I’ve Changed My Mind About Cruise Gratuities. Here’s Why
On my last cruise, a Queen Mary 2 crossing, I was nervous about disembarkation. Not because the trip was ending. I was apprehensive about a potentially uncomfortable encounter with my cabin steward.
Him loitering and wondering if I was going to give him a tip, and me feeling guilty because I wasn’t.
Gratuities on a cruise have got more complicated recently, and I want to talk about that. What it means and why I wasn’t leaving a tip.
I’m hoping you will join the gratuities debate. I know you will have strong views on what I’m about to say.
The first big issue I wrestle with is: what exactly are gratuities on a cruise these days?
What are gratuities?
Every dictionary definition says they are something given voluntarily to thank someone for good service. Two key aspects: “voluntary” and “good service”, suggesting people going above and beyond their duty.
Lines are now giving up any pretence that gratuities are either voluntary or for added good service.
When I first started cruising, gratuities were just that. We all gave cash tips directly to the crew members we felt had done an amazing job and we all assumed the crew in every department were getting a fair wage. These were a bonus for passenger-facing roles.
The lines argued when auto-added gratuities were introduced, that it was fairer. That the pool of money would be split and cascaded to all departments contributing to our experience. All would benefit.
However, if that was the intention that soon changed.
Are they a tool?
Gratuities became, in my view, a tool cruise lines used to achieve lower fares to entice us to book. Funded by paying crew lower base wages. They then used auto-added gratuities to claw money back to bolster crew pay to what it should be.
Let’s be clear, cruise lines expect us to pay more for our cruise than their advertised fare suggests. They expect us to pay the fare plus gratuities. Really, they need us to do this for crew to get wages that are at the going industry rate.
To ensure we paid up, lines auto-added them onto our bills. I now see 3 trends emerge to enforce this as resistance grows to them.
First, lines auto-adding cruise gratuities are starting to try and cloud the narrative by giving them alternative names.
For example, Princess Cruises on my recent Alaska cruise called them “Daily Crew Appreciation”, Holland America called them “Crew Appreciation and Service Charges” on my Scandinavia cruise, while on my Cunard Queen Mary 2 Transatlantic voyage it was just called a “service charge”.
Maybe they’re renaming them to cloud that they are ramping up the cost of gratuities at the same time.
Most lines now have gratuities at between $14 and $20 per person per day based on cabin grade. This also applies to children sharing their parent’s cabin.
That adds between $200 and $300 for a couple for a seven-day cruise. So, between $400 to $600 for a family of four. And that’s constantly increasing.
As the cost grows, passengers are noticing the scale of, and pushing back on these charges.
That’s why I believe I am seeing more lines trying to obscure the size of them. How? By offering optional fare upgrades that bundle gratuities with Wi-Fi, Drinks Packages, Speciality Dining, or excursion credits. For example, Princess Plus and Princess Premier fares and Windstar All-in Fares.
Celebrity Cruises went a step further and changed to “Always Included” fares. They made this the only fare they offered and increased their fares upwards accordingly.
At time of recording, they are not offering standard fares without these. But by branding it they have left it open to bringing back a regular fare too.
Giving Up Pretence
The third change came as many value and premium lines, mostly UK based, bit the bullet and joined the ultra-luxury lines like Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas. These lines increased fares to include gratuities in the base fare instead.
Including, Virgin Voyages, Azamara, Saga Cruises, P&O Cruises UK, and Marella.
The effect of these changes is that cruise passengers are now paying a rate for a cruise that covers gratuities, no matter what line we cruise on.
While it is possible on almost all lines, except Norwegian Cruise Lines at time of recording, to remove auto-gratuities on board, few passengers seem to.
In a survey on my channel of more than 4,000 cruisers only 10% said they removed the gratuities.
I never remove those particular gratuities as I feel if I do, the crew are subsidising my trip with lower wages.
Is the fact that I am now paying cruising gratuities the reason I did not tip anything to the cabin steward I mentioned earlier? No, it’s more complicated and getting more so.
