Cruise briefing: Pray the service is good -- you already paid extra for it

The list of what's included in the advertised price of a cruise has been eroding for years -- you're now hit with extra charges for ports, soft drinks, gourmet meals and ship fuel, among other things. It always seemed, however, that you could rely on basic service and a clean bed to be included when you handed over a few thousand dollars.


Stepping over a line that cruise companies have been dancing around for years, Norwegian Cruise Line's ''service charge,'' a $10 per day fee on each passenger that started as an automated gratuity, apparently is not optional and not adjustable. That means, technically, that basic service costs extra and is not included in the advertised price.

I guess a bed tax is next.

Most large cruise lines have some form of automated gratuity, a daily charge to your account that is pooled (most of the time) and distributed among several classes of workers, often including those who don't normally benefit from tips. The practice is partly derived from the move by some lines away from traditional dining (same waiters all week) to alternative restaurants (different staff each night), which greatly complicates the end-of-week-envelope method.

Norwegian, however, has inserted the terms of its service charge into the cruise contract, and moved it from policy to a binding agreement you accept by walking onto the ship. And apparently they take it seriously. During a recent cruise on Pride of America, I had this conversation with a clerk at the front desk:

Me: ``I'd like to adjust my automatic gratuity -- reduce it by half so I can distribute cash to workers who have helped me out.''

Clerk: ``We can't really do that. The fee is in your cruise contract.''

Me: ``So it's mandatory?''

Clerk: ``No. It's not mandatory, it's in the contract.''

Me: ``So if it's not mandatory, I'd like to adjust it.''

Clerk: ``The amount is in the cruise contract.''

Me: ``So it's mandatory?''

Clerk: ``No, it's not mandatory, it's in the contract.''

This went on for a while until her boss arrived and agreed to send the contract to my cabin.

It turns out the only way to adjust the nonadjustable service charge is to complain about a specific problem or employee and give the staff a chance to ''fix'' the situation. Apparently a complaint about the fee itself isn't enough. I tried.

According to the contract, ''a fixed service charge of $10 per person per day will be added to your onboard account.'' Period. No exceptions. The money goes to: a) incentive bonuses for employees; b) salaries; c) ``fleet-wide crew welfare programs.''

So it turns out the money you pay on your vacation is: a) assisting the crew on some other ship; and b) paying for things that the company should be paying for -- which should be part of the cost of doing business. So, technically, the people you're tipping are Norwegian's shareholders.

Yes, there is an undeniable convenience and implied fairness that goes with automatic tipping into a pool of employees that includes more than just cabin stewards and waiters. But whether to tip and how much is a personal decision you have to make yourself, and the second you can't adjust that amount it's no longer a tip -- it's part of the price.

This isn't Norwegian's first pass at this: In 2004, the line made the gratuity on its U.S.-registered ships non-optional and, oddly, not a gratuity, since it no longer went to employees. The company backed off two months later, allowing that the fee was negotiable, based on specific complaints about service. Since then, the policy quietly has become inflexible.

In its defense, this tactic is not limited to Norwegian or even to cruise lines. Hotels have been quietly slipping a ''service charge'' into bills for years so companies can collect more of your money without raising the advertised price -- and with no guarantee that any of it actually goes to the workers who provide the service.

Each cruise line deals with tipping differently. Beware: In most cases, the ''per passenger'' applies to all ages, even infants. (Note: Almost all lines now add a 15 percent gratuity to bar bills, although I've met plenty of bartenders who swear they've never seen a dime of that.)

Here's a brief summary of the basics among the major lines that serve North America:

 Carnival and Holland America: $10 per day per passenger; adjustable through the purser's office.

 Costa Cruises: $8.50/day in the Caribbean, 6 euros/day (about $8.88 US) in Europe; grudgingly adjustable.

 Cunard: $11/day; adjustable.

 Disney: Offers guidelines (about $11/day) but leaves it up to passengers. Gratuities can be charged to your onboard account.

 MSC Cruises: $12/day; adjustable.

 Princess: $10.50/day; adjustable.

 Royal Caribbean and Celebrity: Both offer traditional tipping guidelines (about $10.50/day) and envelopes, but leave it up to passengers. Gratuities can be charged to your onboard account.

If they can charge extra for basic service, what else might you be charged for in the future? Here are a few comparable (albeit unlikely) new charges:

Seaworthiness Surcharge: A $3-per-day fee that supplements the watertight properties of the hull. Adjustable in the event the ship sinks.

Porcine Reconciliation Fee: A $2.50-per-day charge based on the likelihood that passengers will eat fried pork products at the buffet. Pooled money pays for new treadmills in the gym.

Land-based Mooring Tax: A vague extra fee that passengers pay for the ship to stop at a port.

Oops. Turns out that last one already exists.