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

Updated on July 22, 2019
Deb Vesco Roberts profile image

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


Are Tipping Practices Sinking or Are We Going Overboard?

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

As someone who did not generally tip beyond the "prepaid gratuity" amount, I decided to educate myself to determine if this was really the best decision and then share my findings with others who are in the "same boat". This project was a very eye-opening one. 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 located in the United States. This is how cruise companies are able to avoid U.S. labor laws. In a nutshell, this means crew members are not paid according to the U.S. minimum-wage standards.

As a frequent cruiser, I often engage in conversations with the crew members who take care of us most frequently—our stateroom attendants and main dining room wait 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 totally 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.

In addition, we learned what their contracts include and that is 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 will share those stats later in this article.

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


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 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.

In this same USA Today article, you will also find a breakdown, by cruise line, listing the varying 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 even more difficult to ascertain just how much is actually 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 does not specify exactly which "other" crew members beyond 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 is a need to do so.

I understand these funds are also shared with those preparing the food, handling baggage, cleaning the ship and recreational areas, guest service attendants throughout the ship, and those who run the children's programs who would not normally 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, which is in addition to the prepaid gratuities and 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, which I'll touch on as well.

What is 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 | Source
Results based on 77 responses
Results based on 77 responses | Source

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 7–day cruise averaged about 1/2 of the head waiter's tip to anywhere from $1–$5 per person, per day and often was dependent upon whether they also brought wine or alcohol from bar, in which case, they stated they tip on average, $1 per drink.
  • 75% of people stated they tip the bartender and/or bar server $1–$2 per drink, in addition to the service charge of 18% that is also added to each drink bill, with the exception of those who purchased the prepaid drink package.
  • A number of people stated they do not eat in the main dining room (MDR), therefore do not tip additionally to the wait staff.
  • Figures not included in the above numbers are by those who tip a portion of their gratuities at the beginning of the cruise and another portion at the end, depending on the level of service they 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.
  • Other crew members people stated they tip are: Ship tour guide, pool staff, Kid's Club and nursery workers, photographer, hand-washing attendant at the Windjammer entrances, piano player, room service attendant, omelette maker, or a specific bartender they visited most frequently.
  • Some people expressed they reside in a country where tipping is not a customary practice, therefore, do not feel the need to tip at all while cruising.
  • A small number stated they have felt the crew members "make enough money or prefer not to tip at all" or they received poor service overall, therefore request to have their prepaid 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%

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

It's of the utmost importance I provide the most unbiased, factual, and accurate data I can compile, and I'll l continue to collect additional data to keep this information as current as possible.

Before you leave, please cast your votes in the two polls below. I value your comments below as well and thank you in advance for taking the time to vote in the polls or leave some feedback!

Do you tip some or all of the above crew members an additional amount beyond your prepaid gratuities?

See results

What do you do with the prepaid gratuities at the end of your cruise?

See results

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

    © 2019 Debra Roberts


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      • profile image

        Sonia Seivwright 

        10 hours ago

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

      • profile image

        The Sunny Side Lifestyle Co. 

        14 hours ago

        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.

      • profile image

        Live Learn Better 

        24 hours ago

        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.

      • profile image


        26 hours ago

        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.

      • profile image


        35 hours ago

        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.

      • profile image


        36 hours ago

        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! ☺

      • profile image

        Luna S 

        2 days ago

        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.

      • profile image


        2 days ago

        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.

      • profile image


        2 days ago

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

      • profile image

        Sarah Barker 

        2 days ago

        We cruise all the time, this was very helpful, thank you!

      • profile image

        Inexperienced cruiser. 

        2 weeks ago

        Thank you. This article was very helpful.

      • Deb Vesco Roberts profile imageAUTHOR

        Debra Roberts 

        2 months ago from Ohio

        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.

      • profile image

        Erica (The Prepping Wife) 

        2 months ago

        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.

      • Deb Vesco Roberts profile imageAUTHOR

        Debra Roberts 

        3 months ago from Ohio

        Yes, your drink packages includes an 18% 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.

      • profile image

        Tracy C 

        3 months ago

        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.

      • Deb Vesco Roberts profile imageAUTHOR

        Debra Roberts 

        4 months ago from Ohio

        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!

      • profile image

        Jim Robinson 

        4 months ago

        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.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        6 months ago from UK

        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.

      • Deb Vesco Roberts profile imageAUTHOR

        Debra Roberts 

        6 months ago from Ohio

        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.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        6 months ago from UK

        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.


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