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Ed Perkins on Travel: Taming the Tipping Tsuris

Ed Perkins on Travel: Taming the Tipping Tsuris

“Tipping is out of control,” say 30 percent of respondents to a recent poll posted in Bankrate, and two-thirds have a “negative view of tipping.” My question is “What universe is the other one-third living in?”

When I first started traveling with my parents—and I’m now an old geezer—the only people my father tipped were restaurant wait staff and taxi drivers, and his standard tip of 10 percent was expected and welcome. The other near-mandatory tip was 50 cents or a dollar to the airport “skycap” who handed you your checked bag off a cart (yes, baggage delivery conveyors came along much later). We didn’t take any cruises, but cruisers were expected to tip—and they were (and are) even told how much by the cruise line. Ah, for those days. Now, apparently the standard restaurant tip is 20 percent, and some sources suggest you’re supposed to tip hotel housekeepers, staff at take-out counters, coffee baristas, barbers and hairdressers, delivery drivers, home service workers, tour guides, wine stewards, and many others; I’ve seen some speculation recently that airlines would like to move flight attendants into a “tip income” labor category.

As is so often the case in the travel business, bad situations tend to get worse, not better. Big suppliers want to get you—maybe by a nudge, maybe by coercion—to tip more. They can pay workers in labor categories that depend on tipping income less than the minimum wage they have to pay non-tipped workers. That’s why you see hotels pushing tips for housekeepers, and why credit card billing slips list specific “suggested” tips.

For many travelers, deciding when and how much to tip remains a conundrum. According to the Bankrate survey, only about two-thirds of the U.S. public tip at sit-down restaurants—a finding I can’t dispute but find incomprehensible. Other workers tipped by a majority of consumers include hair stylists/barbers and food delivery workers, with large minorities also tipping taxi/rideshare drivers. On the other hand, less than a quarter of U.S. consumers tip hotel housekeepers, coffee baristas, and take-out food servers.

For now, my take is that you really are expected to tip restaurant wait staff and folks who take care of your hair, with drivers on the bubble, but you can easily get away with not tipping other workers. Bankrate listed three common-sense guidelines for tipping:

If you’re going to tip, include anyone who helps you. If a team is involved, tip everybody on the team.
Even for an inexpensive service, tip at least a little.
Even if you’ve given up on cash for most transactions, keep a few small-denomination bills or coins around for tips.

Bankrate’s survey deals with tipping in the U.S. Tipping in foreign countries is even more complicated. You can find lots of online worldwide tipping guides; the latest, from Airport Parking & Hotels is representative:

Europe: When I first visited Europe, most restaurants included service in the posted menu price: The menus often said “service included,” and hotel porters and taxi drivers did not expect tips. Not now. The survey says 10 percent for restaurants in most popular destinations, although service is still usually included in the check in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Asia: Tipping is generally rare in China and Japan, more common elsewhere.

Canada/Caribbean/Mexico—about the same as in the U.S.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m not a big fan of tipping. To me the gold standard for a stated price is, to borrow a construct from the early days of word processing: “What You See is What you Pay,” or WYSIWYP. That’s why I’m involved in efforts to ban hotel “resort” fees and why I support full-fare airfare postings. And my pre-Covid trip to China reinforced my enthusiasm for a non-tipping experience.

But if you’re traveling soon, you can’t take the tsuris out of tipping. If you aren’t sure when and how much, Google “tipping” plus your destination for the current tipping practices and expectations and go with the flow.

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