If you find yourself scratching your head a bit when it comes to how much you should tip on your cruise, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Most cruises offer the one-and-done option of prepaid gratuities, but if you still find yourself wondering just how tip compensation works on a cruise, you’ve come to the right place.
Just how important are tips to your cruise ship service crew? Are automatic gratuities added to your cruise folio or fare just a convenient way for cruise lines to dodge paying decent wages, or are they a convenient solution for passengers to make sure they’re showing their appreciation to the staff?
For a seven-night cruise on the major lines, the "auto-gratuity" currently has a wide range starting under $20 a day, per person, up to over $100 a day, per person. Passengers staying in suites will usually pay a bit extra per day, per person.
For convenience, many cruise lines now encourage guests to opt-into prepaid tips, where a lump sum covering all the suggested gratuities for the duration of the cruise are added to your final bill, or even paid for at the time of booking. While no gratuity is mandatory, it’s true that it’s pretty much par for the course – and they can add up quickly, depending on the length of your cruise and how deeply you indulge on your cruise.
Across most lines, an additional 18% gratuity is added to food and beverage purchases, and up to 20% can be automatically added to spa treatments. These are on top of any prepaid tips, and are non changeable. Guests can also opt to write-in additional tips as desired.
Luxury cruise lines build gratuities into the overall fare, so neither staff nor guests have to think twice about them.
Tipping is a common subject on Cruise Critic's community boards, often sparking passionate debates. Reading some of the comments you'd think tipping was a new or quickly evolving practice – except that it's not.
While many years ago cruise vacations were promoted as a relatively all-inclusive product -- one price pays all -- tips have long been customary for service in the mainstream cruise industry. Believe it or not, passengers used to have to pay tips at the end of their cruise – in cash.
Obviously, not all guests were on board with the program and even more crew members got stiffed. So, in the 1990s, cruise lines began adding these amounts to the checkout bill, a practice that became known as the auto-gratuity.
Passengers could increase or decrease the amount at the front desk, or even have the charge removed entirely and provide tips in cash to the crew members they personally selected.
But even still, this cash-in-hand practice often left key service staff empty-handed. The problem? The average passenger does not come into contact with all the crew members that can positively impact their vacation; many key players are located behind the scenes. This is why most cruise lines today pool the tips to reward more positions.
However, the number of crew members that participate ranges widely within the industry. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line has said their automatic gratuities are shared by behind-the-scenes support staff such as table bussers and maitre d’s.
"Our crew work as a team and, therefore, service charges are aggregated among all eligible crew members," a NCL spokesperson said. The cruise line also noted that certain staff positions -- such as concierge, butler, youth program and beverage staff -- do not receive part of the service charge, and the line encourages passengers to reward these crew members with additional "appropriate gratuities."
Carnival Cruise Line gratuities are divided up among the dining team, housekeeping and other “alternative service” departments, namely culinary and hotel services, key entertainment and guest service positions.
As mentioned above, not all members of the ship staff receive a share of the gratuities paid by passengers. Bartenders, main show entertainers and third-party shop employees are some of the more obvious ones, but they're not the only ones.
Most cruise ship employees that do not receive gratuities receive a salary instead. For example, a cruise ship captain won’t receive tips, but they will receive a healthy salary. A cruise ship captain's salary can be six figures annually. Captains on the largest ships, responsible for 5,000 or more passengers and crew members, can have a salary in excess of $150,000, typically working two months on, two months off.
The hotel director on a medium-to-large ship -- the officer that oversees the majority of the crew -- will receive a salary in excess of $100,000 annually, usually working four months on, with two months off. The food and beverage manager on a similar ship can gross anywhere from $3,500 to $7,500 or more per month, depending not just on the size of the ship but on the level of cuisine being prepared.
An executive chef can expect to earn $4,000 to $8,000 monthly (and up), while a chef de partie salary can be just a quarter of that. The assistant chef or trainee cook takes home anywhere from $700 to $1,000, while kitchen cleaners come in at about $600 per month.Such entry-level positions in the kitchen offer some of the lowest wages on the ship, but also typically provide the best opportunities for advancement.
Muddying the waters further is the fact that compensation for an entry-level kitchen position may be different for a crew member from Indonesia versus a crew member hailing from India, both performing the same job.
Gratuities usually come into play for service-oriented crew members who earn an hourly wage. The base wage is usually low -- sometimes as little as a few dollars a day, leaving tips to represent as much as 95 percent of their total take home pay.
"Gratuities make up most of the compensation for crew in the housekeeping and food and beverage departments," CruiseShipCareers shared with us.
Total compensation for an assistant waiter position ranges anywhere from $900 to as much as $2,200 a month – inclusive of gratuities; experienced dining room waiters can earn upward of $3,200 a month. The assistant maitre d' can earn $4,000 or more, and is generally part of the tip pool.
Total compensation for bartenders can range anywhere from $1,800 to $2,500, while bar wait staff earn between $1,200 and $2,200 a month. Again, this is inclusive of passenger tips.
On the housekeeping side, a cabin steward salary can range between $650 and $1,150 per month, including gratuities, though on a luxury line the salary might exceed $2,000 per month once tips are factored in. A housekeeping floor supervisor is included in the tip pool on most lines, and takes home $1,300 or more. A laundry attendant is usually not compensated with gratuities and might earn as little as $700 a month.
"Although the monthly amounts may seem meager to people in developed countries, they are significantly higher than what those crew members would earn in their home countries," an editor from CruiseShipCareers.com, a cruise line recruiting resource, explained to Cruise Critic. (A notable exception is Norwegian's Pride of America, a U.S.-flagged ship sailing in Hawaii, where the state and federal laws govern employment and minimum wage, and crew members must be U.S. citizens.)
This allows for crew members to build up savings, or to send funds back home while at sea. Some learn valuable skills while working at sea -- skills they can take with them to develop a business or service at home. Crew members receive medical treatment for work-related illness or injuries while aboard, and the cruise line will provide transfer to a land-based hospital or home, if necessary.
Cruise jobs also come with several noteworthy benefits, such as full room and board while sailing and, once an initial contract is completed, round trip airfare is picked up by the cruise line.
Unless you’re on a sailing where the gratuities have been neatly wrapped up in the overall cruise, gratuities, just like back on land, are not mandatory – but they are greatly appreciated (and sometimes expected). A little cash on the side for a waiter or housekeeper can make a big difference to a hardworking crew member who might have family back home to support.
And for those who want to do something extra, there are ways beyond tip envelopes that can positively impact a crew member's career. As a Holland America spokesperson explained:
"Write a note to the hotel director and let them know who was great. Comments like that get placed in their record, and they'll get called out for doing a great job. It may mean somebody gets moved up the chain. It's not that they don't want the tip, but that extra acknowledgement can mean a lot."
Display good cruise tipping etiquette by leaving the recommended gratuity at the end of your cruise, or more or less as you are able. You may not agree with how the cruise line unbundles their employee compensation, but some crew members are depending on that tip for a fair wage.