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.

  • SirWIred

    Certainly you should not tip a waiter/waitress if he/she provides downright terrible service for something they are directly responsible for. (e.g. don’t stiff your watistaff if you think the chef didn’t do a good job, or if you don’t like the decor, etc.)

    But please, do NOT be one of “those people” that think by not going along with tipping at all, they are somehow being a force for Justice and Change. You stiffing the waitstaff is going to hurt that person a LOT more than the manager/owner.

    “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.”

    The difference between the Federal Minimum of $2.13 and MN’s $7.87 (the level for small businesses) is hardly a princely sum. If a waiter is handling five tables per hour, they are getting a munificent wage upgrade of ~$1 per meal. I hope he’s not cutting his tips by much more than that.

  • Kairho

    Then there’s the age old issue of hotel housekeeping…….

  • Bill___A

    I remember when Mr. Elliott wrote an article some time ago about tipping waitstaff 25%…I did not agree with this actually. I was tipping generally 20% at the time. After giving it some thought, I now tip generally 15% for table service, 10% for a buffet, and nothing if it is take away.

    As to some of the points here:
    “Take out instead of eating out. If you order takeout, no tip is expected because no table service is provided.” Places like Waffle House, I believe, insist upon adding a “tip” to the server who prepared the “take away” package, so beware.

    “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%.” Every place I have seen with a “no tipping” policy adds a mandatory tip. I avoid them like the plague and hope for them to go out of business.

    Tour guides – if I am on a guided tour, I do in fact tip the guide and the driver. I’ve only gone on two guided tours, one was a one day tour (tipped the guide and the driver) and the other was about two weeks. The driver was very poorly paid, he did an excellent job, and the tip was justified.

    As to a bartender (or anyone who told me I “had” to tip, they can forget it. I will tip but not if I am told to.

    I hate tipping and I hate businesses that tack on “optional” service charges, or service charges of any type. However, I do take into consideration how people are paid and work with the system. However, any business that does any activity to increase tipping is not my friend.

  • Mel65

    I used to tip a few dollars per person in the room per day, but now most often I put out the Do Not Disturb and make my own bed and reuse towels because I’d rather not have people in my room, since I’m usually traveling with a work laptop, electronics, etc..

  • Mel65

    I’m generally a generous tipper since I don’t want to screw the server for my issues with the convention, but I have to confess I do so rather grudgingly. My employer pays my wages and it’s an ongoing source of irritation to me that the service industry expects ME to subsidize their employees’ wages instead of them covering that cost of doing business.

  • tio2girl

    Agreed. Minimum wage is hardly a living wage for most people.

  • FQTVLR

    Tipping is out of control. The number of counter service only places where tip jars are common is astonishing these days. Coffee houses, sandwich shops, etc. all have tip jars out and some places have no problem asking if you would put your change in the tip jar. (No to that one.) One hotel chain now puts envelopes in the room for you to tip housekeepers. I also tell places to remove the “mandatory” service charge which is in lieu of tipping. Service charges are divided up among a large number of people and waitstaff seldom gets the same benefit they would from a tip. I ask up front if the service charge can be removed. If I am told no then I leave. Simple as that.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    I don’t mind tipping in general. Most service people are making minimum wage, at most, and I am fortunate to earn more. So if I throw an extra few bucks to the waiter to give 25-30%, I don’t order dessert and I’m even. Same with housekeeping or valet. If you have a budget so tight that you can’t afford to tip, perhaps that is a sign that you can’t afford to eat in that restaurant or take that trip.

  • DChamp56

    I tip based on the service, friendliness and attitude.
    I just back from a cruise that left out of San Juan, and I way overtipped the taxi drivers both ways. I know what they’re going through.

  • bbinsf

    PLEASE tip the hotel housekeeping staff! People spend $$$ on a hotel room but can’t afford a few dollars for them?! http://m.sfgate.com/business/article/Tipping-may-be-the-norm-but-not-for-hotel-12330694.php

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