Cocktail Talk: Is Tipping a Traveller’s Biggest Faux Pas?

I got to thinking how insecure one feels when if comes to tipping. How much is enough or too much, should I leave any at all, do you tip the same if there was a very expensive bottle of wine with the meal…? All very overwhelming questions in your normal habitat, yet how those same fears and feelings were so much more magnified when abroad in foreign cultures where tipping rules vary vastly from country to country.

Spending time in the States and having friends there that work in the ‘industry’ of bartending and waitressing, I was mortified to watch them chase down and ‘educate’ the foreign, mainly European clientele on appropriate tipping in America. Even in fine dining establishments no one walked out the door paying less then at least 15% lest they be publicly confronted by the waiter with a rehearsed speech where the waiter condescendingly explained that they made a living off tips and therefore 18% minimum was expected. An embarrassed customer might at that point become annoyed at the very inappropriate customer service especially since how was the the customer to know?

Now a days American restaurant servers are looking for a 20% tip, the UK adds an optional 12.5% service charge to the bill which by the way you can ask to have removed from the bill if you wish. In places like bars, it is a well known fact that if you expect to get decent service on a second round of drinks you better give the bartender a good tip the first time to ensure you get his or her attention to serve you a second time. Especially on a busy night. And in many places in Europe while service may be included on the bill, many times that is considered ‘different’ from a tip, and so a small tip on top of service is expected, yet in this case a very small one. It is customary in general to leave a few small coins on the table. But then here in lies another problem: what is considered ‘a little more’ or a ‘a few’ that would make the waiter happy and not so small that he is insulted that you acknowledged the tip yet didn’t leave enough. Its bad enough you may already have a language barrier to deal with but now you have a cultural barrier to overcome of not upsetting the waiter at the cafe you hope to return to.

And so I have learned to just come out and ask. Maybe it is awkward, but it is a lot less awkward then the flip side. Yes, of course the person you ask is inevitably going to pad the answer in his favour, so use the answer as a starting point and go from there. Usually if done politely people are happy to help and won’t take advantage. It might also be a good idea to ask the concierge at your hotel what their tipping policy is.  At a beach resort it might be better to tip the housekeeper more then you would at a city hotel if you are leaving a lot of wet towels, etc. and room clean up tends to be more frequent. Many luxury hotels have service included so you can seamlessly be in any part of the hotel and by just saying your room number everything is taken care of without a fuss and without your needing to sign a thing. Yet if you are in such a luxury establishment, many guests still leave something, usually at the end of their stay. I usually do this to the few individuals I saw the most. For example, the person I saw every morning and brought me coffee exactly the way I liked it before I asked for it, the bartender or waiter who knew my drink order every night and gave me a round on the house the last night I was there, and yes the concierge who got me that difficult table reservation and recommended that must see place that made the trip.

I admit my biggest stress is when I arrive at a hotel and I know I have many people to tip and I don’t have change. Who wants to start with a bad impression. It is so hard to have change ready when you need it, especially when money exchange places never have small bills or coins in the local currancy. Here I usually try and get change at the front desk at check-in immediately, or simply give a polite I.O.U. and chase porters down later when I do have change. I’m sorry but there is no way around it and they have seen it all before. I mean you will mess up with these things in your home country, so you will most definitely mess up with these same things when you are abroad. And at least there you have a legitimate excuse: No comprendo…?

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