“American tipping has become a racket and business model,” says Charleston, S.C.-based etiquette expert Emilie Dulles. That’s because the majority of service employees in most foreign countries are already being paid a salary or wage not dependent on tips.
“Anyone working abroad in any hospitality capacity perks up when they encounter American travelers — only because we tip from 15 to 20 percent above our cafe tabs and dinner checks,” she adds. “Getting an American at their table is like winning a small jackpot.”
Where should you tip now? You have to ask, experts say. Stan Scardino, a retired executive from Mountain View, Calif., was unsure whether he should tip his guide and driver when he was in Santorini, Greece, last fall. So he asked his cruise line, which advised him to give his tour guide 5 euros and his driver 2. But he opted to give them more because of the pandemic. Scardino upped his customary tip, from leaving the change to a cash tip of between 5 to 7 euros.
“I’ve been tipping more in the U.S. due to the restaurants having a lower number of patrons,” he says, “so why not for the Europeans, too?”
On a recent trip to the Azores, a tour guide told me that, although she doesn’t rely on tips, some of her colleagues can’t make ends meet without them. For example, a shuttle driver with limited English skills can’t support a family without tips from American visitors, she says. The situation has gotten worse during the pandemic, with fewer Americans traveling abroad. But locals in the Azores are hoping things will return to normal this summer — including the volume of American visitors.
Here’s where things stand now, according to San Diego-based etiquette expert Maryanne Parker. Generally speaking, tipping is acceptable in many African and European countries, as well as in India and Malaysia.
“They’re not mandatory,” she says, “but they’re truly needed.”
In Australia and Japan, service workers may regard tipping as “intrusive and rude,” she adds. And in China, a tip may be seen as a bribe.
Etiquette experts are divided on the spread of American tipping customs.
Laurel Barton, a guidebook author from Forest Grove, Ore., has observed “tip creep” overseas. Last fall, she began seeing a gratuity line on the bills of some European restaurants’ checks. “As more and more people are using credit cards and not cash, it has no doubt had an impact on tipping — whether the culture is tipping-oriented or not,” she says.
Nick Leighton, etiquette expert and co-host of the etiquette show “Were You Raised by Wolves?,” says tourists should adhere to local practices. “And the tipping rules for virtually everywhere on the globe are never a secret and are easy to find online, so it’s both polite and responsible to familiarize yourself with them before you go.”
“The travel and tourism industry has been decimated in many places, and those who work in these industries should not be shortchanged,” she says. “If you are going to be traveling abroad, it is best to do your research in advance.”
Tipping was a controversial topic long before the pandemic, of course. The uniquely American practice of underpaying service employees and relying on the generosity of customers to cover their salaries is problematic. And I have to admit, this consumer advocate also has a problem with tipping requirements. After all, shouldn’t the price you’re quoted for a product also be the price you pay?
“Many Americans tend to associate tipping not just with what’s socially acceptable,” she says. “They also associate tipping with their identities. Tipping can be a form of expressive utility, a signal to ourselves and others about the kind of people we are. We tip big because we want others to know how generous we are, that we’re good people, or that we’re wealthy.”
In other words, sometimes, we just can’t help ourselves.
Our tipping customs are spreading, aided by the outsize influence of American travelers and now by pandemic hardship. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we should always tip. In some countries, leaving a gratuity is still considered offensive, pandemic or not. Careful research is necessary, Kabiri says.
“Uncertainty about what to do can lead us to make choices that may not be socially acceptable, but that make us feel good,” she says. “To do what’s right when traveling abroad, we have to be mindful that local customs may matter more than how we see ourselves.”
So if you’re traveling abroad this spring or summer, don’t assume you should — or shouldn’t — leave a gratuity for your restaurant server or housekeeper. The world has changed during the pandemic. That’s good news for some cash-strapped service workers — and not-so-good news for those of us who like to pay the price we’re quoted.