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The 5 New Rules on Tipping When Traveling

Boomers planning vacations should know these tipping tips

By Irene S. Levine | June 4, 2014

A recent analysis of the travel habits of age 50-plus travelers describes the group as “the lifeblood of the travel industry,” responsible for 48 percent of all vacation expenditures. But even though they are experienced and wise travelers, they still worry about when, how much and whom to tip while traveling.
 
While the tradition of tipping (T.I.P.: To-Insure-Promptitude) dates back to 16th century England, the rules remain murky hundreds of years later.

One reason for the perpetual confusion: The etiquette of tipping is always in flux. The standards vary by culture, from country to country and even regionally. As a result, even the savviest travelers experience moments of awkwardness and uncertainty.

(MORE: 10 Travel Apps to Make Your Trip Easier, Safe and More Fun)

What has remained constant, however, is that whether a trip is for business or leisure, here or abroad, travelers are likely to encounter a series of outstretched hands as they wend their way through airports, hotels, resorts or cruise ships, or settle charges for taxis, drinks or meals.
 
If you’re headed on vacation, here are five things you should know: 
 
1. Tips have increased. The standard percentage for restaurant server tips has risen from the 10 percent your parents considered generous to at least 15 to 20 percent today.
 
“The precise amount varies based on service quality,” says Michael Lynn, professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration in Ithaca, N.Y. and a nationally recognized expert on tipping.
 
Lynn says to tip the same 15 to 20 percent for alcoholic beverages consumed (even pricey bottles of wine). And if you’ve gotten a discounted meal or service from Amazon Local, Groupon or another site, remember to tip on the full cost.
 
Whether the tip is left in cash or added to a credit card is up to the customer.
 
Also gone are the days of the 50 cents per bag tip to a porter at an airport or hotel; the average tip has risen to $2 per bag.

(MORE: 7 Ways to Travel Smarter, Cheaper and More Often)
 
“When airlines offer curbside check-ins at $2 to 3 per bag, you should still leave a tip,” says Ezra Eichelberger, professor at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. “That baggage handling fee goes to the airline rather than the guy helping you.”
 
For hotel maids, experts typically suggest leaving a couple of dollars a day on the pillow as a way of saying thank you.
 
2. More no-tip policies. A growing number of upscale restaurants in the states (e.g. Thomas Keller’s Per Se in Manhattan and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif.) are instituting no-tip policies and raising their prices accordingly.
 
A recent Zagat tipping survey asked respondents how they felt about no-tip policies: 28 percent said they ‘hate it,’ 35 percent said ‘not sure,’ 21 percent said ‘love it’ and 17 percent said ‘like it but only in upscale restaurants.”
 
Another change: Similar to the tradition in many European countries, many U.S. restaurants are adding mandatory service charges, usually spelled out in advance on the menu or check. One of the reasons for the change is that waiters often feel stiffed by foreign travelers who aren’t used to leaving gratuities. Thus, it’s important to check your bill to see whether service has been included before adding a tip.
 
3. More tip jars. Perhaps a symptom of the growing awareness of income inequality or just another way to make more money, tip jars are showing up at deli counters, bakeries, bagel shops and coffee shops (including Starbucks) where workers tend to be paid less than minimum wage.
 
Before you write off the practice as simply a hustle, consider whether you can afford to drop your extra change or a couple of quarters in the jar. A recent article in CNN Money reporting data from Glassdoor.com suggests that the average Starbucks barista only earns an hourly wage of about $8.80 before tips.
 
4. More truly all-inclusive vacations include tips. The number of all-inclusive vacation packages (offered by hotels and resorts, tour operators, and upscale cruise ships and riverboats) is rapidly increasing, because travelers want to know the cost of their trip upfront without having to reach into their pockets each time they interact with service personnel. Some, but not all, of these packages include gratuities. So read the fine print online or in the brochure before you leave home.

(MORE: All-Inclusive Resorts Are Back In Style)
 
Even when gratuities are included, many all-inclusive travelers opt to tip each time they get a drink, enjoy a well-served meal or have towels draped on their lounge chairs at the pool or beach. Or they leave extra money for the chambermaid who has done an especially good job during their stay. It’s also customary to tip additionally for personal services, such as those provided at spas.
 
“There is a pressure to tip,” explains Lynn. “If you can afford it, you’re buying extra attention. Customers do compete for status and attention, and servers don’t treat everyone the same. ”
 
5. When in Rome… Americans turn out to be among the most frequent tippers. According to a 2013 TripAdvisor survey of 9,000 travelers, 99 percent of Americans tip on vacation and 57 percent tip while traveling, compared to 43 percent who tip from seven other countries.
 
“When traveling, you should know about and follow the tipping customs of the country you are visiting as opposed to the ones you follow at home,” says Lynn. If travelers are uncertain about the etiquette in a particular region, he suggests they consult guidebooks or ask the concierge at their hotel. Online forums (like TripAdvisor.com or CruiseCritic.com) are other sources of advice.
 
Resources for the complexities of tipping abroad include:

  • Conde Nast Traveler offers a free online Etiquette 101: Tipping Guideoutlining common tipping situations in 25 countries.
  • An inexpensive (99 cent) iPhone app called GlobeTipping offers country-specific tipping advice, as well as a calculator.
  • Wikipedia has an entry offering guidance on local tipping customs.
 
The bottom line: If you’re traveling, it’s helpful to do some research before you leave home, to adjust your travel budget accordingly and to stop at the bank and pick up some fives, tens and ones — or the equivalent in foreign currency.
 
Wherever you are, if your service is unsatisfactory or unprofessional, you have every right to adjust the tip downward. But don’t hold it back entirely.

Bear in mind that your order may have been slow coming out of the kitchen for reasons beyond the control of your equally exasperated waiter. Or your hard-working maid may have been given too many rooms to clean, because someone called in sick that day. In an era of TripAdvisor, Yelp and other review sites, tips aren’t the only mechanism available to express frustrations over disappointing service.

Irene S. Levine is a psychologist, lifestyle and travel journalist, and member of the Society of American Travel Writers who produces MoreTimeToTravel.com, a blog offering advice and inspiration for travelers over 50.