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Tipping is one of those strange little necessities of life that, in an ideal world, wouldn't be necessities at all: People would simply get paid a living wage for their work, and that'd be that.

But in some businesses -- for instance, the cruise business -- that's just not the case.

At the majority of cruise lines, service workers (waiters, assistant waiters, cabin stewards, etc.) earn extremely low base wages, with the understanding that the bulk of their income will come from tips -- a necessity of life for them, but a hidden or at least sub-rosa cost for you.

To be fair, the cruise lines do publish their tipping policies on their websites and in their brochures, but you often really have to want to find the info to track it down. Later, once you and your credit cards are safely on board, the lines aren't shy about telling you how and how much to tip, usually in a notice in the daily schedule toward the end of your trip.

The traditional way of tipping -- the way followed on ships for decades, to the point where it became codified as a standard practice -- was for passengers to simply hand their waiter, assistant waiter, and cabin steward cash on the last night of the cruise, usually in little white envelopes helpfully provided by the cruise lines. Over the past several years, though, many lines have gone to a system of automatic gratuities (sometimes called a "service charge") whereby a predetermined amount -- generally between $8.50 and $12 per person, per day, with the amount adjustable up or down if you request it at the purser's desk before the end of the cruise -- is automatically added to each passenger's onboard account, then distributed to the appropriate service workers later.

So that $800 cruise you booked? It's actually going to cost you $100 more. Don't fret about it, though, because if the tipping system wasn't in effect, the lines would all just jack up their prices $100 anyway, to compensate. At least this way, you get the fun of pretending to be altruistic.

The Nitty Gritty of Onboard Tipping

Among lines that don't add an automatic charge, suggested tipping amounts vary slightly with the line and its degree of luxury, from about $8 to $14 total per passenger, per day, and half that for children. As a rule of thumb, each passenger (not each couple) should expect to tip at least $3.50 per day for his or her cabin steward, $3.50 for the dining room waiter, about $2 for the assistant waiter, and sometimes 75¢ for the headwaiter. Guests staying in suites with butler service should also send $3.50 per day his way. Some lines suggest you tip the maitre d' about $5 per person for the week and slip another couple bucks to the chief housekeeper, but it's your choice. If you've never even met these people, don't bother.

On lines that follow traditional person-to-person gratuity policies, tip your waiter and assistant waiter during the cruise's final dinner, and leave your cabin steward his or her tip on the final night or the next morning, just before you disembark.

A 15% gratuity is usually included on every bar bill to cover gratuities to bartenders and wine stewards, so you don't have to add an additional tip unless you're feeling particularly hearty.

In the spa, your bill usually does not include a gratuity, but in some cases they are added directly automatically. Our rule of thumb: Always ask if a tip has been added. If one has not, and you were happy with your treatment, you can add one to your bill at the usual rate (15% average, and up or down depending on your mood).

The captain and other professional officers do not get tips, as they're well-compensated professionals.

In port, shore excursion tour guides and drivers are usually tipped a few dollars, if they've done a good job.

Among lines that deal with tipping in the traditional fashion, some give you the option of adding the gratuities to your onboard account rather than paying them directly, in cash. Some small-ship lines will pool the tips and divide them equitably among all crew after you've departed.

The ultra-luxury lines -- Silversea, Seabourn, SeaDream, and Regent -- really do include tips in their cruise rates.

Here's a breakdown of the mainstream, luxury, and small-ship lines operating in and around the U.S. today, detailing which tipping method (traditional or automatic) each line uses, and their suggested or automatic amounts:

  • American Cruise Line: Traditional, $15.50 suggested
  • Azamara: Automatic, $12.25
  • Carnival: Automatic, $10
  • Celebrity: Traditional, $10 suggested
  • Costa: Automatic, $10
  • Cruise West: Traditional, at your discretion
  • Crystal: Traditional, $13 suggested
  • Cunard: Automatic, $11 ($13 for suites)
  • Disney: Traditional, $11 suggested
  • Holland America: Automatic, $10
  • Imperial Majesty: Automatic, $10
  • Lindblad Expeditions: Traditional, at your discretion
  • Majestic America: Traditional, $15 suggested
  • MSC Cruises: Automatic, $12
  • NCL: Automatic, $10
  • Oceania: Automatic, $12
  • Princess: Automatic, $10
  • Regent Seven Seas: Included in fare
  • Royal Caribbean: Traditional, $10 suggested
  • Seabourn: Included in fare
  • SeaDream: Included in fare
  • Silversea: Included in fare
  • Star Clippers: Traditional, at your discretion
  • Windstar: Automatic, $11

Higher suggested gratuities sometimes apply to guests booked in suites.

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