To tip or not to tip on a cruise?

With different policies on almost every ship, it’s no wonder we’re all at sea

The subject of tipping is always a hot topic and bound to generate argument whenever it is raised. I still don’t understand why my barber expects a tip (for a simple 10-minute wash and polish job in my case) but the supermarket checkout assistant labours all day for a basic wage.

It’s a complicated subject. Some cruise lines choose not to charge for gratuities at all, advising passengers there’s no need to add them, even for services above and beyond. And that’s not just the luxury all-inclusive lines: in the UK, Thomson and Saga, for example, are tip-free zones.

International operators expect British passengers to behave like Americans. In the States, nothing less than 15 per cent on a restaurant or bar bill is acceptable. That’s just a starting point before a table has been laid or a bottle opened – and the handouts go up from there. Hence the 18 per cent tip on cruise-ship bar bills, with room for the customer to add even more.

While we Brits either swallow that meekly or queue up at the reception desk to have the daily amount for gratuities removed or reduced, others are not so compliant. Australian cruise passengers are steadfast non-tippers, and cruise lines operating in the region soon found it expedient to drop gratuities.

Elsewhere, rates and policies vary widely. On Celebrity, Royal Caribbean and NCL, the fixed daily rate is $13.50 per passenger per day (more for suites). On Royal that’s for everyone, regardless of age, while Norwegian doesn’t apply the charge to under-threes.

Young passengers up to the age of 12 are exempt on P&O Cruises’ ships, where the daily rate is £5.50. Fred Olsen expects £4 per day, while MSC charges different rates depending on whether the ship is cruising in the Mediterranean or the Caribbean (it gets more expensive further west).

These payments are normally shared between restaurant waiters and cabin stewards, sometimes extending to crew who work out of sight in the laundry or the galley. But don’t forget that bar bills, speciality restaurant cover charges, and the cost of spa treatments are all subject to additional “service charges” as high as 18 per cent in some cases.

In a way it’s understandable that BBC Breakfast would want to include a debate on tipping to coincide with the opening of the London Cruise Show in February. Far be it from them to accentuate the positive by focussing instead on how cruising is the success story of travel.

But in fact they didn’t have a debate. They wheeled on travel writer Simon Calder, who didn’t even seem sure what policy he was advocating.

On the one hand, he accepted that British holidaymakers should not shirk the minimum 15 per cent tip that is accepted practice in America, for example. On the other, he urged disgruntled cruise passengers to make a point of removing the gratuities from their accounts if they felt they were excessive or undeserved.

He claimed that Norwegian Cruise Line had made tipping compulsory, while at the same time said that passengers could opt out if they filled in a form. Confused? I certainly was.

It was left to Simone Clark, managing director of the Iglu and Planet Cruise agencies, to take Mr Calder to task and start a debate on Twitter.

You might say there should be a common policy across all cruise lines, so customers know what to expect. But there would be an outcry if, by some miracle, they all came to agreement. Collusion on pricing is not welcomed by trading standards departments and other such bodies.

It has to be a case of “caveat emptor” (which means “let the buyer beware” and not, as a fellow cruise passenger once informed me, “seize the day”).

Cruise lines could at least help matters by providing clearer information on their tipping policies, rather than burying it in the small print of their brochures, or in unsignposted parts of their online FAQs.

If you’re in doubt – and who could blame you? – it’s a good idea to ask your travel agent. As Simone Clark told me: “We always advise passengers about gratuities before they book, so they can make the choice of the right cruise line for them.”

This is a debate that will run and run – but look out for a comprehensive guide to cruise- ship gratuities and tipping in a forthcoming issue of this magazine.