Cruise Complaints: Service and Tipping

| April 7, 2008

CruiseMates' reader Todd De Haven opines the high expectations of perfection in food and service on cruises ships.

Experienced cruisers or even those who have never cruised themselves, but do so vicariously through sites such as CruiseMates, continue to be surprised by some of the complaints of cruisers. There was the first time cruiser who was absolutely infuriated when he discovered that he had to pay for soft drinks. Other incidents such as having to pay $8.50 for a cocktail or being served lukewarm cold french toast illicit negative complaints and comments.

People making what a lot of us would consider trivial complaints actually become indignant that they had to suffer such lapses. Are such complaints grossly unfair? Probably, but they are not in the least unusual. While similar complaints might be expected from an uninformed first time cruiser, probably more whining comes from seasoned cruisers.

As Catherine Donzel, author of the magnificent book "Luxury Liners," writes, "The same conditions applied on the Queen Mary as on all the other super liners; a grueling eighteen hour work day and a pampered, demanding clientele who were impossible to please. Mr. Bruschi, Cruise Manager of the France summed it up by saying, 'on board ship....everything that is perfect, unique or exceptional is taken for granted as normal by the great majority of passengers....If their breakfast were wafted to them by miniature helicopter they would probably not be particularly impressed....the slightest imperfection, by contrast, is taken as a personal insult, an intolerable omission.'"

Most of the passengers traveling First Class in the days of the luxurious transatlantic liners were equivalent to those flying First Class and who dine in expensive restaurants today.

Nonetheless a lot of the ambiance and perks afforded those on transatlantic sailings from that era are still available to today's cruisers even though many of us (and by that I am including myself) couldn't dream of flying First Class nor of dining at Sardi's. Yet we often find ourselves behaving the same way. Most all of us at one time or another have, as we tend to say in the South, "Gotten a bit above our raisin'."

Another thing hasn't changed all that much and that is the working hours of the crew and staff and in this I'd like to debunk a growing myth. Probably most crew work 12 and often up to 18 hours a day. Many may go weeks without a full day off. And many do it for what the average American would consider abysmal wages. But that certainly is not a recent phenomenon. It has always been the case on passenger liners since passenger ship service began. I have even read where some believe it a crime that what they refer to as worker abuse, should be allowed to exist. They feel that the cruise industry should pay the same wages as here in the United States and afford it's employees similar benefits if ships sail from American ports.

When you tote it all up, a crew member on a cruise ship may in many ways, have it far better than a lot of those in this country who toil at equivalent low paying jobs.

One pundit complained that it was unconscionable that a crew member on a cruise ship should be separated from his/her family for so long. Excuse me, but such has always been true of all those who have chosen a career at sea.

Is such a hue and cry against wages and conditions aboard most cruise ships reasonable? Not really when you think about it. For instance, the Federal Minimum Hourly Wage for a waiter or waitress in this country is $2.15. Yet while certainly not in the majority, there are nonetheless tens of thousands of waiters and waitresses across the country that if given the chance of trading in their $2.15 an hour plus tips for $10 - $12 an hour and no gratuities, would be appalled at the prospect. This is simply because there are more than a few wait staff in this country that make more in one month than many Americans make in six. Although the amounts earned by service personnel on cruise ships undoubtedly don't approach those amounts, their proportionate earnings back in their home countries and because of the low cost of living in many of those countries, often are favorably comparable.

Let's compare tips say, on what dinners at an upscale restaurant on land that is comparable to the gorgeous dining rooms on most cruise ships would cost. Those who dine out understand fact most diners leave a tip ranging from 18 to 20% of the total bill and that tip could easily amount to $20dollars for a dinner for two. That us just one meal. Yet the weekly tip left a waiter following a seven day cruise may be less than the tip left for two evenings of dining out at home and at a level of service that often exceeds that found at home! And don't forget, while cruise ship wait staff work often work all three meals supplying that extremely high level of service at each, the majority of their American land based counterparts at restaurants of a commensurate level usually only work maybe two and usually only one meal a day.

Thousands of Americans are also employed in the cleaning of hotel rooms and bathrooms. While they may very seldom if ever work the long hours as do cabin attendants; in many areas of the country, the pay for this type job when everything is factored in is often not as much as that on a cruise ship.

While the crew on cruise ships may work much longer hours than their counterparts on terra firma, they addtiionally receive the not insignificant benefit of free room and board. Cruise ship crew members also have their own well appointed recreation areas, dining areas and nightclubs right on the ship. They receive free medical care while aboard and most come from countries that don't have income tax.

When I last cruised in June of �06 (which my wife and I intend to repeat again this June), I made it my point to seek out crew members to learn if they actually did enjoy their jobs and if the fruits they harvested were worth their labor. By reasons of the profession from which I'm retired, I can pretty much tell when someone is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Yet to an individual, they all said that while yes the work is extremely hard and the hours very long and of course they did so miss their families, their jobs often afforded their families back home a standard of living far higher than the average person. Many in fact, because their expenses are negligible after they complete several contracts (which in the lower paying positions run from six months to as long as a year), can save enough money to actually open their own businesses back home. Such a prospect would have been completely unrealistic had they not obtained their employment on a cruise ship.

Which all boils down to hoiw much to tip. I wouldn't even begin to try to answer that one because the subject is so subjective. In any event, the cruise line will provide a suggested amount. I personally believe that were the service that I received when last I cruised any indication, the amount recommended by the cruise line is to the low side, occasionally even significantly so. But that's me and everyone is different.

When all is said and done however you can be sure of a few things.

  • 1. Crew and staff do work extremely hard at far longer hours than do most of us and are away from their loved ones and family for often six months and sometimes longer.
  • 2. They often are well paid for their efforts when compared to the average wage of their countrymen who may work just as many hours for far less money in surroundings and under conditions that in understatement, are far less favorable than any on a cruise ship.
  • 3. They more than earn even what some would refer to as an extravagant tip.

The level of service one receives on a cruise ship is unparalleled. And that's not just my opinion but the opinion of millions of cruisers everywhere.

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