Cruise Ship Tipping Practices

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Much ado came afoot recently when Royal Caribbean protested on the disinclination of British passengers to offer a gratuity at the end of a cruise. The situation escalated when Royal Caribbean officially notified a British cruise conference that "the line may need to rethink their strategy." Stiff upper lips trembled.

One Scotsman, upon hearing he was expected to tip at the end of a cruise, said he would refuse to leave the ship. Another was heard to say "I'd paddle my rowboat behind a Royal Caribbean cruise ship for a week and save £1000!" His friend replied, "Why don't you row behind the Queen Mary and saved £2,000?"

Seriously, Royal Caribbean is building its brand admirably with Britain and the European nations. Last week CEO Richard Fain predicted the majority of the line's profits will come from non-U.S. passengers within two years time. That is great news for the company in the face of a weakening dollar, but there is just one drawback - that tipping thing.

Americans tip generously - and while that is a good thing, it has created a dependence on the part of Royal Caribbean, and other cruise lines, for a major part of the line's compensation to several crewmember positions onboard.

According to the worldwide tipping guide at Magellan's Travel Source, Americans are arguably the best tippers in the world, to the point where it is very rare for any business to feel the need to include a mandatory service charge on any bill. That is different from the rest of the world where restaurants especially never trust the guest to dig deeper, so they include a service charge on most bills. In Europe a 15% service charge on almost any restaurant bill is de rigueur.

While 15% is a pretty standard service charge in Europe, left to their devices most Europeans will tip less. The Magellan guide says that if a service charge is not included in the bill then the average Brit will leave only 10%. The French and most Western Europeans are likely to leave only 5%.

The Americans are outdone by only one place - the "city-nation" of Macao, the Asian version of Las Vegas, where it is normal to tip 10% in addition to the service charge on the bill. But the point is that mandatory service charges are common outside of America.

Carnival Corp and its subsidiary cruise lines, plus NCL and other lines have mostly moved to automatically charging tips to the guests' shipboard accounts. This is better than the old system which, frankly, never made any sense. The old system required bringing enough cash to fill the tip envelopes at the end of the cruise, or to procure the cash onboard the ship (at sea) somehow. The ATMs that some ships now have onboard charge an outrageous $5 service fee. Most casinos charge a 3% service charge to get cash from your shipboard account. Then one had to personally stuff the envelopes and hand them out to each of the service people (who then pooled them and redistributed them anyway).

I suppose some guests find this process satisfying, but I find it about as pleasurable as paying taxes.

Royal Caribbean still does not add gratuities to guests' onboard accounts unless the guest specifically asks for it to be done. That requires the passengers' authorization; filling in a form and handing it in to the purser's desk in the middle of the cruise, when end-of-cruise tipping should be the last thing on his mind. If the passenger asks too late (well before the last day of the cruise when the tips are actually paid) he is told he must to go the "cash route" to fill those envelopes. The guests who do opt to include the tips on their shipboard account are still given verification slips to put into envelopes and hand to the servers.

But if Royal Caribbean perceives a problem in England, the worst tippers anywhere are the Australians; it just isn't in their culture. The main cruise line in the Australian market, P & O Cruises (a part of the Princess family, owned by Carnival Corp. ultimately), has a tipping policy similar to Carnival - the tips are put onto the shipboard account.

NCL has turned their tipping policy into a service charge - $12 per person per day added to your shipboard account automatically on all of their ships, no quibbling allowed.

Most cruisers I know tip as expected or more on every cruise they take. I have never failed to tip, even on Holland America back in the days when the line was "tipping optional." The transformation of Holland America from a "tips are optional" cruise line to "tips are expected" was somewhat amusing. In the early 1990s the stated policy in brochures was that tipping is not required on HAL ships, but when you got onboard the service staff was marched out in the main theater and in the dining room on the last day of the cruise, and guests were informed that even though tipping was not required, everyone would be getting envelopes in their cabins for the filling with cash and handing to the service people "just in case you felt like it." The cruise director would always say, "Holland America has always had a tradition of not requiring you to tip the staff, but if you just happen to think one of YOUR people did an outstanding job for you and you feel you want to give that special person a little something, well we certainly won't stand in your way - and we've made that easier for you (by providing envelopes)."

It never took more than one Holland America cruise for every passenger to get the idea that tipping was pretty much the same on Holland America as on every other line, and rightly so. About 2004 Holland ended the "tipping is optional" policy and they made it a "tipping is expected" policy.

Now - there are cruise lines that say "no tipping required or expected." The luxury lines generally fall into this category. On the other end of the spectrum are the expedition ships where they "suggest" tips as high as 10% to 20% of the cost of the cruise! That can easily come to $500 per passenger.

Bottom line - the staff has to get paid. It isn't paying gratuities I object to, it is the old gratuity system that needs to go away. In the "cashless" cruise ship system, asking passengers to cough up cash at the end of a cruise has never made sense. And in Europe, where cruising is just catching on, but tipping has never caught on, if many passengers don't tip it is because the cruise line gives them so many reasons to opt out. We say, "do yourself and the guests a favor and make the tipping process as seamless and invisible as possible."

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