Cruise Gratuities – What Are They & How Do They Work?

October 24, 2019  |  Share:

If there is one subject that has caused the cruise world most angst and recrimination in recent years, it is the G-word (or the T-word, if you prefer ‘tips’ to ‘gratuities’).

This thorny issue rears its head periodically as it does the rounds on social media, and, occasionally, in the national press.

At face value it’s a fair concern. After all, a hotel doesn’t pre-charge guests for tipping the restaurant and housekeeping staff, so why should a cruise ship, which is often mistaken for a ‘floating hotel,’ do things differently?

(It is worth noting here, that many hotels and resorts, especially the more upmarket ones, increasingly impose an invidious and non-negotiable ‘resort fee’ these days, which can be up to $40 a day, and this is MUCH harder to justify. But that’s just by the by)

The key point of the argument is, of course, that a ship is not just a floating hotel. It performs WAY more functions than any resort you care to mention and, unless you dine at the same hotel restaurant every day at the same time, you are unlikely to establish any rapport with the wait staff. Or the housekeepers, come to that.

Just to start with, your ship is the key to exploring different parts of the world, efficiently and far more cost-effectively than you can do on land. It provides a safe haven at the end of the day, and is a source of regular entertainment.

There is no hotel we know of that provides a full theatre, with different shows every night from Broadway-quality performers. Equally, hotels do not usually offer six (or more) different places to eat; live music throughout the resort; their own-sourced array of excursions; sports and trivia competitions; enrichment lectures; and culinary and cocktail demonstrations.

And those are just the obvious bonuses with any cruise. There are many more in the fine detail of most ocean-going voyages, from unusual options like the only Planetarium at sea (Cunard’s QM2) to zipline courses, ice-skating rinks and flow-rider surfing facilities (Royal Caribbean).

Then there are go-kart tracks and 10-pin bowling alleys (Norwegian Cruise Line); hot-glass demonstrations (on three Celebrity Cruises vessels); purpose-built culinary learning centres (Oceania Cruises); or the simple indulgence of being able to lounge in the bowsprit netting (Star Clippers).

Oh, and when you go to bed in a hotel at night, you are in exactly the same place when you look out of your window the next morning!

The other important factor in a cruise, unlike most hotels, is that the crew play an ongoing role in your overall enjoyment. From your eager stateroom steward or stewardess to the bar staff who remember your favourite drink, and from the purser’s office to the cruise director, everyone is geared towards providing a far more personal experience than a typical resort.

Which brings us neatly back to the idea of gratuities. Yes, these are still a fundamental part of the average cruise. Yes, it seems like an ‘extra’ cost on top of the fare you have already paid. And yes, no-one really likes paying them, even though there are good reasons for them (but also yes, you can have them reduced or even dropped if you feel you have received particularly shoddy service).

The simple fact is, for many lines, their restaurant/stateroom/spa/bar staff are all paid only a basic wage, and they all top it up with the tips they receive each cruise. In fact, they actually rely on gratuities to take home a decent pay packet each month (as in interesting side issue, talk to most restaurant and bar staff in the USA and you’ll hear the same thing).

Most cruise lines have also gone some way to alleviating the effect of what used to be an end-of-voyage ritual involving passing along small envelopes with cash in by allowing guests to pre-pay their cruise gratuities, or have them added to their final onboard account, and the tips are then distributed to the relevant staff as part of the line’s financial admin process.

These can be anywhere from $12-$17 per passenger, per day on most American lines, while Fred. Olsen Cruise Line and Cruise & Maritime Voyages both have a suggested £5/day gratuity that is added to each onboard account and is payable at the end of the cruise.

So, no more hunting around the dining room on the final night trying to find your waiter to hand over that precious envelope!

Therefore, what it boils down to is this is a cultural issue rather than a personal one. And it is an important one for the staff involved, hence anyone who chooses not to tip – or tips below the suggested rate – is actually short-changing the people who were most involved in making the holiday an enjoyable one.

But the lines are aware this isn’t a popular facet of the business, and the practice IS on the wane. In recent years, all the genuine luxury lines – most notably Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, Regent, SeaDream, Azamara and Paul Gauguin Cruises – have insisted there need be no tipping at all. Guests are free to add an extra gratuity to individual staff if they so choose, but it is not expected or required.

P&O Cruises also joined this particular bandwagon this year by announcing that their traditional £7/person daily service charge would no longer be added to shipboard accounts, and that staff would not be short-changed as a result. Again, guests may still add something extra for particular staff, but it is not in any way compulsory.

Equally, both Marella Cruises (formerly Thomson) and Saga insist they are all-inclusive, with no extra cruise gratuities required.

However, one area you should still bear in mind when it comes to tipping is that of your shore excursions. Your guide and/or driver will almost certainly be from a private company and not part of the cruise line, hence it is important to remember some cash for them at the end of your tour.

And that is the current state of play for the G-word. The bottom line is that it’s a changing variable that is slowly being removed from the cruise landscape. It remains an essential part of the cruise mainstream, but for how much longer is anyone’s guess.

What is your view on cruise gratuities? Have you ever refused to pay them? Let us know about your experiences in the Comments section below.

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