What Do I Need to Know About Tipping?

“Tipping is not a city in China.” I smiled when I saw that sign on a tip jar in a coffee shop. Although tipping is built in or automatically added to your bill on cruise ships, tipping is a major part of our everyday lives on land too. What do you need to know?

It’s been said “tips” was a British 19th Century acronym for “To Insure Proper Service.” Another definition claims “tip” was a 17th century expression for “To insure promptness.” There are situations when tipping is expected. There are others when it’s not considered appropriate. You can imagine there’s a big grey area in between.

If you carry away one message from this article, don’t buy into the argument “I’ll never see this person again, so I don’t need to leave a tip.” It many places it’s part of their compensation. There’s an urban legend during the height of the singles bar craze on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, some bars were so packed that bartenders were not paid and actually had to pay the bar owner for the privilege of tending bar and pocketing lots of tips! You can imagine how illegal that must have been!.

Situations Where You Tip

The following is based on how my wife and I approach tipping when traveling or at home.

  1. Aboard ship. Tipping is generally added to your personal account automatically. We work on the assumption we will see these people again. For a seven day voyage, we put $20 or more into a white envelope for our cabin steward and another for our waiter. The assistant waiter and night steward get envelopes too, probably $ 10-15. We tip the restaurant section captain, maitre ‘d and wine steward. Assume they each get $20.
  2. At restaurants. Generally speaking, we tip 20% of the total bill. More if the service was incredible.
  3. Taxi drivers. It’s often a case of rounding up the bill, including the change you might have gotten back. An $ 8-9 taxi ride (do they still exist) might be paid with a $10 bill and “keep the change.” This means it’s a 10-15% tip.
  4. Hotel staff. In foreign countries we leave an envelope with the equivalent of at least a dollar per person per day. One GBP. One Euro. Ten RMB. A four night stay might be eight GBP, rounded up to ten. If we were upgraded to a suite, we tip more.
  5. Tours in ports. If you sign up for a tour and the guide does a good job, it’s customary to tip discretely. It doesn’t need to be much, but it should be paper money, not coins.
  6. Baggage porters. People carrying your bags should be tipped about a dollar per bag. Treat the person who gets your bag from the taxi into the hotel lobby as one instance and the person who brings it from the lobby up to your room as a separate instance.

Situations Where You Don’t Tip

You might think tipping is the right thing to do. Not always.

  1. Ship’s officers. They are management. They aren’t given white envelopes.
  2. Bars on ships. The bill you sign often has a 12.5% service charge along with a tip line. We draw a line through the tip line, using the rationale the service charge is the tip.
  3. Owners of businesses. You might tip the person who cuts your hair, but not if the person wielding the scissors today is the owner.
  4. Fast food places. Some higher end places hand your food over the counter and present a bill or a screen with a line for gratuities. I see no reason to tip in this circumstance. If someone does a great job, hand over paper money.
  5. British pubs. Like fast food restaurants, you collect food and drink from the bar and carry it to your table. Tipping is not expected, although this popular American custom is creeping in. It’s been traditional to occasionally offer to buy the landlord (pub owner) a pint, which they add to your bill. At some point in the evening, they raise a glass, catch your eye and thank you. This custom holds if you are a local, not a tourist.
  6. British taxis. In London’s famous black cabs, the ride is considered a transaction. They expect the amount on the meter. You might round it up to make life easier, but that’s a tiny amount.
  7. Casual restaurants in Asia. In your local restaurant that isn’t fancy, the meal is considered a transaction. They “agreed” to deliver the meal you ordered. You agreed to pay the posted price.

On our first trip to Buenos Aires, a veteran of previous trips suggested we bring $100 in singles and fives. He told us to give an extra dollar to taxi drivers, people who hold doors, etc. American currency is respected around the world. Your generosity will be appreciated.

Cover photo: Jacaranda trees in Buenos Aires


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