Advice on tipping can ease those awkward travel moments

Just thinking about when and how much can bring on anxiety


March 07, 2004|By Susan Stellin | Susan Stellin,New York Times News Service

One of the side effects of travel is finding yourself in situations where you don't know the protocol. In some sense, that's why we leave home: To learn how to drink yerba mate out of a gourd in Argentina, or the proper etiquette for ordering a cappuccino at a cafe counter in Rome.

But sometimes, being clueless merely breeds discomfort, with not even a funny anecdote to redeem the awkwardness of the moment. A case in point: not knowing when or what to tip, a quandary bound to trip up even the most urbane traveler.

Douglas Stallings, an editor at Fodor's who contributed to the guidebook Fodor's FYI: How to Tip ($9.95), said two types of situations catch travelers off guard: when they encounter cultural differences in tipping expectations -- for example, when traveling abroad -- or when they have an experience for the first time, like taking a cab or going to a spa.

In those instances, he said, "There is a deep level of anxiety about tipping the right amount and tipping at the right time."

But even in more familiar situations, people don't necessarily know what is appropriate. Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University who studies tipping, pointed out, "Unless you're specifically looking for this information, where would you hear about it? I do research on tipping, but I didn't know all about it before I read the etiquette books."

So, here is an assortment of advice from the Fodor's book, Lynn, travel industry employees and a handful of online sources, such as, a Web site that offers guidelines and some lively discussion forums. And remember, tipping is ultimately subjective -- give what you feel is appropriate.

Don't forget the maid

My first inquiry was how to tip a maid in a hotel -- perhaps the most thankless job in the travel industry.

Though recommendations vary, $2 to $3 a night seems to be in the ballpark for a maid in a midrange hotel, with expectations higher at luxury digs or if you're a slob. The Fodor's guidebook says it's OK to skip the tip if you're only staying one night, and most sources agree it is not necessary to tip in a bed-and-breakfast.

As for when and where to leave a tip, I did not find a consensus. It is probably fairest to leave a tip every day, since the person who cleaned your room the first three nights may not be working on the fourth, but it is also OK to leave a lump sum when you check out. An employee at a hotel in Manhattan advised, "As you check in you can ask, 'Oh, by the way, what is the tipping procedure for the room attendants?' "

Speaking anonymously, since he did not have permission from his employer, he answered another burning question: Is it tacky to give a bellhop a $20 bill and ask for change?

"Not at all," said my tipster. "If they don't have change, they'll just go to the front desk and get it."

A typical tip is $1 to $2 a bag -- ditto for an airport skycap -- but more is appropriate if the person is particularly helpful (for example, demonstrating how to use the remote). Likewise, a doorman who merely opens the door does not need to be tipped, but if he also helps with your luggage and hails a cab, a tip of a few dollars is in order.

What you should tip a concierge is more situational. You do not need to tip for an answer to a simple question like, "Where's the nearest subway?" but $5 to $10 is suitable for help making reservations or getting tickets to a show -- with a premium for tickets that are hard to secure.

For room service, some hotels include both a gratuity and a service charge in the bill; when in doubt, ask what the waiter's cut is. If it seems not enough, tip as you would in a restaurant.

Cruises, tours, lessons

Some all-inclusive resorts, like Sandals and Club Med, include tips in the price of the package, although policies vary, so ask when you book. Some cruise lines also include tips in their prices.

Even so, Theron P. Keller, a computer programmer from Fredericksburg, Va., was frustrated when he took his first cruise a couple of years ago and discovered he did not have the right change for all the tips he owed. When he got home, he created the Cruise Tip Calculator ( / CruiseTip), which helps visitors calculate not just what they will owe, but how many tens, twenties and fives they'll need to bring.

Keller used the published guidelines from nine cruise lines, but said, "A lot of the cruise lines now allow you to charge tips to your account." You can also find tipping advice at sites like

Certain activities present additional tipping situations, like visiting a spa (tip 15 percent to 20 percent for most treatments -- but ask if a tip is included first), taking a tour (a guide on a bus tour usually gets a few dollars but a guide for a safari would warrant more) or gambling (tip the waitress, even for a free drink, and the dealer when you're on a roll). "There's an unwritten understanding that when you're winning, you spread the wealth around," said Stallings of Fodor's.

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