Tipping: when and how much is right?

This week’s guest post by Mark Hodson of 101 Holidays provides valuable advice for travellers on the complex and often sensitive issue of tipping, explaining the local practices for paying gratuities in different parts of the world and offering sound insights on how and when we should tip.

Handing over a modest tip for good service ought to be one of the pleasures of travelling – but despite the growth of international travel, many of us are still baffled and embarrassed by the whole business of gratuities. Who and when should you tip, and how much?

A survey by M&S Travel Money claimed the average British family on holiday overseas over-tips by £135 a week. That might come as a surprise to some Americans, who consider Brits to be tight-fisted. But there are occasions when you don’t need to put your hand in your pocket – and others when it’s rude not to.

Where in the world?

The first rule of tipping is, do as the locals do. There are countries where tipping is just not done. In Japan, for instance, it’s considered an insult. In Australia and New Zealand it never caught on. There’s no need to tip in Singapore or China, but it’s de rigeur in Hong Kong.

In America, the whole service economy is built around generous tipping. If your lunch looks cheap, that’s probably because you’ve yet to add the “optional” 20%. You can’t opt out of tipping in the States – either grin and bear it, or holiday elsewhere. Being heckled by a barman or a waiter is not a nice way to end a night out.

In the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, the subtly-different system of baksheesh applies. Depending on the context, baksheesh can be a gracious demonstration of gratitude or respect, or blatant bribery. In India, for instance, you may get better service at a hotel or restaurant if you tip staff on arrival, rather than when you leave.


At smart hotels you’ll find all manner of people ready to carry out menial tasks in exchange for a tip. If you begrudge paying someone to carry your suitcase to your room, get a bag with wheels.

First, the doorman. If he opens a door for you, thank him. If he carries your bag, tip him. Having negotiated check-in (no tip required), you can carry your own bags to your room, or let a porter do it. Try to arrive armed with local currency in small denominations (foreign coins are rarely appreciated, partly because they are hard to exchange).

In the US, expect to tip at least $1 per bag. In the UK and Europe a £1 or €1 coin is usually sufficient, unless there are five stars above the door, in which case you may feel more comfortable forking out a fiver.

Leave a small tip on your pillow for the maid every day – not when you check out, as there may be a different person on duty. There’s no need to tip the concierge for advice, but if he gets you tickets to a sold-out show you’ll want to reward him generously.

In the spa, ask first whether service is included (it usually is), because scrabbling around in your handbag for a tip is a sure-fire way to shake you out of that state of blissful relaxation.


Study restaurant bills to see what’s included. In France, restaurants are legally obliged to include the service in the bill. A similar system works in Greece and in Italy, where the coperto (cover charge) should go to the waiting staff.

In Spain, on the other hand, the tax (known as IVA) is added, but rarely the service. So 10% to the waiter is appreciated.

In America, 10% is stingy. A tip of 15-20% is expected (“double the tax” is an easy way to work it out). If the service is bad, don’t suffer in silence – speak to the manager. At bars in the States, it is customary to tip a couple of dollars per drink, even if you’re buying a round. You can run a tab, but you’ll still be expected to cough up an equivalent amount.

Cruise ships

Although some cruise brochures claim, “tipping is not required,” it is still expected by staff, according to Douglas Ward, author of the Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising & Cruise Ships.

Ward says you should budget for US$10-$12 per person, per day, in gratuities: up to $4 to your dining room waiter, $2 to the assistant waiter, $3.50 to the cabin steward or stewardess and – if you have one – $5 to your butler. Tips are normally given out on the final evening of a cruise. There’s no need to tip bar staff or spa therapists, as their bills include service.

About Mark

Mark Hodson is a journalist and co-founder of the travel inspiration sites, 101 Holidays and 101 Honeymoons. He spent 12 years as a full-time freelance travel writer for The Sunday Times and has visited more than 70 countries.

