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Cruise Ship Tipping and Prepaid Gratuities: Should I Tip More?

I have a passion for writing and reviewing cruise ship travel, tips, etiquette, and packing hacks that makes cruise vacations better.

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Are Tipping Practices Sinking or Are We Going Overboard?

Cruise tipping and prepaid gratuities are a hot topic of varying opinions and practices. Cruise lines claim to add prepaid gratuities as a "passenger convenience," but some folks beg to differ.

I didn't always tip beyond the "prepaid gratuity" fees, so I opted to educate myself and share the findings with others in the "same boat." This project was eye-opening, so keep reading to see what I discovered!

Crew Member Employment and Wages

One of the first things a new cruise passenger learns is ships are registered in other countries, while their headquarters are in the United States. This practice allows companies to avoid U.S. labor laws. In a nutshell, this means crew members do not receive pay per the U.S. minimum-wage standards.

As a frequent cruiser, I engage in conversations with the crew members who take care of us most frequently—our stateroom attendants and main dining room staff. My husband and I enjoy learning about their backgrounds, families, and even how they spend their free time onboard. They most often work 7–10 months at a time and 12–14 hours per day for seven days straight before having a half or even a full day off. We have also taken a few of the ship's "backstage" tours and were able to see where the crew members reside, dine, kick back to relax, etc. If you can afford to do this just once, it's highly enlightening and educational, and we recommend it. Crew members have also expressed the importance of filling out the post-cruise survey, explaining how heavily these influence their compensation and bonuses.

Also, we learned what their contracts include, and that's room/board, food, and their return trip to their home country at the end of their contract. However, their actual hourly wages are much less than one would think. Rather than speculate or express personal opinions, I've researched the most credible sources to find reliable data and figures to share in this article. I've also taken time to collect data via polls from numerous cruisers in the large Facebook cruise group of over 105,000 I follow, regarding tipping practices. I'll share those stats later in this article.

Quoted below are some facts I found from what I feel are credible sources. I feel confident I've provided the most accurate information:

According to the JOURNAL OF WORLD-SYSTEMS RESEARCH,

U.S.-owned cruise companies have managed to create the ideal context for contemporary corporations: very little government oversight of labor relations, an available pool of very cheap labor dispersed across the globe, lax environmental regulations, high profit margins, and corporate tax rates around 1%. A typical cruise ship leaving the U.S. contains workers from 75 to 90 nationalities. Crew members performing menial service work are recruited exclusively from “poor countries” in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Crew members typically sign 10-month contracts stipulating 10-14 hour workdays/7 days a week without vacation or sick days. There is a striking correlation between workers’ pay/status and their countries’ position within the world system.

Although these companies were founded in the United States, the FOC (Full Operational Capability) system allows companies to choose which countries’ flag under which they fly. The “flagging” country then assumes responsibility for supervising and enforcing the ship’s compliance with their national and international regulations on ship safety and working conditions. Panama, Liberia, and the Bahamas currently account for 50% of the FOC business. These countries charge registry fees and tonnage fees, but companies are not taxed on any of the revenue they generate on ticket sales, tours, and shipboard purchases. If they flagged ships in the United States, they would be subject to domestic labor laws and corporate taxation.

Seafaring workers have explicit rights enshrined in international law (freedom of association and collective bargaining) and they are specifically covered by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and International Maritime Organization (IMO) conventions. ILO Convention 147 (1976) explicitly states that each country that registers ships (flag state) must pass laws specifying minimum standards for employment and living conditions. This convention also states that employers must pay for travel costs associated with taking a leave. ILO Convention 180 (1996) specifies that seafarers should work no more than 72 hours in any 7-day period.

Another article I found subjective, yet informative, regarding prepaid gratuities, came from USA Today, April 2017:

Critics of the charges say tipping is a personal matter that should be left to passengers. Some see the charges as a thinly disguised method for cruise lines to push the responsibility for paying crew members to their customers. To that point, cruise industry watcher Cruise Critic has reported that some lines now pay housekeeping and dining department workers on ships as little as $2 per day in base wages, relying on the automatic gratuity to provide the great bulk of their compensation. As much as 95% of pay for some cruise ship workers now comes from automatic gratuities, according to Cruise Critic.

