/ Money, Travel & Leisure

Are cruise lines going overboard with service charges?

Mum and daughter on cruise ship

More and more cruise companies are adding daily service charges to passengers’ onboard accounts. Is this a fairer system for the staff or would we get better service if we tip staff individually?

Until this month, passengers on a Fred Olsen cruise would pay any gratuities they chose directly to the cabin stewardess and waiter. Now the policy has changed and £4 per passenger per day is automatically added to onboard accounts.

P&O now also operate a similar system for some guests on some ships, while Royal Caribbean has just raised its daily service charge to around £7 per person for cruises from next July.

The added extras on board cruises

This topic is one that many Which? members have written to us about, and for some, it’s the most irritating part of a cruise trip.

When you factor in an extra obligatory service charge (often 15%) which is added to all chargeable drinks and spa entry, and a dotted line on the drinks receipt inviting you to add a further tip, it’s no wonder we get frustrated.

It’s worth bearing in mind, though, that the daily service charge is virtually always discretionary and you can get the amount adjusted, or opt out of it completely at reception – but this isn’t always made clear. Some members who chose to do this and tip individual staff tell us that the service suddenly improved afterwards.

What makes a fair tip?

Cruise firms insist that when a passenger gives individual tips to waiters and cabin ‘housekeepers’ the ‘back-room’ staff unfairly miss out on tips, so a blanket per day charge to be spread equally among all crew is a fairer system.

But wouldn’t it be better if the crew was paid a more respectable salary in the first place so they were less reliant on these secondary payments? Many people have told us they’d be happy to pay a slightly higher cruise fare for this to happen, especially if it meant they didn’t then feel obliged to pay tips once on board.

On the other hand, if all tips and service charges are included in your overall cruise holiday price it could be a pain to try and get recompense if the service is below par. What do you think is the best system?


I’ve always had excellent service on Fred Olsen cruises and tipped accordingly.I wonder if the service will deteriorate if there is no incentive to try that little harder.I think so.

Over recent years we have cruised with Fred. Olsen, P & O, and Holland America. On the first two, gratuities were dealt with personally with the cabin steward and table waiter on the last day and they supposedly distributed their receipts amongst their underlings as they thought fit. The company recommended daily amounts per passenger per day [currently £4 with Olsen] but it was left to each passenger to tip as much or as little as they wished. Envelopes were provided to add a degree of privacy and security to the arrangement but it was almost impossible to avoid making a gratuity as the envelopes were keenly awaited with hovering anticipation. Our own views were that the recommended rates were excessive but we nevertheless went along with them, admittedly on occasions taking the opportunity to unload some foreign currency notes in the process. We were also concerned that many other staff on the ships did excellent work and were unlikely to gain any supplements to their remuneration [e.g. the laundry staff who do a phenomenal job in some pretty unpleasant working conditions]. It seemed likely that the companies were employing large numbers of third-world workers at pitiful rates [but with “all found” of course] and using the gratuity system to boost their wages to a respectable level on a guilt-trip basis, so to be a cheapskate and refuse to tip, or to tip low, would be the height of bad form since the staff would not have enough money to send home to their families each month. On Holland America the system was the same as now being introduced by Fred. Olsen with an automatic supplement added to the end bill. The benefit of this is that the share-out among the crew is probably more equitable and might cascade further into the bowels of the ship but the drawback is that it is anonymous and crew have less incentive to “earn” their tip. Exercising the “opt-out” is not as agreeable as the operators try to make out. We did in fact publicly prostrate ourselves at the reception desk and crave to be allowed to cut the amount deducted centrally in return for declaring that we would be making gratuities to the key personnel who had contributed significantly to our enjoyment [well it felt like we were going through a bit of an obstacle course to achieve our purpose, with raised eyebrows and loud requests for a justification for our decision]. On balance I think the whole thing is an embarrassment and an anachronism that has no place in modern cruising. The wages should be decent and the fare should be set accordingly. In practice there is very little the staff can do to make your cruise any better than it already is because any such factors are tightly controlled by the company. The crew could, of course, make your life on board a misery if they took against you but that is unlikely to happen as it would surely lead to instant relegation or severance. In all our time on cruise ships we have never encountered anything but the highest standards of service, courtesy, diligence, conscientiousness, disposition, and friendliness among the hundreds of crew-members and feel this should be fully recognised with proper terms and conditions of employment, dignity of treatment by passengers and company alike, and due reward for exceptional conduct. So headline prices would have to go up a little, but the notion that we would all be trying to get “recompense if the service is below par” is unrealistic – the standard of service on the better cruise lines is so much higher than you would ever experience in a British four-star hotel that the concept of “below par” is meaningless.

We went on a first cruise las summer with Princess. We were able to look at our bill during the trip and were horrified to see a $9 charge per person, per day for our cabin which included 2 adults and an 8 year old. We were perhaps naive virgin cruisers, but didn’t realise that this would automatically be put on to our bill. We were able to remove the ‘discretionary’ tips and we gave tips to the staff who we thought deserved the tips. We wonder how many passengers had been caught out by this discretionary charge and who had inadverently paid this amount. The service was excellent throughout and we felt that it was more fitting for the tips to go directly to the staff who had contributed to our fantastic holiday.

