CityPASS — Last year, getting out of a cab in Kyoto, I paid my fare and tried to give the driver a tip. His face winced as though I had insulted him and, to my surprise, he insisted on giving my change. All of it. The same happened with the bellman who helped me with my bags at the hotel. Looking curiously at the yen I pressed into his palm, he asked, “This is for me?”
They don’t tip in Japan and, after interviewing servers on both U.S. coasts, tipping doesn’t seem to be much of a tradition among visitors from the British Isles or continental Europe.
But if you cross the pond and plan to skinflint your way through America’s cities, you’d better be prepared for a cool reception. In the U.S., not only is it custom to tip for good service, many service industry livelihoods depend upon it.
“Many think that servers in New York City earn a decent minimum wage, but they don’t,” said Deanna Nokes, who lives in Brooklyn and serves diners in Manhattan. “The minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 per hour, and they are expected to live off of tips. So if someone leaves nothing, we’ve basically served them without earning a thing.”
The insult is magnified by the fact that, in many establishments, servers need to share their tips with others, such as the bartender, busser and sometimes the host.
“Also, don’t leave a bunch of change,” Nokes said. “The other day, I got $3 in dimes. I mean, come on.”
Who are the worst tippers? Servers I spoke with said that tourists from Scotland, Great Britain, Ireland and Japan are notorious for paying the tab without leaving a tip.
How much should one tip in a restaurant?
Travelers should already know this, but the standard tip for a restaurant server is 18-20 percent. I generally make it easy and tip 20 percent, forking over $4 on a $20 tab. There, that’s not so hard, is it? Bartenders should get $1 per drink.
“If you tip 10 percent, that means the service was bad,” Nokes said. “Fifteen percent usually means the service was just okay, 20 percent for excellent, and 25 percent for outstanding.”
But what if the service stinks? Last month in Hawaii, I had to go find our waiter to get our tab, and eventually found him in the bar, watching the football game. The bartender scowled at me through his sunglasses … never a good sign. Everyone has horror stories of horrible food, waiters cursing like sailors or being snippy, condescending little twits you feel like slapping.
“Nobody should have to put up with bad service, which is why you should tell the manager if someone or something is out of line — give the establishment a chance to make it right,” Nokes said. “But to just leave no tip for no reason is really disheartening.”
Many restaurants have policies of adding on a service charge for tables of six or more — providing some small insurance against someone’s miserly meltdown.
Some may say that they can’t afford to go out to eat AND tip the staff. Then I suggest choosing a restaurant according to one’s budget and do the right thing.
Others will thrust out their jaw and proclaim that restaurant workers should simply get paid more and they should do away with this silly merit system altogether. After all, servers in Europe are paid a living wage and service is included in the bill. While this may be a reasonable view in the abstract, we live in a world where hard-working staff are paid little and bust their bums to make diners happy, so let’s accept what IS and not punish the server with penurious idealism.
Hotel housekeeping/maid service – can I make a plea for the housekeepers? Talk about another hardworking job. People should tip them between $2-$5 per day, and a great idea is to do so each day by putting it on your pillow, since different people may be working different days. If you stiff these hard working folks, I truly fear for your soul.
Cab drivers – In New York City, the credit card machines only give you an option of leaving a 20, 25 or 30 percent tip. So hit the “other” button to leave less. You definitely want to tip if they’re hoisting your steamer trunk into the cab. However, it’s okay not to tip them if they don’t do a good job, such as they don’t know where they’re going, try to take a longer way to get there to let the meter run onwards, act a little creepy, or blast their music — like the guy did yesterday on the way to JFK Airport.
Valet parking – C’mon, give the guy who runs to go get your car for you a five spot.
Hair stylist and massage therapist – Generally tip in the 18-20 percent range as well.
Caddy – Ask what’s customary at that course. I’ve read a range of $20 to $60, depending on the cost of the round.
Tip jars – We’re seeing them everywhere, at convenience stores and fast food restaurants. Isn’t this getting out of hand? There’s no need to tip unless someone goes out of the way for you. It’s a convenient way to dispose of your change if you don’t want it rattling around your pocket.
Tour guides often can be ignored at the end of the journey. As a travel writer, I’ve come to depend on guides to help add more color to my articles, whether it was hiking on Hawaii, golfing Oregon’s Bandon Dunes or kayaking along the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia. The standard tip for a tour guide is 15-20 percent, depending on their knowledge, friendliness and how helpful they are enriching the tour. If it’s a tour lasting a few hours or more, it certainly never hurts to fork over $20.
Speaking of travel writers who often get to enjoy free trips, meals and accommodations, how do they rank when it’s time to cough up a gratuity?
“I’ve come to believe that there is no stronger force in nature than a travel writer’s grip on his or her wallet,” observed British Columbia tour guide Tom Ryan. It’s a sad indictment, indeed.
It’s easy to learn about the tipping system wherever you go. Traveling means enjoying oneself, but people should learn a little bit about customs too – it’s what others would ask of visitors to their home.