Tipping on a cruise ship has to be one of the most discussed topics about cruising. When do you tip? How much do you tip? Whom do you tip? These questions baffle most travelers, but cruisers are particularly challenged since tips are handled differently than in hotels or restaurants.
Tipping practices vary greatly among the cruise lines today, ranging from a required added service charge to no tipping at all. It is very important that you know the policy of the cruise line before you cruise so you can budget accordingly. When planning your cruise, check with your travel agent or the cruise line about the tipping policy. Often the recommended tips, which run from about $10 to $20 per passenger per day, are published either in the cruise brochure or on the cruise line web page. The cruise director will also remind passengers about how much and whom the cruise line recommends you tip.
Most tips on cruise ships are really service charges, which is one of the reasons why cruise lines seem to be moving towards adding a flat fee to your onboard account rather than make the tip amount entirely optional. New cruisers need to realize that most cruise lines do not pay their service staff a living wage, and tips or service charges make up most of their compensation. In order to keep the advertised price down, passengers are expected to subsidize the service staff through these added service charges or tips.
When and to Whom to Give Tips
All tips used to be given to the stewards and dining room staff on the last night of the cruise. Envelopes were passed out to the passengers and you presented the cash tip to the steward in the cabin and handed it to the wait staff at dinner. Some cruise ships still follow this policy, but most add a flat fee per day to your account which may or may not be adjusted downwards, depending on the cruise line. If the fee is required and cannot be adjusted downward, it is a true service charge and is no different than a port charge. Most cruise lines add the recommended service charge to your account, and you can adjust it if you think necessary.
The last few years, cruise lines have moved away from traditional tipping for two reasons. First, as cruising has become more international, cruise lines recognized that many passengers from western Europe and the Far East were not accustomed to tipping. It was easier to just add a service charge to the bill (as is done in most hotels in Europe) than to educate the passengers. Second, many large cruise ships have added multiple alternative dining rooms and have moved away from fixed seating times and tables. Passengers have different wait staff each evening, which makes tipping more problematic. Adding a service charge to be split among all the wait staff is easier for all, although the top cabin stewards and dining staff probably make less than they used to since the service charge is split into more pieces.
Many cruisers wish that all cruise lines would adopt the "no tipping expected" policies of upscale lines such as Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn, and Silversea. However, it looks like the service charge concept is here to stay.