Close And Regular Contacts
Knowing that I have paid my cruise gratuities does put me in a dilemma around what the right thing to do is, especially for crew I have close interactions with like my cabin steward, butler if I’m in a suite, and if doing fixed dining, the waiting staff that deal with me daily.
Possibly, as I started cruising in the days before auto-added gratuities and I handed out envelopes of cash at the end of a cruise, I feel guilty not doing that.
In that poll I mentioned, 50% of cruise passengers say they pay cash tips to select crew members on top of auto-gratuities or when on lines where gratuities are in the fare.
I am, as you now know, one of those people, but recently I decided to stop double tipping as a habit, as it can mount up and fares and costs of cruising are ramping up.
Now I am trying to get myself used to following these five principles
Cruise Gratuities Principle #1
First, I budget on the basis that I will pay a cruise fare that always includes base gratuities for the crew. So, that could be they are auto added, included in some bundles like Princess Premier or within an all-inclusive fare like on Azamara. This will be in a pot shared to all those I deal with often, infrequently and behind-the-scenes.
Yes, I will increase those auto-gratuities if, throughout the cruise, service and the experience has been high, so all benefit. This was the case on my Oceania Marina Panama cruise earlier this year, where right across the board service was great and I felt all should benefit.
I’ll especially do this if I have on-board credit that I do not use up or find myself slipping into that habit of looking for ways to spend it, I instead I use it to increase auto-added gratuities.
However, I was about to do this on my recent Azamara Quest cruise, as I had a lot of on-board credit given to me as a fare price match BUT their rules did not allow it to be used for extra gratuities. So, I could have ended up with unspent OBC and an extra bill – you must always double check if it can be used.
The other downside of upping auto-gratuities is the people you interact with often who may hope or expect a tip will not know you have done that. And so, this leads me to my second principle.
Cruise Gratuities Principle #2
I take cash with me, although not on the scale in the days before auto-added, to tip crew that I come into regular contact with that go above and beyond in some way and make my cruise special.
By the way, when it comes to paying cash tips, I pay either in U.S. dollars or the official currency on the ship, which in most cases is U.S. dollars. But if I were, say, on a P&O Cruises ship or a Saga Cruises. ship where the official currency was pound sterling, that is what I would pay.
Let me give an example of how this has played out, which is where that cabin steward comes back.
A closer look
On my recent Cunard Queen Mary 2 Transatlantic crossing, the waiters were fantastic. We had the same waiters allocated for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
They learned our quirks, preempted everything we needed, from oat milk on the table for breakfast, to spinach as an extra with my meal and even pre-emptively requesting a non-dairy Baked Alaska alternative for my partner.
They joked with us and elevated the experience, so we gave them extra tips.
In great fortune, we had a butler and a cabin steward. They provided a fine service, but it was as expected. Although, we had to chase up a couple of things, there were a few errors, and they did not really elevate the trip. In this case, I felt the normal auto-added gratuities were fine.
Unlike on my Oceania Cruises trip the month before, where I had been upgraded into a suite, where the butler and a cabin steward were super attentive, learned all my quirks, what I liked and I didn’t like, and without asking, tweaked the evening canapés by observing what I left. They knew I didn’t drink alcohol, caffeine and sugary drinks, and hunted for options and even brought a non-alcoholic sparkling wine to replace the champagne.
The butler even offered me his personal multi-USB charger to borrow because he saw I had lots of camera equipment to charge. I tipped both generously, but I didn’t tip the waiters because, again, that was a normal service.
Another example was from my partner who spends hours every day playing blackjack and interacts and gets to know the dealers who make his cruise. So, tips the dealers at the end of playing.
I do tip on top of auto gratuities if I genuinely see added service, but I still find it stressful as old habits die hard. There are some people I never tip, which I will come to after quickly discussing my third principle.
Cruise Gratuities Principle #3
When I can, I try to name everyone that has given great service in the post-cruise survey. The crew and managers keep telling me this is key for staff to get recognition, bonus, and promotion. So, even if not tipped individually, this can help crew enormously.
