My Biggest Challenge When It Comes To Tipping While Traveling

Filed Under: Travel

I’m a huge believer in taking care of the people in the hospitality industry, be it airlines or hotels. And by that I don’t just mean tipping, but also constantly saying thank you for their hard work, and occasionally also bringing a gift, if the situation warrants it (for example, I’ll sometimes bring a bottle of champagne as a gift for some of my favorite hotel employees, just as a small token of appreciation).

But let’s talk about tipping for a second. Is the US tipping system perfect? Absolutely not. I don’t tip because I love the system, but rather because I realize many people rely on tips to make a living.

I have one small problem, however, with some regularity. I’m not someone who carries a ton of cash around, since I pay virtually everything by credit card. So it’s not unusual that I have either no US currency, or if I do have US currency, it’s in larger denominations. For example, here’s what I have on me right now:


Not surprisingly I have tons of non US currency, but in terms of US cash, I only have a single $20 on me.


I do everything I can to have smaller bills, but sometimes it just happens that I don’t. And then I find myself in a situation where I know I’m supposed to tip (like having someone “special deliver” something to my room), but all I have is a $20.

In those situations do you:

  • Just tip $20, and chalk it up to needing to be more prepared next time?
  • Give the person a $20 and ask for change? If so, what happens if they don’t have change?
  • Not tip? If so, do you justify why you’re not tipping, or just not say anything?
  • Leave the room? That way you feel less guilty and don’t have to confront the person.

I know this shouldn’t happen because I should always have smaller bills, but I do find myself in situations fairly often where that’s not the case. And perhaps that’s the real moral of the story, to be more prepared.

But I assume I’m not the only one this happens to, and I’d be curious to hear how you guys handle it!

  1. Have the same problem. I try to preserve smaller bills for tipping when needed but it’s not always perfect. I will break big bills when I can so I have smaller bills to tip with.

  2. If it’s close enough, I leave the whole bill. Otherwise, I ask for change or just add it to the credit card total.

    You should not feel funny about it. The servers are used to it. Happens all the time.

  3. Before a vacation I always try to get some $2 bills from the bank that I use exclusively for tipping. That way I immediately have the cash without having to break a larger bill and don’t have to worry about spending it since I know they’re slated for tips. I do sometimes feel bad giving weird denominations but it’s better than not having anything for them.

  4. Same problem here. I carry $10 in small bills for this reason. If at a hotel just go downstairs and ask for change.

  5. Nice card case. You should do an EDC. It would be interesting given how much it probably changes due to your traveling.

  6. The only time I make an effort to have cash for tipping is when I go to the Centurion Lounge. I try to have 1s and 5s, but if I don’t, I just throw down a $10 or $20 and make change for myself (after asking Francis, of course).

  7. @ Mike W — Cool idea! I used to do the same with gold dollar coins since I did buy several thousand of them. 🙂

  8. I stop by the bank and get $100 worth of ones and fives before a long trip.

    That said, don’t feel bad asking for change when offering a tip. It is better than stiffing the recipient.

  9. If there’s a chance I’ll need to tip, I always check my wallet when checking in. If I only have larger bills, the hotel agent will happily “break a $20” and give me some smaller bills.

    In a pinch, when I’ve only had large bills, I’ve apologised and asked the person their name, which I then wrote on an envelope (since they’re nearly always in those folio thingys). I’ve then dropped it off sealed to the concierge desk with some cash in it later. Employees seem to love this, because now YOU’RE taking extra effort to thank them.

  10. I’ll speak from the perspective of a tip recipient – I work as a bellman in a hotel.

    Don’t feel bad about asking for change, those of us who work for tips will almost always have change on us for the exact situation you’re describing. And if not, we’ll get change for you.

  11. @Mike W-I do the same. I get a kick out of watching people look at the bill since many haven’t seen them before. I have even given some to people in the EU (along with Euro tip). Makes for a nice conversation and people enjoy the thought.

  12. Tipping is such an American thing and since everyone looks up to America (while at the same time hating on America) its starting to gain traction around the world. Its driving me crazy when I travel because 1) I absolutely hate the notion of having to tip someone for them to do their job (and thats what it came to) wbole they do JUST that and no more and 2) I don’t carey much cash.

