Few issues are as complex and divisive among cruise travellers as tipping or paying your gratuities to crew, with people on both sides of the argument having their pros and cons.
Reactions and opinions have been mixed to a recent move by Royal Caribbean and sister line Celebrity Cruises to start including crew gratuities for all bookings made with the cruise line in Australia, effective from late last year. The move brings Royal Caribbean into line with two of its competitors, with the likes of Carnival Cruise Line and Princess Cruises whom have both included gratuities on Australian based sailings in base fares for the past few years.
But what was promoted as a added convenience by Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises has angered many customers of both lines, many of whom are adhering to Australian culture and feel they shouldn’t be forced to tip, especially when the option to remove gratuities from your final bill is still available as it has been for many years.
This attitude is somewhat understandable considering Australia’s tipping culture is in stark contrast to countries such as the USA, where most of the world’s major cruise lines originate and are based. Each of these encourage guests to provide crew with a gratuity as a just reward for what is, more often that not, service of an exceptionally and exemplary quality.
It’s not just front line service staff that are providing great service and thus a memorable cruise holiday. On Royal Caribbean’s latest ship to sail Australian waters, Ovation of the Seas, over 1,500 crew are on hand to provide the experiences cruisers come to expect. To break that down just a little, there are six people whose primary duty is just to sort the rubbish – not to mention the hundreds responsible for waiting tables, preparing drinks and carrying out daily or twice-daily room servicing.
Crew onboard are typically earning more aboard ships than they would at home, but despite this and again in line with US customs, salaries are still quite low, with gratuities allowing many crew members to support older or poorer relatives in their countries of origin.
While $13.50 per person per day (the base gratuity charged by Celebrity Cruises) can seem like a lot of money when you add it up over the length of your cruise – but where else can you go and have essentially hundreds or even thousands of people at your disposal?
From cleaners to kids club staff, every non-officer crew member (essentially anyone not wearing yellow stripes on their shoulder) receives a slice of the tipping pool to provide an incentive on them to continue providing the line’s brand of service with a smile.
“But I tip my room steward and waiter in cash at the end of the cruise instead!”. This is a statement I cringe at every time I hear it. This is one thing and one thing only – being cheap. Did you know though that most cruise lines require crew members who receive cash tips to pay those cash tips into a general tipping pool – at the risk of losing their job if they are caught pocketing it for themselves instead.
You may think that by removing gratuities from your bill in favour of handing over a $50 note directly to your steward at the end of your cruise leaves you with a clear conscience, but in reality you’re actually doing them harm. This practice is in effect reducing the total amount available in the tip pool and thus reducing the total amount to be divided among the crew.
When you divide this pool among, for example, eligible crew on Ovation of the Seas, it works out to just over $50 per crew member per day for their entire workload. This equals out at around $358 in gratuities each week – if the ship is completely full and if everybody pays their suggested tip amount, which almost never happens. This is on top of the basic wage of around $600 per month the average room steward earns. All up, it’s about $10 an hour.
Considering most onboard room stewards look after around 20 rooms and work 14 hour days, seven days a week for six months straight, it’s quite a workload, only to then learn that some of their passengers have opted to have their gratuities removed from their charge account in exchange for the ongoing scrubbing of toilets and changing of bed sheets.
In addition, cash paid to crew creates a further headache if it is not already in the same currency as what the ship is trading in. It means a senior crew member need to spend their limited time ashore getting the money changed into a more favourable currency. However, tips paid through the cruise line are deposited into a bank account which can be managed from the ship, enabling the easy transfer of money back home and a safe method of storage, and transfer, without the risk of theft.
Without tips providing the incentive for crew to provide amazing service and experiences, a cruise would not be the amazing value holiday it is. Crew add just as much to the experience as the destinations or anything else and should be suitably rewarded for their efforts.
Do you keep gratuities on your bill or prefer to hand over cash? Tell us in the comments.