To make sure I don’t forget anyone I take photos of their name badges, so I can get their name and position right. This was a tip a crew member once gave me when stressing how important calling people out in the survey was.
So, who do I never tip?
Cruise Gratuities Principle #4
I never tip when I’m buying drinks as frequently 18% is added on automatically. So, I leave the section to add even more tip blank.
Gratuities are also added on to the price of any drinks package, too.
The same is true in the Spa, salon, or hairdressers.
If I’m having specialty coffees or buying ice cream or gelato, again, I don’t give a tip. Either it’s auto added, or there’s none expected.
Special requests and more
When crew members handle special requests or fix things, like a broken toilet or air conditioning, I don’t tip for that.
My preference is to never tip senior crew, including the Captain, Cruise Director, Head Chef, Maître de, Guest Services, or Excursions Team. They are usually well paid, and in some cases, it’s not considered appropriate.
That also applies to the entertainment team who run events, the performers or the guest artists. Or any people playing live music around the ship. Some friends like to tip the pianist in a piano bar to get their requests higher up in the priority.
What are your thoughts on gratuities, and have you changed, or are you thinking of changing what you do?
ABOUT TIPS FOR TRAVELLERS
Gary Bembridge’s Tips For Travellers aims to help you make more of your precious travel time and money on land and when cruising the oceans or rivers of the world. To help you, in every video I draw on my first-hand tips and advice from travelling every month for over 20 years and average of 10 cruises a year.
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I tend to agree with your four principles of tipping. Especially tipping for exceptional Service. And you are right on when it comes to the Marina, our butler and cabin staff were right on top of it on our 24 day Mediterranean and Baltic cruise. Can’t say the same for the Butler and Cabin staff on our 7 day Insignia cruise. We gave them a tip only because we felt we should. We were in a Vista Suite right at the bow and got no special service, sometimes we didn’t even get ice. We should have held back until the last day. We gave the tips second to last day and then the kept coming into our cabin on the final day, doing presets for the next cruise. Had to chase them out. Well, live and learn
Thanks for reading and taking time to comment and add your thoughts. Agree… I tend tom do it late and even on morning of departure most often….
Gary,this is one of the stressors I face when cruising. I think I’m going to make sure I take my thank you cards on our next cruises and snap pictures of those who go “above expectations” and send card in lieu of more money. Since I’ve cruised about 30 times, my expectations can be pretty high, especially with the “dumbing down” of the cruise experience!
We struggle with this too. Our primary concern is for fair wages for all crew, so we ALWAYS pay the “required” daily charge that will go to everyone who impacts our experience (seen and unseen). We do provide additional cash tips to those who have repeatedly and significantly elevated our experience (usually wait staff and room stewards). On our last HAL trip where we were on board for 2.5 months, we left small gift bags for 25 other crew members who we had gotten to know and enjoyed tremendously. We keep a running list in the notes section of our phone divided into sections (ex. Lido, Beverage Service, Security, Housekeeping, Specialty Dining, Maintenance) where we record names. We use that same list for recording good and bad experiences so that we can be VERY thorough when we complete the end-of-cruise survey. Just a note, we interviewed a number of crew members and asked them what recognition perks they would prefer as “rewards” for survey shout outs. Overwhelmingly they’d prefer extra time off for naps and more money. They are often “rewarded” with shore excursions, but those aren’t a favorite for many. They are too tired to enjoy them, and still have to work when they get back on board. Most often, shore time is spent shopping, using free Wi-Fi, or getting a good meal.
Here’s my question:
How much do you tip the “above and beyond” employees that you single out?
Yes, how much do you give to a decent cabin steward on a mainstream cruise line after a 3 night/7 night cruise on top of the auto gratuities? I’d like a frame of reference.
Thank you for your clear explanations and reasoning behind tipping. I never cruised prior to them being auto added, but it always stresses me out. Should I add more? Shouldn’t I? Your article really helps me with figuring that out in the future.
