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Here's a Tip: Think Before You Pay

November 01, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

What kind of tipper are you? Do you tip in anticipation of great service, or reward for same? Do you feel guilty if you tip less than 15% when service is poor, or do you feel obliged to tip more than 15% when service is only adequate?

Let's face it: Tipping has always been one of the more embarrassing aspects of travel. There are no rules, just customs, and customs differ from country to country, hotel to hotel and person to person.

Service differs, too, of course. There is a great deal of difference between good service, outstanding service and no service at all, and your tip should reflect the treatment you receive.

But the problem is not just one-sided. Service workers who depend on tips for the bulk of their income will tell you that there are often problems with the quality of merci .

There are also those who tip in anticipation of great service. This kind of investment spending can sometimes work wonders with hotel concierges.

But all too often we end up tipping someone simply because they performed a service, not because they did it promptly or well.

A Matter of Principle

One recent morning, when I checked into the Hotel Britannia Inter-Continental in London, I was told my room wouldn't be ready until 1 p.m. I had some morning meetings outside the hotel but another meeting scheduled at the hotel at 2 p.m.

I told the registration clerk to have my bags sent up as soon as the room was available. When I returned at 1:45 I was told the room had indeed been ready at 1 p.m. but that my bags had not yet been delivered. "The porter isn't allowed to go up," said the clerk, "unless you are there."

Pure rubbish. What the clerk was really telling me was that no porter would deliver bags without the expectation of a person being in that room to give them a tip. And yet the true description of a bellman's job is to deliver luggage.

I told the clerk that, under the circumstances, I refused to occupy my room until the luggage preceded me. And, on principle alone, I stayed in the lobby until it was done.

Under normal circumstances, if my baggage had preceded me to the room I would have made a point of tipping the porter later that day. But under these circumstances I tipped no one. And I didn't feel the least bit guilty.

Before traveling anywhere it's a good idea to find out what tipping policies are in the countries you plan to visit. Officially, it is not customary to tip in Hong Kong. For example, at the Regent Hotel a 10% service charge is added to all tabs. But it doesn't go to the employees--it pays for their food, uniforms and breakage.

Therefore, if you've received extraordinary service and want to tip above the 10% charge, then you should tip.

(One Hong Kong tipping suggestion: I always carry 20 U.S. $1 bills with me to Hong Kong. They're readily accepted by hotel employees because they're easily converted to Hong Kong dollars. The 20 bills get me through the check-in process quickly and without trying to remember what the exchange rates are.)

Portugal Double Tip

In Europe, most restaurants include service on their bills. (One exception is Portugal.) As a result, a lot of unwitting tourists often end up double-tipping the waiters. Great for the waiters, extremely wasteful for you.

In Japan, tipping is still not expected. It is simply not a Japanese custom. There is no need to tip porters, maids, waitresses or taxi drivers.

Mexico includes a value added tax in the final bill. This can often cause some problems in figuring the tip, because you could be figuring the tip on the tax as well.

My advice: In countries where a value added tax is placed on the bill, tip 13%.

In Mexico, taxi drivers do not expect a large tip, but it is considered acceptable to round off the fare. But if he carries bags for you, you should probably give him a few hundred pesos extra (about 20 cents). If you are at the airport and another driver helps your driver carry the bags to the car, he is also expecting a tip.

In some countries the true definition of tipping can be most unpleasant. In countries such as Italy, Nigeria and the Philippines, tips can often be nothing more than bribes that are paid to get people to do what they should be doing anyway.

In other countries, like China, the Soviet Union and some Eastern European countries, bribes are tips paid to get some people to do what they should do but what they are not officially allowed to do.

Unfortunately, "bribes" in the former category are acceptable. "Tips" in the latter example could land you in jail, where bribes are once again allowed.

Tips New in Australia

Tipping in Australia is still a relatively new phenomenon, and that can sometimes create problems. "There is often very little incentive for a waiter or waitress to give the type of attention that is expected by Americans," laments one Australian hotel manager.

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