Editor's note: This story is from the Cruise Critic Archives. Content was up to date at time of publication.
"At the Captain's Table" is Cruise Critic's original series of stories penned by Joyce Gleeson-Adamidis. Joyce knows the ins and outs of life onboard -- both as a cruise ship staff member and as the wife of Celebrity Cruises' venerable Captain Adamidis -- and offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on issues facing cruisers and the cruise industry.
Gratuities -- What's the Point?
I am always asked: Why does the responsibility lie upon the shoulders of the passengers to pay the salaries of those working onboard? Well, this really isn't the case. If you take a moment and think about it -- when you go out for dinner at home (or indulge in a massage or run away for a quick but quiet weekend in a little boutique hotel), do you really not tip the maitre d', waiter/waitress, masseuse or room attendant who took care of you?
You're probably thinking to yourself, "Ah, here we go again, another gratuity article." But wait -- it isn't your run-of-the-mill article telling you how much, why and how you should pay.
One of the biggest misconceptions -- and quite possibly this is what leads to folks' reluctance to tip -- is that cruise passengers are shouldering the paychecks for crew members. But I suggest you don't listen to all the stories of such poverty-stricken crew members with low salaries and terrible lives. When tipping, you are not paying for every crewmember onboard the ship. Each position on the ship is paid according to the industry rates for that position. So, for instance, a waiter can earn between $2,000 and $3,200 per month (while a busboy will pull in $1,200 - $1,800). A cabin steward's monthly salary is anywhere between $1,600 and $2,600. A massage therapist will rake in $2,000 - $3,000. (Note: As an FYI, average salaries for cruise staffers who don't earn tips include $3,000 - $7,000 for a cruise director and $1,500 - $2,200 for a social hostess).
For those who come from under-developed countries, as do the great majority of crew members who work as waiters or cabin stewards, what they earn on the ships is far better than that which they could earn at home. In their countries, good-quality positions are numbered and rare; they seek work outside to provide for their families.
It is important to understand that jobs onboard parallel jobs on land. Most have the goal to create a foundation that they can parlay into a career or business back home. I know several cruise staffers who have succeeded in opening their own restaurants, convenience stores, tailor shops, Amway distribution businesses, children's day care centers and more. Yet others have made it a full career onboard: paid for their kids' and grandkids' education, and only later to retire with their kids already having moved on with life.
I pity those who miss their families and haven't had the opportunities that we have to spend important events with them. Think of the sacrifices they make.
There Are Guidelines
Allow me to take a second to venture off the topic of gratuities to highlight something behind the scenes that will help to make sense of it all. For each and every position onboard, there are many rules and guidelines that are set by the International Transport Federation. The ITF identifies the minimum salaries that can be paid by the cruise lines.
The organization also establishes maximum working hours, minimum relaxation time that's available, number of breaks they can take during each work stint -- and even the amount of time allowed for each break.
Each cruise company has their own salary guidelines set based on those stipulated by ITF. Other factors involved in determining salaries are: the size of the ship, the age of the ship, the number of passengers onboard, the destination of the ship and the nationalities of passengers traveling (sadly, it is a fact there are some nationalities known to never tip and the crew must be compensated).
In fact, that leads to another question I often hear from passengers: Why not include tipping in the overall fare?
In some cases, cruise lines do include gratuities in their cruise fares and you are not expected to tip -- some even go so far as to ask you not to! Typically these include higher end lines like Silversea, Seabourn and Hapag-Lloyd.
In other cases, cruise lines base their tipping policies on regional distinctions. For ships marketed heavily toward European travelers, some lines build tips into the cruise fare (while folks still pay out on their own on others).
There is a benefit to the tipping system we're all familiar with. When you look at the lower prices that are being offered on other lines, it is because you are given free rein and choice to pay tipping according to what you see fit and what is in the privacy of your own budget. If it turns out that the tipping crew salaries are not meeting the guidelines, companies will be forced to include tipping intheir prices. The price for you will drastically increase -- while your option to experience this form of vacation lessens.
When to Tip
One strategy many Cruise Critic members recommend is to offer a partial tip to your steward and waiter at the beginning of the cruise (paying the remainder at the end). Here's a surprise: Not always is an "early" tip taken positively. Crew have confided their feelings of wonder (and a sense, sometimes, of being insulted) that when tipped early, they feel that you think they cannot do the job right without that money or that it is a "little" bribe. Their choice to show you how they genuinely work has been taken away.
Here's another hint. What makes a serious difference, to them, beyond receiving gratuities, is you. Your smile is going to travel more miles than your cash. Show kindness. Treating them with a ray of light, laughter and a good time will set the pattern of great service.
And When Not To!
So whom should you never tip? Right up front I'll tell you: no officers, such as the chief engineer, the captain, the hotel director, social hostess or cruise director. Tipping an entertainer or dancer? Goodness, no. But I can say there are other ways to show recognition that can make it fun and worthwhile. Throughout the times my husband and I have been onboard, we have received our share of unusual gifts. Some are of sentimental value and others are a great surprise.
Occasionally in our long stint of service passengers have expressed their delight by sending us gifts. Passengers sent gifts to the cabin usually after they had already disembarked, knowing that after meeting us we would refuse them! We have received presents ranging from gemstone statues to gemstone globes, from a pair of fake teeth (really!) to articles of clothing and from a Super Bowl keychain to an expensive watch.
Those who want to do so can -- and at the same time it's perfectly fine not to.
In the End
I should mention as well, that even for the Captain and me, we tipped those who took care of us; after all, they are serving us too. Not only do we tip them with cash, but with other means that we knew were important to them.
It is difficult to think of that extra something to give to a crew member. One factor that comes to mind is the fact their contract lasts from six to nine months (some longer); thus, their weight allowance is limited and their luggage stuffed. If you have created a special bond with someone and want to show appreciation, know that crew members love gifts that represent you or your hometown, whether it's a fun T-shirt or unusual chocolates. Other great choices are an international phone card to call home, a $2 bill or a $1 gold coin (these are fun, but make sure the staffer knows what they are), a keychain from your home (I was given one from the Buffalo Bills Super Bowl game in the early 90's; I cherish it), a charm for a bracelet or a necklace, or a Mont Blanc pen. If you become close then take them with you for a meal off the ship, or on a tour. It is something from you. Just keep it small.
With any and all crew members, including those who are not in the tipping category, take a few minutes after arriving home to write an accommodation letter. Send it directly to the company's corporate office, letting them know about the individuals who stood out to you. This goes a long way in showing corporate headquarters that onboard there most certainly are staffers who go beyond the normal call of duty.
Believe it or not, a letter, too, is a tip.
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Gratuities -- What's the Point?