These questions are coming not just from first time cruisers but also from repeaters. And like so many things in life, there aren't a lot of firm "yes" or "no" answers.
Let's take the very word itself: TIP. In times gone by (way by), the word was short for "to insure promptness." Service personnel were given money in advance to make sure they did what they were supposed to, and did it quickly. I wasn't around when it changed (I can hear the laughter), but at some point, the whole process changed so that tips are now generally given after the service has been rendered. Instead of insuring that something will be done quickly; it now rewards someone for what they have done.
There are still some people out there who tip up front. If it's a decent tip, I'll bet they really get excellent service. There are also some big spenders who will take a large denomination bill and give half of it to someone in advance, promising the second half when things are done. But these folks are in the minority.
The tipping issue is pretty simple on cruises that have a "tipping included" or "no tipping required" policy. By definition, tips on those ships are already covered in the cruise fare, or really not necessary. But if someone has performed service over and above the norm, it's neither unsightly nor unusual for additional gratuities to be offered. Some lines used to have a strict rule that personnel could not accept tips, but this policy has become blurred; I haven't had a tip rejected in recent years.
But for most lines, including all the premium and contemporary lines, here are some general thoughts. It used to be the norm for cruise lines to provide envelopes you could to use to dispense tips. This led to a mad dash on the last day of the cruise to get a whole bunch of bills and divvy them up into the envelopes, based on suggested guidelines, and then scurry about to hand them out. Some lines printed the service personnel's title on the envelope. What an awful way to end a cruise; it takes a lot of time and effort on the passenger's part, and seems quite petty to most people.
So most cruise lines now offer tipping options. On some lines, tips are figured out in advance and put right onto your on-board account. On other lines, you're given the option during the cruise of signing a form that allows the line to put the tips on your bill. Either method is a lot simpler than the old mad-dash way. As to the bigger issue of whether you have any say in the actual tip amounts, the answer is yes. Look through the brochures for the lines: All those that plan to bill you in advance state clearly that you have the right to make changes once you're on board. You can raise or lower them as you see fit. As for getting a form on board, if there's no option as to the amount, don't sign it: Give what you want.
Stateroom tips are figured on a per-person basis. If there's only one person, there's no need for that person to tip as much as two people in a cabin would, unless some extraordinary service has been provided. However, if there are four to a room (especially if kids are involved), the room will require extra housekeeping, and a larger tip is fair.
Most lines that do not include tipping automatically add 15% (some are up to 18% -- now that's annoying) to bar bills, wine orders and spa charges. The bar add-on is fair – 15% is the basic tip shoreside -- but again, you can always change the amount if it's critical. A pet bugaboo for those who drink expensive wines is having to tip more for essentially the same uncorking and pouring service as they would less expensive wines. I would remind those people that they can change the amount. But if the sommelier decants the wine or provides better glasses, a bigger tip is warranted. For spa personnel, the same logic applies: If the service is essentially the same and it's the treatment itself that is more expensive, why should you have to tip more? Tip what you feel is appropriate.
Deck personnel usually work their tails off scurrying about trying to help. If they assist you with deck chairs and towels and free beverages, giving them a small amount is a very nice way of saying thanks. With deck bar personnel, when the tip is added to the price of the drink, it's not as critical.
As for alternative restaurants, some have a surcharge and some don't. Usually, the surcharge includes the tip, but you can always ask. If there's no surcharge, tips are sometimes pooled, so the serving staff shares all dining tips. It's OK to ask the restaurant manager or maitre d' what the policy is, and then guide yourself accordingly. Personally, I do not cut back on main dining room tips based on how many nights I eat elsewhere. I just do not think it's fair to be so precise in terms of tipping. As for dining room management, headwaiters and such, it's perfectly appropriate to tip them if you've received special treatment or extra care. It's also appropriate not to tip a table captain if his only service is to introduce himself the first night and come around the last night with his hand out.
Overall, the amount you tip is entirely up to you. If you take a step back and realize the normally exceptional levels of service you get on board, tipping is a fair way to show that you appreciate how your vacation has benefited from that treatment. The total amount you give isn't really that much, and the folks on board, virtually without exception, work really hard for it. A little bit extra actually will make you feel good and show them you are happy.
Whatever you do, don't try to tip the ship's captain. That's a huge no-no.
If you have any specific questions or comments about on-board tipping, e-mail . We'll print some of them so you can see how your fellow travelers feel on the subject.