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Tipping on Ships: An Australian Culture Clash
Home > Features > Tips & Advice > Tipping on Ships: An Australian Culture Clash
Note: The following piece is an op-ed. The views expressed about tipping are those of the writer. For a comprehensive, line-by-line look at "official" tipping rules, check out our At Your Service: Cruise Line Tipping Policies.

Are Australians stingy or is our reluctance to tip a cultural thing? In Australia, we don't generally tip taxi drivers, hairdressers, hotel porters, bartenders or waiters in cafes. An automatic service charge on a restaurant bill can make patrons bristle, particularly if they don't feel the service deserved a personal reward.

However, as Australians are cruising the world in ever-increasing numbers, we're discovering that the culture of tipping is well and truly embedded in the fare structure. Being accustomed to the prices of goods and services being stated upfront, it can come as a surprise to first-timers that many cruise lines add an automatic daily gratuity charge to passengers' accounts.

In fact, having gratuities automatically charged to their accounts was so unpopular with local cruisers that three years ago, Australia-based P&O Cruises decided to remove it from passengers' accounts. Now P&O Australia leaves it to each passenger's discretion to reward outstanding service or not…and do so personally with cash tips.

How has that worked? A P&O Cruises spokesperson says, "We don't track tipping habits, but anecdotally we believe many of our passengers continue to tip our cruise staff for good service. In the Australian way, they like the freedom to do this at their discretion."

The Australian Way

Historically, the reason for not tipping seems to be based on the theory that the minimum wage paid to workers in the Australian hospitality industry was more generous than in other countries. So while Americans are accustomed to tipping in order to bump up the wages of their waiter or bartender, Aussies haven't felt the need to do so.

These days, however, most Australians accept that you are expected to add about 10 per cent on your bill for service in many restaurants, particularly the more upmarket establishments where service is (or should be) a big part of the dining experience.

Confused? You're not alone. To find out more, we asked Bryn James, head of Hospitality Management at one of Australia's leading business colleges, the International College of Management in Sydney, for his take on Australians' tipping habits.

"The Australian customer seems to be mixed on their tipping practices," says James. "Customers generally make a judgment on whether to tip or not. If the customer gets good service, there is normally a tip. An automatic 10 per cent gratuity from a customer point of view can be off-putting, especially if the service is not up to standard."

What seems to rankle with Aussies is when discretionary tipping for good service is exchanged for mandatory tipping with no regard for the level of service. The big question: Why do cruise passengers have to tip anyway?

The Cruise Industry Way

Within the cruise industry, which generally pays very low wages, tips from passengers have always been an essential boost to crewmembers' income. How much and whom to tip still varies on smaller cruise lines, but the policy on mainstream lines today is to add a fixed daily sum to each passenger's bill, which is paid at the end of the cruise along with the bill for other expenses incurred along the way. That automatic gratuity is, we're told, shared between crewmembers such as the dining staff and housekeeping who directly serve passengers. And whatever you feel about tipping, automatically deducted or otherwise, you can't get away from the fact that it is part of the crews' pay structure. Withholding a relatively small sum of money makes a very big difference to the people who work long and hard to make your cruise as pleasurable as possible.

Whether or not the automatic gratuity system is an improvement (for the crew) on the traditional practice of passengers personally handing over an envelope of cash to their cabin steward, regular waiter and favourite bartender at the end of the cruise is open to debate. Also open to debate is whether service levels have fallen since automatic gratuities were introduced; many cruisers believe this is true, but we can find no concrete evidence.

Automatic gratuities on mainstream cruise lines are about US$11 to US$12 per person, per day. Some lines levy a fee for children, and some charge a slightly higher sum for passengers in suites. In some cases (Royal Caribbean, for example), you can prepay the daily gratuity charge when you book your fare.

On some ships, envelopes for gratuities are left in cabins. On others, you can pick them up from a display at the Purser's Office or Information Center. On others still, you must ask for them. While envelopes are certainly the way to go in giving most tips, it is much nicer to use your own. I always bring a supply of gift enclosure envelopes, available from stationers. These are smaller than the envelopes provided by cruise lines and can more easily be palmed to the recipient during a handshake. I always write thank you on the envelope, include my cabin or table number and sitting and sign my name. I want my waiters to know who tipped them and how much.

Passengers do have the option of visiting the reception desk at the end of the cruise to request that the automatic gratuity charges be changed or dropped if they feel the service is not up to expected levels. And, of course, you're still free to give a cash tip to individual crew on top of the automatic gratuity, and many passengers do so.

The best advice is to ask about gratuity charges and tipping policies when you book your cruise and add that sum to your budget. It's also worth noting that luxury cruise lines Crystal Cruises, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Seabourn and Silversea include all gratuities in their fares -- which is one reason their base fares are more expensive.

Tipping on Australia Based Ships

So when you're cruising Down Under, what's the usual practice? Again, there isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. P&O Australia, as we stated earlier, has eliminated all gratuities, leaving the choice to tip completely to each individual cruiser.

A spokesperson for Orion Expedition Cruises (now part of Lindblad Expeditions' fleet), says that fares include a tip for all staff. This is divided between all crewmembers on the ship, on the basis that "the people behind the scenes are as important as the ones you see." He adds that there is provision to leave a gratuity for any crewmember who performs "above expectation" but there is absolutely no compulsion to do so.

Carnival Spirit, the first of Carnival Cruise Lines' ships to be permanently based outside the US underwent an "Aussification" program before it started operating in Australia, which included abolishing compulsory gratuities. CCL Australia's director Jennifer Vanderkreeke said: "Tipping is not part of the culture for Australians and we respect that, so on Spirit there will be no tipping onboard."

Holland America Line, whose ships Volendam and Oosterdam are regular visitors to Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, has the same tipping policy aboard all its 15 ships. A daily hotel service charge of US$12 per day is added to suite guests' accounts and $US11.50 for other staterooms. HAL says that if service "exceeds or fails to meet your expectations," you can adjust the amount at the end of your voyage. A 15 per cent bar service charge is automatically added to bar bills and dining room wine purchases.

On the Princess Cruises' ships that operate in Australia (Sun Princess, Dawn Princess and Sea Princess), gratuities are calculated by the cruise line and are automatically added to your cruise card account (this applies for passengers ages 13 years and over). You can adjust the standard daily charge at the purser's desk while on your cruise and, as on HAL ships, a 15 per cent (or 10 per cent in the case of Sun and Dawn) charge is automatically added to your bill for drinks bought in bars, lounges and dining rooms.

Royal Caribbean says that it offer three ways of paying gratuities on Rhapsody, Radiance and Voyager of the Seas. Many guests pre-pay (US$12 per person or US$14.25 for suite guests) when they book their cruise. Otherwise, you can pay for them with your on board account or you can request to have all charges removed from your onboard account and pay your waiters and cabin attendant in cash.

Last but not least, homegrown cruise line Captain Cook Cruises, which has ships on Sydney Harbour and in the Fijian islands, keeps it simple. "We don't really have a tipping policy," says a spokesperson. "We just let passengers know that when they settle their bill at the end of the cruise, there is a tips box on the counter and if they want to leave a tip for the crew they can. Tips are then distributed evenly between the crew. It's not encouraged for passengers to give individual crewmembers tips."

In the end, only you can decide how much, if anything, you are going to leave as a tip. However, if the whole process makes you feel uncomfortable, perhaps you should consider paying a little more up front to cruise with lines that include all gratuities in the fare.

--by Sally Macmillan, Cruise Critic contributor


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