Tipping abroad…

Tipping is always a hot button issue, and upfront I’ll say I don’t actually fully know where I stand, because I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. While I was staying at the Amans in Bali this week I did a quick Google search on tipping at Amans. I stumbled upon this FlyerTalk thread, which is almost 10 years old, and couldn’t help but laugh at this comment:

Don’t tip unless you speak English with an American accent.

For what it’s worth, at no point did I feel obligated to tip at Amans beyond the 10% service charge that’s automatically applied, but the service was so good all around that I almost felt guilty.

But I think there’s some degree of truth to the (hilarious) statement above. Here in the US we tip because it’s the right thing to do. People in service industries often aren’t even paid the minimum wage and rely on tips to make a living. That’s not the case almost everywhere else in the world, though when traveling abroad we often still take that mentality with us.

I think the simplest example is the Thai Airways first class lounge & spa in Bangkok. Say you’re flying first class from Bangkok to Tokyo, which entitles you to a complimentary hour long full body massage. Do you tip? I’ve heard a million different viewpoints, including:

  • Yes, I tip $5USD because for them that’s a lot of money and I appreciate the service.
  • $5USD? You cheap bastard! I tip $20USD, because that’s still a lot less than I’d pay in the US for a massage, it gets me good service, and it makes their day.
  • I don’t tip because it’s not part of my culture.
  • I don’t tip because it’s not expected — I paid thousands of dollars (or miles) for my ticket already! What’s next, tipping the flight attendant?

And I think there are merits to all those viewpoints. I can see why you’d tip a “reasonable” amount as a gesture of appreciation. And hell, I think it’s perfectly well intentioned to leave a “big” tip so you can put a smile on the face of someone that has completely different economic circumstances than you do.

But there’s another side to that coin. Say you’re a masseuse in the Thai lounge and you alternate between massaging Americans and Japanese passengers. Will the expectations of tips from Americans, for example, impact the way you’d treat a Japanese guest, when you know it’s not part of their culture (and actually rude) to tip? I’d imagine at a certain point you’d start giving 110% of your energy to the passengers you expect to tip, and a bit less to those you don’t expect to tip.

So I’m curious where you guys stand. Do you tip abroad when it’s not expected of the culture, and if so, under what circumstances?

Filed Under: Advice
  1. “Here in the US we tip because it’s the right thing to do”. That’s an odd way to put it. I would say “Here in the US we tip because it’s part of our culture”. Because saying what you are saying, then by implication you are saying that the rest of the world is NOT doing the right thing in not tipping. It is not the rest of the world’s fault that American society has chosen not to pay decent wages to service industry employees and they have to make up for it with tips. And the rest of the world’s travelling public don’t generally appreciate American’s trying to export those views globally because they “feel bad” about not tipping when abroad. As you say a “hot button issue” (though wouldn’t be if USA just paid properly like the rest of the world)

  2. @ MilesAbound — Not sure what’s weird about the way it’s phrased. I’m saying it’s the right thing to do in the US because people aren’t paid livable wages and rely on tips. That’s not the case in most of the rest of the world, and I don’t think my statement makes it seems like the rest of the world isn’t doing it right.

  3. It’s a tough question. I was in Cozumel and they told us to absolutely NOT tip the cabbies. They told us stories of the locals in need of a ride that were constantly passed over in hopes of landing a tourist that would offer them a tip. So what we thought was generosity to the taxi driver was having a negative effect on the lives of the locals.

  4. I absolutely hate tipping. charge me the real cost (and pay real wages). I do not like the extra hassle of having to think about this sort of thing.
    I do agree that when people are not payed we need to tip. I hate how it is spreading into so many other parts of the US. Fine tip waiters because they are payed 3 bucks an hour, but why the hell should I tip a cab driver or hairdresser? friggin BS.

  5. Have any of you ‘tipped’ or given gifts to the flight attendants on a plane for good service? I have heard some frequent fliers do this and get great service.

  6. I try to tip everywhere just a few bucks or coins (if I have them). There will always be winners and losers in terms of receiving tips.

  7. So I have a question, I always thought Aman was referred to in the singular.

    Aman being the group, managed in Singapore.
    Amanusa being the name of a specific resort

    I wouldn’t say I stayed at “Westins” or “IHGs.

    On another side question, who is more high end, Aman or OneAndOnly?

  8. Feel this needs the tipping debate scene from Reservoir Dogs attached to it!

    I tip where it’s culturally expected, don’t where it’s not. I don’t like feeling like its obligated to leave a tip, but I do knowing that the wages for many service orientated jobs are kept well below a living wage based on the expectation of tips.