I found this interesting. We are often confused as to when to tip extra, and have sometimes done it when it isn’t justified. We always leave the auto tips on and we tip extra when warranted but on our last cruise the room steward was hanging around on the last morning, and we were guilted into giving him extra, which was completely undeserved. I will now follow your tips and only tip when we have received exceptional service.
Somewhat illogically we once deducted half the fixed gratuities and split the other half between cabin, waiters (only if same ones throughout) and head waiter as he had gone massively over and above in ensuring my wifes special diet was sorted daily.) Apparently the crew do find out those who have deducted “mandatory” fees and survice can suffer as a result
It’s a very contentious topic and one I’ve had several debates about on a Facebook group for a sailing I’ll shortly be going on.
I tend to agree with you and generally work the same way – prepay them & tip extra when it’s deserved.
The issue that really annoys me is when people don’t prepay them, remove them from their onboard account & tip the staff a very small amount (something like £20 for a cabin steward for a week) for a family of 4!
The cruise lines should be more transparent with their pricing – especially the American lines when selling in the British market. Royal Caribbean, for example, price their cruises including the gratuities, which can’t be removed in Australia & New Zealand. They should do this for UK customers as us Brits don’t tip like the Americans.
Hi Gary – thanks for the article. Gratuities on cruises always a challenge but I follow your principles for the most part. The only difference for me is I will leave a cash tip for the waiter in specialty dining if the service has been very good.
We tip our cabin stewards always, servers are only if they provide memorable service. I love the idea of pics with name tags because I typically cannot ever spell them correctly. I also appreciate the importance of the survey and calling out excellent service. I never knew that and will make a point of doing that going forward.
I have never been on a cruise but the whole (excessive) tipping culture sounds quite stressful and would make me feel rather uncomfortable.
I believe that service has changed since auto tipping has been added. Not for the better. That being said we auto tip. But only tip extra for extra special services.
I always understood that Europeans don’t tip much. This must drive them nuts.
Call me cynical, but my biggest objection to the auto-gratuity is that there is no way to ensure that the entire amount is given to the employees. It would be very easy for the cruise line to take a percentage of the auto-gratuity and no one would be the wiser. Just an way for the cruise line to make an extra few dollars. I wouldn’t be surprised if the line kept a 3% “handling fee” out of the 18% collected. If I hand over cash, I know the person receives exactly what I intended.
From speaking with crew members, both in person and on crew social media groups, the auto gratuities are NOT entirely given to the crew directly. The tip pool is doled out on a percentage basis, based on their guest survey results. If they don’t achieve a minimum percentage, they get docked.
But, if you think by removing your auto gratuities and giving them the cash directly you bypass that, you are mistaken. Some crew have reported they have to turn in that cash.
I prefer to leave the auto gratuities alone and give additional to those who really make my cruise memorable.
I only leave extra tips for the room steward and our Dining room waiter , That automatic tip isn’t that much and they work there butts off
The cruise company rationale, as stated, for sharing the gratuities does not make economic sense. Gratuities make sense where the donor directly observes the quality of service of the individual. The donor has no specific knowledge of the performance of those workers behind the scenes. The cruise line can pay appropriate wages to those who are behind the scenes and those who deal directly with those cruising. Presumably the latter will have lower wages, but make up for it in gratuities.
What to make of the automatic added gratuities? As you indicated, it is a method for the cruise lines to advertise a lower price, but at the same time effectively charging a higher price. Put another way, it is a method built on deception. (The hotel industry, when it adds a per diem resort charge, has a similar practice of stating one price, but in reality charging a higher price.)
Given the cruise industry’s current policies regarding gratuities, your approach is very sensible.
Totally agree, a decent service is expected from all service industries and exceptional service, which will only be witnessed by the recipient of such, warrants gratifIcation by way of gratuity which should go directly to the service giver.
I agree with all of your thoughts on tipping! I struggled with the tip being added au to automatically and protested by removing it. However in time I accepted it, as it easier. I do tip my cabin staff extra if they bring ice daily and glasses and keep the room looking nice. I also tip room service as I find they bring my double coffee every morning!
