Right up there with saving deck chairs and show lounge seats, one of the most controversial topics of discussion among cruise passengers has always been tipping. Sometimes the cruise lines themselves foster this controversy with confusing policies that leave passengers unsure how, who and how much they should tip. More recently, lines that have clear policies for Americans are having trouble accommodating a more international mix of travelers, who do not share the same mentality about tipping.
Previously, most North American-market cruise lines adhered to a similar policy; while tipping was technically at the discretion of the individual passenger, the cruise director or the daily program would suggest a "recommended amount" for service personnel like cabin and dining room stewards. At the end of the cruise, passengers would find in their cabins a set of envelopes with the name of each crewmember that one was supposed to tip. The envelopes would be filled with the amount decided on by the passenger, and then distributed to the appropriate crewmember on the last day of the cruise. This became an accepted end-of-cruise ritual, right along with the Parade of the Baked Alaska and the cruise director's inevitable jokes about people packing all their clothes in their checked baggage and disembarking in pajamas.
As the onboard experience has changed over the past 10 to 15 years, many cruise lines began to change their tipping policies to match. The practice of tipping one's dining room staff became particularly difficult with the advent of alternative restaurants and open seating, which meant that passengers might not have the same dining room steward more than once or twice in a cruise. And many first-time cruisers were simply uncomfortable with the unfamiliar ritual of handing out envelopes at the end of the cruise. As a result, on many cruise lines today, tips are "automatic" and charged to one's account; they're usually pooled among a variety of crewmembers. Other lines -- usually in the high-end luxury category -- simply discourage tipping altogether, and still others continue with the traditional system, though that number has dwindled.
Now, the hot topic in tipping is the rise of international travelers, who don't have the same custom of tipping as North Americans. Cruise passengers from the U.K., Europe, Australia and South America are coming onboard in increasing numbers. Yet they have been known to remove auto-gratuities, or on lines like Royal Caribbean that still hold to cash tipping, not bother to tip at all -- it's simply not what they're used to doing. As crewmembers depend on passenger tipping to supplement their salaries, it's quite demoralizing for them when a ship has a high percentage of international guests who withhold gratuities. So, many lines are rethinking their compensation systems and tipping policies -- look for changes to come in the next few years.
While we would never presume to tell Cruise Critic members how to tip, it still helps to know what's expected on any given ship. This holds equally true whether you're trying a new line, or returning to an old favorite that may well have changed its tipping policy. Here is our comprehensive overview of tipping policies: