A hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, 7pm. A weary traveller, recently off an 11-hour flight from Gatwick, has just eaten half a bucket-sized portion of beef, cheese and peppers in the hotel restaurant and is about to get into bed.
Caller: “Hi, Mr Richardson. This is Brad here. Your waiter for this evening.”
Me (puzzled but friendly): “Oh, hi, Brad.”
Brad: “I was just calling to check you enjoyed your meal this evening.”
Me: “Well, cheers for asking, Brad. It was fine.”
Brad: “Only, I guess you being tired and all, you forgot to express your appreciation in the customary way…”
Like a lemon I got dressed, went downstairs to the restaurant and handed Brad a $5 bill. The recollection of this episode has tortured me ever since.
Yes, I know that Brad gets paid diddly-squat and, like all American waitpersons, relies on tips to stay alive. I forgot, I screwed up. But I was already in my pyjamas, for God’s sake.
Tipping, let’s face it, is a cultural and pecuniary minefield. There are complex cultural variants, such as baksheesh in the Middle East (basically, daylight robbery) and ta’arof in Iran, a preposterous formality whereby offers of money are refused two or three times before being greedily gobbled up. But these require a lifetime of study.
Simple tipping – the handing over of money as a token of gratitude for services rendered – is complicated enough. I have been travelling extensively for nearly 20 years now, and trying to get it right (how much, when, how) still leaves me feeling like a chimp at the Ritz.
Recently, it has also been leaving me feeling poorer. Tipping has been getting so out of hand in certain destinations that it amounts to a stealth tax on Western tourists and distorts local economies – and I blame the greenback-flashing, we-can-solve-anything-with-moolah (except find Bin Laden) Americans.
Last month, waiting to catch a hotel shuttle bus at Johannesburg airport, I watched an American tourist tip the bus driver 100 rand – about £7.50 – for moving his case 10 feet from the tarmac to the luggage compartment. Last year I trekked in the Peruvian Andes with a Californian couple (let’s call them Ron and Nancy) who were charming and urbane company – until we got on to the subject of gratuities.
At the end of the trek we had to tip the horseman, Jorge, who had followed us for five days with a mount in case one of us fell ill and couldn’t walk (in the event his services were not required). Jorge had told me that the agency that arranged the trek was paying him $10 a day, an excellent wage in the Andes.
I suggested to Ron that we give him $30 between us. Ron seemed deeply affronted that I had even raised the subject, as if adults should not discuss such private matters.
When it came to it – and I admit my eyes were peeled – Ron and Nancy handed over $50 each. In a moment of chimp-at-the-Ritz madness, I then did the same. The horseman thus received the equivalent of nearly three weeks’ pay, on top of his actual pay, for doing, well, what he is paid for.
Good luck to him, you might say. It will put clothes on his children’s backs and scrumptious roast guinea pig on his kitchen table. But, hang on. The long-term effects of overtipping can be insidious and corrosive on both sides.
A fist full of dollars is almost always delivered with an averted face, as a substitute for trying to understand the lives and needs of other people, while the recipient is left feeling confused as well as richer. The prospect of unfeasibly massive and barely earned tips causes teachers to give up teaching in favour of driving shuttle buses, children to give up school in order to beg – and horsemen to ride roughshod over other horsemen for the privilege of trekking with Americans.
This is not a party political broadcast by the Tightwad Tendency. Legitimate concerns about the effects of excessive tipping should not be used as an excuse to keep wages low. “There needs to be a happy medium,” says Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, a charity dedicated to fighting exploitation in tourism. “A lot of people don’t understand the value of a tip to people whose wages are incredibly low. The price to us is minimal, but it can make the difference as to whether a child goes to school.”
Barnett’s advice is that if you have had good service from, say, a tour guide and want to say thank you, you should, judging the amount from what you have learned of the local cost of living. “Something like $10 goes down really well,” she says. (See “Rules of thumb” for recommendations, but bear in mind that these are flexible.)
There is also the fraught question of whether inclusive service charges are distributed to staff. If you can establish that they are, a tip to your restaurant waiter is not necessary. Otherwise, leave cash. It is scarcely an exaggeration to say that in the developing world, where wages in the tourist industry have been stuck on about £1 a day for a decade, that bit of cash can be a matter of life and death.
In the restaurants and resorts of the Western world, lives are unlikely to hang in the balance. But depending where you are, some employees still exist on pitifully low wages (though I suspect that Brad in Phoenix does all right). Now, it seems, hard economic times are making things even tougher. An online forum for whingeing waitpersons called bitterwaitress.com (motto: “Overtipping never killed anyone”) has picked up on the new frugality among diners in Manhattan: “They’re back! Well, they never really left, but they seem to be enjoying the Recession Special that is NYC fine dining.”