In this same USA Today article, you'll also find a breakdown, by cruise line, listing the daily automatically-added gratuities, as well as other additional service fees. Some lines have admittedly started including the gratuities into the fare, which makes it more difficult to ascertain how much is going to the crew members.

How Are the Prepaid Gratuities Distributed Amongst the Crew Members?

According to Royal Caribbean's website, prepaid gratuities are used and distributed in the following manner, which doesn't specify accurately which "other" crew members aside from those serving food, drinks, and stateroom attendants, receive this money; or what percentage. They also go on to say passengers still have control over this charge and may have this amount adjusted by guest services if they feel there's a need.

I understand these funds are shared with those preparing the food, handling baggage, cleaning the ship and recreational areas, guest service attendants, and those operating the children's programs. These members wouldn't usually be in the public eye to receive optional tips from passengers.

Bar and spa services have service fees added to each transaction at the time of purchase and are in addition to the prepaid gratuities. Many passengers are unaware of this. In that case, it may not make sense to add additional tips to those bills, although from the polls I conducted, most people do. I'll touch on as well.

What are Royal Caribbean's service gratuities (tips) price and policy?

According to the website,

The automatic service gratuity is $14.50 USD per person, per day for guests in Junior Suites and below, or $17.50 USD per person, per day for guests in Grand Suites and above, applied to each guest’s SeaPass account on a daily basis. The gratuity applies to individual guests of all ages and stateroom categories. As a way to reward our crew members for their outstanding service, gratuities are shared among dining, bar & culinary services staff, stateroom attendants and other hotel services teams who work behind the scenes to enhance the cruise experience.

In the unlikely event a guest on board being charged the daily automatic gratuity does not receive satisfactory service, the guest may request to modify the daily amount at their discretion by visiting Guest Services on board and will be able to do so until the morning of their departure.

The automatic daily gratuity is based on customary industry standards. Applying this charge automatically helps streamline the recognition process for the crew members that work to enhance your cruise. The cruise lines hopes you find the gratuity to be an accurate reflection of your satisfaction and thank you for your generous recognition of staff.

An 18% gratuity is automatically added to all beverages, mini bar items, and spa & salon purchases.

Results based on 695 responses

Results based on 695 responses

Results based on 77 responses

Results based on 77 responses

Additional Details and Comments Received From My Polls of Approximately 700 Contributors

According to the results of my three polls:

  • 61% tip their stateroom attendant an additional $20–$40 per couple, per week, 26% tip $40–$70, and 13% tip an additional $70–$140.
  • The average amount tipped to the head waiter came out to be an additional $20–$50 per week per couple.
  • The average amount given to the assistant waiter per couple for a seven–day cruise averaged about 1/2 of the head waiter's tip to anywhere from $1–$5 per person, per day. It's often dependent upon whether they also brought wine or alcohol from the bar, in which case, it was stated they tip on average, $1 per drink.
  • 75% of people said they tip the bartender and bar server $1–$2 per drink, in addition to the service charge of 18% that's added to each drink bill. (except for those who purchased the prepaid drink package).
  • Several people stated they don't eat in the main dining room (MDR), therefore don't tip more to the wait staff.
  • Figures excluded are those tipping a portion of the gratuities at the start of the cruise and the remainder at the end. The amount is dependent upon the level of service received by the above-referenced crew members. Surprisingly, there are a large number of people who tip in this manner. Another portion wrote that they prefer to tip their wait staff each meal, including the buffet or other dining areas.
  • Some cruises stated they tip the ship tour guide, pool staff, Kid's Club and nursery workers, photographer, the hand-washing attendants, piano player, room service attendant, omelet maker, or a specific bartender.
  • Some people expressed they reside in a country where tipping is not a customary practice; therefore, they don't feel the need to tip at all while cruising.
  • A small number who felt crew members make enough money, prefer not to tip at all, or received poor service and asked to have gratuities removed.
  • 79% of the contributors to this poll were female and 21% male.

