In a response to passenger feedback, P&O Cruises announced recently that it’s scrapping automatic tipping from its Australian fleet. As of Friday, the enforced gratuity charge of $7.50 per adult per day won’t be charged to your shipboard account; if you want to tip any a member of crew for exceptional service, it will be a matter of choice.

Tipping is a colourful topic of discussion in the world of travel. Tip a waitress in Japan and you insult her; do the same in the US, and you’re likely to have your food served cold – or worse.

In North America, tipping is so ingrained in society that many foreigners are easily confused, and often get caught out. Take Rove McManus for one. Back in May, having just moved to Los Angeles, he described himself as befuddled by the “whole tipping thing”, and admitted sheepishly that he’d been chased from a hotel men’s room by a bathroom attendant because he hadn’t left the customary tip.

If you are an Australian travelling in the US, it sometimes feels like every man and his dog is sticking out a hand to be rewarded, even for the most rudimentary task. So why does the practice cause so much consternation in the cruising world?

On my first cruise more than 20 years ago, I clearly remember my last night on board, stuffing envelopes with money to give to everyone from my stateroom attendant to the maitre’d, and realising that I was going to be few bucks short for one of them. I also recall the person in question – my victim was a somewhat snooty wine waiter – counting the money in front of me as I apologised profusely, and the look on his face making it clear he was less than impressed. Embarrassing? You bet.

Tipping policies vary greatly among cruise lines today. Some include tips in the fare, leaving you with the option of tipping extra should you choose to do so (and sparing your blushes if you haven’t got enough cash), while others add them automatically to your ship board account – as P&O used to.

As for whether it’s a practice which should exist or not at sea, there are many arguments for and against. Most I have heard are against, one of which among Australian cruisers more frequently is that just because tipping is de rigueur in North America doesn’t mean it should be policy on an Australian ship plying local waters.

Another is that asking passengers to tip is sneaky way for cruise lines to underpay their crew, and a third is that with automated systems, you are charged tips regardless of the quality of service – and with little or no recourse.

What is clear is that tipping will continue to be a hot potato, but ultimately it’s up to  each individual cruise line as to how they handle it. As for cruisers, if the issue causes concern, the best advice is to check a cruise line’s policy before you book so can decide for yourself, and you won’t be caught out. Happy cruising!