    In a case of what I feel was superior service however, I will leave a tip even when it’s not expected or even usual.

  9. @ Andrew yvR — Hmm, I’m far from a grammar expert, and even asked her about the proper use of “the” in the context of “Le Meridien” a while back:

    But I would say “I like to stay at Westins” or “I like to stay at InterContinentals.” If you’re referring to the chain as such it’s “Westin,” but is “Westins” wrong if you’re referring to the collection of the individual properties?

  10. I agree with Mark. Also, in some cultures (Italy comes to mind), tipping someone who, say, works at a hotel is seen as belittling (“You don’t make enough money in your cute little job”).

    I think the best thing to do is a 5 min Google search to get the background / customs (that should solve 90% of problems). In the other cases, if you’re really not sure, I think tipping 10% for good service in restaurants, cabbies, and a small amount for bellmen will likely not piss anyone off or make anyone feel like you are shorting them. The very obvious exceptions to this will come up in your Google search.

  11. I like tipping people that do a great job and are not expecting anything in return for doing their best. I find ridiculous that in the US people expect you to tip. Once in NY how much was the taxi from JFK to Manhattan and the answer was “xx$ plus toll plus TIP”. What??? I tip if I find that the person did a great job. Otherwise, his salary should be included in how much they charge me for the service. Last week I checked in on the curbside at FLL airport and the agent from Delta was very clear: “Here is your boarding pass and I am taking care for your luggage”. I then looked at my wife and kids that were running around and for 1 second he thought I would not tip him. You should look at his face. He was angry as hell and it came clear in my mind that if I did not tip him my luggage would have a “hard time” making to my final destination. Again, charge me enough so I don’t need to tip.

  12. I’d respect the local culture and if tip is not expected, then I won’t tip.

    At bars, if I order a diet coke to a bartender, I still tip but I really would rather not to (all the bartender did was pour diet coke onto a glass.) Had I ordered something more complex, like a cosmo or mojito or long island iced tea and it tasted delicious…then I’d definitely tip with no hesitation.

    Lucky, given what I know of Asian culture, where people have a lot of pride in what they do, including masseurs/masseuses, I’d expect them to always give 110% regardless of where the client was from… unless that masseur/masseuse is from the USA! 😉

  13. It is unethical to over-tip in poorer countries. When westerners overpay, it creates a two-tier economy where locals are deprived of goods and service because local vendors withhold them for foreigners. Over-tipping also contributes to inflation, distorts price expectations and makes life harder for people who don’t work in the tourist industry. Sure, your twenty buck tip makes you feel like Rich Uncle Pennybags and makes one person’s day. But it contributes to a system that screws everything up for other locals.

    On an unrelated note – as an Australian living in America, I’m amazed at how hard it is to shake the tipping habit! At restaurants in Sydney where I would never previously have tipped more than 5-8% for outstanding service when I lived there, I now break into a physical sweat when I leave less than 16%. My Aussie friends think it’s ridiculous. But the habit is hard to shake.

  14. I just tip according to the local customs. I google it and maybe ask a couple people about it if I can. Where I live now it is acceptable not to tip at all at restaurants and many locals don’t. If people tip, its normally a small amount, like 5% or less, which is what I’ll leave for good & friendly service. And there’s no tipping for cab drivers, hair dressers, masseuses, etc. Fie by me.

  15. I’m with Trajan81 – I figure out what the local norm is and try to act accordingly. It’s not that hard.

    Especially in 3rd world countries, Americans are sometimes expected to tip more generously than locals, but I try to keep it reasonable (i.e., if a a local would tip not more than 10 rupees, I’ll tip at most 15 or 20, not 100 – even though 100 rupees might be far less than I’d tip an American for a similar service).

  16. I like our way of doing things whereby somebody who provides exceptional customer service is (usually) very well rewarded and somebody who provides poor service is often looking for another job soon enough. I’d much rather have the discretion than have the price of labor baked in and employees have no incentive (other than not being fired) to provide excellent service.

    While many Asian countries have a much better culture of service and it’s less of an issue, Europeans are simply used to poor service. The non-tipping culture and socialist policies that make it damn near impossible to fire somebody is infuriating to this American rube who likes good service when on vacation…

  17. How about we put together a chart by country of when tipping is expected, by who and typical % or amount. I bet everyone that travels would view it eventually.

  18. @lucky I honestly think “I stayed at an Aman” or I enjoy Aman’s resort properties” is the correct way to say it. I’ll tweet for confirmation.

    I also would never say “Westins” Westin refers to the brand or can vaguely refer to a hotel. “Westin Chicago” I enjoy all the Westins in the world. (Maybe) But I would say I really enjoy the Westin Resort Chain.

