The Smart Cruiser’s Guide to Tipping on a Cruise

Tip jar on a counter with money
Tipping is an expression of gratitude for great service on your cruise vacation | Author: Sam Truong Dan

There is perhaps no other topic which sparks as much feverish debate among first-time and experienced cruisers than tipping on a cruise. It is an age-old issue which most cruisers have strong opinions on and can mystify those embarking on their first ever sailing. When and how to tip, how much and to whom? And why do I need to tip at all? Tipping etiquette back in the day involved passengers handing out envelopes of cash to their favorite bartender or waiter on the final night but most crew members – typically those working behind the scenes that rarely had any guest interaction – missed the boat on passengers’ generosity. 

So now we have automatic cruise gratuities which pool the tips to reward more positions, and provide a fairer system. This is obviously more convenient for guests too. You pay the cruise gratuities once and they are dispersed across the crew member population. Sounds simple? Actually it’s a little more complicated than that, as each cruise line has different gratuity guidelines along with subtle policy differences. For example, Carnival cruise tipping differs from tipping on a Disney cruise. Like every other aspect of cruising, it pays to be prepared. Know before you go about how much the daily gratuity fee is, when you will be debited, and ensure you budget accordingly. To get a first impression of the additional costs, you can for example use an online gratuity calculatorThe automatic tipping system is variously described as ‘mandatory,’ or a ‘recommended’ fee, which can lead to misunderstandings and even embarrassment. Read on for key insights in cruise tipping etiquette for a worry-free cruise vacation.

The low-down about tipping on your cruise

Officially, tipping isn't mandatory and can be adjusted based on your overall cruise experience, although most major mainstream cruise lines give you a helping hand by auto-charging a ‘recommended’ fixed daily amount to your onboard account. This amount differs by cruise line, but luxury lines do away with this altogether by including all gratuities in the all-inclusive fare. 

While paying the automatic gratuity charge is strongly encouraged by the cruise lines, it is not set in stone. It is technically a discretionary fee which can be adjusted up or down depending on your overall guest experience. It can even be removed altogether and guests then have the option to individually tip crew members with cash. For any disputes or changes, head to the guests services desk. The exception to this is Norwegian Cruise Line which requires guests to file a reimbursement request to remove all or part of their tipping on a cruise. In general, most cruisers are content to pay the tips at the recommended amount, which is something they will have already budgeted for.  It’s worth noting that you will pay a separate service charge for specialty dining, drinks at the bar and any spa services you partake in.

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Why do you have to tip on your cruise vacation?

Love it or hate it, cruise gratuities in their various forms are here to stay. Removing the mandatory automatic gratuity and preventing anyone from tipping on a cruise anymore would simply see base cruise fares rise. It would unlikely make any difference to the ultimate cost of a cruise vacation as you can read in our How much does a cruise cost? guide. The gratuity system is essentially the same as a fixed service charge, which is something most people take for granted. Before you depart on your sailing, you will likely pay a service charge without a single thought for your pre-cruise hotel stay or an evening meal in a restaurant. 

In recent years the cruise industry has moved to a cashless system, removing the need for guests to bring a wad of cash. The current automatic cruise gratuities system in place on most lines simply reflects this change. In a perfect world every crew member would be compensated well enough not to have to rely on tipping revenue to supplement their income. This is the main argument against a tipping policy which has played out among cruisers almost since the first ocean liners set sail. It’s a fact of life that a high proportion of a ship’s crew are heavily dependent upon the kindness of travelers to boost their income. Whether you agree or not with it, tipping on a cruise is an important incentive in increasing and maintaining high service standards. So you should always think about if and when you should tip and when you don't have to do it.

People enjoying their cruise vacation clink glasses with their drinks
Tipping at your favorite bar can be a helpful tip to guarantee a good service quality during your cruise. | Author: Burst

Which cruise lines encourage tipping and which don't?

Technically, all cruise lines charge gratuities or service charges, but differ in how and when they are paid for. Gratuity guidelines fall into two main categories in this respect. By general rule of thumb, the big ship mainstream cruise lines charge it as an extra payment above and beyond the base cruise fare while luxury lines adopt an all-inclusive approach. 

The big three, including Carnival Cruise Line, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean expect guests to foot the bill and tips are added to their onboard account. MSC Cruises, Holland America Line, and Celebrity Cruises also do the same. Per day rates are similar, starting from about $12 up to $20 for guests in suites. Some lines even offer the option to pay gratuities in advance.

