Why travelers are confused about tipping — and what to do about it

It’s time to disrupt the tipping economy. The travel industry is a great place to start.

“The tipping culture in the U.S. is out of control,” says Laurel Barton, a guidebook author who lives in Lincoln City, Ore., but spent years living in Europe. “I am appalled at how much and often I am expected to tip in the U.S.”

This is the perfect time to be thinking about it, while you’re planning your upcoming holiday trip. A recent CreditCards.com poll found that four out of five Americans always tip at a restaurant, and the median tip is 18%. Though there are no authoritative studies that document the growth of gratuities in the travel industry, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that their use is expanding.

Here’s a tip or two for your next trip: There’s a short list of people to whom you shouldn’t give a penny and an even shorter list of people you should always consider tipping. There are plenty of folks in the middle, and, as always, there are exceptions to every rule.

In the no-tip category: independent tour guides, travel agents, flight attendants, boat captains and pilots. “No, don’t tip them,” says Barton — even if you’re traveling in America. Why? They’re generally already well compensated. Giving them more creates a system of tip dependency.

Etiquette expert April Masini says you should always check your bill before paying extra, because sometimes, gratuities are included on the bill. “You would be double-tipping,” she says. That kind of pricing seems to be happening more often. In fact, I experienced it a few weeks ago when I ordered room service in a hotel. When I asked a hotel employee if the tip was included, he cringed, then admitted it was, apparently realizing I would not overtip.

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What about taxi drivers, doormen, hotel valets and bellmen? How about Uber drivers? I found travelers in both the “yes” and “no” category when it came to tips. Though many of these travel employees receive a living wage, it’s acceptable to give them a gratuity if they’ve provided a good service.

Who should get a tip? Anyone who you know is essentially working for tips, particularly restaurant servers, deserves your consideration. But the tip should not be automatic, travelers says.

Tom Krieg, a retired sales manager from St. Cloud, Minn., is uneasy about tipping certain restaurant servers, “given some states, and more recently cities, are substantially increasing their minimum wage levels.”

He’s seen this in Minnesota, which is one of a few states that mandate minimum wage for wait staff. “Many diners continue to tip the standard 15% to 20%, assuming wait staff still receive significantly less than the prevailing minimum wage and are depending on gratuities to supplement the traditional shortfall,” he says. In effect, they’re overpaying for their meals.

Attitude counts, too. Ellen Chiantelli, a veterinary assistant from Carlsbad, Calif., says she goes out of her way to tip more than 20% to someone she knows earns minimum wage. “But if someone is rude, arrogant or flippant,” she says, “I do not tip.”

That’s not likely to go over well with the good folks in the hospitality industry who depend on tips, but maybe they need to read this. Shylar Bredewold, who owns an online travel agency in London, Canada, was stunned when a bartender recently told him he wouldn’t get served unless he tipped. Then it happened two more times.

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“I have a hard time with tips, personally,” he says. “There are so many different tipping standards set across the globe — mostly leaning toward not tipping.”

So do I. Gratuities should be given as a reward for good service and to only a handful of service industry employees who truly need them. Instead they’ve become like bribes parceled out to bureaucrats. If you want to travel, you must bring a wad of dollar bills. Come on.

“I still think that tipping should be based on the service you receive,” says Diana Winkler, a pharmacy technician from Scottsdale, Ariz. “Not because someone demands it or is paid sub-minimum wages.”

If enough travelers say “no,” then employers would either have to pay their workers a living wage or governments would mandate it. That would be the best solution. No one should have to keep a long list of tippable workers and constantly worry about whether they should or shouldn’t grease someone’s palm with a gratuity.

Tips on avoiding tips

• Take out instead of eating out. If you order takeout, no tip is expected because no table service is provided.

• Visit a business with a no-tipping policy. Restaurants such as New York’s Riki, a Japanese restaurant, have policies that “Tipping is not required nor expected.” But beware: Instead, some “no tipping” restaurants add a mandatory “service charge” of 18% to 20%.

• Avoid the outstretched hands. (You can.) You can stay in vacation rentals, rent a car or use mass transit, buy your food in a grocery store and take the self-guided tour and avoid having to leave a tip. If you’re on a longer trip, you might like traveling the other way better.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

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