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Tipping Customs Can Be Tourists' Slippery Slide

Our familiar 15% or 20% gratuity is far from a worldwide norm. In fact, in many countries it will raise eyebrows.

April 29, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

When a French waiter politely steps up to your table to return a 4% tip, apparently because it's too much, the time has come to reexamine the world around you.

That encounter, which I still don't entirely understand, happened to me a few weeks ago in Saint-Cirq Lapopie, a little town in France's southwest corner. I speak almost no French (although I try to look apologetic about that), and the waiter spoke almost no English. He put me at a table with plenty of reading light (I was dining alone and carrying a book), then served me a fine dinner. I wanted to reward him.

The bill, 171 francs or about $23, said "service compris" (service included), a common practice. (The French typically build a 15% tip into restaurant prices.) But I had been told by Paris-dwelling friends that it's fairly common for diners to leave a bit more if they're pleased with the service. So I wrote in 9 francs extra--a little more than 5%--on the credit card receipt.

First the waiter frowned in confusion, then indicated his thanks but suggested I scratch out the tip because it was unnecessary. Out it went. Apparently satisfied, he retreated and bade me a genial bon soir. Clearly, I thought, heading dumbstruck for the door, it's time for a column on tipping abroad. Whether readers need the information or not, I seem to.

The information that follows comes mostly from government tourism offices, but also draws on input from tour operators and others. Along with France, I've included Mexico, Canada, Britain and Germany because the U.S. Commerce Department ranks them as the countries most visited by U.S. travelers.

Though France leads the world in incoming tourists--about 75 million yearly--it ranks behind Mexico, Canada and Britain among American tourists. In 1999, the last year for which figures are available, the U.S. government counted 2.7 million U.S. visitors to France.

On my return to L.A., I looked for guidance to the Web site of the French Government Tourist office, http://www.francetourism.com. Its page under "tipping" notes that French restaurants typically offer two-or-three-course fixed-menu meals or food a la carte (which is usually costlier). Prices in cafes may vary depending on whether you're sitting at a sidewalk table or standing at an indoor counter, it says. But it doesn't say whether tips are usually included in the price of a meal.

Another site offered by the same agency, http://www.franceguide.com, affirms what other sources say: that restaurant bills generally include both tax and a 15% service charge (and let you know this by including the words service compris on the bill). But it also notes two finer points: If the meal or service has been especially good, it's common to leave 10 francs or so, and if you pay in cash it's common to leave the waiter the small change from your bill.

But the more sources you consult, the less certain it all seems. Arthur Frommer, a guidebook guru for more than 40 years, says it's usual to leave some small change as an extra tip if service is exceptional. The rival guidebook gurus at Lonely Planet suggest the same sort of mini-tip of a few coins if the service is "satisfactory." (French coins vary from about half a cent to nearly $3 each, but 1-, 2-and 5-franc coins, worth about 13 cents, 27 cents and 67 cents respectively, seem to turn up most often.)

Another generally advised practice is to tip porters and doormen 10 francs (about $1.35) per day.

A good source of further common sense and all-purpose information for travel anywhere across the Atlantic is the European Travel Commission, which operates the Web site http://www.visiteurope.com and links to 30 European nations.

In Mexico, which drew 17.7 million U.S. visitors in 1999, we face a mix of familiar and unexpected habits. When I called (800) 44-MEXICO (446-3942), the Mexican tourism ministry's tourist information line, and identified myself as a potential tourist, the operator suggested that I handle restaurant tipping the same as in the U.S. (Other sources say typical restaurant tips run closer to 10%.)

Taxi drivers generally get no tips, the Mexican source noted, but gas station attendants do. At hotels, the government suggestion is 75 cents per bag to the bellman and 50 cents a day to the maid. At establishments where washrooms are staffed by attendants, 25 cents is appropriate. (At the current exchange rate of about 10 pesos to the U.S. dollar, that would be a little more than 2 pesos.)

In England, which drew 4.5 million U.S. visitors in 1999, restaurants often include service in the bill and should make it clear when they do. If a service payment isn't included in your hotel, the British tourist office suggests a customary range of 10% to 15%, or more for "exceptional service."

Taxi drivers get 10% to 15%; bag carriers get 1 pound per bag. (That's about $1.45 at current exchange rates.) Servers in bars and pubs don't expect tips.

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