Special Report: The great cruise gratuities debate

A hike in rates by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises reignited the debate about onboard tipping. Amie Keeley and Harry Kemble report

News that Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises have upped their gratuities by 7% prompted dozens of responses from cruisers on consumer forums (Travel Weekly, January 4).

Some questioned whether the service they receive justified the hike. Some asked if charging gratuities meant cruise lines get away with paying staff low basic salaries. And some wondered if the tips even went to the staff.

Others said they were happy to reward hardworking crew for the long hours they put in to make their holidays as good as possible.

So which lines charge the most, why do gratuities even exist and are they justified?

Why do gratuities exist?

The concept of automatic gratuities stemmed from cruise ships being a cashless environment. Generally, passengers did not carry wads of cash and so were unable to reward crew members for excellent service.

It also became a way to distribute tips fairly to all the crew, including those behind the scenes working just as hard as the butler that passengers saw every day.
Lines justify the cost by claiming a superior level of customer service guests receive on a cruise ship compared with a hotel or resort on land.

“When we do our survey of guests, one of their top reasons they give to cruise is the service levels, so we stand up well against other sectors,” says Andy Harmer, Clia’s senior vice-president for membership.

“In cruise you get to build up a relationship with the crew – you see them several times a day – compared to a hotel where you might not see the person turning down your bed at all.”

Ben Bouldin, associate vice-president of Royal Caribbean International and managing director for the UK and Ireland, agrees. “Gratuities are something our customers are comfortable with because they understand the outstanding level of service.”

However, as one agent told Travel Weekly: “If a cruise line is going to increase its gratuities, it had better make sure its customer service is impeccable”.

It is accepted that American cruisers are more than happy to pay automatic gratuities, often in advance of their cruise, but Brits much less so. Cruise lines have adapted their policies to reflect the different markets they sell in, allowing cruise customers to opt out of paying auto-gratuities at the end of their cruise when they pay their final bill.

“[In Britain] we don’t have a history of tipping in the way other cultures have,” says Harmer. “What a lot of passengers don’t realise is that if they do have issues, they should raise these on the ship so they can be dealt with, and if they’re not happy they can have [the gratuity] taken off.”

Mike Hall, Cruise & Maritime Voyages’ head of marketing, says: “The reason why gratuities are such an issue is because of that cultural difference. Americans will give a staff member $50, while here in the UK, a conversation about gratuities is one we do not want to have.”

Gratuity rates

Royal and Celebrity Cruises’ recent increases now mean passengers pay $14.50 a day in standard accommodation, making it one of the highest in the sector.

“Royal and Celebrity need to be careful because it could put customers off,” the cruise agent added. “For a couple travelling on a 14-night cruise that’s an extra $400, so it needs to be better than a hotel which doesn’t have auto-gratuities.”

The agent also warned that if gratuities continued to rise on mainstream lines, luxury cruise brands, which more often than not include them in the price, would become more appealing.

By comparison, discretionary gratuity fees for P&O Cruises, MSC Cruises, Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, CMV and Carnival Cruise Line range from £4 to €13 per passenger per night and continue to be automatically added to onboard accounts. The majority of river cruise lines suggest a recommended amount to give crew at the end of their cruise.

Last year, Norwegian Cruise Line became the first mainstream line to incorporate gratuities, among a host of other ‘extras’, into its fares, when it rolled out its Premium All Inclusive concept.

NCL’s Nick Wilkinson said: “Premium All Inclusive has driven greater simplicity for agents having to explain and sell cruises, and greater confidence in consumers having to budget.

“The biggest change since introducing Premium All-Inclusive is double-digit growth we’ve seen in the long-tail of agents we’ve never worked with before, now selling Norwegian. They are comfortable selling us.”

So could other mainstream lines follow suit? Wilkinson added: “I think it’s very telling how many mainstream lines are using the term ‘all-inclusive’ in their wave campaigns as they recognise it appeals to agents and consumers.

“But we are the only mainstream line offering a truly all-inclusive product, including gratuities.”

Full breakdown by cruise line here

Views on gratuities

“Gratuity fees should be phased out, not increased. They are an archaic way of paying salaries, they should be included in the fare.”
David Speakman, founder, Travel Counsellors

“I wish all cruise companies would include them [gratuities], then everyone would pay the same. It would stop a lot of people asking for them to be taken off once on board.”
Travel agent, name withheld

“As customers, we would never take off service and hotel charges but, in a way, I hope many do. You never know, we might yet see the dawn of non-deductible service or all-inclusive charges on cruises. If all passengers paid their gratuities on a two-week cruise, that would be $578,000 on Eclipse – getting a little silly, don’t you think? The cruise lines are cutting back and increasing gratuities.”
Consumer on forum

Full breakdown by cruise line here

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