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I lived on a cruise ship for 100 days, here's why cruise travel is still the best way to study abroad

What it's like on semester at sea

Ask me about my favorite travel memories and I will, undoubtedly, start to ramble about the time I lived on a cruise ship for 100 days traveling the world. Anyone who has studied abroad will likely agree that it's one of the most formative and remarkable experiences of your life.

During the fall semester of 2015, I threw caution to the wind, packed 2 large duffle bags and set sail on the MV World Odyssey for a semester abroad. Between September 2015 and December 2015, I sailed with 600 other college students around the world while still earning college credits and taking classes. 

World Odyssey in Port

Although not objectively that long ago, I lived on a cruise ship during a time when my iPhone didn’t have portrait mode, Instagram stories didn’t exist and TikTok wouldn’t be created for another half of a decade.

As someone who grew up cruising with my family, I knew before starting college that I wanted to do Semester at Sea. I loved cruising so much that I knew Semester at Sea was the right program for me - it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

MV World Odysset

During high school, I remember researching if it was even possible to study onboard a cruise ship. Surely, this curiosity was inspired by Disney Channel’s hit-series The Suite Life on Deck, where two brothers live on a cruise ship and take classes while traveling the world.

Taking my curiosity to Google, this is how I discovered the Semester at Sea program. After learning more about the program, it was a dream of mine for years and I was determined to make it happen. I watched as many YouTube videos as possible. I scoured online for blogs to read. I ensured I only applied to universities that permitted Semester at Sea as a study abroad option.

MV World Odyssey

The Semester at Sea study abroad program allows undergraduate college students to live onboard a cruise ship for a semester. During the semester, the ship circumnavigates the globe while students take college classes on the ship at sea.

There’s no other program like it for college students and you’d be hard-pressed to find another study abroad program that provides a better college experience.

I applied for Semester at Sea’s Fall 2015 voyage as soon as I was able and I planned my entire college curriculum around it.

During the spring semester of my freshman year at the University of St. Thomas, I applied and was accepted to join Semester at Sea’s voyage for the fall of 2015.

Fall 2015

As someone studying actuarial science and statistics, I knew I wouldn’t be able to take major-specific courses during my semester abroad. Instead, I planned to take 4 general courses during Semester at Sea, including my elective requirements for history, fine arts, economics and religion.

Course Schedule

Semester at Sea offers a wide range of courses to appeal to students of all different majors, especially students pursuing a business degree. As someone who always had rigorous and technical courses, the idea of taking four electives was a dream in and of itself.

Since the MV World Odyssey is a cruise ship, courses take place all around the ship - from the theatre to the lounges and the dining room. 

During my semester, the MV World Odyssey sailed to 11 countries and 13 cities across 4 continents.

How Semester at Sea differentiates itself from other study abroad programs is how many countries students can visit throughout the semester.


Leaving from the port of Southhampton in England, my Fall 2015 voyage set sail to visit Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Senegal, Brazil, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica before ending in California.

Similar to a cruise, the logistical advantage of visiting multiple countries without having to unpack your bags is where the program really shines. It’d be virtually impossible to visit all of these countries in a single semester with a traditional program, both logistically and financially.

Venice, Italy

Because of my home university’s incredible study abroad office, the cost for Semester at Sea was virtually the same as my normal semester at the University of St. Thomas. For this reason, there were 10 other students from my university sailing on the same voyage as I was.

Essentially, Semester at Sea operates on its own unique academic calendar to accommodate port and class time.

There’s no weekday or weekend when you sail on Semester at Sea; instead, the program operates on its own unique academic calendar with a balance between class and port exploration.

Semester at Sea categorizes each day as either a port and sea day, just like a regular cruise. To ensure students can maintain a semi-normal academic schedule, the sea days alternate between A and B days.

Lido Dinner

Students on Semester at Sea only had class while the ship was at sea, meaning our port time was free time to explore and travel. We could travel freely anywhere within the country we were docked.

I rarely knew if it was a Saturday or Tuesday when I sailed on Semester at Sea; however, I always knew how many days we had until our next port of call. Sea days were filled with classes, meals with friends, late night chats under the stars and even pool time on sunny days.

Pool deck

Now, Semester at Sea can have a reputation as being a "booze cruise," but this couldn’t be further from the truth. First, there’s very little alcohol onboard available for students when the ship is sailing at sea. The MV World Odyssey has to follow international maritime law, so that means no alcohol or drugs could be brought onboard.

MV World Odyssey

Second, most students - including myself - had grades transfer directly from Semester at Sea to their home university. Some simply had pass or fail for their classes. For me, this meant if I slacked and received a C or D on Semester at Sea, I would have the same grade on my final college transcript.

Although a traditional study abroad program allows for cultural immersion usually in one location, Semester at Sea allowed me to experience vastly different cultures.

For almost every port, our cruise ship would dock for multiple days, which gave us ample time to really explore a certain country or city. You could return to the ship every night and the floating campus remained available for meals 3 times each day.


This is where Semester at Sea operates differently than a regular cruise ship. While the MV World Odyssey would stay docked in a certain port for up to six days, we watched the commercial cruise ships come and go each day next to us.

For those of us traveling on a budget, having the docked cruise ship act as a home base and hotel was wildly helpful.


Just like a cruise, you could also book a field program in each port to participate in an organized shore excursion that was operated through Semester at Sea. Some of these varied between half day tours to multi-night journeys across the country.

