You’ve finished your exotic meal of local delicacies, you’re sipping the last of your local beer, and the moment you’ve been dreading is approaching. When the bill arrives, the situation is none the clearer and you break into a sweat. The percentage signs next to the figures above the total – are they for tax or service? Are you supposed to tip or not? How much? Will they be insulted if you don’t? Will they think you’re a brazen mug if you do? Will their friendliness turn to malice if you don’t tip enough?
It’s one of the most stressful of travel situations. Nobody likes to admit it – which makes it even worse. “Tipping is not essential or expected but the gesture will be much appreciated”: this vague advice often appears in guidebooks. Well, obviously it’s going to be appreciated. Except in Japan, where it might be regarded as slightly vulgar, if not downright insulting.
Whose idea was tipping in the first place? Does a journalist get a tip for writing an especially brilliant article? Does a shopkeeper receive a little extra for friendliness? Would you consider offering a little extra to the plumber who fixes your pipes or the electrician who mends your fuse box? Unless you have money to burn, of course you wouldn’t. Which is not to say these services are unappreciated. But is it the poor confused traveller’s fault that restaurant waiting staff, for instance, are so poorly paid in some countries, to the extent that “tip” may actually mean the same as “salary”?
Tipping is an especially complex science in travel situations. Imagine checking in to a better than average New York hotel. For many travellers this is a moment of relaxation, to savour the pampering. For others, it’s a moment of intense trauma. The fellow who grabbed your cases from the taxi – what’s in it for him? The other fellow who brings them to your room and shows you how the air conditioning works is loitering at the door – it isn’t because he enjoys your company.
The waiters in the restaurant, the concierge, the chambermaids, the masseuse, the hairdresser, the spa attendant… Is five dollars an insult? Is ten dollars setting an extravagant precedent? And what if you’ve only got two singles or you haven’t had time to change a hundred? Will you be totally ignored for the rest of your visit if you don’t tip anything?
US tipping culture is highly evolved and disdain of low tippers particularly conspicuous. But the situation could just as easily be repeated in New Delhi or Bangkok. So here are a few tipping tips for some popular Finnair destinations to lead you through the gratuity minefield – and to let you know your pain is shared:
In small, less tourist-oriented hotels and restaurants, tipping is not expected and watch out for the service charge often added to the bill – the official tip, in other words. Otherwise, it’s acceptable just to round up the bill and leave some small change. A tip of 40-80 baht – equivalent to one or two euros – is usually sufficient in finer hotels for bell hops and doormen who grab a taxi for you, for example. Those famous Thai smiles are worth a supplement.
The otherwise impenetrable curtain of Japanese etiquette draws back with absolute clarity when it comes to tipping: there isn’t any. It may be complicated in other ways – the language, the dining customs – but the tipping rule couldn’t be simpler: don’t. Relax, really, it’s OK.
Unless it’s a fixed fair, taxi drivers may get grumpy if you don’t add a pound or two to your fare. You are never likely to see them again but it leaves a bad taste – another instance of the complex emotional blackmail at play. Leave 10-12% of the bill in restaurants and a couple of pounds for doormen who hail you a taxi. Many restaurants include a “discretionary service charge” on the bill. Discretionary ought to mean optional, but the persistent pressure of tipping psychology means you always pay. If you want to be sure that your waiter or waitress receives his or her gratuity, it’s probably best to leave a cash tip rather than add it to your card payment.
As in Japan, tipping in China used to be insulting and broadly speaking it’s safe to assume that it still is. There is no need to tip in rural areas and in towns and cities that are less familiar with the ostentatious sai yan or Western traveller. Gratuities are still not standard practice but it’s increasingly common in the Western-style hotels and restaurants of megacities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Until 10 or 15 years ago, nobody ever tipped anyone and the situation everywhere – in hotels, in taxis, in restaurants – was gloriously uncomplicated. Service mentality and its attendant complexities made a late appearance on the Finnish hospitality scene. It’s still almost unheard of to tip taxi drivers – the fares are high enough. Tipping is still unusual in all but the most upmarket hotels and restaurants, where you might add around 10% of your bill, but you will not be blacklisted for your restraint. Needless to say, “the gesture will be much appreciated”.
This column originally appeared in Finnair’s inflight magazine Blue Wings.