    And then there’s this: in the USA we tip for a job mediocre done, yet in Japan, I press “0” and a minute layer this little Japanese lady comes running up to my room with the requested towels, bows 20 times after handing the towels to me, while I shut the door in her face – while she’s still bowing as thats what she’s supposed to do. And she doesn’t get a tip because thats how it is in Japan.

    I could go on for days.

  13. I think the thing is to always try to have small bills available for situations like these (since you do live a life where opportunities to tip happens more often). But there will obviously be times when you don’t. When you don’t have small bills just politely ask if they can break a bigger bill because no one is going to begrudge you trying to give them money. If they can’t then apologize and move on. That way you have at least demonstrated that you aren’t someone who just doesn’t want to tip, but just can’t at the moment (of course they might think its a ruse, but that’s on them). It’s way better than awkwardly not tipping when its expected or making up an excuse for not tipping or hiding or something.

  14. I just ask for them to break a larger bill. They’re happy to do it if it means they don’t get screwed over, and it’s better than overtipping because you only have a large bill.

  15. I often ask for a stash of ones ($1) when I check into the hotel b/c I know I’ll be leaving tips over the stay. Just carry a stash of ones in your wallet at all times. Then you’ll have to explain why you have so many dollar bills (and no one will believe you) 😉

  16. Usually, when I travel (to other countries), I get smaller denominations so that’s usually not a problem abroad (if they even do tipping).

    In the states, I generally don’t carry a lot of cash but small bills, so it’s usually not a problem. However, before I left on a trip to Hawaii earlier in the year, I actually went to the bank and got a huge stash of $1 bills and $5 bills because I know I’ll need them (housekeeping and valet, etc). If I don’t have small bills, I will ask to break the bill.

  17. Depends on what it is, i have said sorry, cant tip ya right now when it would only be a $2 tip anyways. I have also left a $20 tip because thats all i had when a shuttle bus driver is extremely helpful and puts our family bags in my car.
    I am sure there is a thousand posts on tipping, but i would be interested in what was getting delivered to your room. Stuff like when they didnt leave enough towels to begin with and you have to call and ask for them, or when you get a bottle of wine for being a elite member, do you tip then? I usually dont…

  18. True Story: I once tipped a bellman 200 euros in India instead of 200 rupees (2.80 Euro) for bringing my bag to my room. I felt like a complete idiot the next day but let it go and moved on.

  19. Stop bribing people to do their jobs well and most importantly, please give them some pride. If you are really concerned about others, donate the money to the charities.

  20. @Wins – “Stop bribing people to do their jobs well”

    Except for the fact that the service industry in the US is, to a very large extent, based on tipping. Given the wages tipped staff make, if they knew they weren’t going to get tipped, service would probably be worse than it is.

    “and most importantly, please give them some pride.”

    Pride doesn’t pay bills.

    “If you are really concerned about others, donate the money to the charities.”

    How will donating money to a charity help your waiter/bellman/etc. make ends meet?

  21. Being from a country where we don’t tip, and it’s not even expected in most circumstances, I’m always worried about tipping overseas. I don’t want to give so little that it is almost insulting? But at the same time I don’t want to be going around handing out money and draining my own account. I always feel somewhat uneasy in America because there’s almost this ‘pressure’ to try and work out an acceptable amount to tip.

  22. As someone said above, we’ve often suffered the same fate.
    I went to the front desk twice on our last trip to break a $20.

    Or you can get a diet coke at the bar and pay cash. Any smart bartender will give back small bills for change or you can make sure to ask for small bills. Just make sure to leave one or two for their trouble.

  23. I also go to the bank and get lots of $2 bills. It is better than give $1 and usually people get surprised since the $2 bill is not very common.

  24. I try to have a cache of fives and ones as others have said. I used to also do the gold coin thing. Good times.

    If I have not arrived at the airport prepared, I buy a bottled drink at the Hudson News (or whatever kiosk) with a $20 and get a start on lots of nice change. Then I am good to go for my trip. I repeat as necessary during the trip at small shops or get change from the hotel desk. At casino destinations I use the bill breaker machines.