Age ranges of the contributors to this poll are as follows:

  1. 21–30: 10%
  2. 31–40: 3%
  3. 41–50: 41%
  4. 51–60: 24%
  5. 61–70: 21%
  6. >70: 1%

Call to Action

I love to write articles and reviews about our cruising experiences, which many folks find helpful. I hope you've found this one informative and useful as well. Thank you to everyone who contributed their comments, data, and opinions for the sake of pulling this information together.

It's important that I provide unbiased, factual, and accurate data for my readers and I'll continue to collect additional data to keep this information as current as possible.

Please don't leave without casting your anonymous votes in the polls below. I value your comments too and thank you for taking the time to vote and leave feedback!

If you've enjoyed this article, please check out my popular tips on cruise ship cabin organization and packing!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: If you tip additional cash on a cruise ship, does the individual service person (bartender, steward, server, kid's club, etc) get to keep it? Or do tips go in the big pool that gets split between all positions at the end of the cruise?

Answer: If you give the cash directly to the individual, they get to keep it. The cruise line provides envelopes if you want to give it to a specific crew member. I bring my own envelopes and thank you cards and hand the cash/card to each person to ensure it goes where I want it to.

Question: How many items should I take on a five days cruise?

Answer: I recommend you check out my cruise packing articles in my profile; there are two that are very popular. Those will help choose your non-clothing essentials. As for clothing, I allow for 2-3 outfits each day: something casual for lounging or shore excursions, swimwear, and something nice for the evening. I pack flip flops, nice sandals, dressy flats or heels, and running shoes. I pack articles I can mix and match and if you are female, that also means sundresses I can dress up or down.

Question: Recently the Carnival Vista experienced a dry dock for some engine propulsion repairs. I'm wondering how this affected the crew. Were the crew of the Carnival Vista cruise compensated as usual during the engine repairs or did they receive some time off?

Answer: If I had to guess, I'd think they were paid their regular salaries or placed on other vessels. That is a very good question and I'll see if I can find a solid answer to that.

Question: When traveling in a Suite where you have a Genie, is their gratuity included within the PrePaid gratuities or do you tip them separately?

Answer: I am fairly certain it is included because the prepaid gratuities or suites is a higher daily/per person amount. If you received exceptional service, it's your discretion if you want to give additional money that you know goes 100% to their pocket.

© 2019 Debra Roberts

Comments

Phil J on April 20, 2020:

I don't think most people actually see the big picture here. I'd like to point out a couple things to consider before tipping or not tipping on your next cruise.

1. Some people said they were "shocked" or "surprised" by the amount of the pre-paid gratuities once they got on their cruise. I have never been on a cruise that did not show you the gratuities amount before/during booking and gave you the option to pre-pay before or pay after the cruise. Maybe there are some cruise lines that do not show you, but I believe most of them do and I've never been surprised by the amount of the gratuity. The cruise line websites even show you a chart on the daily room charge for gratuities based on room class.

2. Many people are looking at the wage/tipping issue from the wrong angle. Yes corporations are cheapskates, that is their nature. But in this instance, they are taking advantage of loopholes in U.S. and foreign laws to keep costs down and in the long run, charge less overall for the cruise to attract more customers. If they raised standard salaries, they get taxed as income before being paid out as salaries. Might not seem like much but with say 10,000 employees for example, your talking millions of dollars in taxes that would definitely get passed on to the consumer anyway and be more than the amount of the non-taxed gratuities total. I read a couple people say that if everyone opted out the companies would be forced to pay higher salaries. You are right and then they would add 115-125% of the pre-paid gratuities onto the base cruise rates which would also be taxed again and increase port fees. Great idea...(sarcasm). Choosing not to tip because you think you are proving a point is merely short changing a hard working poor person trying to make some money to send back to their family. Listen closely...YOU WILL NEVER BEAT THE CORPORATIONS! They will make their money one way or the other. You will only hurt the little guy in the end.

