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by Linda Coffman

Possibly one of the most personal, yet frequently debated topics of conversation among cruise passengers involves the matter of tipping. Who to tip? How much? What's "customary" and "recommended?" Should parents tip the full amount for children or is just half adequate? Why do you have to tip at all?

Like their land-bound counterparts, cruise ship service personnel depend on gratuities for a major portion of their compensation. Argue all you want that the cruise lines are penurious and it's not fair that you have to pay their employees' "salary"—but bite your tongue, smile, and tip the help. By the conclusion of your voyage you've experienced a level of service and attention you only heard about previously and probably didn't think possible.

Start educating yourself about gratuities by reading your cruise line brochure—the suggestions regarding tipping are usually in the back with answers to other questions and the rest of the fine print. Then read over the small booklet that comes with your cruise documents for up-to-the-minute information.

Who to Tip

The "who" part is easy. It's up to your discretion to tip anyone who provides a service you would like to recognize. This begins as early as your airport check-in. Porters carrying your bags in airports expect a tip. Depending on your city, $1.00 to $2.00 a bag will do. Same thing applies when you retrieve your suitcases at the baggage claim area at your destination; if you use the services of a porter or skycap, tip him for taking your bags to your bus or taxi. "Wait a minute!" you say, "I'm shelling out all these dollars and I haven't even reached the ship yet..." While it's perfectly acceptable to carry (or roll) your own luggage into and out of airports, if you accept assistance you'll be expected to pay for it.

When transfers to and from your ship are a part of your Air & Sea program, gratuities are generally "included" for luggage handling. After checking in at your departure airport, you may not even see your suitcases until they appear outside your cabin door on board your ship. In that case, don't worry about the interim tipping. However, if you take a taxi to the pier and hand over your bags to a stevedore, be sure to tip him. He's the person responsible for your suitcases getting onto a pallet and on their way to the ship. Stiff this guy and hours later you may be filing a report for your missing bags. We treat these men with respect and pass along at least $5.00 with a handshake and big smile.

Whew... I've gotten you on board. Now what? Relax. Cash tips won't be expected until the last night of your cruise. With very few exceptions, a 15% gratuity will automatically be added to your bar bill during the cruise. If you use salon and spa services, a similar percentage is generally added to the bill. If your cruise line doesn't automatically add the recommended amount to your onboard account, you'll personally distribute tips for dining room staff and room stewards on the last evening on board. By then you'll know whether or not the cruise line's recommendations are low, high, or right on target for the level of service you've received.

During your last day of cruising there will be a "Disembarkation Talk"—usually conducted by the Cruise Director. One member of each family is encouraged to attend and, in addition to customs and immigration procedures, tipping is discussed. (Don't worry if you miss the meeting, it will be replayed on television all day long.) Small white "tip" envelopes may appear in your stateroom during the last day of the cruise, along with luggage tags and written disembarkation instructions. As a general rule of thumb, you can count on the following amounts falling within the tipping guidelines:

  • Room Steward - $3.00 to $3.50
  • Dining Room Waiter - $3.00 to $3.50
  • Dining Room Asst. Waiter - $1.50 to $2.00

Those suggestions are per person, per day. For a seven-day cruise (at the maximum rate above), count on gratuities of $63.00 per person. In addition, it may be suggested that you tip the headwaiter $5.00 per person per week. If he's rendered some special service (flaming desserts tableside), or been particularly attentive and kept things moving, by all means give him a tip. If he only shows up that last evening with a smile and his hand out, you needn't feel obliged to tip him.

With the advent of alternative dining venues and options for "open seating"-style dining on contemporary cruise lines, some lines are now automatically adding the recommended gratuities to their passengers' on board charge accounts. If it suits you, then do nothing. However, you are certainly free to adjust the amounts up or down to more appropriate levels or ask that the charge be removed altogether if you prefer distributing cash gratuities.

There is one time when pre-tipping can be useful... TIPS is an acronym standing for "to insure personal service" and I like to have some assurance of that. When meeting the cabin steward for the first time, I tell him there are two things I don't like to run out of—one is ice and the other is bathroom tissue. To make my point clear, I slip the steward a "pre-tip" of about $10.00 and indicate there is more where that came from. The ice in our stateroom sometimes melts before it's replenished, but I never run out of tissue. We have our priorities straight and, as a result, I've never failed to tip a cabin steward more than the recommended amount.

What about...?

There are exceptions to every rule. Room service is one. There is no additional charge for room service, but it is customary to tip the steward who delivers it. In most cases, this will not be your regular steward. Depending on what you've ordered and whether it was delivered in a timely manner, $1.00 to $3.00 will suffice. If it's just juice and a pot of coffee, the lesser amount will do; a heavy tray with a full dinner would warrant the larger amount.

Another exception is the à la carte restaurant. More common on modern cruise ships, these dining venues offer a change from the main dining room—often in a private, more intimate atmosphere, with a special menu and personal service. While there may, or may not, be an extra charge for the meal, a one-time gratuity is suggested. Your ship's daily schedule will contain instructions for making reservations and outline tipping protocol.

Children... Parents often argue the need to tip the entire recommended amount for their little ones. I wonder if these parents don't see the messes their children leave in the bathroom, cabin, and dining room. Not to mention that some of them run their waiters ragged replacing plates of food that they "don't like." Just because children are smaller than adults, it doesn't mean they are less trouble to clean up after. Parents have already gotten a reduced (third or fourth passenger) fare for them or, in some cases, free passage. Moms and Dads, cough up the full tip or stay home. 'Nuff said.

There are tipping exceptions, of course, most notably on high-end cruise lines. For instance, Crystal Cruises suggests these gratuities (per person, per day): cabin stewardess, $4.00 (single travelers, $5.00 per day); waiter, $4.00; assistant waiter, $2.50; and butler (Penthouse guests only), $4.00. Tips for the maître d', headwaiter, assistant stewardess, and night snack personnel are at the guests' discretion. The customary 15% gratuity is added to bar checks and a 15% gratuity for salon and spa services is suggested. Gratuities may be charged to passengers' shipboard accounts as well.

There are truly some no-tipping-allowed cruise lines. Upscale Silversea, Seabourn, and Regent Seven Seas are a few that include gratuities in the fare. On these cruises, gratuities are considered "prepaid."

On the other end of the spectrum is the suggestion by Celebrity Cruise Line that passengers tip the Chief Housekeeper $.50 per person per day. Most people ignore this, feeling that the Chief Housekeeper (who no one ever reports having seen) is not worthy of a tip. Butlers, for those suite occupants who have them, should be tipped about $3.50 per person per day. Again, this depends on the service request and provided.

Naturally, it would be gauche to offer a tip to an officer or a member of the cruise staff. However, if an officer or someone on the cruise staff renders out of the ordinary service or is especially helpful, a letter of praise to the cruise line's home office can do wonders for that employee's career.

Whatever you do, don't skip out on dinner in the dining room on the final night of your cruise to avoid tipping. If you prefer to dine elsewhere that evening, by all means do so, but stop by the dining room to recognize the service of the wait staff.

And finally, remember to have some dollar bills on hand when you disembark the ship... there are still palms to cross at the airport.

Cruise Tip Calculator - Take the confusion out of gratuities with the automated guide to cruise ship tips.

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