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11 Polite Habits Cruise Workers Actually Dislike—and What to Do Instead

Updated: Mar. 08, 2024

Your intentions may be good, but these “kind gestures” on cruises aren’t as kind as you think they are

view of a cruise deck with many guests outside
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Onboard etiquette

At hotels and all-inclusive resorts, workers come and go over the course of your stay. That’s not the case on cruises, where cruise ship employees will be sailing with you throughout the entire voyage. Because of that, you get to know your stateroom attendant, preferred bartender and favorite performer in a different way, and you might want to go out of your way to be friendly and polite to them. But while your motivations may be good, the etiquette rules at sea aren’t necessarily the same as the ones on land.

Some habits you think are polite don’t go over quite the way you’d expect. They may even affect cruise worker’s pay rate and the opportunity for them to be offered a future contract, according to Alissa M., a performer who’s worked on some of the world’s top cruise lines, including Holland America, Princess and Norwegian. And other seemingly kind gestures may actually be awkward or get in the way of an employee doing his or her job.

So, what do you need to know before you embark on an adults-only cruise, singles cruise or family cruise? We got the inside scoop from cruise ship directors, chefs, servers, entertainers, stateroom attendants and other employees to find out the missteps they wish you’d avoid—and what you should do instead. These cruise tips will make sure it’s smooth sailing for everyone, every time.

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top view of a fancy dinner on a cruise ship

Raving about your special-request dinner

It’s wonderful when you have such a delicious meal that you want to compliment the chef and tell everyone at your dinner table about it. However, when the item in question is a special request—especially one that required advance notice for preparation—the chef won’t be able to replicate it right away, which may upset other guests who want it.

“The problem is not when they share it but when everyone loves the dish and then wants it now. A special request cannot be mass-produced,” explains one chef on a small luxury cruise line who prefers to remain anonymous. “The other concern is that many people in the kitchen are now making dozens of special requests, and they’re being pulled away from preparing dishes from the regular menu.”

Do this instead: Tell your dinner mates that your special-request dish was excellent after they’re finished with their meals. That way, you’ve complimented the chef, but you’ve also given him and other chefs in the galley ample time to recreate the dish for more passengers. Here are the other polite habits restaurant staffers secretly dislike.

Keeping The Blues Alive At Sea 2019 - Joanne Shaw Taylor
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Sharing positive feedback about entertainers to the cruise director or guest services

Guests may think they’re doing entertainers a favor when they compliment their performances to other employees on the ship, but that message isn’t going to the right people. “A lot of people assume that the cruise director is the ‘boss’ of the entertainers, but rarely are they the ones making hiring decisions,” explains Alissa. “Because my agent and corporate personnel are shoreside, they don’t see what happens onboard.”

Do this instead: Complete the surveys at the end of your cruise, and turn them in or submit them online. “The official feedback surveys are the only way positive messages get back to the decision makers who actually decide my bookings, pay rate and more,” Alissa explains. “If a worker really stands out to you on your cruise in any department, please mention them by name in the guest post-cruise survey. Telling the cruise director or guest services will do very little to benefit that employee who went above and beyond.”

Cruise North Passengers Board Ship, Lyubov Orlova From Shore Excursion By Zodiac, Northwest Passage.
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Helping to bring in the boat after an excursion or expedition

It takes a lot of effort to get that Zodiac or tender boat back to where it needs to be after an excursion, and if you can help, why wouldn’t you? Well, because it’s not actually as helpful as you think it is. “Some guests grab the poles to ‘help’ when they are approaching the platform and returning to the ship, but this causes the boat to jerk, or the boat must pull away again from the ship because they have unsteadied it,” explains one expedition team leader on a small ship about this etiquette mistake. “Guests can also injure themselves by pulling too hard and straining a muscle, or they can hurt their hands and fingers.”

Another problem? Sometimes people stand up in the boat, which causes a danger to the group, since the driver can’t see properly.

Do this instead: Stay seated in the boat, and hold on tightly to the ropes until the boat is secured by the expedition team and crew on the ship. The team will tell you when it’s safe to get up and how to leave the boat. Leave the navigation to the experts to keep you and everyone else safe.

Woman holding a beautiful glass of pink wine
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Offering to buy an entertainer a drink during the show

If you’re enjoying the performances of a singer, dancer or piano player on your ship, you might want to buy them a drink to say thank you during the show. However, that’s not the best way to express your gratitude. Plus, it might not even be allowed. “I worked for some cruise lines where our contracts explicitly stated we could not have alcohol onstage or drink close to showtime,” explains Alissa. “In some instances, this is a fireable offense.” Plus, it can be awkward. “We don’t want to be rude,” she adds, “but we also cannot break our contract rules.”

Beyond that, beverages are expensive for cruise-ship guests—but workers can buy their drinks at cost. “I feel bad accepting a $17 to $20 drink from a guest that would cost me $1.25 in the crew bar,” Alissa explains.

Do this instead: Show your appreciation for a worker by tipping them or purchasing a piece of merchandise. And remember: While you’re on vacation, they’re working, and there are certain lines you shouldn’t cross. The same is true for other public-facing jobs, including flight attendants and hotel workers.


Asking personal questions to be friendly

It’s easy to get cozy with cruise ship employees. After all, you’re all at sea together for an extended period of time, and it’s their job to make sure you’re happy and comfortable. Since they’re seeing you with your family or hearing about your adventures, it seems rude not to reciprocate and ask them about themselves. While that’s certainly true to a degree, the problem comes when you forget that this is a professional relationship, not a friendship.

