Norwegian Cruise Line still hasn’t perfected a way to roll out new policies without getting skewered in the process, especially by their passengers. But this latest issue isn’t really unique to NCL; it applies to all mass-market cruise lines. NCL is just in the forefront (again) because of how they’re handling the issue.
Apparently, NCL has once again rolled out a new policy without sharing with their travel partners first. Most travel professionals found out via Cruise Critic (by the way, not our favorite way of finding out pertinent information that suppliers should be sharing with us in advance of going public). It’s possible that if we’d been given a head’s up before the general public found out, we could have helped them spin the announcement. But alas, we were left in the cold, so they’re on their own to muddle through this.
If you haven’t heard, NCL is now making Daily Service Charges (DSC, which is a fancy way of avoiding the term “tip” or “gratuity”) a mandatory addition to passenger onboard stateroom accounts. Furthermore, passengers can no longer simply go to guest services to have the DSC removed. If a passenger wants to have the DSC refunded, they have to wait until they debark the cruise, fill out a form, email it in (cannot be faxed or snail mailed) and do so within 30 days of debarkation. In essence, they are making it more difficult (but not impossible) to short the crewmembers on their gratuities.
If you are not familiar with cruise gratuities, on mass market lines the crewmembers that provide direct services to passengers (primarily room stewards and dining staff) depend heavily on gratuities for their compensation. The cruise lines themselves pay these crewmembers a small monthly stipend plus room and board. The problem increasingly has become that passengers that travel on tight budgets resist paying gratuities. For years it’s been witnessed on the last night of the cruises when the main dining rooms are half empty, as passengers avoided the crewmembers that they were about to stiff by not tipping them. Then as gratuities began being added automatically to shipboard accounts, you could find these passengers standing in long lines at Guest Services (sometimes for hours) having the gratuities removed from their accounts.
And we are not necessarily talking chump change. For a family of four on a seven-night cruise, the DSC could easily exceed $350. There is a lot they could spend that money on, or more accurately, that they would prefer spending that money on.
For the cruise lines this is a catch-22. If they pay these crewmembers more, reducing the reliance on gratuities (or basically by burying the DSC in the non-commissionable cruise fare upfront) it increases the cruise fare. As much as they don’t want to admit it, most of the cruise lines are turning their product into a commodity, forcing them to compete more and more on price. If one cruise line includes the gratuities in the cruise fare, but others don’t, they could appear to be more expensive. And for those passengers that could be enough to switch cruise lines, to one where they can still stand in line at Guest Services and get the gratuities taken off of their onboard account.
Before someone goes off the rails here; no, not every passenger removing the DSC is doing so in an attempt to stiff the crew. But I would surmise that is the reason for most passengers doing so. However, there are passengers that would prefer paying crewmembers in cash, putting it directly into their hands, knowing for a fact that they are getting the full amount that the passenger wants them to receive (which can be significantly more than what was originally charged to their onboard account). Many passengers do not believe that the cruise lines are passing on 100% of the DSC to the deserving crewmembers. And honestly, there is no way to be sure, other than to put the money in their hands directly.
Passengers have also voiced concern that if the DSC is mandatory and cannot be adjusted or removed onboard, the incentive for crewmembers to provide top-notch service has evaporated. The thinking is that if crewmembers know that their gratuities are guaranteed, why should they bother going that extra mile?
Tipping is an ago-old “hot topic” that never bodes well when travel professionals or passengers discuss it. I don’t think there is an easy answer. Unless all of the cruise lines do away with gratuities paid onboard (i.e. burying them in the NCCF upfront and be done with it), it can cause a disparity in price comparing cruises. No cruise line wants to be the one that tests that theory and then loses the bet. So the next best thing? Make it mandatory onboard. And while still giving passengers a way to request a refund post-cruise, don’t make it as easy as simply waiting in line at Guest Services. None of this of course addresses the doubt that passengers have regarding whether crewmembers really get the full DSC paid by the passengers.
Weigh in here. Does anyone have any better ideas on how cruise lines can handle the tipping issue?
Susan Schaefer is the owner of Ships ‘N’ Trips Travel (www.shipsntripstravel.com) located in Tennessee, and specializes in leisure travel with a focus on group travel and charity fundraisers. Through their division Kick Butt Vacations (www.kickbuttvacations.com), 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.