For many cruise passengers, tipping remains a mysterious and even embarrassing aspect of cruising. How much do you give? Who do you tip? How much should you budget for tipping? When and where do you present the tip? Is a gratuity really gratuitous?
To begin, you should realize that on most lines, your hard-working room steward, waiter, and assistant waiter (in other words, the people who will provide you with the most personal service during a cruise) receive very small salaries. They depend for their income on the tips they expect to receive from passengers. Room stewards work long days, and there is no mystery to what appears to be magic in the care of your room. A real person does clean your bathroom, turn down your bed at night, put that chocolate square on your pillow, and bring you fresh towels almost as soon as the used ones hit the floor. And your waiter is up at six to set the breakfast table, and still working to clear the table after the last seating guests depart at 11:00. Often, you bump into that same waiter at the midnight buffet, serving you with a smile (and probably dark hollows under his eyes). Because of the way cruises are marketed and discounted, the line does not really include the salaries of such staff in the cruise price. The cruiser is expected to pay for these salaries through tipping.
That explains the why of tipping, but not the how. Fortunately, tipping conforms to certain, similar structures on virtually every line (except the upper echelon; we'll get to that later). Here is what you should budget for in terms of overall tipping:
So on the high end, the average couple should budget $17.50 for each day of their cruise, plus whatever discretionary amount you expect to give to the head waiter. On a typical 7-day cruise, therefore, you should plan to budget approximately $150.00 for tips -- though you shouldn't be afraid to be more generous with your tips if you receive stellar service.
Most lines have institutionalized the system of tipping. Typically, the next-to-the-last day of the cruise, your cruise news will include the suggested tipping guidelines for whatever ship you are on. Your room steward will then leave envelopes in your cabin labeled with the titles of those you are expected to tip (i.e., steward, waiter, etc.). You just need to place cash (not checks!) in the envelopes and deliver them to the appropriate service staff.
For waiters, assistant waiters, and the head waiter, tips are always given at dinner during the last evening of the cruise. Hand them over in person rather than leaving them next to your plate, and accompany them with a handshake and an expression of thanks. Consider also placing a hand written note in the envelope thanking the waiter for his or her service. By the end of the cruise, you will often be glad to do this, as your waiter(s) are usually upbeat, friendly, solicitous, and helpful, occasionally funny, and almost always on the ball. I have seen entire tables rise and applaud their waiters on the last evening of the cruise, pose for photographs with their waiters, and collect their addresses for future correspondence.
On the other hand, I have seen some passengers slink to the buffet service on the last evening, staying away from the formal dining room simply to avoid tipping their waiters. This really irritates me! If you have been receiving poor service from your waiter, you should address this with the head waiter as soon as it is noticed. Don't tolerate poor service for the entire cruise and then complain about it after. And don't accept good service and then avoid tipping your waiter. It is simply not civilized.
As for your room steward, you can tip them in one of two ways: by giving them 50% of the tip at the beginning of the cruise (this sometimes gets you better service), and a bit more than 50% at the end; or by tipping the entire amount on the last evening of the cruise. Again, this should be done in person, with a handshake and a friendly word. In all cases, if you believe you have been given extraordinary service, let the management of the line know. Letters of praise can do very good things for a room steward's or waiter's career with the line.
That covers tipping for week-long service, leaving only "one-time" services such as bar tending, delivery of drinks, room service or portage. The common tip for carrying your bags ("portage") is one or two dollars per bag. If you decide to surprise your wife with an in-cabin candlelight dinner, or just order coffee for breakfast, someone from the service staff will bring it to your cabin. The usual, minimum tip for such service is two dollars. Consider getting a stack of two dollar bills from the bank for this purpose. It will get you remembered, it reduces your wad of cash a bit, and it will ensure that you always have small bills for tipping. Remember that once aboard you will not be using cash and therefore will not be breaking your big bills into smaller ones all the time. This explains why one room service waiter will never forget me. When he arrived one morning with a breakfast tray, the smallest bill I could find was a twenty. I must say that I got extremely prompt room service for the rest of that particular cruise.
You don't need to tip your bartender, wine steward or bar waiter. Why? Check your charge slip the next time you order a drink. You will note that there is a 15% surcharge added to every drink for gratuity. Again, if you establish a friendly relationship with a particular bartender and he or she provides excellent service, don't be afraid to give them a tip at the end of the cruise.
Finally, on certain lines you do pay for service staff salaries as part of your cruise fare. Lines like Seabourn and Silversea do not require tipping. Of course, once you pay the tariff, you will see why all is included.
That's it for the hot tips on tipping. Happy cruising.
Brent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children. This article is his latest in his SeaLetter "The Complete Cruiser" series.
Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, use the SeaLetter Search Engine entering "Brent Betit" as your search phrase.
Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.
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