Insights on Travel from Costa Rica Expeditions’ Founder Michael Kaye and his Expert Friends.

Tipping is Not a City in China

The first time I saw the words in the title of this post was on a whitewater  rafting company shuttle bus probably in 1970.They were on a big sign above the windshield where all the passengers could not help but see it.At the time I imagine I thought it was funny.  Forty years later I can see that the sign probably did not contribute to our rafters enjoyment of the trip. Whitewater rafting was a lot scarier in those days. 

Did blatantly asking for tips assure our nervous charges that at least we expected them to survive?  Perhaps they thought we were asking to be tipped before the trip just in case they did not make it—or as an incentive to rescue them instead of their companions after the big flip.

In any case, 40 years and tens of millions of rafter-days with very few accidents later, tipping continues to be one of the touchiest and anxiety causing topics in travel.

I was reminded of this on Tuesday when I read Jeri Clausing’s  spot on (as John Mason would say) article called “The complicated etiquette

of tipping.”

She begins by saying:

“One of the more stressful things about travel — after flying, of course — can often be insecurity about tipping.”

A little further down in the article she precisely defines the cause of the insecurity:

“There are no set rules… You don’t want to undertip, but you also don’t want to be the gauche American throwing money around like it’s candy and insulting workers who might be above the tipping chain, or in whose culture tipping is not expected.”

She quotes, Lisa Mirza Grotts, author of “A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette.”

“’Whenever a service is performed of any kind, we need to tip. 

You have got to have your dollars, your fives ready to go,’ she said, advising travelers to break a 20 or two at the front desk when they check in.”

She also mentions her husband’s crack about an ATM in every room.

It is probably 20 years ago that I first wrote advice to our guests on tipping.  Every time I revisit I find it wanting.

Here are the first three paragraphs:

“There are more differences of opinion about tipping than just about any other topic in the travel industry. Should they be included or not? Should specific amounts be recommended to guests? So, by popular demand. . .we’ll see if we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.


“Of course tipping is entirely up to you. Level of service, whether or not you feel comfortable giving tips, and your budget are all important factors. Personally, I love to tip (or not tip), depending on service. When I worked as a guide I loved to receive tips. I’ve tipped toll takers for giving me particularly careful, detailed directions. I’ve also left a penny in a full water glass after suffering through particularly surly service at a restaurant. I think of a tip as a statement.

“If you don’t believe in tipping, don’t feel obligated. Nobody should expect a tip. Regarding Costa Rica Expeditions and our own hotel personnel, if you believe in tipping and do not feel that one of our people deserves a tip, we’d very much appreciate hearing from you. We’d also appreciate hearing from you so that we can recognize extraordinary good work.” To read more

My present take on tipping is that on a smaller scale it is like religion or politics:  All well-intentioned views are valid. Perhaps the one thing we can agree on is that it would be better if tipping did not cause so much stress. Validating a wide range of views might be  a means to that end. Please comment with your views.  My aim is to help future travelers be less anxious about tipping by sending them a link to our conversation.

Here’s a start:

My good friend the late Pradjeep Sankhala, whose family still runs a leading tour operation and wildlife lodges in India used to argue quite convincingly that all tipping was a bad idea because it was inherently unfair.  “Why should guides get the tips and not the gardeners and the maintenance people,” he asked me over dinner one freezing night in Chicago where we were both attending a travel show. 

I did not have an answer, but when we got back to our hotel in the wee hours of the morning I tipped the man who was polishing the floor in the lobby.

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Comments and Replies

  • The first surprise of Foxcroft book is just how historical the wish to lose weight is. We have a tendency to think of acute bodyconsciousness being a contemporary phenomenon, but our CroMagnon ancestors seem to possess been equally as preoccupied with image.

    • At March 30, 2010
      9:47:27 pm
      Patty said:

      I used to feel annoyed and stressed out by tipping – feeling that employers should pay their employees fairly and never quite knowing if I was tipping appropriately. Until we had kids. Now, I tip everywhere and well, because I am so truly grateful for the work people have to do around us – clean up spills, bring extra napkins, navigate my daughter’s allergies, tolerate the noise level, etc etc. We cause extra work, so we should tip extra well – and I think that’s the spirit of the enterprise anyway, to give thanks when one is thankful.

      I once worked with a client who always gave bellmen $2 to hail a cab – this was 20 yrs ago when I think most everyone was tipping $1. He would say “I don’t believe in $1 tips. Either the person did something good for you, in which case they deserve $2, or they didn’t, in which case I can save my money for the next person who does.” So you can either approach it with “When in Rome” and do what is expected, or you can have your own world view with a clear conscience.