  19. @Justin – I hear this argument all the time from Americans (“bad servers in the USA will be looking for another job soon enough”) but, honestly, how often do you not tip at all? Most American residents (including myself) basically never don’t tip. That’s why bad service here exists at least as much as in Asia, Australia and Northern Europe (there are cultural and legal reasons for the poor service in France & Southern Europe – including, as you note, unfair dismissal laws.)

    I’m not buying it. The “the price of labor” IS already “baked in” in America, culturally, if not legally. Tips are often pooled – and, even when they’re not, most servers receive at least 12-15% no matter how bad they are. Exceptional service is really only fishing for the 20-25% range. Wouldn’t it be simpler to pay every server a baseline 15% and have customers tip 0-10% for outstanding service, as many other countries do?

  20. @Josh

    Yes, that’s true at a lot of chain restaurants that have the team service model, but if I’m getting my order taken by 1 person, the apps brought out by another, and the entrees by another, who is really my “server?” The guy who took the order just because I saw him first? I’d argue that pooled tipping is appropriate in a place like that and that my perception of the service is probably reflective of the entire staff.

    As for how often I refuse to tip … very, very infrequently and I can’t remember the last time I did it–several years at least. However, if somebody is regularly getting ~10-12% tips, that’s going to show up on the manager’s report (if they’re paying attention). And in this country you can still fire somebody for poor performance (for now), so hopefully that takes care of itself…

  21. Rick Steves (who I’ve known for over 20 years) just wrote about tipping in Egypt. It’s interesting:

    Stay on the budgetary defense. No tip will ever be enough. Tip what you believe is fair by local standards and ignore the inevitable plea for more. Unfortunately, if you ever leave them satisfied, you were ripped off. Consider carrying candies or little gifts for the myriad children constantly screaming “Baksheesh!” (“Give me a gift!”) Hoard small change in a special pocket so you’ll have tip money readily available. Getting change back from your large bill is tough. – Rick

  22. They definitely expect to receive tips when receiving Americans.
    Even here in Mexico, when you go to Cancun, taxi drivers prefer American tourists than Mexicans because they tip, Mexicans dont.

  23. I hate tipping. Can’t understand it, don’t approve of it in principle. Luckily I live in Asia, and it isn’t a thing here at all.

    Please keep it at home, American friends. The rest of use don’t want it.

  24. Hmm – a couple of thoughts from the other side of the Pond… (aka my tuppence rather than two cents!)

    – I appreciate that servers in the USA are paid a pittance of an hourly wage and therefore rely on tips to make up their income – however given this has now risen to a slightly bonkers 15-20% mark it seems to be turning it into a pretty hefty effective wage. Assuming that every hour even just one table settles their bill then with a 20% tip they’ll end up getting multiple times the minimum wage in other countries!

    – I seriously question the relationship between good service and reward – as mentioned by others, even with poor service it seems most Americans will still tip – therefore in what way is it a reward for good service? The attitude from some can be shocking if they don’t receive a tip (I’m thinking of the NYC doorman that basically shouted at us for not tipping him when he did nothing to get us a cab!). I’ve always been taken with the concept in ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’ – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V1ZZWhSvOMI (basically the server sees the tip go up or down depending on the quality of their service!)

    – I still don’t understand why I would tip a barman for opening a bottle of beer, or a waitress at a self-service buffet – it seems to be money for not having any service!

    When in the States I do try to tip reasonably due to it being the custom, but I really can’t bring myself to hit the 20% mark except for truly exceptional service.

  25. @Alan writes: “Assuming that every hour even just one table settles their bill then with a 20% tip they’ll end up getting multiple times the minimum wage in other countries!”

    Exactly… and what amazes me, living in New York, is that so many Americans assume that all servers are struggling. They just don’t bother to do the math. All my server friends in the U.S. clear $600-1000 a night waiting tables (mostly, let’s face it, tax-free.) Admittedly, if you’re a server pulling the overnight shift at a roadside diner in Indiana, I’m sure it’s tough. But most of the servers who folks like us encounter rake it in. (Two tables per hour paying 20% on a $100 check = $40 an hour. Five tables = $100/hr.)

    But the craziest American tipping practice, which I still can’t understand after years of living here, is haircuts. It’s a profession where the ONLY thing you’re paying for is the service. You literally pay for the haircut, and then you need to tip for the service you just paid for. At least when I tip a bartender, I still end up with a beer. When I tip a waiter, I still end up with a meal. When I tip a barber, what do I get? I’ve already paid for the thing I’m buying! I don’t get it. Never will 😉

  26. I don’t know where you’re getting 600-1000 figures… that’s flat out wrong.

    I’ve been a server at a few places:

    1) A popular “tourist trap” place in a busy summer town. On my absolutely best nights I made around $150-175… in the peak of summer and when I got the good/big tables. Average was closer to $100-120.