I found the perfect balance to be a mix of independent exploration and planned shore excursions through the program. While I visited cities like Venice in Italy and Santorini in Greece on my own, I traveled on organized tours in places like Senegal (for a multi-day safari adventure) and Croatia (for a day trip to visit Bosnia and Herzegovina).

Disconnecting with the world and connecting with others was a huge component of Semester at Sea.

It’s almost incomprehensible to think about the fact that I spent 100 days without access to Internet.

Life at Sea

While this has changed from current voyages, we only had access to an email address and very few websites during our semester, such as Wikipedia and the Washington Post. Everyone was granted about 10 minutes of free Internet for the ENTIRE voyage, so we were almost entirely device-free throughout the semester.

Similar to cruising, we were almost forced to disconnect from the rest of the world. There was immense beauty of simply living in the present, like seeing dolphins at dinner and watching the sunset each night from the top deck.


Disconnecting from our devices cultivated a rich community onboard the MV World Odyssey. With no outside distractions or social media apps to take up our time, we spent days onboard the ship talking, connecting and learning with one another.

I met wonderful friends within the first few weeks, from my roommate to other girls at dinner. We bonded instantly and I quickly found friends who became family on our floating campus we called home.

MV World Odyssey

While some study abroad programs allow students to immerse themselves in a single country, we immersed ourselves in the onboard ship community. The MV World Odyssey became our home with every bit of comfort and security you’d expect.

Semester at Sea also incorporates the program’s sea-themed traditions throughout the voyage, including the exciting and wild Neptune Day.

Semester at Sea was established back in 1963, and many of the program’s earliest traditions are still practiced on today’s voyages. Living at sea is the most unique experience of my life - and these longtime Semester at Sea traditions are memories etched into my mind.

Neptune Day is celebrated onboard when the ship crosses the equator. During my voyage, this happened on our way from Senegal to Brazil. Waking up early in the morning by the crew members banging drums down the hallways, we assembled to the pool deck to be greeted by King Neptune.

Neptune Day

During this tradition, we had green slime dumped on our heads before we jumped into the pool and kissed a fish. Some even shaved their heads on Neptune Day, which is an old sailor tradition.

We also enjoyed the Sea Olympics towards the end of our voyage. Cabins were split into different seas - my roommate and I were slotted in the Adriatic Sea. We were decked out in head to toe purple while we competed in multiple games and contests to see which sea would come out on top.

Sea Olympics

At the very end of the voyage once classes were complete, all students were invited to dressed up for the Alumni Ball. During this longstanding tradition, students are officially welcomed as alumni of the Semester at Sea program. 

Alumni Ball

My friends and I loved this excuse to get dressed up, enjoy a fancy dinner and dance the night away under the stars. Again, the tight-knit shipboard community of Semester at Sea is unparalleled and it's a key component to why the program is so unique. 

Cruise travel, especially as a way to study abroad, inevitably teaches students resilience and flexibility.

Anyone who travels will agree that plans do not always go as expected. Semester at Sea inherently taught me not only how to be flexible and resilient, but also adaptable.

Semester at Sea’s voyage itineraries, especially now in a post-pandemic world, are always subject to change. During my voyage, we had to swap Turkey at the last minute due to the rise of terrorism in the region. Instead, we docked in Dubrovnik, Croatia - which has become one of my favorite countries.

Exploring in Croatia

After driving 13 hours inland for a safari during our stop in Senegal, the national reserve told us we might not see any animals because of the wet season.


Two of the busses didn’t have air conditioning while one got a flat tire. We never saw a single animal during our African Safari. I had never been so excited to get back to our ship after an utterly disappointing excursion.


My then-boyfriend, now-husband came to visit in Morocco where my purse was almost stolen right off my body. It was the first time I was traveling with a male and the only time my safety was jeopardized - these are things you just can’t plan for.


Shortly after arriving in Brazil, the maritime immigration officers were on strike and held our passports hostage. I collapsed in tears when my dad and sister arrived in Salvador, traveling all that way just for me to be passport-less.

Unanticipated events and changes are almost inevitable during Semester at Sea. Whether that’s an itinerary change, a missed port or plans that went amiss, studying abroad on a cruise ship changed how I travel for the better.

It’s been 8 years since I studied abroad with Semester at Sea and I still think about my life at sea nearly every day.

Students sail on Semester at Sea year after year because it’s continued to be the best way to study abroad. Semester at Sea’s floating campus creates a shipboard community unlike any other study abroad program. Getting to circumnavigate the globe while still earning credits for college is truly a once in a lifetime experience.


Few things in life live up to the hype - but for me, Semester at Sea is one of those things. I’ll never have another experience like this in my life; even throughout the voyage, I had to pinch myself. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity, making each moment more memorable than the last. 


For me, Semester at Sea was a dream that became a reality, friends became my family and a cruise ship truly became my home. Watching the sea pass by and feeling an immense sense of gratitude was not uncommon during my 100 days of living on a cruise ship. “This is our life” my friends and I would say to each other.

Just like the cruising industry, Semester at Sea was heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic with multiple semesters being canceled due to the virus. Today, the MV World Odyssey is back hosting students for life-changing voyages, visiting ports around the world.

Semester at Sea is the study abroad experience I wish that every college student could have - and one that I still think about each day.

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