I'm not defending these companies by the way, they have F'd me over with incorrect refunds and fine print issues. But I do understand some of their pricing and wage model and appreciate the savings in the end. And I usually pay my attendant an extra $20-30 on the first day of the cruise, and it has always paid off (ice always full and fresh, room cleaned more than once in a day, etc.).

Tammy Brown on February 22, 2020:

Hell no im.not paying more. They charge to much now. Its crazy!!

Nic Day on February 01, 2020:

Our country has no history of automatic tipping. In my over 50 year working life I could count on one hand the number of tips received in fact my company policy was to refuse a tip unless refusing would offend. Clearly you research shows that gratuities are a ruse that US companies use to pay low wages and bad working practices.

Deb on January 31, 2020:

I tip my stateroom attendant an extra $5 a day, if the service is good.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on January 26, 2020:

Would you kindly ask them to read my article and offer up corrections and suggestions? I just got off a ship yesterday (Symphony of the Seas) and both our cabin attendant and wait staff shared their contract details with us. Perhaps it varies by the cruise company and the individual?

Unbeliever. on January 23, 2020:

My best friends both work on ships. I thought there were some inaccuracies in the article so I checked with them before responding. Indeed, there were some 'basic' errors, including stated typical lengths of contracts, which then brings into question the remainder of the content.

Candie on December 08, 2019:

I know a number of people who have worked for cruise lines. The lower wages are balanced out by the included room and board. Not paying for rent, food and cost of travel for normal jobs add up quickly. If you were lead to believe that working these jobs were a hardship for some then you were fed a pity story to get more tips. The amount saved plus wages is already a good deal and the tips make it an incredible job if you can keep up with it. It is hard working job but it affords you enough to take a two month vacation. How many of us can afford to do that?

Robert L. Bailey on December 08, 2019:

It is very easy to understand why crew members appreciate those who recognize their efforts from cultures who appreciate them appropriately and tip them accordingly.

Geoff Spackman on December 06, 2019:

I’m an Australian. In Australia it is not customary to tip unless you feel the recipient has done an exemplary service, in which case you can tip as you see fit.

The reason we don’t tip is because people in the service industry are paid a decent pre-negotiated wage. The fact that staff on a cruise ship are paid poorly has nothing to do with us, that’s between the staff and their employer.

When booking a cruise we choose a cruise line on the basis of several criteria, the ship, the itinerary, the duration etc., and above all, the cost. When we are quoted the cost of the cruise we expect it to include ALL costs, or at the very least an explanation of what cost will be added so we can make a decision based on the figures given.

They’d be nothing worse than to save for a trip, pay before we embark, keep track of what we spend on board and then find out as we disembark that we have to pay gratuities of $500-$600 !!!. NO ON !!!.

As I see it, signing on to a cruise is a contract, we have responsibilities as passengers, the agent acting for the cruise line has the best responsibility of being honest by informing us of ALL costs.

MIke Ktori on December 02, 2019:

We have auto tipping removed as soon as we board for a cruise. We favour cruise lines having tipping free cruises.

Glenn Smith on November 25, 2019:

Why should we have to pay tipping when paying for the tickets. That should be asked if we want to an then they expect more tips at end of cruise. I have to save up an can't afford to buy anything due to tips an outrages prices.

I love a couple of Royal carrabeen but feel like I'm getting ripped off.

Gb on November 17, 2019:

Actually the wait staff and room stewards wages are 13 dollars a month. That's on all US cruise lines and has been the same since the late 1970's. The hours these days are limited to 84 hours a week. That is the maximum allowed to work and it was Disney cruise line that brought this into line previously over 100 hrs a week was normal.

