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8 most common tipping mistakes—and how to avoid them
Tipping really shouldn’t be so hard. The service was good, you leave a token of your appreciation and everyone is happy. Not so fast. This is one of the most difficult aspects of travel to navigate, since you have to take into consideration everything from how employees are paid to cultural traditions that could have you embarrassing yourself and your waiter just by leaving that 15 percent (apps like GlobeTipping—which gives advice for tipping in restaurants, hotels and more in 200 countries—can help you along). We consulted experts and avid travelers for their thoughts on the scenarios that trip up travelers most and got their advice on how to avoid awkward situations.
Who you always tip—but shouldn’t
In the old days, cruise lines provided an envelope and suggestions for how much to tip the crew members with whom you had direct contact during a sailing. Now it’s the norm for major cruise lines to automatically add the tips to your bill (which could take you by surprise), especially in the U.S. and the Caribbean. “In the last 10 years or so there’s been a trend toward automating [tips] where the cruise line said ‘we’ll take care of that for you if you just mark this off on the bill,'” says Spud Hilton, editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s travel section and Bad Latitude blog. While some cruise lines make it possible to adjust the included tips if you wish, on others, those included tips have become mandatory and cannot be adjusted. In this case, says Hilton, “The tipping is no longer about you and the person giving you good service—it’s about service in general on the ship.” And that service, he says, can even extend to things the cruise lines shouldn’t expect passenger tips to cover—including employee education. Always check with your cruise line to find out if tips are included (and whether or not they can be adjusted) before setting sail.
We’ve got tipping in the U.S. down when it comes to restaurants—leave 15 to 20 percent unless there’s some outstanding circumstance. It’s not so cut-and-dried abroad. A general rule for tipping in European restaurants is to leave a couple of euros if you’re happy with the service, rounding a 47 euro bill up to 50 euros, for example. But in Denmark and New Zealand, no tip is expected at all. And be on the lookout for service charges that are included in the bill. In Norway, a 10 percent service charge is typically included (though you should leave 10 percent if it is not). But be aware that in some places, that service charge doesn’t always cover the full tip. In Aruba, for instance, 15 percent is automatically added to the bill (this is distributed to everyone, including the kitchen staff). If you were happy with the service, leave an additional 5 to 10 percent and give it directly to your waiter. When in doubt, ask the hotel staff what the local customs are for tipping at restaurants. It’s confusing when Europeans travel here as well. A couple years ago, the bar at a trendy New York restaurant started automatically adding 20 percent tips to bar tabs, since waiters were sick of being stiffed by European visitors who may not have been aware of customs on our shores.
The tipping conundrum gets all the more confusing when you arrive at a big hotel with a flotilla of staff members on hand to assist you. One person grabs your bag from the car, another wheels it to reception and yet another delivers the luggage to your room. You could get dizzy tossing around dollar bills. It’s better to give one handout when you’ve reached your room. “The person who usually takes your bag from the car to check-in doesn’t really expect to be tipped,” says Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur who spends 85 percent of his time traveling, “They usually rotate their shifts (with the other porters delivering bags to rooms). The person who brings the bag to my room is the one I tip.”
—Staff in China and Japan
Believe it or not, tipping is considered rude in China and Japan, and is just not done. That goes for cab drivers, restaurant wait staff and workers in hotels. But there is a big exception to this rule that could take even the savviest traveler by surprise. Keep reading to find out!
Who you never tip—but should
—Shuttle van drivers
Those courtesy shuttles you take from the airport to the car rental parking lot and from your hotel into town shouldn’t be viewed as a completely free ride. Whether there’s a jar for tips or not, you should hand off a dollar or two to the driver as you’re getting dropped off. “If I have really heavy bags, I usually give the driver a few bucks,” says John DiScala of Johnny Jet.
“Housekeeping is probably the most controversial—and misunderstood—tipping subject in hotels,” says Charlyn Keating Chisholm, editor of About.com’s hotels and resorts site, who has written several blogs on the topic. “Many people don’t, but you should definitely be tipping the maid at your hotel,” adds DiScala. “And if you tip every day instead of at the end of your stay you’ll get the best service.” A couple of dollars per day is acceptable. And when there’s no official envelope for tipping, it’s best to leave the money under the pillow instead of on a dresser, DiScala advises—in the latter case, maids may think the cash is not for them, and leave it behind after they clean. Even better, he says, find your housekeeper in the hallway and pass her a few dollars while thanking her for work well done. One caveat for this is if you are staying at a small inn or BB. It’s usually the owners themselves taking care of the tidying up, so forgoing the housekeeping tip is perfectly acceptable.
You don’t need to tip a hotel concierge for sketching the route to the best local sushi joint on your map or arranging an airport shuttle. But if a real effort has been made to get you tickets to a sold-out show or a table at an impossible-to-book restaurant, the concierge deserves a special thank-you for his or her efforts. Tip somewhere between $5 and $20, depending on what you’ve requested, says DiScala. Slide the cash to the concierge in person or have it delivered to them inside one of the hotel’s envelopes with a brief message expressing your gratitude.
Tips for guides are rarely included in tour prices, and are expected whether you were shown around the Roman Colosseum for an hour or the Great Barrier Reef for an entire day. “Generally speaking, $3 to $4 per day (in local currency) is acceptable for guides of shorter tours and $7 to $10 per day for full-day tour guides,” says Andrew Schrage, co-owner of Money Crashers Personal Finance. When in doubt, ask the tour operator what is considered an acceptable tip—the question comes up so often that many agencies even post the information on their websites, he says. When we say this is standard worldwide we mean it—yes, even traditionally non-tipping countries like China and Japan (see, we told you there was an exception). But making a big show of passing over a few yuan or yen is still frowned upon. “Ideally, you would not give the tip directly after someone has done a favor for you,” says Greg Rodgers, who runs several Asia travel blogs, including one on About.com. “That is like paying for the service. Instead, giving the tip at a later, unexpected time would be better.” Most tours in China will include transport back to your hotel or the airport, so wait until the final goodbyes, not right at the conclusion of the tour. According to Rodgers, just taking cash out of your pocket is the worst way to tip in Japan. Put the money in an envelope and seal it before passing it to your guide.
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