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Travel Etiquette Face-Off: The Tipping Point

Tipping While Traveling
Allianz - Tipping While Traveling

Tipping can open up doors, figuratively and literally. It’s a way of reciprocating a great tour, meal or unexpected act of kindness. And it can incentivize service industry professionals and others to go out of their way to provide an experience above and beyond what the typical tourist is treated to.

But tipping can be confusing, stressful, and even the best intentioned folded-up $20 here or fistful of Euros there can backfire if you don’t know the basic rules and etiquette governing when and how to tip.

Tipping is very personal for the patron. But it’s also rooted in whichever culture travelers are visiting, as well as the particular service being provided. That said, even when you’re tuned into the norms and nuances of your destination, there are still nebulous areas where tourists and locals alike may disagree as to what’s too much and not enough.

Here are some of the times when tipping can be tough:

The Buffet: Free-Range Eating or Toned-Down Tipping?

Many beach towns and vacation destinations popular with families are teeming over with buffets. Some patrons come for the variety. Others come for the value and convenience. In Las Vegas, patrons come to famous casino buffets at all hours. For all reasons. But do you tip at a buffet – when the servers may just bring you a glass of water and a clean fork while you serve yourself? And if so, much should you leave? Some experts state that you should leave $1-$2 per patron.1 Another standard is to leave at least 10 percent; after all, those servers are still working hard to bus your table and get you anything special you need, from hot sauce to salt substitute.2 Others put their fork down on that, arguing that one benefit of D.I.Y. dining should be not having to pass the buck.

Bad Service: Lowering the Gratuity or Withholding the Tip?

Some who eat out while traveling tip the same across the board – a straight percentage – whether service was so-so or first class. But most diners like to leave some wiggle room. A general rule of thumb followed by many is to leave 15 percent for average service, 20 percent for great service, and more than 20 percent for service that truly made the meal memorable. It gets a bit grayer when you talk about how – and if – to tip for truly inattentive service. Some suggest that you should bottom out at 10 percent, giving folks the benefit of the doubt, while others take the route of adding a big fat zero to the gratuity line. Most of us anonymous diners can get away with the latter if we so chose, but celebrities don’t always have the luxury of dining and dashing – on the tip, that is. A-listers and sports stars ranging from Johnny Depp to Tiger Woods, Madonna – and most recently – Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean McCoy – have been accused of poor tipping etiquette, often over social media.3

5-star Hotel Treatment: Cash for Everyone or It’s Covered in the Booking Fee?

Fancy hotels with fine-tuned customer service operations can be both refreshing and intimidating. After all, it’s possible to walk from your room to the lobby with five different people trying to help you with something. So who do you tip – and who do you show the hand to?

  • Housekeeping should be toward the top of your list, especially if you treat your room like a comet is set to impact toward earth in t-minus 48 hours. Tip $5 a night at the very least, but consider more if you have a large party, asked for some extras to be delivered to your room, or the kids were tickled pink by the turn-down service that included building an elephant crafted out of bath towels and wash clothes.1
  • If you’re using the hotel concierge, don’t feel that you need to tip for asking simple questions, such as, “Is there a good restaurant I can bring the whole family to without people grimacing at me?” If they make reservations or order tickets for you, $5 - $10 is appropriate. If it’s an extra hard ticket or reservation, they’re likely calling in a favor, so increase your tip appropriately.4
  • Finally, when it comes to folks opening doors for you, well, that’s free. But if a doorman hails you a cab and/or helps with bags, a couple of dollars is suggested. It’s possible to stay in a top-flight hotel without tipping anyone, but odds are your treatment and experience will be greatly enhanced by showing your gratitude for efforts that go above and beyond the expectation.

Etiquette Abroad: Embracing a “When in Rome” Attitude or Tipping like an American?

Tipping cultures vary from continent to continent, and often even country to country. While America trumps pretty much every other nation when it comes to the sheer amount or percentage tipped at hotels, airports and restaurants, that doesn’t simply mean you should default to your normal tipping routine when travelling to faraway lands – or even just south of the border. Did you know that cab drivers in Morocco don’t expect a cent – but might appreciate you rounding up to a 10-dirham note. Or that in India, not leaving a sufficient enough tip might spur a service provider to ask for more? China makes a rule not to tip in hotels. And while a Russian server may appreciate a 10-percent tip, be sure to hand it to him or her directly; any extra money left on the table may be claimed by management.5 Why not simply tip the same way you would in the states? After all, it would usually be more, right? Well, you could make the day of a hotel concierge or cab driver. But you may also insult them. It’s a lot to learn, and remember. That’s why your best bet may be to download an app such as the Globetrotting Tipping Calculator, which provides advice for tipping in almost 200 countries. It even comes with a calculator to help you determine the precise amount of a tip.

Nailing the right amount for a tip is just a start. Sometimes you need to determine if it’s already included in a bill, which is tough if you don’t speak the native language. Other times, leaving gratuity on a credit card receipt will only fatten the wallet of an employee’s employer, and not benefit the specific person who made your travels a bit easier. Doing your homework and even directly asking a service professional can help ensure that you’re justly rewards those who make your trip a cut above the average getaway.

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