If only tipping were simple. You already know the etiquette for the common travel situations: restaurant servers, taxis, housekeeping. But sometimes it’s not so straightforward.
Here are six scenarios that can trip me up when I’m traveling:
1. I have no small bills. Sadly, I find myself in this situation more often than I’d like to admit, particularly with the valet or bellman. Recently I stashed a wad of singles and fives in a deep corner of my bag for just such emergencies.
2. I have no local currency. Often I don’t head to the ATM until getting settled into my hotel, which means I occasionally encounter an uncomfortable tipping moment in the meantime. Only recently did I learn that in many–if not most—countries, tipping in U.S. dollars is welcome and occasionally preferred. (This was especially the case on my recent trips to Cuba where $1 is a day’s wage.)
3. The service has been paid for by someone else, and it’s unclear whether the gratuity has been covered. I encountered this not long ago when a black car from the hotel to the airport had been paid by a third party. The discomfort was compounded by the afore-mentioned problem of having no local currency. Even if I had learned the gratuity was not covered, I couldn’t offer a credit card to charge the tip when I wasn’t even sure how much it cost. Awkward.
4. Traveling internationally, I am unsure of local custom. I wish I could say I’ve always done my tipping research before arriving in a country. Asian countries tend to have a no-tipping culture. Europeans tend to tip less than Americans. It’s complicated! Here’s a comprehensive international tipping guide from Conde Nast I’ve found helpful. Also, treat Las Vegas as a foreign country when it comes too tipping—a land where all sorts of free goodies are bestowed, but where tips should not be withheld. Read up on how to handle everything from casino culture to pool cabanas.
5. At a buffet or high-end cafeteria, the server has a limited role. Does the 15-20% still apply? Emily Post says 10% is appropriate, but I waiver between thinking this is too much and thinking it’s too little. And there’s a big difference between a luxe brunch buffet and a place just slightly nicer than Chipotle.
6. I received services from someone who could be considered a peer. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was provided a media guide. By the end of the day, he felt more like a colleague and friend than guide. Would a tip would be demeaning? I ended up thanking him with a letter of commendation to his client instead, but I wondered if I’d done the right thing.
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I have found a few ways to tip with more confidence:
When in doubt, err on the generous side. Many workers depend on tips to make a living wage. According to PayScale.com, 25% of food servers’ income generally comes from tips. And there’s something to be said for karma. If you worry that you may be over-tipping because all you have is that big bill, hand it over anyway—make the guy’s day, and it will come back to you some day, somehow.
Do the research. Before a trip, check that you have small bills and do research about local customs when necessary. It just takes a few minutes and prevents hours of guilt and confusion.
Keep a tipping app on your phone or tablet. In your favorite app store you’ll find myriad options. Some are international guides that also provide advice (like GlobeTipping on iOS and Global Tipping Guide Pro on Android). Others are U.S.-focused and will calculate the tip and even split the bill. A few of these will calculate in local currency outside the U.S. (like Tip Calculator Pro+ on Android).
Related: How to tip properly in Asia
A tip says, “Thanks for making my trip better than it would otherwise have been.” Sure, situations will always arise when you’re unsure about protocol. But with the right tools and preparation, you’ll almost always be able to offer that appreciation befittingly.
What tricky tipping situations have you encountered, and how did you address them?
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