The worst offenders for “tip-compromised tyranny” are, in joint first place, the French (especially Parisians) and the Israelis, followed by the Russians (“No you cannot buy the hostess”), with the British in third place. Closer to home, and at the very top of the tree – the two-Michelin-star restaurant of the Gidleigh Park Country House hotel in Devon – the punters are also trimming.
“It’s definitely down,” says the general manager, Sue Williams. “People are being cautious with every pound. It’s hard to put a percentage on it, but somewhere between five and 10 per cent.”
When dinner for two can easily exceed £300, that represents a considerable hit. Restaurants, including Gidleigh, have also responded to the straitened times by putting on cheaper options – what Sue Williams calls “favourably priced menus” – so by default many diners are tipping less in any case. Heavy discounting is happening across the travel industry this year, nowhere more than in the expensive, highly competitive cruising sector. “Cruise lines are discounting fares to near-record levels, so it’s cheaper than it’s ever been to take a cruise,” says Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of the website CruiseCritic.co.uk
“The deals are not only really cheap – as little as £50 per person per day, which is just amazing – but gratuities are usually included,” she says. “So there’s not much of a sense that people are tipping less when cruising on UK lines, because the tips were included in the first place.”
The key phrase there is “when cruising on UK lines”. British and American cruise lines tend to have different fare structures that reflect differing national attitudes to tipping. In the United States, cruise fares quoted in brochures and on websites usually do not include gratuities because Americans are comfortable, and generous, with the idea of tipping, and allow for it in their mental calculations.
Britons and other Europeans prefer to have it all taken care of in advance. But if you have booked a cruise that doesn’t include gratuities in the price, Spencer Brown recommends that you allow a minimum of $10 per person per day in tips, to be paid into a general staff kitty at the end.
For the British, especially, it is sheer embarrassment – the fear of doing it wrong, of handing over either far too much or pitifully little – that makes tipping such a vexed question. “That moment when someone takes your bag to your room for you and waits for a reward is probably the worst of all,” says Karen Gee, general manager of Journeys of Distinction, a tour operator that specialises in escorted tours to exotic places.
For that reason, “porterage” is taken care of on Journeys of Distinction trips and the tour manager offers advice on what to tip in other situations. Gee believes tips have fallen in more affluent destinations, “but in places like Sri Lanka, where the locals rely on tipping, and the amount is negligible in British terms, our clients are still tipping generously.”
For those who are not just hesitant, but tight-fisted as well, it’s worth pointing out that tipping is not just a one-way street. In an upmarket hotel a generous gratuity to the concierge at the beginning of your stay – in return, say, for directions to the nearest jewellers – can ensure that, throughout your time there, nothing is too much trouble, even the procurement of tweezers for the removal of navel fluff at 3am. Or so I’m told.
All in all, sensible tipping is a civilised transaction that reflects credit on both giver and receiver. For the poor and needy it can be a lifeline – and if you’re in a tricky situation it can work wonders, as this story about Sir Winston Churchill demonstrates.
In the gloom of Blitz-torn London he hailed a taxi to take him to the BBC, where he was due to give a radio broadcast. “Sorry guv,” said the cabbie. “I’m off home to listen to Churchill on the wireless.” In response Churchill tucked a note in the cabbie’s pocket.
“Bugger Churchill,” said London’s finest. “Hop in.”
Rules of thumb
Amounts given in sterling – translate into local currency:
Bell boy 50p-£1 per bag
Waiter/waitress 10-20% of bill in cash
Barman 10-15% of drinks bill
Chambermaid £1-£2 per day
Tour/trek guide £5-£10 per day
Trek porters/cooks £20-£30 for the trek in general kitty
Safari camp staff £3-£5 per day in tips box
Taxi driver 10% of fare, plus 50p-£1 for help with each heavy bag – but check locally as in some countries tips are not expected, such as Mexico and Turkey
Country by country guide
VAT on food in restaurants has recently been reduced from 19.6 per cent to just 5.5 per cent, making eating out good value this summer. A service charge of 15 per cent is always included (service compris), but, if you’re happy with the service, round up the bill to the next euro, and even add a euro or two.
Service is included in taverna bills. Round up or even add more, as you see fit.
Don’t mistake the 7 per cent VAT charge on restaurant bills (“IVA”) for service charge, which is not included. This is not a big tipping culture, but staff at restaurants in tourist hot spots will expect at least 10 per cent. For tapas and drinks at a bar, just round up and add a euro or two.
A cover charge (usually about €2.50 per person, for bread and so on) is always included, a service charge sometimes, so check the bill or ask. In any case that service charge is unlikely to go to the waiter, so a couple of euros will always be appreciated – and also makes sense if you will be eating there again. If there’s no service charge, 10 per cent in cash is sufficient.