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Tipping Etiquette: A Guide for Travelers

A question and answer session with etiquette expert Lizzie Post

Even the most experienced traveler can sometimes be tripped up by tipping etiquette. Sure, you know you're supposed to tip your tour guide something -- but how much? When you're calculating the tip for your dinner, do you need to include taxes and that pricey bottle of wine? And is it ever acceptable to withhold a tip for poor service?

lizzie post

For help, we turned our tipping questions over to an etiquette expert. Lizzie Post is an author and spokesperson for the Emily Post Institute, an organization that promotes etiquette in the U.S. and around the world. Lizzie, who is the great-great-granddaughter of the famous manners maven, shares secrets for tipping right every time (and reveals why bribing the maitre d' won't get you the best seat in the house).

Q: What's the most common tipping mistake?
A: To not tip. That's probably the worst tipping mistake. Usually if you know to tip, you're tipping around 15 - 20 percent so you know you've tipped something, and that's great. But not tipping at all is probably the worst mistake.

Q: If you're unhappy with the service you've received, is it ever okay not to tip, or is there a better way to handle it?
A: No. You should never let your money talk for you. If you get good service, in addition to leaving a good tip, you would want to thank your server, bellboy, etc. When it goes the other way, you still should leave the customary 15 percent. If you had horrendous service and it was the service provider's fault, some people might go as low as 10 percent. But we suggest that you leave 15 percent and then immediately speak to a manager to express your dissatisfaction. Say that you're unhappy with how you were treated and that you're reluctant to return after such an experience. That will speak volumes to a manager.

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Q: Whom should we never tip?
A: Never tip your doctor! We tip waiters and waitresses because they don't make a livable wage. Our tips are helping to subsidize substandard wages. Try to avoid tipping those who aren't in the service industry -- doctors, dentists, therapists. You also don't tip your dry cleaner. You've purchased their service and it's one that traditionally doesn't have a tip associated with it.

In a foreign country, different rules often apply. We recommend that you visit country-specific websites to find out what the local customs are.

Editor's Note: Guidebooks and visitors bureaus are also great sources for country-specific tipping information. See Tips for Tipping Abroad for more advice on how to tip overseas.

Q: Is there such a thing as overtipping? Could you offend someone by doing so?
A: I don't think anyone would be too offended by overtipping, but they might think you're a little stupid. (I always wonder if that happens with celebrities -- you hear about them leaving an $800 tip on a $2,000 bill. The waitress must be thinking, "Do you know how many hundreds you just dropped?")

However, the manner in which you give a tip could be insulting. The classic is trying to get the maitre d' to give you a better table. A lot of people think that by flashing a $10, $20 or $50 bill, they're going to get that kind of service, but the waitstaff we've talked to say they find that insulting; they're not going to change the way the restaurant is run just because you're waving a few bills. You don't want to bribe for good service. You want to tip afterward to reward good service.

Q: When is it okay to tip in anything besides the local currency?
A: If the choice is that or nothing, then leave the foreign currency. But otherwise, try your best to leave a tip in the currency of that country. Run out and grab some change on your lunch break, or visit an ATM. By leaving a tip in a non-local currency, you're giving your service person work to do, and they'll likely have to pay a fee to change it into their own currency. So you should only leave a tip in your own currency if you don't have time to get something else.

tip money cafe

Q: At restaurants, should you base the tip on the total bill (including tax, alcohol, etc.) or just the cost of the meal?
A: You shouldn't tip on the tax because who wants to tip on what the government gets? But yes, you do tip on the cost of your meal and any alcohol. If I order a bottle of wine from a sommelier, then I would tip him or her directly. But if I order the bottle from my server, that's the person I tip. And if I have a few cocktails before dinner, I make sure to tip the bartender specifically before I go to my table.

Q: Do different rules apply to tipping at hotels vs. bed and breakfasts? For example, at a small B&B where you're not sure if there's a housekeeping staff and you think that the owner may be the person to clean your room, do you still leave a housekeeping tip?
A: If you don't know, leave a tip on the side of the bed. There very well could be a maid who comes in for a couple of hours a day, an off-site person that does the housekeeping so the owner can handle the bookkeeping or other responsibilities. Even if it is the owner [who does the cleaning], he or she is doing the work -- so I don't think you would be insulting anyone if you did leave a tip.

A Guide to Hotel Tipping

Q: What's a good rule of thumb for tipping tour guides (and drivers)?
A: On a short bus tour (several hours or less), tip your guide 10 - 20 percent of the cost of the tour. Give it to him or her when you say goodbye. Charter and sightseeing bus drivers are also tipped in certain cases: when drivers double as guides, $1 per person per day. When the driver has been particularly amiable, the person in charge of a private charter sometimes asks each passenger to contribute $1 or more to a tip pool. On a longer tour with no built-in gratuity, each passenger should give $5 - $10 to the guide and another $5 - $10 to the driver.

You should not tip tour guides at national parks or other government sites.

Q: Should you always tip the driver of the airport car rental shuttle? How much?
A: Yes. Especially if the driver helps me with my bags, I'll leave a dollar or two (typically a dollar per bag). It's also nice to tip if the driver has held the shuttle for you. Similar rules apply to drivers of airport parking lot shuttles.

Q: If you give a bellman your bags for storage at the front desk, do you tip when he takes the bags away, when he returns them to you later or both times? And how much?
A: Tip when the bellman brings the bags back -- again, because we're not bribing for service. I'd recommend $1 or $2 per bag.

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Q: If you could only offer one tidbit of tipping advice, what would it be?
A: Remember to tip! Beyond that, my advice would be to keep one- and five-dollar bills on you [or the local equivalent]. Whenever you leave for a trip, go to a bank or convenience store to get change so you always have it on hand.

Check out more travel interviews!

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--interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

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