TIPPING OVERSEAS: How much, how little?

I started out intending to write a short post about tipping overseas but quickly realized it is not a topic that lends itself to brevity.

It is generally acknowledged that Americans leave bigger tips than people from most other countries, but tipping less when traveling overseas will not necessarily get you labeled an “ugly American.”

Most Americans understand that the average U.S. waitperson or bartender’s income primarily comes from tips; as a result, leaving a tip of between 15 and 20 percent (depending on service and our personal generosity, of course) has become common in America. But it isn’t that way everywhere.

During my recent trip to the Netherlands and the U.K., I asked several of the service people I encountered what they considered a “good” tip. Servers in both countries agreed: a tip of 10 percent is considered fine in most establishments. The venerable Rules Restaurant in London adds a 12.5 percent “discretionary” service charge, reflecting the somewhat higher expectations at fine-dining restaurants.

We’re also likely to tip porters and cabbies. In London, I handed a cabbie a £5 note for a £4.50 fare; when I asked that he wait a moment while I fished around for another 50p to make it an even £1 tip, he responded, “No worries; I’m fine with this.” Once again, 10 percent (more or less) seemed fine.

There are a number of resources available that will suggest an appropriate tipping level for the countries you’ll be visiting. For example, an article in the L.A. Times in 2007 said it was appropriate not to leave a tip at all in restaurants in Costa Rica, Denmark, Japan, and New Zealand. In other countries, appropriate tips ranged from 3 percent (China) to 10 percent in most other nations.

There’s more to tipping than merely money.

In Austria, for example, it’s customary to round up the total when paying. If your bill (never a “check”) is €32.50 and you are satisfied with the service, you might say, "Make it 35.” In Austria you pay your waitperson directly so it’s important to know that, if you hand them the bill and money and say, “danke” (“thank you” in German), you’ve just uttered the Austrian equivalent of “keep the change.”

This particular situation is especially tricky because most people will say “thank you” as a matter of courtesy and if you’re trying to use a bit of German, perhaps also out of politeness, it might cost you more than you anticipated. But such are the nuances we need to know.

In some Asian countries, tipping is a not part of the culture. In Singapore, officials encourage tourists not to add to the 10 percent service charge that many high-end hotels add to the bill. Neither is tipping part of the Korean culture, but many hotels are nonetheless adding a similar surcharge, particularly in larger metropolitan areas.

In other countries, it is considered rude to hand the money directly to the service person. Instead, it should be left on a small tray they’ve provided.

It’s a minefield, isn’t it?

My suggestions: look to the visitors’ guides that many hotels provide in the guest rooms (the book in my room in Amsterdam concurred with the bartender’s assessment that 10 percent is sufficient), or ask the concierge or front desk personnel what amounts are considered appropriate for gratuities.

Then relax and have a good time.

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