You got a great low fare for a cruise but when you settle your on board account the last day, you discover the cruise line added gratuities of $12-18 to your account for each person per day.

For a week-long cruise this could add another $100 to the cost of the cruise.

What gives?

Commonly, you’ll find these auto-grats fees on the largest cruise lines, which are not all inclusive. The marketing strategy to keep advertised fares low depends on a la carte charges like auto grats and other fees paid at the end of a cruise.

The luxury cruise lines that have small ships and high fares (like $3,000 and up per week) pay their staff good wages, and often don’t even allow tipping.

Auto grats is basically a hidden fee that you should pay.

It’s only customary to some

Most Americans are used to paying a tip for food service or other services may dislike this custom but go with it, because that’s how things are.

People from other countries, like UK and Australia where tipping is rare, find this pretty offensive.

Why is tipping even a thing?

Gratuity system shortchanges servers and lower taxes for restaurant owners. Leaving someone’s livelihood up to the whim of patrons is unfair to workers.

In the US, restaurant owners are legally allowed to pay sub-minimum wages to food servers and bartenders, in the amount of $2.13 per hour. By contrast, dishwashers and cooks are paid according to standard labor laws.

In practice, this system and forces servers to upsell appetizers, drinks, and desserts because their pay is directly related to total bill. It turns servers into sales people who make low commissions for working hard.

Moreover, tipping also leaves people, particularly women, vulnerable to harassment. They must accept unruly and inappropriate behavior just to earn a living.

If you believe no one deserves gratuities, just tell guest services to remove them from your account.

How much do cruise ship employees make?

You can’t talk about tipping without acknowledging how much the cruise ship staff earn.

The cruise industry took the gratuity system and ran with it. Most ships are not registered in the US and therefore exempt from US labor laws. As a result, cruise lines can get away with low wages because they’re legally based in a country without minimum wage laws.

While crew members do not have to pay for food or housing while they’re on the ship, some crew members may be paid as little $400 a month when payday rolls around. Without tips, they don’t have much opportunity to earn more.

Officers, performers and managers are paid more because of their highly specialized skills or responsibilities.

How tipping translates to cruise industry

Cruise ships advertise low fares to attract cruisers, but never include taxes, port fees or tips until the final fare.

This is a hidden-fee marketing tactic that many industries use when marketing to people who are price sensitive (financial industry is notorious for this). They reel them in with low prices, then surprise with fine print fees, automatic gratuities, and nickel-and-diming on board.

Related: Make sure you know what is included, and what costs extra on board

Each cruise line has a goal amount they want each passenger to spend between fare, excursions, specialty dining, and drinks on board to meet their sales projections.

It’s a psychological marketing strategy. Get the guest on board and tie a credit card to their on board account. Then, the guest does not feel like they’re spending real money since they never take their wallet out (cruise ships don’t use cash or credit cards).

If you remove the auto gratuities and only give out cash, there are lots of unseen crew members who won’t get a fare share of the tip.

What if I want to just leave a cash tip?

You can do that. Typically, cabin stewards leave an envelope toward the end of the cruise for that very purpose and you can write their names on it.

Before auto grats, cruise passengers gave cash tips for room and food service staff, but it left behind-the-scenes workers without any monetary incentives.

The gratuities are pooled and distributed to crew members (not officers, since they’re well compensated). They go to people you see each day, like your cabin attendant, and the people you never see who keep the ship operations running smoothly. These are people like:

  • Laundry workers
  • Food stockers
  • Mechanics
  • Buffet workers
  • Security
  • People cleaning and sanitizing elevator buttons and hand railings, vacuuming carpets
  • Maintenance workers who fix your AC or the elevators
  • People cleaning windows and doors all day to remove finger prints and grime
  • Pool deck crew who clean and set out chairs every night
  • Sports deck crew members
  • Photographers
  • Excursions and cruise director’s staff
  • and other cleaning crews you may never notice.

You can either give an additional cash tip on top of the gratuity, or you can request gratuities be removed from your account so you can give cash.

Ultimately, if you remove the auto grats and only give out cash, there are lots of unseen folks who won’t get a share of the tip.

Furthermore, auto grats is convenient because you don’t have to spend the last day trying to find people to give them tips. You can just relax and enjoy your final day, stress-free.

What if I don’t want to leave any tips?

That’s your right, too. If you believe no one deserves gratuities, just tell guest services to remove them from your account.

What’s the advantage to prepaying tips?

Some cruisers who budget their trips opt to prepay tips and make it part of the cruise fare costs ahead of time. That way, they have as little as possible to pay after the cruise.

Most pay at the end of the cruise when they settle all of their on board charges with guest services.

Travel agents don’t get commission for tips

Travel agents are only paid a commission for the original fare, before taxes and fees are added.

Adding gratuities at the end of the cruise (instead of built into the base fare) is another way cruise lines keep more money in their own pocket. 

A cash tip is best way to say “Thank You” to a crew member who gave you great service.

Gratuities are everywhere

Before you even board your cruise you’ll find many people expecting a tip:

  • Uber/Lyft/Taxi drivers
  • Shuttle bus drivers
  • Baggage porters who collect your bags at the port and help get them on the ship. Porters don’t work for the cruise line, they work for the cruise port security contractor
  • Restaurant servers

If they help you with your baggage, they are expect a tip. $1-$2 per bag is appropriate. $5 per bag if you’re feeling generous or they really go out of their way to help you.

The automatically added gratuity at the end of the cruise covers all of the following people, but you may wish to reward some with additional cash. The following is a list of people you may want to tip in addition to the automatic gratuity, but it’s not required.

Housekeeping

Cabin stewards are with you for your entire trip and in charge of making up your room once or twice a day.

Some cruisers believe offering a tip at the start of the cruise helps ensure excellent service, and another tip at the end if they’ve done an extraordinary job.

If you want to tip your attendant, a cash tip at the end of the cruise is appreciated. A tip of $10-20 per guest is appropriate.

Dining room servers

The managers make good money, but the food servers do not. You can take the same approach here as with housekeeping.

Tips at start may help you get better service.

At the end of the cruise, $10-20 per guest would be appropriate.

Bartenders

Alcoholic drinks have auto-grats added, usually 18%. Your server might be more generous with pours or give you a little something special if offered a cash tip up front.

Spa treatments

Spa treatments also have auto-grats added, usually 18%. You can leave the fee or ask them to remove it. If your spa service was outstanding, you can leave extra when you sign the receipt slip.

Room service

In past days of cruising, room service did not have a fee, but now the big lines charge delivery fees. Usually, but not always, the food itself is free, but they charge a fee to bring it to you. 

Don’t be surprised to see another 18% auto gratuity added here, too.

If you’re charged a fee, you may want to skip tipping here, but remember, they are bringing your food and if they know you don’t tip, they might serve you last. $2  per order is appropriate.

Childcare workers

While there’s no additional cost for the kids club, the baby sitting service (if available) has a fee.

All child care staff are certified or licensed, often in child development and/or CPR. They also are low on the pay scale totem, so if you feel the care your child received was excellent, or your child was particularly troublesome, a tip of $4-5 at the end of the cruise is appropriate.

In-port & offship tipping

The ports you visit depend on tourism for their livelihood, so they expect tips to make a living. Don’t forget cash for these folks:

  • Drivers – $1-2 per guest
  • Tour guides – $2-5 per guest
  • Wait staff – depends on the bill, 20% is good
  • Anyone who goes out of their way to help you

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