Rightly or wrongly Gratuities are the only reason the crew are there....comment cards only give financial bonus to officers and managers. The crew get bigger sections (which means more earnings)

and time off for "Excellent ratings"

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on September 18, 2019:

Yes, that is correct with NCL if you do the free-style. We did one in July and just left a little something each dinner. Oddly, we never once saw or met our room attendant, which is a first in 15 cruises! I left some, but not as much as usual because I felt the attendant avoided us. We were on the Sun with the unlimited alcohol, so the gratuity was prepaid when we booked.

Captain obvious on September 15, 2019:

On NCL, with their freestyle dining, you never get the same waiter twice in the restaurant, so there is no need for tipping the waitstaff. The only person that you deal with daily is your room steward. We always tip $10 per day. Bartending tips are included automatically every time you buy a drink at 20%

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on September 15, 2019:

Your comment is confusing to me. I have never told anyone not to respond...could you clarify? Which Facebook post?

Lus on September 15, 2019:

I dont agree with auto tipping or include tipping . Tipping is something we do if we feel we received good service .but should not be mandatory. If they cruise lines wants more money for the crew pay more . Increase salaries.

Jon on September 11, 2019:

Interesting that on the Facebook post you told non-tippers that you did not want them to respond, but then claim the data is unbiased. The bias is clear as the results at the end of this article show 25% don't tip extra.

Aussie on September 05, 2019:

Everyone deserves to be paid for what they do.

If the employer doesnt pay an appropriate am ou int why should the consumer make up for that?

If we allstopped tipping the staff wouldnt work for the cruise line which would mean that the cruiae line would eother have to pay a reasonable wage or there would be no staff which means no passengers

Wanderlust Beauty Dreams on August 27, 2019:

I never been on a cruise before but this was an interesting read and a topic I often hear from travelers. Thanks for sharing!

Melanie williams on August 25, 2019:

I think that tipping should be left up to the individual and their experience of the service received.

Sonia Seivwright on August 23, 2019:

Aww blesss. All that work for less. I have never been on a cruise before. The work these workers do there is amazing.

The Sunny Side Lifestyle Co. on August 23, 2019:

I've never been on a cruise so had never considered how the onboard staff is compensated nor did I understand the labor laws (or lack thereof) associated with crew members. I would be interested to know the crew's thoughts on automatic gratuity versus direct tipping.

Live Learn Better on August 22, 2019:

It's not a news that people in the hospitality industry are poorly paid. I just don't get it when those workers let their living be dependent on whether a customer is kind and impressed enough to tip or not.

Those employers need to do better IMO.

Alexandra on August 22, 2019:

Wow! This actually made me very sad. I have never been on a cruise but I would not have known that I need to top. And it seems that these workers really need people to tip as they seem to be taken advantage of.

Julia on August 22, 2019:

I haven't been on a cruise for over 25 years - I bet things have changed a lot since then. That's was never my preferred way of travel. After reading this very informative and educational post, I will probably never go on a cruise again. I firmly believe that even the concept of gratuities should not exist! And "prepaid gratuities" are rather "robbed fees".

This could sound harsh, but if you think about it, if companies owners start paying higher sustainable salaries to their employees, this expense will still fall on the consumers. I understand, don't mind and believe that these service workers should be paid well for their hard work. However, if it was a salary rather than hidden fees, the cards would be open, and everyone would know their expenses in advance... Some consumers, seeing the higher numbers in cruise cost, may estimate their budget better and not buy a trip because the price doesn't seem affordable for them (instead of feeling robbed and experiencing hardship after the trip). The employees would know exactly what they will earn during the trip, and may also plan better whether they want or they don't want to take the job.

No, the rich guys don't want that. They want to deceive both sides and get away with big bucks in their pockets. Unfortunately, we and the government support these lies by allowing tipping.

Snehal on August 22, 2019:

Here in India i dont think so most people tip very often. On a personal note i do show my gratitude and tip when i am able to! ☺

Luna S on August 21, 2019:

I've never been on a cruise and wasn't aware of any of this! This post is extremely helpful and you are right it is eye opening.

