Do you ever wonder if you are merely cheap or actually a horrible person? Tipping is highly variable from culture to culture, and even gratuity-savvy passengers are lost at sea on cruise ships. What tips are expected, what’s appropriate, what’s… ‘normal’?
Confusion surrounding this issue was intentionally created by the cruise lines themselves. The open secret is that the majority of staff is paid hardly anything at all. Cruise lines hide this behind gratuities. Especially with the rise to prominence of Carnival Cruise Lines—catering to overwhelmingly American and, thusly, gratuity-expectant guests—cruise lines realized they can get a whole lot more staff for a whole lot less money. This wage model was adopted by nearly every major cruise line, in many ways fueling the explosive growth of the industry throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Prior to that, cruising was exceptional and reserved for the well-to-do. Now it’s a common vacation open to anyone budget-minded.
When I was a waiter on Carnival, my monthly salary was around fifty bucks (US $50). That’s for working 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week. Tips kept me alive. (True, tips added up to less than the U.S.’s average minimum wage, but that’s a completely different subject.) Ah, but how much to tip? Even tip-savvy passengers had no basis from which to quantify their appreciation. In America, 15% gratuity is standard for acceptable service, 20% for good service. But on ships, individual meals were not broken down so numerically. So what’s 20%? In my case, Carnival created automatic gratuities for passengers to opt in on for the whole cruise. Waiters knew any passenger who opted out of this service, whatever their reason, invariably skimped on tips. We hated those people. They almost never tipped enough. Especially in my case, because I was a terrible waiter. (if you want to see how bad, read my book Cruise Confidential!)
Over time, some services became auto-tipped and others not. Yet every crew member was clamoring for tips, even those without any reason whatsoever for getting any (read: maitre D’s). And what about room stewards, who had no inferred costs for their services? Well-intentioned passengers were confused all over again. Cruise lines used this confusion to their advantage. A great example of this comes from P&O Cruise Lines. Prior to 2012, their managing director Carol Marlow was promoting P&O's value-for-money by pointing out that unlike some of its competitors, their company did not automatically add tips. Then, in April 2012, P&O began requiring auto-tips of £3.10 per person, per day. To explain the complete reversal, Marlow said,“Tipping has always been an integral part of the cruise experience but sometimes our passengers tell us they've been confused over whether or when to leave a cash tip for their waiters and cabin stewards. Our new tipping policy aims to remove this confusion in much the same way as most restaurants these days add a suggested gratuity to the bill.”
Nowadays, the majority of cruise lines ‘take care’ of their staff with mandatory tipping. Good! If and when a cruise line offers pre-paid gratuities—and you have a soul—do it. Concerns about the line failing to properly distribute the money are rising, but that’s step two. Step one is getting the cash out of the hands of us passengers (ships are great at that!). The best thing, of course, would be for cruise lines to remove tipping entirely. Basic wages should be enhanced to reflect that and the cost built into the basic price of a cruise. Crew could rely on a regular, guaranteed income. We’ve all had to slave away for absolutely no money at one time or another due to bad service outside our own arena. Plus it’s easier on guests because tips are a hidden cost. Here’s a rough breakdown of current rates (US dollars, per day):
Carnival Cruise Lines $10.50
Celebrity Cruises $12-16
Costa Cruises $8-10.50
Cunard $11.50- 15
Disney Cruise Line $12.50-14
Fred Olsen Lines $6.50
Holland America Line $11.50
MSC Cruises $8-10
Oceania Cruises $14.25-19.50
Princess Cruises $12-12.75
Royal Caribbean Int. $12-14
By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.
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