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Built-In Gratuities: They Can Be a Rude Awakening

Hotels: More establishments are adding 15% to 18% tips automatically, whether or not you think the service was good.


Tipping is never simple. And the closer you look, the more complicated it gets.

Consider, for instance, the room-service breakfast I ordered early this month at the Fifth Avenue Suites Hotel in Portland, Ore. The food came on time, the waiter was unfailingly polite. About a 15% to 18% tip, I figured. And sure enough, there on the penultimate line on my bill, someone else had already decided that I'd be tipping 18%.

A small-print note on the room-service menu explained that anyone who orders room service will be charged that amount automatically--a practice that presumes all service to be above average and all guests to be fairly generous. Throughout the lodging industry, room-service operations have been adopting this practice in recent years, saying that it simplifies life for guests (are you breathing easier now, travelers?) and, more persuasively, that it gives servers a more stable income.

Dr. John Bowen, associate professor of marketing at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas' College of Hotel Administration, traces the trend to the growth of vacation-package resorts (where all-inclusive programs can confuse guests on the tipping question) and notes that since tax-law changes on gratuities in the 1980s, the built-in tip of 15% to 18% "is moving into regular commercial [hotel] properties."

Perhaps because of mixed feelings within the industry, Bowen says, the trend has spread relatively slowly. He guesses that among properties rated at three stars or more (roughly $80 a night and up), half to two-thirds of room-service operations now have built-in gratuities. Others put the figure even higher.

At Hilton-managed hotels, spokeswoman Kendra Walker says general managers have free rein to impose or reject the idea. Thus the New York Hilton and Towers has an automatic-tip room-service policy while the Waldorf-Astoria does not.

At the LAX Doubletree Hotel on Century Boulevard, general manager Lloyd Kirsch imposed an automatic room-service charge of 15% about a year ago, in large part, he says, because many foreign travelers don't recognize that the servers are counting on tips to make up most of their income.

Still, questions over the automatic service charge remain. What if the service is slow, or otherwise subpar, and I don't want to pay 18%?

Despite the proliferation of the built-in service fee, I've never seen any hotel literature that allows for the possibility of not paying it. But the general manager of the Fifth Avenue Suites, Craig Thompson, says that an unsatisfied guest should feel free to overrule the "automatic gratuity." And if a guest does that, Thompson said, his servers have orders to comp the guest's entire meal. So travelers who love confrontation have a chance for a free meal, while the noncombative masses quietly submit.

Here are some other updates from the mysterious world of gratuities, and those who receive them. Tourism industry insiders say this advice generally holds true not just in the United States but in Canada and Mexico as well.

The maid: Many hotel guests forget to tip their maids altogether, although maids may have the most unpleasant job at the hotel, and the lowest paycheck. If your room is well maintained, authorities say, it's reasonable to leave $1 or $2 dollars per night.

The mariachi: Those strolling musical groups have a fairly standard fee structure, and it may be a bit pricier than many Americans expect. Veteran music aficionados say that to hire a mariachi (which usually includes the right to dictate their songs and sing along), a customer should pay $1 per song per musician. Thus, three songs from a seven-man group will set you back $21. (Many restaurants keep strolling mariachis as part of their atmosphere; if you haven't asked them to play for you, they shouldn't expect payment.)

The cabbie: Generally, taxi drivers expect 10% to 15% if they give good service, rounding to the nearest dollar. The exception is Mexico, where most taxi drivers don't expect tips, but most gas station attendants do. The Mexican government tourist office suggests that customers tip attendants two or three pesos (25-50 cents) or more for exceptional service.

The concierge: This has always been a sort of Rorshach test with cash, and by gallantly insisting that they expect nothing but a word of thanks, most concierges offer little help to would-be tippers. Under intense questioning, however, a pair of veteran concierges acknowledge that $2 to $3 is reasonable tip for making a dinner reservation or confirming flights, which are probably the most common tasks for the concierge. (If the concierge gets you into a restaurant that might otherwise have turned you away or re-books a flight for you, $5 might be more appropriate.)

When it comes to other tasks, taking care of your concierge seems be an entirely wide open ballgame. Concierges who arrange theater tickets might be handed nothing or $20, depending on the demand for seats and the guest.

Both the concierges I spoke with agreed that more and more guests are offering non-cash gratuities--ties, sweets, colognes, a bottle of wine, a scarf, a nice pen. They say they welcome this because they think it can suggest more respect for a concierge's professionalism. Keep in mind, however, that a concierge with a pressing need for cash, or fussy taste in ties, might feel differently.

* Reynolds travels anonymously at the newspaper's expense, accepting no special discounts or subsidized trips. To reach him, write Travel Insider, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053; telephone (213) 237-7845.

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