inger Olsen

Who is the highest paid on a cruise ship?

In most cases the cruise ship’s captain will be the highest paid person on the ship, but not always. A cruise will have a number of senior officers, including a Chief Engineer and a Hotel Director, and if they’re more experienced than the captain, their salaries may be higher. Cruise ship doctors often have very high salaries as well.

There’s even a chance that some members of the crew, who are paid on commission (such as the art auctioneer), could have a higher salary. Obviously, it depends on the ship, but auctioneers working on a luxury cruise and selling high-value art could make huge figures, and dwarf even the captain’s salary.

Art auctioneer on cruise

Read more: How Much Do Cruise Ship Workers Make?

Generally though, once a captain has a number of years’ experience under their belt, they will be the highest-paid crew member on a ship.

Qualifications Needed To Become A Cruise Ship Captain

The exact qualifications needed to become a cruise ship captain vary depending on where you are from, but as a guide, you should expect to need at least a Bachelor’s Degree in Nautical Science or Maritime Science, plus several years of training and relevant licenses for working as a ship’s officer.

Becoming a cruise ship captain is not something you can do in a few short years. Most captains undergo at least four years of university education before progressing onto specific training courses for maritime work, eventually qualifying to work as an officer on a ship.

They’ll then work their way up the ranks, often having to take more qualifications, as they move into senior roles on ships, working under a captain. Expect it to take an average of 15-20 years to become a cruise ship captain from the start of working in the industry – and even then that will likely be at the lower end of the pay scale.

Captain Robert Camby
Captain Robert Camby

How many hours does a cruise ship captain work?

The working hours of a cruise ship captain vary, but they would normally be expected to work for around 12 to 16 hours per day. They do this every day for between 10 and 12 weeks, before having a break of a similar period to avoid burnout.

There’s no getting around it – the hours on a cruise ship are long for a captain. They’re long for everyone on a ship too, but a captain is the one who has the most responsibility. And even when they aren’t working, they’re on call – if there’s an emergency, you can bet that the captain is being woken up so that they can attend to it.

And there aren’t any days off during their time on the ship – they’ll work for up to three months in a solid stint. They’ll then be taken off the ship for a three-month break, as captains rotate on ships. It’d be impossible to work those hours year-round, after all!

P&O Captain Derek Gray
Captain Derek Gray

What perks do cruise ship captains get?

As well as the salaries, there are some other perks that cruise ship captains enjoy.

The best crew accommodation

Cruise ship captains enjoy good quality accommodation close to the bridge – often directly adjoining. They won’t rival the best suites for passengers, but they’re far superior to crew dorms – multiple rooms, big-screen TVs, a kitchen area to prepare food, and high quality furnishings.

Click here to see inside the captain’s quarters.

Family are welcome to stay onboard

Cruise ship captains are usually welcome to have their partner or family stay on the ship with them for no additional fee. Of course, the captain will be working at all hours, so families don’t usually stay on the ship for the duration of the contract, but they can come and go for a few days at a time when the opportunity suits, meaning the captain doesn’t have to miss their family for too long.

Meals

Just like the rest of the crew, captains will get all of their food included. However, they’ll usually get their pick of the restaurant menus, and can even dine in the restaurants themselves if they wish, instead of eating at a crew mess hall.

The Captain and his officers dining in the buffet

Suggested read: What is the Captain’s Dinner on a Cruise?

Laundry and housekeeping

Laundry services and housekeeping are included for captains, taking off some of the pressure of everyday chores while they’re working.

Final word

Cruise ship captains are paid well, although there’s a lot of work to reach that level of salary.

Remember though that their room and board are included, so they may have much lower expenses too – depending on whether they’re married and have a family on land relying on them. If a captain is single, they’ll be able to put most of their salary into savings.

Plus, depending on the tax laws in their country, they may be exempt from paying some tax as they are out of the country for half the year.

So suddenly those good salaries start to look even better, right? But if you want to become a cruise ship captain, you need to get started on your training and education right away – you’ve a long road ahead.

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Cruise Mummy

Jenni Fielding is the founder of Cruise Mummy. She has worked in the cruise industry since 2015 and has taken over 30 cruises. Now, she helps over 1 million people per month to plan their perfect cruise holidays.

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1 thought on “Cruise Ship Captain Salary: Here’s How Much Cruise Captains Make”

  1. Hey a good read
    For info i pay my truck drivers 55k GBP per year to captain my ships lol

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