A few tips on how to avoid tipping anxiety

Service: It's customary to reward good treatment with a little cash. Here's a guide for how much -- and when -- to give


February 21, 1999|By Betsy Wade | Betsy Wade,New York Times News Service

How much to tip is an anxiety-provoking question that follows a traveler from airport to hotel to restaurant, nationally and internationally. Do you tip a hotel-room housekeeper? How about the masseuse? The golf pro? A restaurant's captain?

The general manager of the Inn at Union Square in San Francisco, which has banned tipping, says the ban ranks high on guests' lists of favorite features. But few have followed this lead. Generally, tipping is the custom throughout America.

Customs overseas are usually noted in guide books, though the size of tips may not be specified.

At the edge of some aspects of American travel, the service charge added to the tab can be seen working its way in. For example, it's not uncommon now to see on a menu, "For parties of eight or more, a service charge of XX percent will be added to the total bill." The percentage is often 15 or 20 percent.

Resorts add service charges to bills because otherwise the guest may envision a battalion of hands held out: bellmen, housekeepers, waiters, golf pros, bartenders, lifeguards and many others. In addition, it is difficult to figure out where to keep cash while lifting weights. On the other hand, when it is clear that a service is performed by someone who is not a resort employee, there should be a tip: for a massage, I usually give 10 percent, rounded up, but the manager of a New York health club said that 15 to 20 percent was the usual amount there.

There aren't a lot of general guides about tipping. Original Tipping Page (www.cis.columbia.edu/ homepages/gonzalu/tipping/ tipping.html) may be found on the Web, but its rates strike me as eccentric.

Here are a few rules of thumb, with the understanding that some organizations, like cruise companies, publish guidelines on amounts and that these should take precedence. But no tip should be provided when service is discourteous. It is demoralizing to those providing good service and undermines the idea that tipping is optional.

Step 1: Plan

The primary way to avoid tipping anxiety is to be prepared. A supply of new one-dollar bills should be held at the ready. Really fussy travelers on long trips carry along smaller envelopes or note cards and envelopes to meet situations where naked currency seems awkward, for concierges, for example.

At hotels and motels, according to Katherine Potter, a spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Motel Association, tips typically do not rise and fall with the price of the room. Like most experts in this area, Potter emphasized that no tip is ever required, but this nostrum does little to soothe a traveler who wants to avoid seeming stingy or a fool. I have watched people suffer for hours after grossly overtipping through error. The solution is to forget the error; recipients focus on their good luck, not on scorning the donor.

The person who cleans the hotel room should get $1 or $2 a guest for each night, and more if you are messy or have asked for many extra deliveries. A prompt delivery of an iron and board is worth $2.

Travelers who go to conventions and meetings in hotels might want to be sure to tip well because they are identified as representatives of an organization and want to create good will. If you get particular help, ask whether the employee will be on duty the day you leave. If not, tip on the spot. Leaving the tip on the bathroom counter helps assure it gets to the person who does the work.

Room service can be a bother. Check the menu first to see if a service charge will be added. A tip beyond that is not necessary unless there is something special about the delivery. If no charge is added, 15 to 20 percent of the bill is fine.

The person who brings up the bags and opens the room for you should get $1 or $2, unless you have a whole trolley of luggage, when it should be more. The door attendant who calls a cab should get $1.

Employees at airports indicate that tips range from $1 to $2 a bag. Fred Baer, manager of ground transportation for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said that the airlines had policies that skycaps -- the uniformed porters who are the only people legally allowed to carry bags at New York airports -- were not allowed to solicit tips. At Terminal 4 of Kennedy International Airport, Baer said, a minimum charge of $1 a bag is in effect, and signs on the skycaps' carts note this.

Some aren't tipped

Economy hotels with no bell staff may have security guards in the registration area. Anthony Marshall, president and dean of the Educational Institute of the American Hotel and Motel Association, said that guards help prevent crime just by their presence, and that they should not have tasks that take them away. But he said, if they escort a guest to a room, they can be tipped like a bellman.

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