Now that some airlines in some countries are starting to charge for meals that they once offered for free, a few passengers are wondering whether the flight attendants that serve them will expect a tip. For the moment, the answer is no, although we are living in changing times. The driver of the shuttle that transports you from the airport to your airport hotel expects, or at least hopes for, a tip.
He may even have a sign somewhere indicating this. So what about the driver of the airplane? An offer of a tip probably would be greeted with horror.
Understandably, travelers are confused. A taxi driver in Mexico usually would be pleasantly surprised to receive a tip. A taxi driver in New York would be unpleasantly surprised if one were not offered.
How is one to know?
Not that the answers always are enlightening. “If you feel that the service merits a reward, by all means leave a little something, whatever amount you feel would be correct,” is a frequent reply. That tells you nothing.Novices on a cruise ship may be surprised to learn that before they debark they are expected to contribute one hundred dollars or more to cover gratuities for the crew. Many cruise lines, aware of this unawareness, now specify what is expected (remember that it is not obligatory) and allow tips to be charged to a credit card.
A tip is expected for service at a spa. In some places, it is added to the bill (you still have the option of paying less, paying more or paying nothing at all). In others it is not. Ask. Chambermaids, I learn, hope to be tipped ten or twenty pesos a day at the better hotels in Mexico and a like amount on the rest of the continent, but there are exceptions. At an all-inclusive resort, tips supposedly are included in the total price. Bellmen, for example, appear to be unaware of the situation. Las Brisas in Acapulco prohibits tipping, but adds a service charge which presumably will be distributed among the staff.
The general rule in the Americas is a 15 percent tip at restaurants, which can be confusing in Mexico, where IVA already and invisibly has been added into the total price. And what is the correct tip at a buffet where the customer serves himself? In Japan, Korea and other Asian countries, a tip is considered insulting. In China, attitudes are changing. Not long ago, accepting a tip was illegal. Now, according to tour operators, tips generally are anticipated. Australians and New Zealanders never were accustomed to leaving tips, but foreign tourism has changed expectations in their hospitality industry. In most European countries, a service charge is added to a restaurant bill, but more generally is expected.
Purists bemoan the entire practice of tipping, comparing it to bribery, which, in a manner of speaking, it is. In English, the term “tip” supposedly is an acronym for “To Insure Promptness.” In other words, it is a means of insuring that your luggage will arrive in your room quickly or that your meal will be served the same day. The theory is groundless, since tips usually are proffered after the service has been provided.
More realistically, tips allow those in the hospitality industry to advertise what are, in truth, unrealistically low prices, with the customer covering separately most of the labor costs. The workers benefit the most from the practice, since they supposedly get to keep all the money they collect, rather than sharing it with their employer, their union or their government. Supposedly.
This still leaves the traveler in a quandary. You may know what is expected at home, but what about when you arrive in Havana or Hong Kong? Your travel agent should be able to give you good advice. I found that the Internet only confuses. In the end, however, remember that tipping is voluntary, not obligatory, and that foreigners hardly can be expected to be aware of local customs. When in doubt, you always can be miserly and perhaps even get away with it.