    Oh yea the bottled drink is for the flight…it seems like there is always some delay in drink service even in first class. So I have my own when I need it and I can sip it slowly throughout the flight and avoid the drink gulping/dirty bathroom cycle:)

  25. I usually ask the person who helped me if they can make change. Almost all the time they are able to do it and they are always happy to facilitate me tipping them.

  26. I honestly often forget to tip at all because I come from a culture that doesn’t tip. I’m grateful whenever I pay by card and get the reminder to tip on the receipt and I just type it in online or write it in if it’s a paper receipt.

  27. My solution is to keep 10 x $10 bills and 5 x $20 bills in my wallet, all the time. This way I can tip when it’s necessary and I shouldn’t worry about the local currency because everyone accepts the dollar and everyone knows how much it’s worth. So it might seem strange but if I have to tip in cash then I do it in US Dollars even in Europe, Japan, Australia, etc. If I can tip by card then even better.

  28. Tipping these people is not my number 1 priority of the day, although I always make sure to tip housekeeping, anyone else can just go F*** themselves. I try my best and get change during check in for this. if I am requesting something I try and tip 2 bucks but it really depends on the condition of the room and if it is fully equipped etc and if I feel irritated the items isn’t there and should be.

    It is not going to spoil my day if I am not giving you money, and I do not use bellmen and I carry my own luggage, I had a bad experience at Ritz Carlton Moscow and no one touches my luggage ever again. I now travel lighter and handle my own shit.

  29. I always have $100-200 in ones and fives, so it doesn’t come up. But I’ve noticed from observing a friend who is never prepared that if all you have is a twenty and you give it to the bellman or the taxi driver then guess what. He doesn’t have any change. Why would he? So you need to ask if they have the ability to make change FIRST before you hand over the bill. The transaction becomes an awkward and unpleasant situation rather than a nice way to say “thank you.” I guess if it’s going to be awkward and ugly anyway, you might as well stiff the guy, but personally I think it’s better to be prepared.

    @Trup I no longer tip housekeeping for bringing items to the room that should have been there in the first place. It has become a plague that they only leave shampoo or coffee for one person or only enough towels for one person even if it’s a suite and it’s clear there are two of you and both of you probably have hair and drink fluids. However, if they’re bringing something special like a bottle of wine etc. then I do tip.

  30. I have a drawer in my house where I collect smaller bill and change that are left in my wallet at the end of the day.
    And then I maintain a card slot in my wallet where I keep a consistent amount of smaller bill and get them refilled whenever they are spent.
    I also have a small pocket in by backpack carry-on that has always has a consistent amount of loose change and smaller bills.

    Its practical and comes more handy then you would think.

  31. A semi-related rant: I wish ATM would spit out anything other than $20 bills. That would eliminate the need to see a bank teller or buy something in a store. Yeah, I’m that lazy!

  32. how about just carrying cash and using cash instead of credit cards, having only 20 dollars in your pocket is just crazy, i feel naked if i leave the house or am on vaction and do not have 500 dollars on me, what about if you are trying to use the credit card and the power is out, or your car breaks down, etc…etc.. or in some remote place that does not take credit cards? i do not understand grown men and grown women not having any cash one them, come on people you are not teenagers you must have good jobs, carry some cash on you and put away the credit cards for once…

  33. @Brian L.

    In principle, tipping was never a good thing to begin with, even just as a form of appreciation. People working in the service industry should treat every guest well rather than categorize and then favor certain groups based on how much money received from them. Unfortunately, american tipping culture is beyond being repaired by now, because american people have accepted and agreed to the fact that employers don’t take responsibility to pay their staffs sufficiently.

    Some would argue that tipping improves service quality, but i would suggest them to visit Asia or Europe where servers provide good or even better service while able to make their ends meet. Therefore, what i meant before was that for Americans, please don’t tip when you travel abroad, because people in every industry (not just service industry) shouldn’t be bribed into doing their jobs well and also their pride should worth more. But if you still feel like doing something great or being big-hearted, I’d recommend donating the money to charities because there’re a lot of people out there need your help more.

