Cruise Ship Tipping from one Cruiser’s 35 Year Perspective

Tipping has been part of the compensation plan for most cruise line employees in the American pleasure ship market for years. It also seems to be one of the most talked about aspects of cruising. People often wonder how much they should tip and what constitutes exceptional service. As traditionally American market cruise ships expand into other markets where tipping or high tipping is not common place, cruise lines are re-examining their tipping policies. The whole concept of tipping has evolved over the years that I have been cruising, and I wonder if tipping has now or will soon be a service charge rather than a discretionary tip. Since tipping and recommended amounts vary from cruise line to cruise line we maintain Tipping Policies page here on cruise talk to help our readers understand the differences.

Tipping for Good Service Reflects an American Tradition
The concept of tipping for outstanding service reflects the concept of “hard work, high reward”. The waiter or service person who moves quickly, pays attention to details, and provides friendly service with a smile would generally receive higher compensation than a service person who mixes things up, drags their feet, and has a bad attitude. For restaurant service most Americans, with a few exceptions, generally tip about 10% for acceptable service and 15% to 20% for excellent service. In other countries, it is more common to leave only about the equivalent of a dollar or two even for excellent service. You could say that the American tipping system, is the ultimate implementation of a capitalist system, with a high risk/high reward scenario. The wait person agrees to work for a lower wage with the potential to make much more in tips if they can perform their duties well. In other countries, the service person receives a higher hourly wage which is already figured into the menu price.

Cruise Tipping
In the over 35 years I have been cruising this tipping system worked on cruise lines serving the American market. The employees agree to work for a guaranteed lower wage with the potential to make much more through tips. This agreement can provide a win/win situation for both employee and the cruise line. The cruise lines can win more business by charging a lower price upfront, while the service personnel can earn far more than they would in their home country. The customer wins because the employees know that they need to provide a high level of service in order insure their tips at the end of the cruise. However, this concept falls short when the customer doesn’t “buy into” the concept of tipping for excellent service. There are some who believe that the service should be provided in the cost of the cruise. Others, for whom the cruise price was barely affordable, may be reluctant to tip or are unfortunately uninformed about the practice. Perhaps the expanding demographic of the typical cruiser and some travel agents who are less than informative, have led to a higher percentage of reluctant tippers.

Early Cruising Years
In our early years of cruising, back in the 1970’s, my father always handled the tipping. He was always a generous tipper on land and did the same when we cruised, as long as the service was good. We always had great service, so on the last day of the cruise he would leave a cash envelope for the cabin steward and bring an envelope to dinner for the dining room staff. I don’t recall how he handled tipping for the bar staff, but I imagine that he probably tipped his favorite bar tender or bar waiter. Back in the 70’s I don’t recall any recommended amount for the tipping. It was hard to gauge exactly how much we should or should not be tipping. The staff was always appreciative and very happy to receive the tipping envelopes.

Tipping Confusion
For our honeymoon, my husband and I cruised Holland America’s Rotterdam in 1993. This was my first cruise as an adult and my husband’s very first cruise. At the time, and actually until fairly recently, Holland America was one of the few lines that advertised “no tipping required.” The assumption was that Holland America’s employees received a higher base pay than most lines, and only should be awarded tips for extremely high service levels. This was a very confusing for my husband and I, as we weren’t sure who should receive tips and how much was appropriate. We actually felt our cabin service and dining service were adequate buy not outstanding. However we felt that several bar waiters were excellent. We ended up tipping a smaller amount to the waiter and room steward and a higher amount to the bar servers. At the time we weren’t sure what was appropriate and were just making our best guess.

Clearer Guidelines and Auto Tipping
During our 10 year anniversary cruise, we found that the cruise lines had come up with more clear guidelines as to what was appropriate to tip. This amount was presented to us during the disembarkation presentation. I actually liked the fact that the industry had come up with a recommended amounts for each position on the cruise. This was also the first time that we had been offered the opportunity to charge the tips to our on board account. We utilized this method, but the cruise lines also supplied receipts and envelopes so that passengers could still hand the envelope to the servers and provide a personal thank you. When using the auto tipping process the full recommended amount must be given to each of the crew positions where tipping is recommended.