Jezza says:
9 January 2011

So you’re happy to tip, or be ‘charged’, for staff doing exactly what they are paid to do? Do you tip everyone who ‘serves’ you? do you tip retail staff? Do you add a little something to your energy bills to cover the staff who have to maintain your services in inclement weather? Do you not realise that cruise operators use low cost Nationals – paid at much lower rates than UK Nationals for example – and make up their wages through your tips?! You are paying the quoted Cruise price and then an additional 10% – 20% in tips! How would you react to buying a suite in a furniture shop and the bill including an extra 15% for service?

merissa says:
23 February 2011

It all depends on what the staff is being paid. If their tips are part of their salary, then yes, you should be tipping everyone who serves you. For example: servers and bartenders in Pennsylvania are paid $2.83 per hour, because tips are part of their salary. What do cruise staff get paid hourly or yearly? You should know the answer to that before you complain about tipping. And if your service is terrible the 2nd time you are served, don’t wonder why!!

Andy says:
17 March 2011

We have settled on smaller ship cruising – Spirit of Adventure – where there are no gratuities, no surcharge on drinks (even if the bar staff bring it to you) and, since it’s open dining, your waiter is different most nights. We did tip our cabin steward but it wasn’t really necessary.
What did seem to matter to the crew was that passengers could commend their performance (or otherwise) and maybe that was of financial benefit in the long term.

Barbara, Dorset says:
21 January 2011

I refer to your article about adjusting or opting out of tipping on a cruise, by visiting the reception/purser’s desk.
This is not possible if you have already included the tipping in your payment to your travel agent when you first book.
I was told when on a Celebrity “Eclipse” Cruise last year that it could not be adjusted for that reason. I think £107 paid by each traveller is too much.
When I book again I will make sure I do not pay for the tips in advance, although I do tip what I think is a reasonable amount.
I prefer the method on P and O who let you tip each waiter and cabin person individually according to the service given.

Paul says:
24 March 2011

Cunard not only add a massive gratuity to each bill, but also leave space on bar bills for another tip. However, I did draw the line last year in the Queens Grill on the Queen Victoria, when I spotted an extra charge for Spanish Port duty, despite us having left port hours before. I recieved a refund, but it stayed on everyone elses bill.

A little update on this – P&O has now added automatic daily tipping to its cruises. I’m sure many of you won’t be happy with that: https://conversation.which.co.uk/transport-travel/pocruises-gratuity-tip-service-charge/

Denise says:
22 February 2012

I think it’s a disgrace that cruise ships automatically put gratuities on your bill, you should be allowed to choose who you tip, i always tip our room attendant wherever i am, but being forced into doing so, and putting the customer in this position is dispicable. so far i have ruled out a few cruise lines, because i think the daily amount is too high and unfair, and has i wouldn’t eat in dining room and i am teetotal, i dont drink alcohol or spirits i dont see why i should have to tip these people.. i feel the rates on royal carribean and ncl are excessive to start with. and the prices they charge for drinks is high to start with, so adding another 15% on top is a right cheek, hence i wont cruise with thse companies.

After reading the comments on your site I would question why there should be any gratuity payments at all, as all ships personnel should be in receipt of a decent renumeration for their services. I have recently booked on a cruise and was asked if I would like to pay for my gratuities up front, as this is my first cruise and not knowing any different have paid the sums of 90gbp per person. Having read these comments I am beginning to question my actions, is this sum of money going to all staff on board, why is it not inclusive in the package, are the sums involved really going to the staff. I dont really believe that I will receive any better treatment because I have opted to pay upfront. I personally am now doubting my actions as I do not believe I can be in receipt of 180gbp worth of service, just how can the cruise company justify asking for up front payments. I like some of the people who have made comments drink very little and lead a life of reserved prudence when it comes to spending my hard earned cash. There are many more questions that I would like pose but this would make my comments more of a rant than of constructive criticism. Anyone who has any advice please do contact me.

Paul Rouse says:
13 October 2013

We cruise with Cunard each year, who automatically add gratuities to the Account. In addition, we then tipped the Butler, waiters and bar staff ourselves. Cunard also have a place on every till receipt you sign, looking for yet another Gratuity, which I consider disgraceful and ignore. To add insult to injury, last year I found an extra tax added to a drinks Bill one evening, supposedly for a Spanish Port Tax, despite our having left the Spanish port 3 hours before.
We went along with this up until this year, when I decided that enough was enough and asked the Pursers Office to remove the service charges from our final Bill. In fairness, they did that without quibble. From now on we pay gratuities to whoever we want, and whenever we want to.


Tony Ashby says:
24 January 2017

It has just come to light that many restuarants count “service charge” as revenue. Do cruise lines do the same?

I expect so. It gets paid to the staff as a supplement to their wages which also come out of revenue. Most cruise lines allow passengers to opt out of automatic deductions at a daily rate.