  34. Since I am at that stage of life that we always travel together,…I am the money person. I carry at least 10–$1 and 5–$5, plus the reminder in 25–$20. That way there is always enough for tipping. At least in Asia, the service is included on the room or resto bill. That way, I just have to tip leftover change. But, in America, we have always have cash for tips.

  35. Normally, even if someone at the hotel asks me if I want help getting my case to my room, I say ‘no’. If it’s just one case, and I’m fine with taking it in the lift, I don’t really see the need to get someone to do it for me.

    After reading @Matt’s response, the next time I’m in The States, I’m going to change that habit. I’m not anti-tipping – I always tip in restaurants and cafes and, often, cabs.

    I certainly don’t think we should resent people who want to make a tip, especially in top end hotels where I’m guessing, many of us (myself included) prefer to stay. Look at the reality: you earn a good salary and can afford to stay in these places and you have an issue with someone who is employed to make your stay a pleasurable experience but is paid probably less than a third of your salary.

    I give feedback to hotels – good and bad – and try to find out the names of staff members who have given remarkable service and make sure I let the management know these people deserve merit. Make sure you voice your unhappiness with service to the management rather than take it into your own hands and punish the staff member by not giving a tip – let’s face it, that person probably won’t make the connection, he or she’ll will just think you’re tight with your cash.

  36. I do my best to have some small bills with me when I travel but it doesnt always work that way. Some times I’ve wound up given larger tips because thats all I had (tipping a maid $20 on a 2 night stay) and other times i’ve tipped less or not at all because i havent had any cash (recently stiffed a maid on a 2 night stay because all I had was a $100 bill and I was running late for a meeting).

    I’m assuming it evens out my tip karma and that tipped employees are also tipped accordingly with some people overtipping and others undertipping so that it all works out.

    Is this right? I dont know. But i refuse to let tipping stress me out too much.

  37. @john what happens if your wallet gets stolen? You’ll never see that $500 again. But you can cancel your cards and replace them and wouldn’t have to worry. I would never carry that much cash for that reason.

  38. @vj i always have cash in hiding places on my body, and for example what if you are now traveling in greece, where the banks are closed and the atms are shut down, or out of money, what are all of you people that pay with only credit cards going to do?

    and also, knock on wood, i have never been pickpocketed, and have been to major sporting events, major parades, many foreign countries, and always have CASH ON ME. i do not use a wallet, like i said i hide money on my body…..

    just watch it people, carry some cash, please, i wonder if all of the foreign travelers in greece, now, wish that they had cash on them??? just my .02 cents

  39. Manager of a mid-size 4 star hotel in the US here… I usually tip $1/bag (IF I ask for help), $1 per pickup to the valet, $3-5/day to housekeepers.

    @Lucky – very kind of you to leave champagne, but many hotels will confiscate that from the employee (#insurance). Try emailing the GM if someone goes truly above and beyond – that is extremely beneficial and goes in that employee’s “permanent record” and can help them get better jobs, promotions, incentives, etc.

    @Sheena – THANK YOU for making sure employees receive merit from management! You’re doing both the employee AND the manager a service… We also incentive internally, for example if an employee is mentioned by name on TripAdvisor we’ll give them $10-20 depending on the review 🙂

    @most of you – Need change? Please ask any employee at the hotel – we’re honestly happy to make change for you – it’s less for us to count at the end of the night! Remember we’re not mind readers and probably won’t read between the lines of you buying a Coke with a $50… if you want change, just ask us.

    Should you feel compelled to tip? NEVER. The employee should perform their job so well that you WANT to tip. If someone makes you feel uncomfortable, please tell the manager so we can address it. We never want you to feel uncomfortable or awkward, especially over a tip.

    Don’t need or want help? That’s totally cool – just say “no thanks”. We know you probably don’t need help with that one small carry-on bag, but we’re required to offer assistance and will get in trouble if we don’t offer… for what it’s worth, it’s awkward for us too sometimes.

    There is one exception – ALWAYS BRIBE YOUR HOUSEKEEPER. They work harder than everyone else in the hotel, earn the least money, and are the ones who can single handedly make or break your experience at a hotel. Leaving a couple of bucks out every day really makes a difference for them.

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