Smita on August 21, 2019:

That’s such a well researched post, very informative. I’ve not been on too many cruises so I had never thought about how important this is. Will definitely keep in mind for next time.

Gina on August 21, 2019:

Wow! Fantastic information! Incredibly eye opening! Tipping is incredibly confusing. Articles like this are so helpful!

Inexperienced cruiser. on August 08, 2019:

Thank you. This article was very helpful.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on June 16, 2019:

From a Facebook reader: (Raymond Bower) Deb, thank you for the article and the education I received. I am a 15%er and now based on your article I will do the auto gratuities and tip more to those whom I am in contact with every day. I have always been an over tipper and always like to hand them to the employees themselves, Hundreds of articles and opinions on this subject but yours brought it down to earth for me. I didn't like reading "to that point, cruise industry watcher CruiseCritic has reported that some lines now pay housekeeping and dining department workers on ships as little as $2 per day in base wages, relying on the automatic gratuity to provide the great bulk of their compensation. As much as 95% of pay for some cruise ship workers now comes from automatic gratuities, according to CruiseCritic." Having worked overseas in 3 different countries and working side by side with wonderful "foreign nationals" who were doing the same job as me and receiving a 3rd to 1/2 what I received because their pay was a high wage for them in their Country, I can see now that the cruise lines have reduced wages for the unseen and are using my tips as a wage. It explains why cruising is still so affordable.

Erica (The Prepping Wife) on June 08, 2019:

I've never taken a cruise, so this article was certainly interesting and eye-opening! I had no idea that most cruise ship companies were not based in the US or required to pay employees based on those wage laws. When I do go on my first cruise, I'll make it a point to tip, and make sure the specific people who took care of us consistently receive good tips and comment cards. Comment cards never seemed important before reading this article either, because I had no idea they were tied to an employee's bonus.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on April 29, 2019:

Yes, your drink packages includes an 18% gratuity...at least it does on Royal Caribbean. Also if you don't have the package and you buy coffee, soft drinks, or cocktails, an 18% gratuity is already on it.

Tracy C on April 29, 2019:

We give our room attendant and waiters additional cash, plus tip at the bar. I didn’t realize that some cruise lines added a bar service fee. We purchased drink packages, so perhaps that was in the fine print. Tipping can be confusing, especially when guest are not accustomed to it.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on April 15, 2019:

Me too. I had to write the article neutral and unbiased so to appeal to every varying opinion. Personally, we tip extra...but didn't used to to the degree we do now. We are way more generous knowing what we know now!

Jim Robinson on April 15, 2019:

I read your entire article. I find it distressing when I hear someone automatically say they go down to Customer Service and cancel their automatic gratuity every cruise they go on. I am 65 and always remember one important saying that my parents said to us: "You get what your pay for!!" By the way, the ship has a way of putting notes in your accounts, about the removal of the automatic gratuities. It is seen every time your Sea Pass is used. Being that most of the crew get pennies on the dollar from the automatic gratuities, they subsist on the extra tips they get. I could write an entire article myself about how it feels to work in the food and beverage industry waiting on people and the "CHEAP" ones that stiff you. Enjoy your cruise and make the people that wait on you hand and foot enjoy waiting on you.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 06, 2019:

In Prague we noticed restaurant staff pointing out to English-speaking guests that service was not included, when in fact it was. Globally the issue of tipping is confusing.

Debra Roberts (author) from Ohio on February 04, 2019:

It gets even more complex when people who are not from the US are not accustomed to tipping in their country because folks there are paid a respectable wage vs. companies relying on gratuities to carry them. You can't even imagine how ugly this topic gets on the cruise forums that I follow; it's an ongoing and often times, heated debate, so I thought it would make for an interesting topic to go with my other cruise blogs.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 04, 2019:

I have read your article with great interest as we have relatives taking a cruise later this year. The whole issue of tipping and gratuities is a complex one.