/ Money, Travel & Leisure

When is a tip not a tip? When P&O adds it automatically

P&O is the latest cruise line to add automatic daily gratuities to passengers’ onboard accounts. My tip for P&O? If you want to avoid angry customers, make sure they know all the facts.

Last December, we asked for your opinions on cruise tipping after Fred Olsen decided to change its policy and start charging a set daily amount. Most of you were against it, like John:

‘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.’

And Barbara praised P&O’s tipping:

‘I prefer the method on P&O who let you tip each waiter and cabin person individually according to the service given.’

Oh dear. Barbara is unlikely to be happy with P&O’s recent change of course. On most of its ships, passengers currently pay any gratuities directly to the cabin stewards and waiter (if they so wish). But from next spring, the cruise operator will add £3.10 per person, per day onto bills that will be paid for at the end of the trip. This is to cover service charges for various ship staff.

Just the tip of the iceberg

It may not sound much, but a couple on a 99 day world cruise will end up paying an extra £608 in service charges. P&O says it has introduced this system because it ‘creates clarity for everyone by removing any awkwardness and confusion’ over how much they should tip.

Ever more ships (particularly US-owned ones) now automatically add service charges like this to people’s accounts, and often much more – at around £7 per passenger, per day.

And when you factor in an extra obligatory service charge, often 15%, which is added to all chargeable drinks and spa entry – not to mention a dotted line on the drinks receipt inviting you to add a further tip – it’s no wonder we Brits get frustrated.

Only premium cruise lines such as Regent, and a few more mainstream companies like Saga and Thomson, include service charges in their overall price. They then allow passengers to tip individual staff for exceptional service. Isn’t this a better way to encourage future good service?

Cruise companies need to be transparent

It’s true that the daily service charge is virtually always discretionary – you can get the amount adjusted or opt out of it completely by asking at the ship reception, although staff may dissuade you from doing this.

But how well-informed will P&O customers be about this new system? Will it be made clear to you at the time of booking (whether online, by P&O sales staff or by travel agents) that there will be this extra charge to pay at the end of the trip?

If not, that will be a nasty surprise for passengers, especially those loyal customers who cherish the more traditional tipping ways.

And I wonder if all customers will be told that they have the option to opt out of paying the charge? Several Which? members have told us that on other cruise lines, they only found this out by chance when talking to other people onboard their ship.

So, what do you think is the best system for tipping on cruise ships?

  • Pay a lower price for your cruise, and pay a daily amount to be shared amongst crew.
  • Pay a higher price for your cruise, and have no tips to pay once onboard.
  • Pay a lower price for your cruise, and pay tips to staff individually at your discretion.
cronk11 says:
6 December 2011

I again feel this tipping business is a nonsense . How can it be a tip if it is automatically added to a bill or have a semi-compulsary element? It should be viewed for what it is ,a plain rip off and a way to enable cruise lines to pay staff low wages and post artificially low headline prices. It should be outlawed

Wardley lass says:
7 December 2011

I have already complained about this on a cruise line (Italian) where both food and entertainment were definitely 3rd class. This company is now saying that from this year the daily service charge will be considered part of the contract and NO-ONE will be able to opt out of any part of it. I really thought that P&O were above this kind of thing. I am very disapointed.

trevor hydon says:
8 December 2011

As this charge is compulsory the OFT should demand that it is included in the advertised price of the cruise thereby making the cruise price less competitive. This would also prevent cruise lines making further steep rises in this “extra”


Any “service charges” should be in the price so I prefer the second option; this maintains competitive pressure on cruise prices. Tipping individual staff isn’t entirely fair because a lot of other staff perform excellent service out of sight and these days many cruisers prefer casual dining where they help themselves – the hard-working staff who clear the tables probably never see a real tip and get a pittance from the “pool”. The P&O daily rate means few people will feel inclined to give any extra to staff who provide a more personal service throughout the cruise [like room stewards]. In my experience, when service charges are added separately and described as “discretionary”, very few people seek to pay a smaller amount or opt out altogether [preferring perhaps to reward one or two individuals only]. Making the charge part of the price eliminates the entire problematic issue of gratuities at a stroke but we need to watch out that the cruise lines don’t then just apply a percentage to the fare; it should remain a standard charge per passenger per day irrespective of grade of cabin.
Something I’ve never been able to fathom is why laundry charges on cruise ships are so high, given that every day they are having to wash thousands of towels, table cloths, dinner napkins, uniforms, bedlinen, and so on. With baggage limitations applying to fly-cruises it’s very difficult to avoid using the laundry service at some point, especially if the dress code requires evening dress.
I suppose these gripes must seem pathetic so I’ll shut up now.

Chris S says:
9 December 2011

We have just booked with RCL and were told if we chose fixed dinning we could tip separately but that we could only choose ‘anytime’ dining (with a difference waiter each night) if we signed up to mandatory tipping.

I too think that tips, service charges etc should all be in the first price you see – but realise our North Americans friends are used to seeing a quoted price + GST (tax)


Whether it is ‘fair’ or not is not really the issue. The issue is: Which system ensures good quality of service and product.

I live in both the UK and US. The standard of service is markedly different in each country and it seems to me, that is due to the way servers gain their income. In the US servers are not paid the same minimal wage, but less. They earn most from tips.

Tipping affects every aspect of the product and service. Under the US system the server will not only be pleasant in their service, they will also ensure your food is top quality and the way you asked for it cooked. The tipped server is ‘on your side’. She or he will ensure good quality because the server knows their tip is dependent on it. With horror stories of what happens to your food behind the scenes, you can be reassured you are less likely to endure such horrors, if the waiter knows his income is dependent on all aspects of the service and food you receive.

You cannot be so assured in the UK, where the waiter sees no impact on his income.

If you regularly visit the same restaurant it is worth tipping well. Servers develop a rapport with their customers, and a knowledge of your personal likes and dislikes.

How much to tip? Servers are not fools. They can judge their customers and know who can afford to tip well and who cannot. They also know cultural differences and know Brits are not accustomed to tipping. Tip as you can afford. You will get the same service.

The culture of tipping is essentially paying people by the quality of their service, not pay because of some ‘right’. That culture pervades all aspects of US service, even into service areas where tips are not given – such as supermarket check-outs. When retail staff say ‘Have a nice day’, they mean it. They want you to come back because they know their job is dependent on you coming back. The culture of tipping makes for a more affable and happy life.

Last year I bought a new tyre at an independent UK retailer. The service was remarkable – efficient and courteous, they went out of their way to ensure I was happy with the service and confident in the product. I am used to that standard of service in the US but not in the UK. Paying the owner, I made that comment. He chuckled, saying he had lived and worked in the US. No wonder he had a queue of customers. And I left a tip for the tyre fitter.

The culture of tipping depends on both sides knowing the rules. Got good service and good product? Give a tip. If not, don’t tip, and don’t buy from outlets that automatically charge for service.

Andy says:
9 December 2011

What can one do to opt out with P&O new approach, who did not advise at time of booking nor did the travel agent. This is total misrepresentation.

johnson says:
26 March 2013

Tipping should be earned. We have done several p @O cruises all excellant. but we feel annoyed that our cruise cost has been increased by nearly £90. We have not been informed by our booking agent. We found out by reading the small print in the catalogue. Annoyed pensioners