This was also a our first cruise that automatically added a 15% gratuity to bar service. When I first read that this would be the procedure, I was worried that service would suffer. Actually, I found that service was excellent because the waiters would hustle to take your order and get that 15% tip before someone else would beat them too it. I had one waiter who learned that I liked a glass of chardonnay before dinner, and he would bring me my glass almost as soon as I sat down. We have also found that service for soft drinks and even water was just as attentive.

Transitioning Auto Tipping
While response to the option to utilize auto tipping to one’s on board account has been rather positive, some cruiser still like to give the envelope and personal thank you. When the option to do this is not available to those using the auto tipping, they have resisted the change. With the auto tipping option, most cruise lines will not allow cruisers to reduce the amount below the recommended amount, but will allow an extra amount to be added for a particular service person. For example if dining room service was excellent, but your cabin steward hardly ever cleaned your room, you could not give full tip to the waiter but half tip to the steward. Usually with auto tipping it is all or nothing. So if a cruiser choose to give full tip to one service person and reduced tip to another, he would have to still utilize cash and envelopes. I have added extra to the tip utilizing the auto tipping when my assistant head waiter worked very hard to have a plate of fresh veggies available when we sat down rather than bread sticks. The waiters have access to the computerized tipping system so even with-out the envelope, he was able to tell me how much he appreciated the extra tip even with-out my handing him anything.

Opt In vs Opt Out
Perhaps the most controversial use of auto tipping is when customers must “opt out” of the system rather than “opting in.” One of the first times this became an issue in the industry was when NCL introduced their American ships in Hawaii. Since these ships exclusively served the Hawaiian Islands, they were required by law to be staffed by American service personnel. NCL introduced the auto tipping in order to cover the guarantee of higher wages for these workers. When customers were unhappy with their service levels, they found it difficult, if not impossible to have these charges removed. Gradually the industry has moved towards this type of “opt-out’ scenario, however most lines will remove the charges and provide envelopes with a fairly simple request. Other lines offer the option to pre-pay gratuities, or require pre-paid gratuities for certain dining options. For example, to take advantage of Celebrity’s new Select Dining program that allows customers to reserve dinner times in advanced other than the set dining times, cruisers must prepay all their gratuities. The rationalization for this policy is that the cruisers would have different servers every night and this makes sure that they are compensated for their work. The down side of prepaying tips is that cruisers have no monetary leverage when service is extremely poor. The cruise lines pride themselves on excellent service, so with-out specific documentation of an outright breach in service, they are not likely to provide a credit for pre-paid gratuities.

My Personal Tipping Philosophy
I am one that strongly believes that hard work should be rewarded, so I am always happy to tip for good service and even tip extra for excellent service. I also like the auto tipping process when it is set up for cruisers to opt in. I see this as a great convenience as the cruise lines are already a cashless society and coming up with the cash in envelopes can be quite a challenge or requires planning ahead. However, if the charge is automatically added to my account and difficult to have removed, then I feel that the charge is no longer a discretionary tip, but rather a service charge, should be labeled as such up front and even listed as a charge on my cruise price. My current cruise line of choice, Celebrity, does automatically add the charges to my on board account, so obviously this preference is not a show stopper for me. However, if I had a service issue, I would expect it to be addressed immediately, otherwise I would request that the auto tipping be removed. I have not had to do this as my service has always been exceptional, but I know others who have had to have it removed, with mixed reports of this being either easily done or very difficult with multiple requests. I also don’t like the idea of pre-paying tips, and since I prefer traditional dining, I have not yet had to do this. Perhaps this might make more sense on ships that have multiple dining venues, and as previously mentioned should be labeled as a service charges. Again, I have never had a major service issue affecting my willingness to tip, however, I prefer to give my tips after services are rendered.

Celebrity’s sister line, Royal Caribbean, is expanding into the UK market, with a ship dedicated to full time service out of Great Britain. Their current policy is for cruisers to opt in to the auto tipping plan. However, they are strongly considering changing the policy, as British and European passengers are not as accustomed to tipping as their American counter parts. Again, I feel that if they choose to utilize this strategy, then they need to change the language to call it a service charge.

Tipping and the various forms of it are hot topics for many cruisers. We’d love to hear from our readers as to what their feelings are about tipping and the current policies implemented on different cruise lines.