How Road Worrier Tackles The Tricky Topic Of Tipping

In some countries, tipping is a fact of life; in others, tips are only offered for truly exceptional service. How can you balance your own feelings on the matter with the need to work with the prevailing culture when you travel?

Picture by Oli Shaw

When we ran a US post last week about tipping habits around the world, many readers understandably took exception to the summary of Australian tipping customs in the linked item. It suggested that tipping 10-15% in restaurants was now standard behaviour — something which doesn’t tally with the experience of anyone who actually lives here. (That said, the US tipping summary on that post was still handy.)

Commenter Rod provided a good summary of the prevailing situation in Australia:

Tipping is generally limited to two situations:
1) Service/waitstaff who provide exceptional service (5-10%).
2) Taxi drivers where it is simpler to round the fare up to a convenient whole $ amount rather than wait for change.

It’s worth noting that tips are considered assessable income in Australia; if you work as a waiter and regularly receive tips, those should be declared as part of your tax return. However, it’s not legal for employers to pay less than the minimum wage on the assumption that this will be made up for in tips — an attitude which echoes the general view that a tip is a reward for unusually good service, not something built into the structure.

It’s very hard to resist carrying that attitude into other countries. I remember being in a restaurant in New Orleans where the service was utterly abysmal. The waitress got our orders wrong, put cutlery on the table that looked like it had been passed through a shire horse first and delivered a bottle of champagne to the table which had an oily lettuce leaf wrapped around it. Under those circumstances, no-one in Australia would get (or expect) a tip.

In the US, however, where tips are presumed and factored into calculation of the (low) hourly wage, it’s a different matter. To make sure she didn’t miss out, our incompetent waitress, who had been anything but available throughout the meal, hovered over our shoulders until the bill was filled out. I don’t think she deserved a tip as such — but I also don’t think that people should get paid in that ridiculous fashion, so we stumped up the bare minimum.

Generally, my strategy in the US is twofold: tipping when it’s a standard party of the culture, but also avoiding situations where I’ll be forced to tip for what I consider unnecessary service. I don’t let the bellhop grab my bag when I arrive at hotels; I often try and book places with a kitchen, so I can do my own cooking and avoid having to tip when I don’t feel it is deserved. If you’ve got your own tip management strategy, share it in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is always happy when someone else has to worry about the size of the tip. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.

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