Cruisers could be optionally handing over more money than expected – but it's a vital cost

5 min

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Cruise holidays can be an investment, but often promise to cover all areas of a dream holiday, combining a luxury boutique hotel while spanning multiple destinations while at sea. However, many also come with the added expense of “gratuities”, a feature that can catch some first-time cruisers out.

Adam Coulter, UK Managing Editor for Cruise Critic spoke with to shed some insight into what this extra cost means, and why it is so important.

“Cruise ship gratuities can often be a minefield to understand and the subject continues to be a hot discussion topic for both novice and seasoned cruisers alike regarding how to tip; when to tip; how much to tip; whom to tip – and even why you need to tip at all,” the expert says.

Largely, the confusion is down to a lack of consistency across the board, with varying cruise lines and ships enforcing different rules.

He continues: “In the past, cruise passengers showed their appreciation for crew member service by tipping those who went above and beyond the call of duty. These days, if cruise gratuities aren’t prepaid, most non-luxury lines automatically add tips of anywhere from £5 to as much as £20 per person, per day, to passengers’ shipboard accounts.”

What’s more, those who have shelled out extra for a larger or higher-class cabin are often hit with even bigger gratuity fees.

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Cruise: An expert reveals where gratuities go (Image: Getty Images)

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Cruise: The cost of gratuities also goes towards other staff behind the scenes (Image: Getty Images)

However, while the concept of paying extra for your service may seem bothersome to some, they can be vital for workers.

Mr Coulter explains: “Automated tips are typically dispersed across the entire service staff – including cabin attendants and restaurant waiting staff – and generally include those who previously went unrewarded, like the servers in the buffet restaurants, where most passengers eat their breakfast and lunch, and other behind-the-scenes staff.

“Cruise lines aim to keep their fare prices down and their service levels high, so in a similar way to how many US restaurants and land-based holiday resorts operate, mainstream cruise lines often pay their service crew a low base wage, with the expectation that crew wages will be significantly topped up by passenger tips.

“As a result, like many other service sectors, crew members are dependent upon the generosity of travellers for a good portion of their income.”

This is largely why customers are urged to pay their share of the gratuity cost.

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Those who are concerned about where the expense goes are also entitled to find out, and it can be as simple as just asking, as Mr Coulter points out: “If you are keen to find out exactly how your contribution is allocated, we recommend that you discuss this with your guest services team whilst onboard.”

Of course, passengers are entitled to remove their gratuity payment with most cruise lines if they feel it necessary.

“Most lines – with the exception of Norwegian Cruise Line, which requires cruisers to file a reimbursement request after the cruise ends – allow passengers to adjust or remove automatic tips by visiting the front desk,” explains Mr Coulter.

However, he adds a warning: “Just because you can easily remove gratuities, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Ideally, you should have a good reason for not wanting to pay gratuities to the crew that have tried to make your experience a memorable one.”

Passengers who strongly feel they received sub-par service are entitled to ask for their gratuities back, though they are advised to visit guest services first. They often work hard to amend any negative situations, and may even offer an apologetic gift.

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Cruise: Gratuities can be paid to individual staff members too (Image: Getty Images)

“If you really feel strongly that you’d rather recognise your room steward, waiter or another crew member individually for superior service the traditional way, then you can tell guest services that you will be paying gratuities independently and they will take the automatic gratuities off your final bill,” Mr Coulter adds.

For those who prefer to stick to traditional tipping methods, cash tips are accepted too.

However, Mr Coulter points out one vital perk of auto-gratuities that slipping cash to a waiter simply can’t offer.

He says: “With auto-gratuities, tips are pooled, and a portion goes to each person who helps to make your sailing special – even those unsung heroes you never get to meet in person, but who nonetheless play an important part in helping to deliver the seamless service you experience, and who also rely on tips to top up their wages.

“Ultimately, however, it’s up to you how you want to compensate crew for good service.”

It turns out geographic location does have a lot to do with the gratuities etiquette, and more cruise lines are beginning to remove the automated feature as a result of dissatisfied customers.

“Although it wasn’t always standard in the UK, auto-gratuities are quickly becoming the norm at sea. However, where tipping is a way of life for the US, many travellers from countries that do not tip, such as many in Europe, the UK, Australia and South America, often resent being forced to pay a daily charge for services that might be considered the standard duties of one’s job,” says Mr Coulter.

“To avoid issues, some lines in non-tipping geos, simply roll these service charges into the overall cruise fares.”(sic)

What’s more, there are several cruise lines which avoid enforcing gratuities altogether.

“Luxury cruise lines such as Azamara, Celestyal, Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Virgin Voyages and Silversea often include gratuities in the cruise fare and actively discourage tipping whilst onboard,” he continues.

“Cruise lines that are based in Europe, where tipping is not a custom, such as MSC Cruises, are also more likely to include gratuities in the fare.

“UK travellers are particularly hesitant about onboard gratuities, so many UK lines such as P&O Cruises, Marella and Saga tend to promote the idea that they offer truly ‘all-inclusive’ cruise offerings with everything, including, tips, included, so service crew will be compensated fairly to reflect this.”

However, despite inconsistency amongst cruise operators, Mr Coulter reminds travellers to be ethical with their decisions.

“If you are sailing with a cruise line that includes automatic gratuities – usually a US line – we believe that these should not be viewed as an optional extra, but more as a required service fee, since the absence of these on your initial cruise fare keeps your fare low,” he advises.

“Gratuities should consequently be factored into your holiday budget from the start.

“Even better, try and pay gratuities up-front if you can – this helps reduce your final onboard bill and you might also receive a significant discount if you pre-pay on booking.”

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