So what’s this all about?
In case it has escaped your notice, most modern cruise lines are registered offshore and under what are known as ‘flags of convenience’. Although cruise lines generally operate to the highest standards of safety and adhere to International Maritime conventions and laws, being registered offshore gives cruise lines some certain ‘advantages’ when it comes, for instance, to employment rights and obligations.
In times long gone, the idea and purpose of tipping began as a very personal recognition for exceptional service offered to the customer. Gratuities on early passenger lines were encouraged and were a very positive way to reward those employees who ‘went the extra mile’. Fast forward to today’s cruise line experience and the setup is somewhat different. The service received from the crew is nearly always stellar, with the vast majority of onboard service staff coming from the nations of Eastern Europe, the Caribbean & Central America, or developing countries from the southern hemisphere.
So this is where the significance of cruise line registration comes in. As most lines are registered offshore, owners take full advantage of a lack of coherent overseeing employment regulation. As a result, the majority of employees on board ship are paid a very basic stipend, and beyond that are reliant on the expected gratuity that is levied on each passenger. Now it may scramble your brain to hear that an often mandatory extra charge is called a ‘gratuity’ or ‘hotel service charge’ but this is a fact of life on modern cruise ships.
Effectively, cruise lines have offloaded the necessity of directly paying their own employees, and have left their staff dependant on the generosity and understanding of the travelling public – who may or may not be aware that this ‘charge’ in fact constitutes the bulk of service staff wages .
Why it DOES matter
I really dislike this backdoor system of paying cruise line employees, and I also feel it devalues the very notion of rewarding personnel who work harder and really do take extra care. However, the system is in place and is unlikely to ever change. One reason for this, of course, is that cruise lines promote pricing strategies that may not include the gratuity, so the lead-in costing for a cruise will be artificially lowered. Then of course there are those pesky taxation and administrative implications that are conveniently avoided when registering offshore.
To anyone even considering reducing or amending their daily ‘gratuity’ and wanting to allocate tips/payments directly and in cash to an individual, I would ask that you don’t. Not only would you be depriving many hard working non-frontline members of staff who work hard and rely on their allocated percentage of the daily hotel charge for a living wage, but in many cases the lucky recipients of a direct gratuity in lieu of the daily charge (for instance, your cabin attendant) may be forced to hand over the cash, for it to be then placed in a pool and shared with other members of staff.
It is so much easier to leave the recommended daily charge in place. We almost always have received great service from our cabin attendants and other hospitality employees and we will tip something extra, above and beyond the daily charge. If the daily service fee is left in place, this extra gratuity goes directly to the person you are rewarding.
The hospitality crew on board work extremely hard, and work long shifts with unpredictable rosters and very little time off; their contract runs may last for months at a time. Large numbers of staff from the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and other developing nations may be working on board – and in many cases, a huge percentage of their income is expatriated back home to support an extended family network, in effect clothing, housing and educating what could be several generations of close relatives.
It should be pointed out that most of these (mostly) young men and women are very bright, hard working and focused. In many cases they can speak at least two languages, if not more. They are professionals and know how to do their job well, and are highly skilled at guaranteeing their passengers’ generosity when it comes to recompense. You are not, however, their new best friend.
This is never more evident than the final night of your cruise. You will find before you turn in for the last night on board after a week or more of pampering and undiluted attention, cabin attendants are already prepping for new arrivals; new bedding will have been stashed underneath the bed, new robes placed in the closet, and your drinks fridge may well be locked tightly to prevent your last minute raiding of the goodies inside. By the morning of departure you will be almost invisible as the crew start preparations for disembarkation and very shortly after, the very rapid turnaround and embarkation of a brand new complement of travellers.
As you return from one last trip to the breakfast buffet, you will see cabins being tossed and emptied, hampers stuffed full of dirty laundry, and a very subtle but keen desire to get you off the ship as quickly as possible. As one observer succinctly put it “one moment you’re royalty, the next you’re a refugee”.
Tipping is always a controversial topic among cruisers; whether it be the amount, the circumstances or even the very notion of what a gratuity represents – it remains a very personal choice. One certainty for me is that tipping in cash remains the only way to reward. This arises from time to time when I see postings and comments from dedicated cruisers who love to personalise their recognition of outstanding service. Now this may sound like a wonderful expression of appreciation, but bear in mind that cabin attendants and restaurant service staff have to live in very confined spaces, sharing cabins and probably having storage space amounting to a slightly large shoebox.
Just what would be the most suitable recognition for these young men and women? Spare them the souvenir knickknacks, candies or home town crafts, no matter how well intended – cash is king, simple as that. The reaction to being presented with gifts will undoubtedly be extremely professional, with beaming smiles and thanks. In reality, there is a strong likelihood that they will end up in the nearest incinerator. Crew have no room to stow the stuff, no matter how interesting or unique.
There is one other very worthwhile way of recognising outstanding onboard service. On almost every major cruise line, you will receive an end-of-cruise survey, which may arrive either as a printed form or an online version emailed directly after the cruise. In addition to the ratings for various services, amenities and locations on board, there will be comment boxes where the cruiser has the opportunity to name and recognise one or more members of staff who have made an impression. This is taken very seriously by the cruise companies, and is used in promoting and rewarding the best and the brightest. This, by far, is the most useful thing you can do to support the hardworking crew besides dropping a dollop of greenbacks in their hands.