Cruise Tipping: Is It Time for Royal Caribbean to Ditch Its System?

October 9, 2009
Cruise Tipping

(4:51 p.m. EDT) -- Royal Caribbean is one of the last mainstream holdouts when it comes to tipping -- instead of automatically adding gratuities to passengers' onboard accounts, it requests that guests perform the old-fashioned "cash in the envelope" routine at the end of a cruise. Now, in an effort to accommodate RCI's growing U.K. and European clientele (who don't have the same tipping habits as Americans) and crewmembers (who are earning less on sailings dominated by international passengers), the cruise line has decided to take a fresh look at its gratuity system.

"There is a huge cultural difference between the U.K. and the U.S.A. when it comes to tipping," Robin Shaw, Royal Caribbean's vice president and managing director, U.K. and Ireland, tells us. "We are evaluating our options. Gratuities form part of the remuneration for our crew and when there is a large contingency of U.K. guests onboard, the remuneration is not at the same level. It is a challenge to us."

And the challenge will only grow as Royal Caribbean continues to source new cruisers from markets outside of North America, including Asia, South America and -- perhaps to the largest extent -- the United Kingdom. In fact, Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain recently told Bloomberg that more than half its passengers will be non-U.S. by 2011 or 2012.

But what exactly does this mean for passengers -- and crewmembers -- when it comes to tipping?

Outside of the U.S., cruise passengers don't tip as much (if at all) as their American counterparts. What this means is that, now that Royal Caribbean is no longer catering to a primarily American audience, its original model of paying gratuities isn't working. Part of the crew's salaries comes from gratuities, and crewmembers know they simply won't get paid as much on sailings with a large number of Brits, which can impact employee morale and service levels.

"Tell them it is not mandatory and a huge [percentage] will walk off that ship without paying a penny," England-based member Albert Ross posts on our Royal Caribbean forum. "It is no wonder that they allegedly have staffing and morale issues on Indie when she is in Southampton."

Interestingly, Shaw tells us that on British lines like Thomson, where tipping is not required -- and not expected -- service levels are high because passengers will tip for exceptional service and crewmembers will strive hard to earn that "thank you." But it's not just Brits who tip differently. Shaw points out the fact that other countries, such as Germany, also do not have an American-style tipping tradition. He says there are "mechanisms" in place to safeguard against this -- such as company-sanctioned incentives to keep the crew motivated -- but the fact is, the system no longer matches the culture of the line's passengers and it's going to be reviewed.

"I think it is great news," member yarlenna posts about the plans to tweak the tipping policy onboard. "The hard working staff can count on some money and pax will have a head's up so they know it is part of cruising." Member michigan tim is hoping for a simple approach: "I prefer the convenience of an upfront service charge. Above and beyond service will cause me to bust out my wallet in recognition. To stiff these guys is unconscionable." HeavySurf agrees: "After having taken more than twenty cruises, I have come to the conclusion that a standard tip included in the fare would save a lot of headaches for cruisers and heartaches for crew. I admit on our first cruise I hadn't the foggiest notion of what to tip and who to tip."

On the other hand, member Happy_Traveler02 "would be more in favor of an auto gratuity that would be enough so servers could make some money, but also small enough so we could add to it for excellent service." And Elizanessie wants to see the change globally -- not just in the U.K.: "If RCCL decides to include the tips with the cruise price on ships sailing only from U.K. ... then I will be done with cruising with RCCL."

It should be noted that even on lines that do automatically add recommended gratuity amounts to onboard accounts, passengers can adjust that amount -- in either direction -- by visiting the purser's desk.

How do you think Royal Caribbean should update its tipping model? Voice your opinion here!

--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor, with reporting by Sue Bryant