Brother, can you spare a tip?
By Andrea Sachs,
You knew the moment would come; it always does. The transaction’s over, and you have a crucial decision to make:
Do you tip the hotel doorman who swung the portal open for you? What about the pool guy who brought you a towel? Or the room-service waiter who handed you a bill that includes a service fee? Or anyone who assisted you in Japan?
The science of gratuity-giving is inexact, the art of tipping often messy. So many potential tippees inhabit a single vacation that there’s nowhere to hide — except perhaps in a cave, assuming that you don’t get a sherpa or a cab to take you there. To make it even more confusing, practices vary from country to country.
In an effort to determine how to preserve our wallets (and our pride) while still conveying our gratitude for services rendered, we turned to a team of travel and tipping experts for insights into this (nearly) ubiquitous custom and a pocketful of advice for use in any setting or destination.
Participating in our online round-table discussion were Pamela Eyring, president of the Protocol School of Washington; Adrian Phillips, publishing director of Bradt Travel Guides (and an Englishman, to boot); Steve Dublanica, a former waiter and author of “Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity”; Jeff Yeager, budget world traveler and author of “The Cheapskate Next Door”; Michael McCall, professor of marketing at Ithaca College in New York; and Douglas Stallings, senior editor at Fodor’s.
What’s the back story on tipping?
Pamela: The word “tip” is derived from an innkeeper’s sign, “To Insure Promptness.”
Steve: Actually, Pamela, that’s not true. It’s an etymological urban legend. There’s mention of tips as far back as the 1500s.
Michael: When wealthy nobles traveled the countryside and stayed with people, in recognition of the additional work and effort, they would provide gifts for the servants and staff.
Steve: The practice of nobles tipping servants was called vails. Then the practice mutated over to other areas.
What are we tipping for?
Pamela: A tip is supposed to be a reward for services performed. Note the word “performed,” not “expected.”
Jeff: To me, a “gratuity” is a monetary reward that’s expected according to local customs for services provided. So what (and how much) is/isn’t expected varies by culture, and then there’s always the question: What if the services provided really [stink]; is it appropriate to lessen the gratuity or skip it all together?
Steve: One of the most interesting things Mike Lynn [professor of consumer behavior and marketing at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration] found in his research is that service quality has almost no effect on the tip received. So it ain’t about service. Though people will say they reward service with their tips until they are blue in the face.
Jeff: If it’s clear that the person you’re directly tipping (e.g., the waiter, housekeeper, etc.) isn’t doing a good job, then I think it’s appropriate to decrease the tip or skip it altogether. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to know in a restaurant, for example, if the poor service is the result of the waiter, or the kitchen staff, or whoever.
Steve: But most people will tip, even on bad service. They hate violating those pesky social norms.
Who deserves a gratuity?
Steve: The list is endless. But you should not tip professionals. No tip for the policeman!
Pamela: Taxi drivers, porters, restaurants, tour guides.
Steve: Only tip a doorman if he calls you a cab. A dollar is good.
Jeff: It all depends on the customs of the country you’re visiting. In the U.S., I think restaurant wait staff, bartenders, hotel housekeepers, cab drivers, bellhops, etc., deserve a tip. I’m not convinced about tipping/tip jars at carryout food places.
Pamela: I saw a tip jar at a Burger King in the airport! Blew my mind!
Steve: Ten bucks for a concierge, but only if you liked the place.
Adrian: Yes, Pamela’s list, plus a hairdresser, masseuse, even doctors in some countries.
Steve: Oh, man, I wish I’d tipped my doctor before my physical!
What about tipping abroad?
Adrian: It varies from country to country, even in Europe.
Jeff: My understanding of the custom in Italy is that waiters are quite well paid, and Italians typically tip modestly or not at all. The various “service fees” many establishments tack on to the bill go to the owner, but tipping wait staff is optional. I just got back from there last month.
Steve: Waiters in Europe get good pay, sick time, vacation and health care. And unions. Hard to fire them. Why is a French waiter rude? Because he can be!
Adrian: In France, there’s generally a service charge, but an additional tip is expected. Round up the bill or [leave] a few coins.
Michael: Tipping is considered an insult in Tahiti.
Adrian: Same in Japan and China.
Pamela: In the United Arab Emirates, the restaurant service charge is not distributed, and the waiters are usually low-paid foreign nationals. If I’m staying at a hotel in Dubai and using the restaurant frequently, I leave a cash tip in dirhams for the waiter.