      • At March 23, 2010
        6:03:03 pm
        Mark Zivin said:

        I am certainly an overtipper – especially if the person is particularly nice, welcoming or goes out of the way for me. Depending on my mood, I enjoying talking with taxi drivers – of course, these days in most of the large cities in the US these people represent a miniature UN and I am always interested in the story of how they got to the US, as well as their take on national politics. An interesting, enlightening or enjoyable discussion is certainly worth an extra tip in my mind.

        I am a partner in a CPA firm here in Chicago, and through hard work and good fortune, I make a nice living. To me, an extra $5 will not make a noticeable difference in my life – but to a cabbie who has to pay for $3.00 gas on a beautiful spring day when everyone is walking, that little extra can make his day. In the same way, I always leave a $5 on my pillow each day I am in a hotel – the maids work hard and it is very tough to raise a family on the wages they are earning. And, a la Michael’s comment about the floor polisher, around the holidays, I like to slip a $10 or $20 bill to the security guards in my building, the cashiers at the parking garage (of course, there aren’t any these days), and although I’ve only done it once, the guy doing an extra diligent job of cleaning the urinals at O’hare. Talk about lack of respect. The ultimate goal: to make somebody’s day. Can’t think of anything nicer.

        • At March 22, 2010
          4:50:14 pm
          Len Prins said:

          The joy of tipping is tipping someone from whom you never will receive a return. It is like the old saying about the true joy of giving belongs to the giver. It also is alot better when you tip the person who seems genuinely suprised to get a tip (not because they provide poor service) but because they toil behind the scenes and unrecognized. The problem seems to be knowing who to tip and how much. If someone is paid based on the expectation that a large part of their income will be tips I’d like to know that to know so that I can make sure they are being paid appopriately. I personally would prefer a system where all employees are paid a wage that is based on not getting tips and then only tipping for exceptional service.

          • At March 16, 2010
            8:04:02 am
            Peg Olson said:

            Tipping is not a city in China, as well as, tipping is not accetable etiquette in China.

            • At March 15, 2010
              5:36:04 pm
              carlos said:

              Tipping is becoming out of european culture. We use to think that the responsibility to reward the good employees should be always for the employer, never the customer. To definitively end with the awful stress of the use of tipping you should then increase to a fixed initial price in the amount you consider necessary, but never mention the tipping, nor leave any paper in the room suggesting it or create a competition of sympathy-through-money among the customers. I have only go on holidays once with an US firm and the strong recommendation of tipping and the environment of people giving it abundantly to the employees (that all are very good and deserve much more money than I will never have) lead to people that prefer an all include price paid from home before feel very, very bad. Please organise also fixed prices tours for european people.

              • At March 15, 2010
                5:15:24 pm
                Peter J. Purdy said:

                I’m ready to do in Rome what the Romans do BUT I’m old fashioned enough to remember that tipping was at one time for something that someone did especially for you. Dropping food on a table as a waiter doesn’t qualify. Either does a taxi ride that only involves picking you up and depositing you at a door with no other intervention involved. Frankly, either does hotel maid or concierge service unless something special for you has given it “value added”. Tour groups and hotels that factor tipping in as part of the basic rate and line-item it as an automatic “service” charge disturb me to no small degree. Tour Companies and hotels should pay their staff an appropriate salary and charge the customer a flat rate. Then, when distinctly identifiable “service” have been rendered above and beyond the call of the job description, it is only too right for the receiver to tip as a genuine acknowledgement of having received something special. We in the U. S. call ourselves a “service economy” but the truth is that most of the individuals rendering it have never experienced real service and therefore don’t know how to give it! Moreover, they expect a tip as part of their due reward for doing the job for which they were hired.

                • I’ve had a few tipping adventures over the years. Something that I noticed earlier this year down in Argentina was the mistake I was making when leaving a perceived tip on a credit card receipt.

                  Being used to the US method of entering the tip amount after the card has been run and the receipt returned, I would take the slip of paper the waiter gave me and would enter an amount in the “No.” space at the bottom below the price of the meal. Of course, what they really want in the “No.” space is some sort of identification number, presumably a passport or phone. Once the card has been run they don’t go back and add the tip later.

                  It was only halfway through the trip that I realized I should have been asking them to add the tip before running the card, or just leaving cash as a tip afterward. D’oh!

                  So, if you’re into tipping, it probably makes sense to get a sense of the system (if not the etiquette) beforehand, whether it comes to credit card receipts or staff tips boxes.