    2) A fine dining restaurant where the average bill was over $200. I was a server’s assistant and earned around $100/night. The full servers (more experienced) earned around $250/night.

    3) A national chain restaurant. I made around $75-100 on an average night and the best nights were around $110-120.

    By the time the bartender is tipped out for alcohol sales, bus boys or servers assistants are tipped, hosts and/or food runners and expediters, etc, you really don’t come home with much.

    Not to mention the fact that you have no insurance or benefits most places and work opposite hours to most of your friends, the cost/benefit ratio just isn’t there.

    Believe me, if I were making $600-1000/night tax free, I’d still be doing it.

  27. @Dennis – I have no personal experience of waiting tables, but not a single one of my New York friends is only making $75-175 a night. It’s obvious from their spending habits that they’re truthful when they say they make over $80k/year, almost all of which is made on weekends. But, fair enough, I don’t doubt your experience – that may just the fancy crew in New York.

    This paragraph from the BBC article says it all, really:
    “Even though the quality of service doesn’t affect tipping, Americans are under the illusion they are tipping on service and like the illusion of being able to reward. They don’t want to have that option taken away from them.” Tipping is an important custom, [the server] believes, because it propagates the “American myth” that hard work brings reward.

  28. I’m based in Sydney, AU and used to work in the hospitality industry for a decade. There’s no denying that most customer-facing staff secretly wish our American customers would tip generously but demanding one and giving customers less service (or worse, an attitude) is unacceptable. It’s a poisonous behaviour on the team. Work long enough and they’ll find that generous tip can come from anyone (granted, some culture more than others but not just Americans). I once received a 120%(!) tip from an Indonesian family.

    Our team also find savvy American travelers don’t tip or at least not as much as they do in the States so we learnt not to expect one and funnily enough in doing so, the overall service feels more genuine and warm. I was more likely to get tips when I least expect it.

  29. I tip what local custom dictates for most part.
    I had issue on safari when my South African travel agent gave me tipping guidelines which I found reasonable yet the other guests balked at the amounts when I showed them. I also have been on private guide tours when people didn’t tip driver or guide.
    As for US servers, I’ve waited tables at different restaurants a d was lucky to make $100 a shift and had to declare a % of sales for taxes and any tips in credit cards were paid in check subject to taxes. With less than $3 an hour, I would come away near $20/hr which helped with college bills.

  30. Tipping is a very American thing. I live in Asia and we just don’t tip; it isn’t expected or done. I see Americans (can tell from accents) hand out RMB 20 in China, INR 100 in India, SGD 2 in Singapore, THB 100 in Thailand, etc for the smallest thing at hotels and I just don’t get it. The general impression of Americans in Asia is that they have a lot of money that they like to throw around and I’m sure tipping has some part to play with that stereotype.

  31. Lucky you speak like a real American. Look at people as they only want to do great service because of money. That is how it is in America, they don’t care about their job and only want to get money. IT IS FAKE SERVICE. This is not how it works in Asia so the last part of your article doesn’t make any sense. Luckily, I live in Bangkok and never have to tip anywhere.

  32. I find tipping in the USA to be quite inconsistent e.g. tipping a barman a $ for opening a beer despite the level of service, however, generally you wouldn’t tip a server in McDonalds or Starbucks, yet the interaction could a) take longer and b) be better.

    Then there are all the others bellhops, concierge, tour guides etc. I’m never sure what to tip these people.

    And finally, what is the correct amount? I have relatives in the USA who always taught 15% lunch/dinner and 10% breakfast… However, I notice it changing.

  33. If we “in the US”, decided all at once to stop tipping in restaurants, bar, hotels, etc… I am sure it would put pressure on management to pay decent wages.

    Unfortunately, most of us would not be able to get rid of the guilt we would feel if we stopped tipping altogether.
    So it is our problem and sadly our tipping habits have gotten worse as a result.

  34. @DJ, i couldnt’ agree more. when i worked at the cheesecake factory i busted my butt just as much as the waiters and they averaged ~150/night. 3-400 on a really busy night! apparently this is about average for a moderately priced restaurant. if you’re waiting tables at ihop i feel really badly! =(

    but on the other hand, fast food workers (mcdonalds, kfc) make just $2-3 more per hour but don’t get tips? but then the starbucks and chipotle guys have a tip jar?

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