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Tips on Gratuities for Crews on Cruise Ships

Service: Who should be rewarded with an envelope at journey's end, and how much should be in it?


The upended Titanic, it turns out, is merely one example of trouble associated with tipping at sea.

Consider reader Phylicia Edmundson of San Pedro, who recently wrote me to complain about Carnival cruises, saying that she found the cruise line's "recommended" gratuities to workers were "highly expected, regardless of the service rendered." During her eight-member family's four-day, $3,000 July cruise aboard the Carnival ship Holiday off the Mexican coast, Edmundson writes, "the service rendered was not worth over $300 in tips, which is what it would have cost my family" had they followed the cruise line's recommendations.

Instead, Edmundson's family tipped closer to $200. And on the final morning of the cruise, after passengers had handed out tip envelopes, she reports that "the service was nonexistent; the staff became rude and obnoxious. . . . This was the same staff that was so hospitable the nights previous, before tips were given."

In response to Edmundson's complaint, Carnival offered a 10% discount to her on a future cruise. Company spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz said she didn't believe any service worker would deliberately give bad service, but noted that turnaround days--when one set of passengers exits and another set steps on, with a top-to-bottom ship cleaning in between--are "the most hectic and difficult days of the week." In any event, says de la Cruz, "nobody puts a gun to your head and forces you to tip."

Edmundson said she and her husband next time will look for a smaller ship with tips built into the overall cruise price. Unfortunately, the few ships with no-tipping policies are among the most costly on the seas.

Here's a sampling of cruise companies' tipping recommendations. It's worthwhile for passengers to keep in mind that most cruise ships sail under foreign flags, exempt from U.S. minimum wage laws, and so pay workers from developing countries wages far below $5 an hour. (Cruise industry officials point out that cruise ship jobs are well-paying by the standards of those developing countries.)

Carnival, the world's largest cruise line and one of the most affordable (rates sometimes fall below $100 per day on midweek cruises from San Pedro), recommends tips of $3.50 per person per day for both the cabin steward and waiter (up from $3 last year) and $2 per person per day to assistant waiters (up from $1.50). As on most cruise lines, gratuities to headwaiters, maitre d's and casino dealers are left to passengers' discretion.

Princess Cruises, which offers a pricier, more upscale product than Carnival, gives these guidelines for per-passenger, per-day tip amounts: $3 to stateroom stewards, $2 to butlers, $3 to waiters, $1.75 to assistant waiters. Like most other lines, Princess automatically adds 15% to all bar and wine checks.

Disney, whose Disney Magic debuted earlier this year, suggests $3.50 daily per passenger in tips to "stateroom hosts" (cabin stewards) and the same to dining room servers (waiters). Disney suggests $2.50 daily to assistant servers and--unlike other cruise lines, which make no specific suggestion--about 75 cents per day to the head server (maitre d').

On the two ships of ultra-luxurious and ultra-costly Crystal Cruises, the company this year bumped up its recommendations. For dining room waiters and stateroom stewardesses, the line's recommended gratuity per person per day rose from $3.50 to $4 ($5 to room stewardesses handling the rooms of single passengers). For assistant waiters, the figure rose from $2 to $2.50. Like Carnival and Princess, Crystal automatically adds a 15% gratuity to bar tabs, though the line tells passengers that "naturally, you always have the option to modify the amount." The line recommends a 15% tip for salon and spa services as well.

Now that many cruise lines offer casual restaurants as an alternative to assigned dinner seatings, passengers should keep in mind that those restaurant staffs should be tipped separately. On Princess ships, bistro diners are advised to tip $1 per person. On Crystal's ship, diners in the snazzier Kyoto and Prego restaurants are advised to tip $5 per diner per dinner.

Meanwhile, on the eight ships of the Seattle-based Holland America Line, passengers find the nearly opposite philosophy. Holland America's literature tells guests there is "no tipping required" and sets no guidelines. The company "would never, never make any recommendations about tipping amounts," says a spokeswoman, and it hasn't for at least 30 years.

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