“Guests ask very personal questions,” says Steve M.*, who’s been a cruise director for more than 15 years. “I am an open book, and I always say, ‘If you are ready for the answer, I will tell you the truth.’ Then you tell the truth and they either take offense or try to change you.” Think: relationships (like, why they aren’t married or chose not to have kids), religion and politics. Just like at the Thanksgiving dinner table, these conversations can get uncomfortable quickly.

Do this instead: Say hello and definitely be cordial, but limit your conversations to casual small talk. And before posing any personal questions, ask yourself this: How would you feel if the tables were turned—especially if you were being asked these questions at work?

*Steve M. is a pseudonym.

Interior of the bedroom on a cruise ship
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Going to your stateroom as soon as you board the ship

While you might think it’s polite to get out of the way of other passengers during the boarding process by heading straight to your cabin, you’ll actually be in the way of employees if your stateroom isn’t ready. Sometimes, especially on smaller vessels, guests are permitted to board the ship before the rooms have been completely turned over and refreshed from the prior passengers.

“If you arrive at your room too early, it slows down the process,” says Steve. “Plus, the crew then must be polite and become engaged with guests, which is not helpful.” And let’s not forget about your luggage, which takes a while to actually get to your room and won’t be there when you are!

Do this instead: If you board early, wait until the ship’s personnel announce when the staterooms are ready. (Or board later for less of an issue—and to skip the boarding rush.) While you wait, have lunch at the buffet restaurant, check out the cruise ship’s hidden features or chill out by the pool. Just remember to pack your bathing suit in your carry-on so you have access to it right away!

dirty dishes at restaurant table
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Stacking plates for your server

It seems like stacking the plates would make it easier for your server to pick up dirty dishes, but this can actually cause all sorts of problems. “It really messes up removing the plates, especially if the standard in the restaurant is not to stack plates but take them away one or two at a time,” explains one restaurant employee with a small cruise line. “And it actually makes it more difficult to clear and wash the plates for the dishwashers.”

The latter is especially true when the passengers haven’t eaten everything on their plates. This causes an uneven stack, which makes it difficult for the server to carry the stack back to the dishwasher … who also has to deal with a huge mess, since the bottoms of the plates are now covered in goop from the plates above them.

Do this instead: Let the servers do their jobs, whether you’re on a small cruise, a big Disney cruise or anything in between. They have been trained in the ship’s preferred plate-removal method, and they’ll get those items to the back in the most efficient, least messy way possible.

Man Leaves Tip on Credit Card Receipt
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Tipping your server on the restaurant check

If you’re dining at a specialty restaurant and you’ve had excellent service, you’ll want to leave a tip. But here’s what you probably don’t realize: “Passengers may think they are generously tipping a crew member by writing in a tip on the receipt, but it sadly doesn’t go to that crew member,” says one server with a large cruise line. “My understanding is that it goes into the ship’s account, and that’s how the ship pays for the ‘gratuities paid for’ incentives you see when you book your trip. It’s kind of distributed between all the crew … and maybe not even that.”

Do this instead: “It is way better to tip a crew member directly with cash,” she says. “That way, you are sure that member got the tip you think they deserved—and that you really wanted them to have. [But] the crew are not allowed to tell passengers that.”

Larkin Poe Portrait & Live Shoot, Keeping The Blues Alive at Sea, 2019
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Complimenting an entertainer’s looks or appearance

Sure, compliments can be lovely, but they can also be super awkward when they’re from someone you barely know. “A big thing that bothers me is when passengers comment on my looks or my body, thinking it’s polite and a compliment,” explains Madeline D., a production singer on some of the larger cruise ships. “One time I had a guest, who was a repeat cruiser, tell me I looked like I lost weight.”

There are many things wrong with a statement like that, starting with the fact that it’s an assumption and an inherent judgment, not to mention a backhanded compliment. It also implies that the guest is staring at her body and looking at it in an inappropriate way. Depending on the situation, it could also border on flirting, which crosses a line too.

Do this instead: Save comments about appearances for friends and family—and honestly, maybe not even that, since this one ranks high among the polite habits that most people actually dislike. If you want to say something nice to a performer on the ship, tell them you enjoyed their performance that evening.

top view of female hands playing piano
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Telling the piano player how much you’re enjoying the song

Cruise directors are also singers and entertainers, so they’re interacting with passengers in those roles as well while on board. According to Steve, some passengers love a performance so much that they want to tell the performer right away—even in the middle of said performance. “Guests will come to talk to you in the middle of a song to tell you how much they are enjoying your music, but then it’s sometimes difficult to remember where you were, and you can lose the song,” he says. “While it’s nice that people appreciate your talent, there are other ways of showing it.”

Do this instead: Wait until the performance is over so you don’t accidentally trip up the performer. You’ll enjoy the song more this way, anyway—and so will your fellow cruisers!

Asian female reception answer the telephone at the hotel lobby.
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Not letting the crew know when there’s a problem

You may not want to bother employees or say anything negative while on your cruise, but this is a mistake. The crew is there to make sure you have an incredible experience, and they really want to help you make the most of it. Plus, your unhappiness will eventually seep out. “Guests will say they love everything while on board, and then in their survey, they’ll nitpick about very small things, and by the end of the review, they are unhappy,” says Steve.

Do this instead: If you’re not happy about something, let guest services know as soon as possible. And if you’re not happy with your meal, let the maître d’ know so they can bring you something more satisfactory. Remember: The ship’s staff and crew can’t fix something that they don’t know is wrong; let them know what’s going on, give them a chance to make it right and turn this into the best cruise you’ve ever taken. As mentioned earlier, the guest surveys are taken seriously—and used to determine staffing and pay rates—so it truly doesn’t help anyone when you’re complaining after the fact.