At the other end of the market, luxury lines keep it relatively simple. High-end operators Seabourn, Silversea, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, and Crystal Cruises have an all-inclusive pricing policy where most services are included in the fare, including cruise gratuities. Additional tipping is entirely discretionary. On many of the luxury lines, spa services are not included in the cruise fare and an additional service charge is payable.

While cruising, who do I have to tip?

Cruise lines’ gratuity guidelines are there for specific reasons – to keep it as simple as possible for guests and ensure fairness to all cruise ship workers. Cruise tipping is discretionary and there is the option to increase or reduce the amount based on your personal experience. The official amount varies between cruise lines. To recognize particularly outstanding service from a crew member whom you feel should be individually rewarded, a discretionary cash tip in addition to auto-tipping should suffice. 

A practice that many veteran cruisers swear by is to hand over a little cash to bartenders in a favorite bar on the first night. This ensures a preferential level of service throughout the cruise. He or she will spot your face in a crowd and miraculously remember just how you like your cocktail. Remember that non-cruise ship workers may also be worthy of a couple of your dollars for exemplary service but are obviously not covered by the cruise line’s auto-tipping. These include cruise terminal baggage porters and shore excursion guides. There are also people aboard your cruise who you should definitely NOT tip. These include the captain and officers who are already well compensated. A personal handwritten thank you note is a much more impactful way to show gratitude. If you are still unsure how much to tip whom, you can also orientate yourself on what other passengers pay for different services.

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What tipping structures are in place for cruises?

The days of handing out an envelope containing a few dollars to your favorite cruise ship worker are now pretty much consigned to history. It’s a tech-fixated world we live in now and automation has now reached the once quaint custom of rewarding stellar onboard service with a few dollars and a thank you. While the satisfaction of personally rewarding an individual is no longer the norm, cruise lines’ automatic cruise tipping policy is a convenient and hassle-free alternative. Most of the big ship cruise lines such as Carnival, Royal Caribbean and others automatically set the level of gratuities on a per person, per day basis to your onboard account and charge it to your credit card on file. 

Another option is to pre-pay gratuities at the time of booking or any time before the cruise departure. There are two benefits to doing this. Firstly it’s one less thing to worry about and helps you to better manage your vacation spending budget. Also, nearly all the cruise lines hike gratuities on an annual basis, so by paying upfront you could lock in the lower price even if your sailing date is after gratuity rates have risen. It is worth noting that cruise lines occasionally waive gratuities as an extra perk during promotional offers. 

Woman tipping a cruise crew member with her card
Today, tipping on a cruise is more stress-free, because everything runs automatically and with a credit card. | Author:

Average cost of gratuities per cruise line

Each line has different gratuity guidelines and slightly different policies regarding requests to adjust the amount. This can be done at any time during the sailing but may not be amended once you have disembarked. Automated billing is now ubiquitous in the cruise industry but cash tips to individual crew members are permitted. It is encouraged even on some luxury cruise lines that don’t bill gratuities separately, with recommended amounts posted on the respective websites.  

Cruise Line Tipping Required Tipping Structure Avg. Cost*
Carnival Cruise Line yes Automaticmatic & prepaid $12.95
Celebrity Cruises yes Automatic $14.50
Disney Cruise Line yes Automatic & prepaid $13.50
Holland America Line yes Automatic $14.50
MSC Cruises yes Automatic & prepaid $12.50**
Norwegian Cruise Line yes Automatic & prepaid $14.50
Princess Cruises yes Automatic $13.50
Royal Caribbean yes Automatic & prepaid $14.50
Oceania Cruises yes Automatic $16.00
Azamara Club Cruises no
Crystal Cruises no
Regent Seven Seas no
Silversea Cruises no
Seabourn no
*per day/per passenger **$6.25 per child

Show gratitude towards cruise staff in a personal way

Even with the prevalence of auto-tipping, each and every cruiser has the option to reward individual crew members who demonstrate great service above and beyond the call of duty. From cabin stewards who provide exceptional room service to food service staff both in the dining room or working behind the scenes - the entire cruise staff aims make cruising a fantastic experience for you. After all, the perfect cruise vacation involve a personal touch and exceptional service, which should motivate you to show your gratitude for a job well done. Automated gratuity policy is undoubtedly a fairer system to reward a larger pool of crew members, but it is also a good idea to stock up on small denomination dollar bills so you may show your gratitude in a more impactful way as well. 

Check out these articles for more information on the costs of cruising: