Just Say No to Mandatory Gratuities


by Robert McGarvey


The CruiseCritic headline slapped me in the face:

Norwegian Cruise Line to Raise Gratuities

Hold on a second: how does a cruise line “raise” gratuities which, by definition, are volitional with the guest?  To belabor the obvious: that means I can tip, not tip, tip a lot, tip a little – it’s on me.

NCL apparently does not like any of that.  Its new policy, explained CruiseCritic, is that “fees for standard cabins and mini-suites will jump from $13.50 to $13.99 per passenger, per day, while cruisers in suites will be charged $16.99 per person, per day, up from $15.50. That amounts to a respective per- person increase of $3.43 or $10.43 per seven-night sailing.”

On Norwegian Sky, a beverage inclusive ship, passengers will get nicked for more: “cruisers in standard cabins and mini-suites will now pay $18.99 per person, per day, while those in suites will pay $21.99 per person, per day,” reported CruiseCritic.

On a 7 day cruise most NCL passengers will pay $118.83.  On Norwegian Sky, the tariff is $75.96 for most passengers, $87.96 for those in suites, on a 4 day cruise.

For a family of four on Sky, that tip amounts to $351.84 if they are in a suite on a 4 day cruise.

Doesn’t NCL get that tipping is supposed to be at my choice?  Sure it does. Kind of.  NCL told TravelMarket Report “the discretionary service charges can always be adjusted as guests wish. They simply need to visit guest services desk onboard.”

Note: that means you cannot just log into a website, look at your bill, and cross off the gratuity.  No. You have to do it in an in person meeting. On the ship. Using time you probably want to put into the fun activities people cruise to do.

It’s enough to make me scream in angry disbelief.

Understand I am on Danny Meyer’s side when it comes to tipping, which is that the right policy – for business, their employees, and the guests – is to eliminate tipping and reflect that in higher charges to guests.

I also know NCL is not alone in building tips into the bill presented to customers.  It has become common practice at many high level spas, for instance, and these are places that nick guests maybe $250 or $300 for a session – meaning the tip (often 20%) adds as much as $60 to the tab.

I am not for paying masseuses less, or waiters and waitresses, or bartenders, or barbers.  What I want is a system where the price presented to the patron includes adequate compensation for the server.

I also want transparency in pricing so the consumer knows the tariff going in.  I have the same problem with resort fees as I do with automatic gratuities – they aren’t adequately disclosed in the pricing info.

In most of our interactions – in grocery stores, with Google Express, on the subway, and down most of what we do – we don’t tip because it is not the norm.

In a subset of services – often involving hospitality – we frequently are expected to tip. I am no fan of the custom – I wish it would just stop and that employers would resolve to pay their own employees a fair wage.

But where I am supposed to tip I do.  I might not like how the game is played, but I do not want to stiff the worker.

I have tipped, every time, I have cruised and I have tipped generously by my standards.  Crew work hard, typically they are not well paid, and I want to reward their efforts – even if I wish their employers simply raised their paychecks.

I go along with the system. really I do.  Even with my grumbles about it.

But a line has to be drawn and a place to draw it is when businesses automatically add a tip to the bill and I have to take extra steps to void it.  That’s an imposition and it is wrong.

I also know that NCL is not alone in the cruise industry. Nowadays, many lines impose automatic gratuities – and also require the passenger take an extra step or two to change the amount or void it.

All wrong.

Note: I don’t even mind places that, acknowledging many of us are math challenged, show what a 20% tip is – but still leave it up to me to add it in, to add in a different amount, or to void the tip entirely.

My advice: just say no to automatically imposed gratuities. Do tip the workers. But tell their bosses that their attempt to force our hands is all wrong.

2 thoughts on “Just Say No to Mandatory Gratuities”

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with your observations and concerns about the deceptive practice of actually having the customer contribute to the pay of the employees ………

  2. NCL’s FAQ says:

    What about gratuities?
    Unlike most other ships in the cruise industry, there is no required or recommended tipping on our ships for service that is generally rendered to all Guests. [ and then goes on to recommend or require tipping in extraordinary or extra-service cases ]

    OK, straightforward enough: no tipping for routine service.

    But then the next question says:

    What is the onboard service charge?

    Why is there a service charge?
    The reason there’s a fixed service charge is an important one: Our Crew (as are the crew from other lines) is encouraged to work together as a team. Staff members including complimentary restaurant staff, stateroom stewards and behind-the-scenes support staff are compensated by a combination of salary and incentive programs that your service charge supports.

    The fine print says that the OSC is optional.

    This combination: claiming that they are unlike other lines and have no required or recommended tipping, and then charging a gratuity under another name, is in my opinion simply fraud.

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