Updated August 21, 2018
Cruisers love the idea of a non-tipping ship. North Americans live in a tipping culture; we might grouse about paying extra, but generally accept that gratuities make up a fair share of income for people including waiters and waitresses, hair dressers and valets. So setting sail on one of the luxury cruise lines -- such as Silversea, Seabourn, Regent, Crystal or SeaDream -- where gratuities are not mandatory is liberating. Tips are already wrapped up in the cruise fare, so you never have to think about who should get a tip, how much you should give and when. Not having to deal with tipping helps make the vacation stress free.
Sounds terrific, right? Sure, but once onboard you might start feeling guilty about not handing out tips for the luxury lines' extraordinary service, especially when we're so used to doing so on land. Or you simply may wish to tip your hat -- monetarily speaking -- to a member of the crew who went above and beyond. What then?
Here's our best advice on how to think about tipping on a non-tipping ship.
How to Tip on a Non-Tipping Ship
First and foremost, don't ever feel that you have to tip on a non-tipping ship. The fact is, luxury lines roll up crew gratuities in the cruise fare, so you actually have prepaid your share of tips. Many luxury travel agents will specifically tell their clients not to tip on these types of ships because it tinkers with the remuneration plan the cruise line has already carefully calculated and may set a precedent for certain crew members expecting tips even when the ship is officially tip-free.
Even considering all that, sometimes you want to give someone a little something extra. That is a personal choice and never a requirement; it should be an aberration and not the norm. Luxury cruise lines carefully train their staff to never put their hands out for a bit of coin so you won't be made to feel awkward if you're not handing out extra tips from the moment you step onboard.
If you do wish to tip a member of the crew, you may do so in a variety of ways.
Offer a Gift
Luxury cruise ships can become a second home to some travelers, and it's possible to get to know crew members over time as you travel with them again and again. When that happens, it's nice to return to the ship armed with gifts for your favorite staff members. Some cruisers prefer to bring something that represents where they're from (maple syrup from Vermont or salt water taffy from the New Jersey shore) while other people give things like an iTunes gift card to a crew member that loves music or a prepaid telephone card for someone who's expressed a wish to talk with family back home more often. Jewelry -- a watch for a man or a bracelet for women -- can convey your sentiments of esteem. It's also very common for cruisers to bring gifts for the children of the crew members they know; gestures like that seem to be especially appreciated.
Small token gifts can be a nice gesture -- even for crew members you've just met. When we go into port, we'll buy small gifts for our cabin steward(ess) and/or butler. Maybe a scarf or T-shirt from one port or cookies and candies from another. These little "thank-yous" can go a long way to forging happy long-term relationships with the ship's staff.
Contribute to the Crew Fund
One of the best ways to express your gratitude to the entire crew is to donate to the crew fund. Nearly every cruise ship has a crew fund, which is sometimes used for the express purpose of improving the lives of the staff. That can mean throwing an onboard party when the team needs a morale boost, or buying something -- like a pinball machine or video game system -- that all crew members can enjoy during their off-hours. The fund may also help staff in times of trouble -- for instance, if someone needs to make an unexpected trip home due to a family emergency. If you'd like to make a donation, visit the Reception Desk. You can make your donation in cash or charge it to your onboard account. Your donation is announced to the entire crew so you may receive a personal thank-you from certain crew members if you donate early on in the voyage.
Say Something Nice
One of the easiest ways to show your appreciation to a crew member is to mention him or her on the comment card that's left in your suite, or to write a note to the hotel director, cruise director or captain to let him or her know about the outstanding service provided. Your unsolicited endorsements will be noticed and could even help someone advance in his or her career.
Tip in Cash
If you truly want to provide a tip on top of what's already been included in the cruise fare, you may do so, but remember that it is not necessary or expected on a non-tipping ship. If you're offering a bartender a few dollars here and there, he or she will likely take it with a sincere thank you and smile. However, if you offer larger sums to crew members, they will likely try to turn the gift down and remind you that no tips are required. If you offer a second time, the act of generosity is usually accepted.
The Logistics of Tipping
If you're going to defy the expectations and give a tip or gift on a luxury cruise with gratuities included, you'll likely have questions beyond what to give as a tip. For starters -- who should you, or shouldn't you, tip? It probably goes without saying that the captain and executive officers of a cruise ship never expect a tip and would graciously turn down any gratuity proffered. Likewise, shipboard entertainers are often contractors that are paid by a third-party company, and most cruisers generally wouldn't dream of tipping them.
Most often, you'll consider tipping your butler, suite steward(ess), restaurant maitre d', waiter or waitress and bartenders. That leaves out a lot of behind-the-scenes crew members that work hard to make sure you have a wonderful cruise -- and that's why it’s nice to donate to the crew fund, the results of which everyone can enjoy. But again, remember that you are on a non-tipping ship. Do you really feel it's necessary to single someone out with a tip? If so, it generally should only be a reward for someone that went above and beyond the call of duty.
When it comes to the timing of tips, everyone has their own best practices. On traditional cruise ships that work on the tip system, some travelers prefer to tip at the beginning of their voyage because they believe they'll receive better service. Service aboard luxury cruise ships is usually uniformly excellent, so the practice of tipping upfront is rare. If you have decided to tip someone for outstanding service, it's best to discretely offer a gratuity at the time the service is rendered or shortly thereafter.
If you've decided on a cash tip, you're likely wondering how much is appropriate -- given that some amount of gratuity has already been paid as part of your original cruise fare. The amount of your tip is a completely personal decision. If you're tipping a bartender per drink, you can follow what you do at home and offer a dollar or two per pour. If you're tipping for a special service -- for example, to thank your butler for helping you throw a party ensuite -- you should select a dollar amount that makes sense to you. There is no standard amount because a monetary thank you is not expected.
If you're not sailing from a U.S. homeport, don't worry about whether to tip in U.S. dollars or the local currency. It really depends on what you'd prefer to do, and what currency you have on hand. U.S. dollars are always welcome, but crew members can easily bank euros or other forms of currency.
Finally, it bears repeating that one of the perks that enticed you to book a luxury cruise in the first place was its price inclusivity. Don't ever feel as if you must tip on a non-tipping ship. It's truly not expected, and no one -- not passengers nor crew members -- will look down on you for not offering an extra gratuity. If you really want to do something nice, follow the lead of cruisers in the know and make a donation to the crew fund instead. Your kindness will be appreciated.