It seems that every time we turn around, one of the cruise lines increases their gratuity amounts. It was roughly 3 years ago that gratuities were approximately $12 per passenger, per day. With Norwegian Cruise Line’s most recent announcement, taking effect this Sunday April 1, 2018, their standard gratuities are increasing to $14.50 per passenger, per day. Their last increase was exactly one year ago, and before that there were two increases in 2015 (May 1 and August 1, increasing to $12.95 then to $13.50 respectively).
Norwegian isn’t the only one increasing gratuities. It was just a few months ago that Royal Caribbean and Celebrity both increased their gratuities to a new minimum of $14.50 per passenger, per day. In all fairness, Norwegian is now more inline with what Royal Caribbean and Celebrity now charge. However, gratuities are still all over the map. As of this weekend, we’ll have Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Celebrity charging $14.50 per passenger for standard gratuities, per day (with suite guests paying more). Carnival is still charging $12.95 per passenger, per day; while Princess and Holland America are charging $13.50 per passenger, per day.
What this boils down to is frustration for both passengers and travel advisors. Travel advisors, and quite a few passengers, have one simple question: Why can’t the cruise lines just pay a living wage to their dining room servers and room stewards, and do away with mandatory gratuities? Making the payments mandatory totally defeats the purpose of calling them “gratuities.” The Merriam-Webster definition of gratuity is “something given voluntarily or beyond obligation, usually for some service.” Given voluntarily or beyond obligation. Cruise line gratuities are no longer voluntary, nor given (any more) beyond obligation. They’ve been expected, mandatory even.
Cruise lines have moved to mandatory gratuities because so many passengers would avoid paying any gratuities at all (which is unfair to hardworking crew members). However, instead of calling out gratuities as a mandatory line item, either on the initial cruise booking or on the onboard stateroom account, why not do away with gratuities altogether and increase crew member pay accordingly? Then if a passenger wanted to tip a server or room steward for outstanding customer service, it would truly be voluntary on the part of the passenger.
Or, cruise lines can move to the model of other suppliers: Since gratuities are captured in the upfront payment, employees are not permitted to accept tips from guests. So, there will be no worries about crew members pressuring guests into tipping them.
Of course, here’s the catch; no cruise line wants to be the first, or only, one to eliminate gratuities and increase cruise fares. For a seven-night cruise, we might be looking at an increase of $100 per passenger. Knowing that passengers don’t do the math (adding up all of their expenses up front like cruise fare, taxes/fees, gratuities, etc.), all they’ll see is that the cruise fare is $100 more per person when comparing cruise line A (with no gratuities) to the fare of cruise line B (but they forget to factor in the cruise line B gratuities which evens out the total cost).
All we can do now is educate clients, and continue to have conversations with the cruise lines asking them to eliminate gratuities and increase crew pay accordingly.
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations, she focuses on travel for 18 to 23-year-olds. Susan can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (888) 221-1209.