The trouble with tipping

The waiter, the porter, the tour guide and the taxi driver. Even the old man whose photograph you take. When you travel, everyone expects a tip, whether the service was good, ordinary or completely unacceptable. Worse, tourists may be creating this expectation in places it never existed before. By Alison Westwood.

Fresh from the airport in New York, Clayton Smallwood, a pensioner from KwaZulu-Natal, fumbled in his wallet for $10 to tip the taxi-driver. All the notes looked the same to him. The taxi driver accepted his tip with unusual gratitude, and it was only later that Mr Smallwood realised he’d tipped $100.

When Kevin Vermaak from Cape Town was a struggling student he caught a cab in London and  had to scrabble for change to pay the steep fare. He made it without a penny to spare. “You can tip, you know,” said the miffed cabbie.

These stories highlight an awkward problem all travellers experience. Who to tip and how can be a serious consideration, especially if you aren’t familiar with a country’s culture, costs and currency.

A “silly system”

Judith Martin, author of Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, Freshly Updated, says tipping is a “silly system” that puts too much power in the hands of clients who aren’t always fair. But she goes on to say that “it would be Scrooge-like, not to mention wrong, to deny these workers their expected income merely because one doesn’t like the method by which this is provided.”

Martin also believes that “in a country where tipping is not the norm, we tourists are creating a tip-hungry society and the locals recognise it.”

This is certainly the case in China where, until a few years ago, tipping was unheard of. But China Today now says “it is a common practice for visitors to tip the tour guide and driver in recognition of their good service. Hotel bellboys expect your tips as well.”

In a forum discussion about tipping on VirtualTourist.com, Mike from Boston, who travelled to Indonesia, said tourists should take into account the cost of living and what other people earn in that country. “My guides’ main asset was they spoke okay English. It seemed unfair that because they dealt with foreigners, they made more money than Indonesian doctors.”

You might also want to consider how much of a person’s income comes from tips. African Mecca Safaris advises travellers that “over 60 per cent of the service personnels’ income derives from tipping, so please be fair and generous.” It would be nice to assume that people’s work is compensated fairly by their employers, but for some businesses, tips appear to be a way to cut costs. One argument is that tipping provides an incentive for better service. Yet travellers who go to countries where tipping isn’t practised say they don’t notice poorer service.

No rules

There are such wide varieties in cultural standards that it’s difficult to know what – or even whether – to tip. In Japan, if you leave some change on the table, the waiter will run after you to return it. In New York, if you tip less than 15 per cent, you might get chased out of the restaurant. As a general guideline, the more tourists visit a place and the more Westernised it is, the more likely it is you’ll be expected to leave a tip. However, this doesn’t hold true for Japan, Germany, Australia or New Zealand.

But what if you can’t afford to tip 20 per cent on an expensive taxi fare? “One should tip according to how valuable one feels the service was, but also according to one’s own concept of money,” says Steven Ferry, a private butler. Etiquette expert Peter Post says that if your budget won’t stretch, “forget about what you ought to do. Do what you can and do it in the nicest way you possibly can.” And even if the service was bad, leave something. You can always complain to the management. On the other hand, if the service was superb, leave a larger tip and some words of praise where it matters most.

Top tipping tips

  • Investigate tipping customs. There may be different standards for locals and travellers.
  • Budget for tips. They can add up to a substantial portion of your travel expenses.
  • Check the bill. Restaurants and hotels sometimes include a service charge. But this doesn’t necessarily mean a little extra isn’t expected.
  • Memorise the value of the local currency. Adding or subtracting a few zeroes is a common and annoying tipping accident.
  • Have local money or low-denomination notes of accepted currency. If you don’t tip someone in local currency, bear in mind they’ll have to exchange it. (Where there’s a black market, it might be appreciated.) Dollar bills will do the trick almost everywhere in Africa, while the rand is widely accepted in southern Africa. Foreign coins are worthless as they can’t be exchanged.

First published in the March 2008 issue of Getaway Magazine.

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