I don’t know–I figure if you are in that rarified slice of humanity possessing the disposable income allowing you to cruise around the world, it probably isn’t going to drive you into bankruptcy to toss a few extra, measly crumbs to the impoverished staff, who spend their grim, weary lives catering to the likes of your exceptionally lucky self, hmm? If you knew half their stories, you’d probably bring extra cash, if you are any sort of human being at all.
We give extra to the people who go out of their way to interact with us – the bartender who made us a special drink every night, the coffee bar lady who had a running joke with hubby the whole cruise, the waiters who were teaching us spanish and turned up with a list of “had to know” words, the last dinner evening. Those people get big tips.
Gratuities are simply a way off making the cruise fare look cheaper, and really should go. Pay staff a fare wage in the first place, even if this means slightly higher fares.
We recently stayed at a 5* hotel in the New Forest where staff refuse tips and there is no service charge. They explained they are paid a good wage and get rewarded for doing their job well. Simple!
On the first day of our cruise, I gave my cabin steward $10 for coming in to separate our beds. I never saw him after that. Our room was clean, beds made, and fresh towels were placed in the bathroom but there was nothing special, nothing unusual done after that. On the last day, prior to disembarking, suddenly we had towel animals on our beds. This was my very first cruise and I felt that it was all very calculated. We had requested that our beds be separated on our reservation, but they were not. I tipped him for going beyond normal service to separate them, but was that going beyond? I don’t think so now. It should have been done before we entered our cabin. Towel animals placed just in time for the anticipated final day tip? Seems like it to me. We had paid gratuities on our reservation, and we gave our waitstaff additional tips because they really did go above and beyond. I’m comfortable with my decision on tips for that cruise.
I feel very similar. I have never removed an auto gratuity, and will usually give a small additional tip to my dining room wait team if they enhance my experience as I usually do set time dining or request to be seated with the same waitstaff. I also tend to give my cabin steward an additional tip if I feel they have enhanced the experience. I’ll usually throw a few dollars to room service delivery and maybe a dollar or two on bar service because I usually just go with soft drink package and that doesn’t carry same service charge like the drink package does.
I always remove auto gratuities. I don’t like to feel like I am being forced to tip what the cruise lines think I should. I know what exceptional service is I also know what unacceptable service is and I feel as though I have the right to tip accordingly.
Cruising many years ago – you were taken care of and I always tipped the cabin stewards and the dining table servers. They were the ones that made the cruises memorable. They interacted with you – remembered your names- knew your likes and dislikes at meals – just very personable. Never ever have have I tipped the matre di as I have never ever met one deserving a tip. As in recent years – service has gone down greatly and the automatic tipping was generated and still going up. I still tip in cash on the last day of the cruise ONLY if the crew had interacted and deserve it. I miss the past cruising days but still try to go and enjoy.
I just recently returned from a 12 day British Isles cruise on Princess. Our gratuities were included on our final bill. What I noticed from prior cruises (where nothing was included) was a decreased level of service across the board. If the crew assumes that they aren’t working for extra tips they aren’t going above and beyond in service. It would be nice to be able to allocate how our included tips are distributed. If your room attendant is just doing basic services then perhaps they don’t get the lions share. Or if you loved your MDR waiter then they could get a higher percentage than the others. I understand above and beyond tipping (which we did for the 1 person who stood out and went the extra mile) however, it just seems like no one was really trying to do excellent service.
Tipping is simply a glorified form of corruption and every time you tip someone you are reinforcing a system that destroys the lives of people in most countries around the world and keeps dictators in power. I don’t know how they managed it but the UK, Australia, New Zealand, some Western European countries and a few others have found a way to just about extricate themselves from this demeaning process. The US has made it into an art form. And as for cruise companies they are masters of it. You may think you are helping people by giving them a tip but you are basically ensuring that you keep them poor. The reason there are so many comments above saying that the whole thing makes you feel uncomfortable is because deep down you know this is just wrong. If we all stopped doing it and just paid people a fair wage up front the world would be a much happier place.
