Tipping and Travel: It's No Easy Equation

(Steve McCracken - For The Washington Post)
By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

If ever there was a good time to show off, it was then.

Joe Feldman of the District had just walked into a South Beach restaurant to celebrate a friend's 40th birthday, and in the height of coincidence, who should be at a nearby table but his soon-to-be-ex-wife and her soon-to-be-next husband. Feldman made what he thought was an important point by buying his party a magnum of Dom Perignon.

"I was still okay with it until the check came, and then I suddenly felt horrified by the thought of a $75 or $100 tip merely to open a bottle and pour. What is an appropriate tip at that point?"

Ah, the angst of tipping. When we invited readers to tell us their tipping dilemmas and stories, in they poured.

Okay, so most people know that 15 to 20 percent of the bill before tax is the accepted standard in the United States for tipping a waiter. But what about a sommelier who only uncorks and pours your wine? The question takes on more urgency the more expensive the beverage.

And what about the free breakfast buffet included in a hotel charge? Or the free shuttle service? Or the guy who delivers a free toothbrush to your room? And what if both food and service are awful but it's clearly the kitchen's fault, not the waiter's?

Complications and ethical concerns simply multiply overseas. Customs vary not only by country, but more recently, by city. Even if you know the customary percentage, figuring out a foreign currency on the fly can be maddening.

Take Romania, for example, which is in the process of converting to a new currency but still has the old one floating around. One new leu (it's also called lei) equals about 34 cents in U.S. currency, and equals 10,000 old leu. So quickly: your cab fare is 16 new leu. You're tipping in old leu. How much do you give?

For Dragos Mandruleanu of Reston, a miscalculation resulted, he later realized, in his giving a $55 tip for a $5.50 cab ride.

We also heard from people who had been chased down the street because they'd tipped too little -- or even across the desert, in the case of a woman who apparently gave too little to an Egyptian boy on a donkey who'd posed for a picture.

Travelers who have forgotten much of an overseas trip still remember their tipping debacles. Lee Austin of Chapel Hill, N.C., recalls guessing at the appropriate tip in a Paris cafe shortly after arriving in France as a foreign student in 1947. She can still visualize the haughty look on the face of the waiter who returned her tip, saying, "You must need this, Mademoiselle, more than I do."

How much to tip is just the start -- what about the "who?"

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