Gratuity Ambiguity- It’s Not “Just the Tip”!!!

At this point is so commonplace for these cruise lines to design policy based on the actions of their competitors, that their next upcharges and rate hikes are almost predictable.  Spoiler alert: By the end of spring, Royal Caribbean will be down to one stateroom cleaning per day.  That’s just one bold prediction from the little podcast that could.  When one cruise line makes a change that will either increase the price for a particular service or activity, it’s a safe bet that (barring a consumer revolt) the other lines will follow suit.  

Before we get into the particulars.  Can we agree that the overall system for gratuities is about as transparent as a guided tour of Area 51?  We are not given breakdowns; we are only told that these tips are absolutely necessary to the livelihood of the crew.  Carnival even went so far as to launch a guilt campaign that let us into the lives of individual crew members as they featured several ship employees and what their financial burdens were back at home.  This was particularly cringe because of my immediate interpretation of the cruise line’s message as “Hey!  YOU pay them so we don’t have to.”

I know I oversimplify, and I also know that our overall reverence for cruise ship employees and appreciation for what they do are immeasurable, but can we find some sort of way to compensate them fairly without burdening passengers with a level of guilt that makes them question their own generosity?  I believe that if you cannot afford to tip your server, you should not eat at a restaurant.  This carries over to cruising and if you can’t afford the suggested gratuity, then you shouldn’t cruise.  While the thought of removing the gratuity charges (which apparently is my right) would never even cross my mind; I do think that if the cruise lines allow it, they should expect some guests to take advantage of that.  I also think that the lack of transparency as to where this money actually goes contributes to some of the removed charges.  The argument that since passengers don’t know exactly where their money is going, provides some of them will all the justification they need to pull the tips off at the end of the cruise.  As they are at guest services many of them give the reason “I go around and tip as I see fit on my own.”  We know many of them do not do this but under the current policy, it’s a justified response.  Additionally, the more cruise lines raise these (not so mandatory) onboard gratuity charges, the more they embolden passengers to exercise their right to remove them. 

 

The latest rounds of hikes for some of the major cruise lines go as follows: (all rates are based on a per person/per night basis)

Starting April 1st, Carnival will go from $14.50 per night to $16.  If you are in a suite, your rate will go from $16.50 to $18.  This is the second significant increase within a 1-year period.  Norwegian is going from $20 to $25 for guests booked in its Haven or suite rooms.  All other rooms will now pay $20, which is a $2 increase for club balcony rooms and $4 for all other staterooms.  Princess Cruises, which is owned by Carnival Corporation is also going up $1.50 from $14.50-$16 for all standard staterooms while going from $16.50-$18 for suites and high-end rooms.  Royal Caribbean hasn’t made any moves since August of 2022 when they went up $1.50 to $16 for regular rooms and $1 to $18.50 for suites. 

We would be remiss if we did not mention the struggles and hardships these cruise lines have suffered through during the pandemic and its resulting shutdown for well over a year.  Subsequently, most lines have had to make dramatic financial maneuvers to stay afloat which has exposed them to exorbitant debt.  These moves are compounded by significant inflation, rising interest rates and continued consumer uncertainty.  You could argue that rates are justified to be even higher.  Building this gratuity into the cruise fare would make pricing look less attractive and could jeopardize sales.  My suggestion would be to keep the same cruise fare to the sticker price but add on a service charge that is a separate line item.  This is already done in the form of taxes and port charges, so why not include a mandatory “service charge” in that column?  If cruise lines DO insist on keeping this as a removable charge, it might behoove them to provide guests with a breakdown as to where their money is going.  Call us cynics, but I am positive that there is a contingency of cruisers who don’t believe the crew ever gets that money, thus giving them further justification for their decision to have the gratuities removed from their bill. 

What are your thoughts on the cruise line’s gratuity hikes and their policy on how they are collected?  Let me know at Tommy@alwaysbebooked.com

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