Jeff: My wife and I generally travel abroad for at least a couple of months out of every year, and we always bone up on — and abide by — the local tipping customs. But that said, we travel cheapskate-style, so we usually cook most of our own meals, take public transportation, stay at pensiones, hostels, etc. So we by and large travel in such a way as to avoid spending lots of money on tipping.
Michael: When we stayed at a resort in the Dominican Republic, we were told explicitly not to tip. Because of the poverty, any staff member could be searched when leaving for the day. Foreign currency of any kind was deemed to have been stolen from the tourists.
Douglas: In Morocco (or Egypt), tipping is almost out of control, but at least the amounts are modest.
Jeff: Morocco and many other North African countries are tough. Everyone seems to want a tip for everything, including tour guides from “tours” that you never agreed to take, simply forced upon you on the street. High hassle factor.
Douglas: I kind of understand the higher obligation to tip better in less-developed countries. Incomes (and tips) are modest. I rarely say no, but it annoys me over time.
Adrian: Definitely never pay those who demand a tip after approaching you just to offer directions or similar. North Africa is terrible for that.
Douglas: I do think there’s a double standard with foreigners, especially Americans. More service people expect us to tip, even when locals wouldn’t consider doing it. Many people have written in the user forums on Fodors.com that Americans are ruining the world with our tipping culture.
Adrian: A recent survey claimed that 25 percent of Brits are put off going to the U.S. because they are intimidated by the tipping culture. I certainly found the tipping culture in [American] bars intimidating at first, because it wasn’t entirely clear to me how it worked. In the U.K., we don’t tip bar staff.
Michael: My son spent the semester in London. Now I know why they liked him so much.
What’s the protocol for tipping in hotels?
Pamela: I don’t tip someone for just shaking my hand and giving me a warm greeting. If they drag my bags, I tip them $1-$2 a bag. If they clean my room consistently and I’m not looking for soap or coffee, I tip $2-$3 a day.
Steve: I tip the maid five bucks a day.
Douglas: $5? Really? I think I stay in a lower standard of hotels than Steve does. $1 or $2 is tops for me.
Pamela: I have tipped higher, especially when they bring extra soaps and shampoo that I like!
Adrian: I would never tip cleaners of a hotel room, only the porters who carry luggage.
Steve: If you knew what hotel maids had to contend with, you’d tip. Nothing like cleaning up fluids and finding the occasional corpse.
Douglas: I always try to remember to tip the maid, but I sometimes forget. They are usually among the lowest-paid employees.
Adrian: I guess Brits tend to tip people they see and not those they don’t. And there’s no guarantee that the same maid is servicing your room each day, anyway.
Steve: So you leave a tip every day. That way the maid who cleans your room gets it.
Adrian: Tipping the maid really is a U.S. thing. Europeans do it far more rarely, in my experience.
Douglas: I thought that for the longest time until I stayed in a hotel in Paris and the maid left some little jelly candies with a name card . . . to me an obvious invitation for a tip.
Adrian: Not knowingly, but from what you guys are saying, I might have irritated a few maids in U.S. hotels by failing to tip them for the candies they left!
Jeff: Here’s my true tipping story: I once rode my bicycle from Washington to New York City, camping along the way, traveling ultra-cheap with heavy packs. When I arrived in New York, the party I was there to meet put me up at a fancy hotel overlooking Central Park. When I checked in, the reception desk insisted that I enlist the services of a bellman to get my bicycle and gear to my room. I’d pedaled 250 miles and now I needed to tip a 5-foot 4-inch bellman to take me by elevator the final 250 feet. I tipped him, then raided the mini-bar, since my host was picking up the tab.
Should travelers budget for tips?
Douglas: I consider tipping in restaurants part of the cost of dining out, so no separate budget. But in a place like Morocco or Egypt, I do budget for tips.
Steve: I always budget for tips. But if you’re a professional gambler in the U.S., you can claim that as an expense on your taxes!
Pamela: Absolutely. Especially when we conduct four- and five-day trainings in hotels. We can spend up to $800 tipping daily housekeepers, bellmen, taxis, concierges, etc.
Steve: I like Pam.
What are your tips for travelers hitting the road?
Douglas: Do a little research beforehand to understand expectations and then just try to do your best.
Pamela: You need to be like the Ultimate Cheapskate and bring your own food, stay at budget hotels and drag your own bags. . . . If I cannot afford to add in the tip, I don’t go.
Steve: When in doubt, tip 15 to 20 percent, but if it’s for a small service, like a doorman, bathroom attendant, a buck or two.
Douglas: The $1 (or the equivalent in local currency) rule is a good one when you’re in doubt. No one doing a small service (except at a really fancy hotel) is ever disappointed.