After regularly reading reviews complaining about gratuity fees for the past three years, it’s become painfully clear to us that not many cruisers understand how tipping on cruise ships actually works.
This confusing system is source of irritation for cruisers, the staff, and the lines themselves, so we argue that cruise gratuities should be incorporated into the cruise fare and paid upfront. Here’s why:
1. Unexpected Charges = Bad Reviews
Feeling cheated does not inspire you to leave a good review. - Photo by Shutterstock
On virtually all mainstream cruise lines, the gratuities that passengers pay (usually around $12 per person, per night) are the service staff’s primary compensation. It’s similar to dining out in a restaurant in the US: your server is paid less than minimum wage and the gratuity or “tip” you leave at the end of the meal makes up the bulk of their pay.
Of course, plenty of cruisers (even experienced ones) don’t fully understand this. We see many reviews where the gratuities are called “hidden fees” or a cash grab by the lines "to subsidize labor costs", and to be fair, if you didn’t do your research before the cruise and weren’t expecting the charge, it can probably seem that way. Since receiving the bill is one of the last things passengers experience on their voyage, the unexpected charges can tarnish the memory of perfectly good cruise and lead them to take out their frustrations in online reviews — notice that those reviews had scores of 2 and 3 stars. Including tips in the cruise fare would alleviate the confusion over how tips work, meaning passengers come away happier and more likely to write positive reviews.
2. It’s better for the crew.
Included gratuities would ensure the crew is compensated. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
Though the specifics vary by line, cruise gratuities are generally divided among your cabin steward, the dining room staff, and alternate dining staff (like the buffet). On foreign flag cruise ships, these staff are from other countries, spend about 9 months on the ship at a time, typically work 10 to 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and send money to support family back at home. They work hard to make sure your vacation is enjoyable and memorable.
Despite this, we often hear of guests lining up at guest services to remove gratuities at the end of the cruise, like this report from Doug Parker at Cruise Radio and this Facebook post from Carnival’s senior Cruise Director John Heald. To be sure, some cruisers remove the gratuity and then follow up by tipping the service staff they interacted with in cash, but we honestly question how many of those cruisers actually tip the full, recommended daily amount in cash.
As cruisers, we may never know the exact percentage of passengers that remove the automatic gratuity, though the cruise lines certainly do. By incorporating the gratuity into the cruise fare, each crew member can work hard and offer their best service while being assured that they’ll receive full compensation for their efforts, leading to higher employee morale and even better service.
3. Luxury lines include gratuities with no negative impact to service.
Luxury lines already include tips in the fare. - Photo by Seabourn
We often hear arguments that if crew members don’t have to “earn” their gratuities by providing good service each and every time, the overall level of service on the ships will go down. Frankly, this is hogwash. All the luxury cruise lines (and upper premium line Azamara Club Cruises) include gratuities in their cruise fare, and all these lines are known for a superior level of service. If the cruise lines hire the right crew, provide fair compensation and offer proper training, there’s no need to hold a carrot in front of the crew to motivate good service.
4. It’s electronic and automatic.
Tips used to be passed directly from the passenger to the crew member. - Photo by Norwegian Cruise Line
In the “olden days” of cruising (prior to 2005 or so), cruise passengers would receive a set of an envelopes and a list of the service staff that should receive gratuities and the suggested daily amount for each staff member, like this list from Royal Caribbean in the 1980s we found on eBay. Cruisers would stuff each envelope with the appropriate amount of cash and present it to the crew member on the last day of the cruise to offer their gratitude for the service received.
In the last 10 years or so, the major cruise lines have transitioned to charging the recommended gratuity amount to the passenger’s onboard account each day. Passengers still have the option of adjusting the amount up and down (or removing it entirely), except on Norwegian Cruise Line, where the daily “Service Charge” cannot be adjusted onboard and can only be “rebated back” by writing to guest relations after the cruise.
While the move to electronic (and in Norwegian’s case, required) collection of the daily gratuity does offer some convenience, the personal touch of presenting an envelope to a crew member as an offering of thanks has all but disappeared, making the transaction impersonal and utilitarian. It makes sense that these costs be included in the cruise fare.