Can $100 in Tips Transform Your Cruise Experience?


Tipping is a tricky subject, and one that comes with a lot of angst: Who should I tip on my cruise? How much should I tip? Will the crew hate me if I don’t tip – or will I be Queen of the World onboard if I do tip?

For years, I let the cruise lines handle my tipping anxiety for me. Beyond the automatic gratuities, which nearly all cruise lines these days add to your bill, I didn’t do much else, other than tip the porter when dropping off my larger bag at the terminal. Or I chose all-inclusive and expedition lines where gratuities are included in the fare.

For a recent sailing on Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Joy out of New York, however, I became nervous about sharing bartenders with 3,850 other passengers. And so I wondered: Would an extra $100 make my cruise 1,000 times better? Could I buy my way to better, more personalized service on a mass-market ship?

Here’s what I found.

Carrying Cash Made Me Feel More Generous

Like most people in this tap-your-card world, I rarely carry large amounts of cash with me. After withdrawing $200 from an ATM – all in $5 bills – my husband and I felt flusher than usual. We split up the money between us since we often visit different parts of cruise ships when we travel (usually because he’s relaxing while I work). We also had friends on our sailing who we told about our experiment.

At the Manhattan Cruise Terminal, we immediately tipped our porter $5 to handle our bags. He thanked us and assured us that they would get to our rooms quickly, even though such a promise is outside his duties (once the suitcases are loaded on the ship, the cruise ship employees take over; porters are usually outside contractors).

No matter. Once we were able to get to our cabin, I looked around for our steward. I wanted to tip him $20 in advance and request that we receive towel animals during our trip; Norwegian Cruise Line, as a rule, doesn’t do them. He was nowhere to be found.

My next stop was the concierge desk. We were having some issues with a WiFi credit, and wanted things sorted out before the ship set sail. The front desk clerk handled the problem efficiently, and so before I knew it, I took out some money and gave it to him. He seemed surprised, but thanked me.

This was a situation where I certainly didn’t need to tip. But because I had the money on me and I was happy the problem was solved so quickly. I did. This became a theme during the week: Because I was carrying cash, I was more apt to tip to recognize good or efficient service.

Cruise Tipping: It Helps to Be Targeted

Traditionally, tipping not only creates a bond between you and your server, it also carries an implicit promise: You will receive better service in the future from that individual because you’re tipping extra. It pays for both parties to be loyal, and come back to each other again and again.

And this is where my general onboard habits work against me: I try every bar when I cruise, as opposed to going to just one. Most of the time, the extra tips that I gave to my bar staff didn’t secure me better treatment, simply because I didn’t go back to the same venue.

The same issue came up with dining. Because we had a package to eat in four different restaurants, we were rarely in the same dining room with the same waitstaff more than once. It didn’t make sense to go beyond the automatic gratuity. We made an exception in Ocean Blue, the ship’s seafood restaurant, where we felt our server went above and beyond his regular duties by suggesting wine pairings and sending our dessert up to our room to eat later.

We did find some venues where tipping set up a relationship that benefited both parties. At the Vibe Beach Club, we found that we were able to find shaded palapas on Deck 20. The problem? The Vibe Beach Club bar is down on Deck 19. By tipping our servers regularly, we found that they were willing to go the extra mile to get us cold water, fruit and drink service every time we visited.

We also strategically targeted the bartenders at the popular Cavern Club bar, visiting during less-crowded times so we could establish a relationship. That came in handy during the Beatles shows – even when the venue was packed, we were still able to get drinks.

Tipping in one venue can also possibly pay off in another. The server in American Diner who rustled up our drinks at the counter moved to Spice H20 in the evening. She recognized us among the crowd that night, and we were able to be served faster.

Tipping Room Stewards: How Many Towel Animals Does $20 Buy?

My search for my room steward wasn’t successful until Day 2 of the cruise. Since the pandemic, stewards have taken on more cabins to service, and turndown only takes place once a day. We could tell our steward felt harried.

He brightened visibly when I handed him the $20. “Do you know how to make towel animals?” I asked. He said yes. That night, we found a cute towel doggie on our bed when we returned to the cabin. The second evening, we received a small bird, made from washcloths.

The whimsical creations stopped on Day 4, however, leading us to joke that the going rate per animal was $10. I didn’t press the issue, of course. Technically, NCL shies away from promising towel animals to guests to conserve energy – and if our steward felt that making them was against the rules, we didn’t want to get him in trouble. At the end of the cruise, we sought him out to give him another $20.

Tipping Extra on Cruises: We Still Paid the Automatic Gratuities

While we were intent on rewarding good service when we could, our tipping experiment was meant to give extra to the crew we encountered and spent time with – and not replace the automatic gratuities that came with our cabin.

For every crew member you see, there are many who are behind the scenes in support roles. The automatic gratuities in many cases go to these workers who are doing their best to make sure your cruise vacation is not only fun, but safe. Striking the automatic gratuities from the bill ignores these workers, even if you tip generously in person.

Bottom Line: Tipping Extra Doesn’t Radically Improve Your Cruise. But It Helps

So did that $100 that my husband and I each handed out to different crew during our day make our cruise 1,000 times better?

Not significantly – and the fact that it didn’t is a testimony to the general high quality of service that you get on a cruise overall. While nothing is perfect, particularly when you’re on a mega cruise ship with thousands of people, you don’t need to throw around $5, $10 or $20 bills to have service that is at least as good as you’d find at most mainstream venues.

I did find the experience made me more interested and eager to connect with the crew. With a specific amount set aside to spend on crew members who went above and beyond, I found myself looking for more ways to interact and develop relationships with my cabin steward, and with the staff in the restaurants and bars.

I left the ship feeling good about tipping, instead of anxious – and I’ll probably make extra cash tips part of my default cruise experience going forward.


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