If you thought tipping was out of control in the United States, try heading out to sea.
That's where Jane Greene discovered the tipping economy isn't just alive and well, it apparently sustains the crew of major cruise ships. That's a particularly interesting revelation in light of the U.S. government's plans to regulate the cruise industry.
"Prior to our most recent cruise, we always tipped generously -- above and beyond what was recommended for individuals who showed extra initiative," says Greene, an author from Pensacola, Fla.
But on her latest cruise on Oceania, she found a surprise charge on her final bill: it included a hefty, and automatic, tip for the crew.
Oceania's tipping policy is spelled out in its frequently-asked questions section: For guests occupying staterooms, gratuities of $14.50 per guest, per day, will be added to the final bill. Plus, an 18 percent service gratuity is automatically added to all beverage purchases, spa services and dinner at its signature restaurant, La Reserve, it says.
That didn't bother Greene as much as the behavior of the crew did.
"Virtually all of these people came with hands out, expecting more," she says. "I was told by two different staff persons that what we had been charged on our final bill was for gratuity, not for tip. Like other passengers, we felt obligated to ante up once again -- but it seemed wrong, and left us with a bad taste."
She's not alone. I've been a tipping critic for years (here's my latest rant against this fundamentally unfair way of compensating employees). Seems I have at least one reader who agrees with me. But land-based tipping is really nothing compared to the automatic tips you encounter at sea.
By the way, a gratuity and a tip are more or less the same thing. Greene says she had to pay even more than regular passengers, because she had booked a suite. Customers in one of Oceania's Penthouse, Oceania, Vista or Owner's Suites where butler service is provided pay a mandatory gratuity of $20.50 per guest, per day.
Not a new policy?
Greene contacted Oceania, asking for an explanation of these fees. She received what appeared to be a personal response from a vice president, explaining the cruise line's tipping policy.
"The entire hotel operations staff on board our ship share in the gratuities paid by our guests," he wrote. "This ensures that each and every member of our staff embraces our service commitment to the guests. As a convenience to our guests and in order to avoid the feeling of having to constantly tip staff members, Oceania Cruises has had in place since its inception the policy of adding the suggested gratuities to guests' shipboard account."
That's even more damning. Greene certainly didn't feel as if the tips were discretionary, so if this policy has been in place since the beginning, doesn't it make you wonder how many other cruise passengers have been broadsided by it?
And then there's this: Starting with the 2013-14 winter cruise season, Oceania is raising its "automatic" gratuities to $15 and $22, depending on your cabin class. The only way to eliminate them is to stand in a long line at the end of the cruise, to request their removal. How convenient.
How it should be done
Years ago, when I started covering the cruise industry, I remember meeting with the president of a cruise line and asking him why he paid his employees less than the minimum wage.
"Actually," he said, wagging his finger at me, "they make great money!"
"How?" I wondered.
"Tips," he replied, matter-of-factly. "They can make enough money to support their families back home."
That struck me as fundamentally unfair. Not only did it rely on the largesse of passengers -- something you can't always depend on -- but it also allowed the cruise line to pay the equivalent of slave wages while also hiding the true cost of a cruise.
Restaurants are running charities by comparison.
Can it get any worse? Sure. NCL's Pride of America had a $12 per passenger, per day "auto" gratuity before it headed to dry dock for renovations. At one time, the gratuity couldn't be removed, but in recent years, passengers were allowed to "adjust" it at their discretion. Still, you should have seen the complaints about that one.
If you add those tips to the bill at the end of a cruise and try to guilt your passengers into paying it, that's almost as bad as hitting you with a surprise mandatory "resort" fee at the end of their stay, which some hotels still do.
Cruise lines should be paying their staff a living wage, not forcing them to rely on handouts -- voluntary or otherwise -- from guests. The only beneficiaries of such a pricing policy are cruise lines, who can legally pay their employees chicken scratch. It might be useful to dodge a few bucks on taxes, too. And the only reason anyone can continue to get away with this deceptive pricing is because we allow them to.
It's time for the cruise industry to do what it says -- to make its product "all-inclusive." And that should include their employees' wages.
After you've left a comment here telling me what a heartless person I am, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Photo: Neale Cousland/Shutterstock