Cruise tipping -- which sounds a lot like cow tipping but is a completely different animal -- is one of those things people used to really worry about. Were they doing it right? What was the protocol? Might they inadvertently be offending someone? Might they be doing it wrong? It was every traveler's chance to experience classic Jewish and Irish guilt, no matter their ethnic heritage.

Then, as the millennium ushered in the age of the debit card and automated payments, a lot of cruise lines started taking the guesswork out of tipping and just charged everyone a "service fee." Why didn't they just raise their rates by the same amount and say tipping is included? Same reason they don't raise their rates and say booze is included: because then Joe Wal-Mart wouldn't book. A low rate always looks better, and service charges and other extras are best buried in the fine print.

Why We Tip in the First Place

The reason cruise passengers pay tips at all is simple: Cruise lines are cheap. Hey, it's true! Like most restaurants, most cruise lines pay their service staffs (waiters, assistant waiters, cabin stewards, etc.) low base wages with the understanding that the bulk of their income will come from tips. Whoever first thought of this system was a genius -- at least from the cruise lines' points of view.

How We Used to Tip

Back in the old, analog 20th century, tipping was an elaborately staged dance between the cruise guest and the staff, with the cruise line standing down in the orchestra pit to provide direction. It went like this: As the end of the cruise approached, passengers would begin to say to each other at dinner, "Our waiter has been so great. How much are you going to tip him?" Some figures would be thrown around, but nothing really settled. Then, the next day, you'd notice in the daily program a little box with "Suggested Tipping Amounts" for different service staff. That seemed good. It solved your problem. And look, Shazam! Little white envelopes would be left in your stateroom, specifically designed to be filled with cash and carried around in your tux pocket or handbag on the last night of the cruise. By then you'd be in a pretty good mood, and you'd think, "Our waiter really was very good. So funny. So gracious. I'll give him a few extra bucks on top of the suggested amount."

Dinner time would come, and it would be lovely, and sometimes toward the end (though not so late that you might have left already), your waiter, assistant waiter, and sometimes the maitre d' would appear at your table to formally say good-bye. Handshakes and bows would follow, then guests would gingerly begin to reach into their pockets for those envelopes. "Sir, thank you," your waiter would say, adding just the slightest hint of surprise to his delivery, as if to say, "You shouldn't have." Ditto for the assistant waiter.

Cabin stewards were a different matter. With them, you just left a little white envelope in your cabin as you left, but that was OK. You'd hardly seen your cabin steward anyway. They just appeared at some point when you weren't looking, and made up your room. They were secret agents. Giving them a tip on the sly was just another part of the dance.

There's a lot about that system that I really miss.

How We Tip Today

While some cruise lines maintain the old traditions, most have now gone to a system where a standard gratuity (often called a service charge) is added to each passenger's onboard account, with the amount divvied up between service staff later based on some complex alchemical formula. The proliferation of alternate dining options on today's ships (meaning passengers will often have a different wait staff every night of their cruise) was one reason cruise lines moved to this model.

Some lines give you the option of going traditional or adding a service charge to your account. On some small-ship lines, guests just add a big tip to a general fund, which is then divvied up among the crew post-cruise.

Gratuity amounts are adjustable up or down if you make a specific request at the purserÂ?s desk before the end of the cruise.

The real ultra-luxury lines include tips in the cruise rates.

Tipping Rates & Practices

Among lines that don't add an automatic charge, suggested tipping amounts vary slightly with the line and its degree of luxury, from about $10 to $17 total per passenger, per day. 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 generally up their steward tip to about $6. If those suites also offer butler service, plan on another $4 per day for that privilege.

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 just before debarkation.

Bar bills typically include a 15% gratuity for the bartenders and wine stewards.

In the spa, your bill may or may not include a gratuity (some lines do and some don't) so I always make a point of asking if one had been added. If one has not, and you were happy with your treatment, you can add one to your bill. Most lines suggest you tip 15%-18% of your total.

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.

Here's a breakdown of tipping policies and rates at the principal mainstream, luxury, and small-ship lines operating in and around the U.S. today:

Cruise Line/Method and Amount per day

American Cruise Line
Traditional: $17.85 suggested (all passengers).

Automatic: $12.25; a rate of $16.25 is charged to guests in Penthouse, Royal, and Sky suites, to cover a tip for special butler service.

Automatic: $10 (all guests).

Automatic: $11.50 for guests in standard staterooms; $12 for guests in Concierge Class and AquaClass staterooms; $15 for guests in suites.

Automatic: in the Caribbean, $11 for cruises up to 7 nights, $7.50 for longer cruises (adults); guests under 18 pay $7.50 for cruises up to 7 nights and $3.75 for longer cruises. In Europe, €6 for cruises up to 8 nights, €4.5 for longer cruises (adults); guests 14-17 half those rates, and kids under 14 are not charged.

Cruise West
Traditional: at your discretion.

Traditional: $13 suggested for guests in most staterooms; $17 suggested for guests in butler-serviced Penthouse Deck accommodations.

Automatic: $11; $13 for guests in Grill-class accommodations.

Traditional: $12 suggested (all guests).

Holland America
Automatic: $11.

Lindblad Expeditions
Traditional: $15-$20 suggested (all guests).

MSC Cruises
Automatic: In the Caribbean, $12 (all adult guests). On Mediterranean and Northern Europe sailings, €6 (all adult guests). On South America sailings, $6 (all adult guests). Tip amounts for children are 50% of the adult rate.

Automatic: $12 (all guests over age 3).

Automatic: $12.50 (all guests).

Automatic: $10.50 for guests in standard staterooms, $11 for guests in suites and mini-suites.

Regent Seven Seas
Included in fare.

Royal Caribbean
Traditional: $9.75 suggested for guests in standard staterooms, $12 for guests in suites.

Included in fare.

Included in fare.

Included in fare.

Star Clippers
Traditional: at your discretion.

Automatic: $12 (all guests).

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