From a one-time reward for exemplary service, to now an expected expense, tipping can be a tricky business. Gary Buchanan explains how to avoid embarrassment by following the on-board etiquette.

The very mention of the word ‘tip’ is enough to get us Brits into a fluster. Fortunately, on cruise ships, there is often a structure in place ensuring we are neither skinflint nor extravagant. Shipboard systems for conveying gratuities were created for Americans who understand that tipping is an accepted, expected practice – part of everyday life. With so many us cruise ships sailing in European waters, the cultural divide on tipping has recently become more apparent.

A Spa on board a Crystal Cruise
A Spa on board a Crystal Cruise

I have enjoyed several cruises in the company of friends from the United States and been amazed at their generosity to the crew. A few years ago, aboard the venerable Qe2 during her world cruise, these chums would regularly palm an array of envelopes (known in cruise circles as ‘handbags‘) to a host of crew members who had ensured they were treated like royalty.

Thankfully, some cruise lines now take the line of least resistance and include gratuities as part of an ‘all-inclusive‘ concept. This applies only to smaller, deluxe companies such as SeaDream yacht club. at the other end of the spectrum, companies catering solely to the British mass cruise market take the sting out of the situation and include basic gratuities.

The vast majority of cruise lines have a prescribed schedule of suggested gratuities which passengers are expected to follow. In most cases these are added to your on-board account and are about £7 per passenger, per day. On some ships, it is possible to have these removed but be mindful your generosity really does provide a much-needed boost to the salaries of the ship’s crew.

Cruise lines who adopt this method of remuneration to the crew often issue each passenger with a voucher showing the standard gratuity has been paid and you present these to your stewardess and restaurant team. In other instances, pre-printed envelopes are left in your cabin on the penultimate night of your cruise and the accompanying daily programme has the suggested amounts listed ‘for your guidance’. Sometimes maitre d’s are included in this system. If not, it is up to guests to recognise the level of service accordingly.

With ultra-deluxe crystal cruises, I have dined in the silk road restaurant and sushi bar for the ridiculously low ‘service charge’ of $7, indulging in Nobu-created cuisine that would have cost me around £100 in London. Many other cruise lines have alternative dining choices where the supplemental charge includes the gratuity.

However a recent massage on board one of the larger cruise ships became a lot less relaxing when I discovered that this, like all spa treatments, came with a gratuity added ‘for my convenience’. I found my therapist to be more proficient as a salesman than as a masseur and, as a result, asked the spa cashier to remove the 18 per cent additional tip. It was an unpleasant experience and one that highlighted the all-too-common practice of over-the-top surcharges for on-board services.

Cruising is a cash-free existence allowing you to charge all purchases and services to your on-board account. On most cruises, a 15 per cent gratuity is automatically added to all wines and bar drinks and this is non-negotiable. Last year, I spent some time in the casino aboard P&O cruises’ Ventura and watched a poker player order several rounds of drinks for himself as well as his gaggle of friends and tipped the bar waiter handsomely on top of the additional service charge – but he had just hit a Royal Flush.

Tipping etiquette on board cruise ships is no longer the minefield it used to be. Service on a ship, whether it’s a three- or six-star vessel, is nearly always exemplary and far superior to many trendy resorts or voguish restaurants. This is one holiday choice where gratuities should be viewed as a reward rather than a rip-off.

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