I’m pleased to see a reasoned reply that doesn’t mince with words. Another problem to add to that list is many people in developing countries only wanting to get jobs where tipping is involved, as it pays far more than their salary, but the downside is that they are no longer doing a ‘real’ job for their local community.
Then of course you get eople who are literally ripping your luggage from you at the airport and then demanding tips (sometimes with menaces) at the end.
It’s an outdated and bad culture.
I’m not sure if this is on all cruise lines. My cousin is a bartender for Carnival. The bartenders get a lesser percentage of any of the forced gratuities because the line assumes that they will get tipped on the side. He believes the restaurant waitstaff has the same ordeal. Higher percentages of the forced tip are given to behind the scenes staff.
We like auto-tip, as it is so convenient and we never seem to remember who we should tip by the end of the cruise and it just seems more fair to me that all staff is part of the tip pool. Having said that, we will also cash tip those that go beyond with service and remembering and catering to our preferences; usually the room steward, maître d, and some spa services like the acupuncturist who “cured” my seasickness. That last one was a lifesaver, so definitely got a tip.
I have solved the problem by only booking cruises that charge the correct price of the cruise, and expect nothing more. I don’t tip anywhere because I don’t agree with the principle of it, and see it as an antiquated quirk. It’s nothing to do with service, as I expect everyone to do their best all the time, as I always did when I worked. The question I always ask when challenged (threatened) by others on forums is “If a health care assistant in hospital went that extra mile and cleaned up your sh*t better than expected, would you give them a handout?’ Of course not, so why a waiter, butler or anyone else in service jobs.
I completely agree with you.
I felt shocked, scammed, disappointment, and horrible that such a happy trip turned into these horrible feelings. Another family member planned the trip so I was unaware as it had been a very long time since I was in a cruise. The only person I felt on the whole trip they should get and I have of my own choosing was the cabin steward as he did go above and beyond for me and my family. I mean we all got charged gratuity even my two kids who are under 5 years old. And for what, I am the one who did everything for them during the cruise so what gratuity did they have to pay? It’s was a surprise expense that cost us excursions in turn kinda ruined the whole cruise experience for us as we could fully enjoy our trip. I definitely won’t be going on any other cruises unless this gratuity scam is fixed. I mean I had a job once where our name tags had bar codes in them and if people felt I did a good job then they would scan it in the app and they would tip me. I feel scammed only because I saw on board where you can get a discount on your next cruise. Your not really saving if they just use gratuity to get that money back on your account. This unexpected expense made me feel horrible and definitely turned me away from cruising.
On a past cruise we had prepaid for specialty dining as well as gratuities. At the end of a meal the waiter brought a tablet to our table to add a tip for him, after much discussion we left an extra tip. The next night the restaurant manager came to discuss it with us. We were really put in an uncomfortable position and felt pushed to leave a tip again. We discussed this with the concierge and told that we had prepaid gratuities and did not need to leave anything additional. Mind you, the service was fine but certainly not exceptional and the pressure put on us really put us off and had me close to tears after being treated so poorly by the manager. Had we not prepaid we would have certainly left a generous tip for our meals. We left feeling very confused and taken advantage of.
Interesting blog post, Gary!
It’s worth noting that cruises out of Australia tend not to include an ‘auto gratuity’ .. because Australians are (in general) quite resistant to tipping – at least as practiced by Americans.
And I believe those lines in Australia that DO add auto-gratuity will allow Aussies to have that removed (*)
We’ll tip individuals for exceptional service, but a 10% tip is considered normal by Aussies – not the insult that it is considered by US-based waitstaff.
(*) in my occasional role as a cruise ship lecturer, I note that Royal Caribbean had (as a condition of my appointment) that my wife and I would pay the $20 a day auto-grat. But since we were effectively cruising for free, in return for my lectures, a $20 a day auto-grat was not a big deal 🙂