Author Information

Freelance travel writer

11 Responses to “Tipping: when and how much is right?”

  1. This may well have been written to deliberately wind me up, but it’s precisely this sort of guide that causes tip inflation. I’d be interested to see what came first in the States – tipping culture (because this is far more recent than you’d think) or guides to tipping.

    Now then, my tipping guide:

    1. How much service staff get paid is between them and their employer, not them and you.
    2. Tip accordingly.

    January 26, 2011 at 10:49 am
  2. Nice to see 10% mentioned for Spain, though I sometimes tip a bit less if I’m sitting at the bar and just have a snack.

    When I waitered in Toronto (about 20 years ago) 15-20% was considered the norm and it was very much appreciated because Canada had (and perhaps still has) a much lower minimum wage for workers in the catering/restaurant industry. I believe it was about 2 dollars less per hour. I don’t know how things are in the US.

    January 26, 2011 at 11:01 am
  3. If there’s one thing I would highlight from Mark’s post it is the advice to tip as the locals do. This should apply to all. If I go to the US I pay the higher tips (albeit through gritted teeth much of the time). When I am in a no-tip culture I relax in the knowledge that the waiter/taxi driver will not be confronting me about not having topped up his salary in the expected fashion. And I silently curse when other tourists (usually American) insist on tipping generously in places where it is not expected – as David implies they are creating unnecessary tip inflation.
    I always get it wrong – I’ll not have change when I need it to tip someone and then have to smile apologetically or make an awkward exit. Or I’ll tip one guy with my small change and then another porter/helper will suddenly appear, only for me to shrug my shoulders.
    I wish the whole tipping culture would go away and that people were paid properly by their employer. Work out how much it costs to provide a service, including paying your staff properly, and charge me the right amount. I don’t want to know how much you pay your staff any more than I want to know how much you paid to buy your meat and veg. They are all part of a business’s operating costs and should not be separated.
    However that’s not the world we live in, and over the years I’ve found it easier and less stressful to adopt Mark’s suggestion of following local practices.

    January 26, 2011 at 11:12 am
  4. Yep – Americans abroad drive tip inflation, but guides like this do as well. It’s nothing to do with poor service wages in the US (which are a disgrace by the way) and all to do with people not wanting to seem cheap.

    As no-one really knows what they’re doing with tipping, they pay attention to such guides. The problem is that to write these tipping guides (and I’m not picking on Mark’s in particular – it’s a cumulative effect), writers ask people in the service industry what they find a standard tip to be. And, of course, people in the service industry will point to the higher end of the scale.

    So people who have been tipping 10% as standard suddenly find themselves told that 15% is standard, and start changing the way they do things. 15% then actually does become standard, and the guides start saying “15% to 20%”. In a few years’ time, 20% will be the quoted standard. It’s already getting that way – New York cab credit card machines are ‘suggesting’ 25% to 30% tips these days.

    The guide writer will never quote standard as being at the lower end of the scale, because they know they’ll be howled down for it. Say that you only need to tip 15% max in the States – which is true – and you’ll get a succession of people working in the service industry and idiots wanting to show how generous they are/ how big their balls are saying: “No, that’s wrong. It’s 20%”. Writers don’t want to be seen to know that they don’t know what they’re talking about, so will arse-cover by stating a range or going for an upper estimate.

    And since when was more than one dollar a drink standard tipping practice for drinks bought at the bar? Come on now, you’re proving my point.

    January 26, 2011 at 11:27 am
  5. Living in Western Europe, I am not really used to the tipping culture. Where I live, tipping is not expected. But still I tip sometimes if it provides me advantages. For example in a very crowded bar, if you tip the bartender after ordering the first round, he’ll be likely to give you a quick service at the next orderings.

    Also if I receive very good service, I will tip, even though I don’t have to.

    I often wonder if this 10% or 15-20% rule counts for everything.
    If you eat in a very expensive restaurant, are you expected to give a very large tip?
    What about tour guides, if you’ve taken a tour of a couple of days, I don’t think you’re expected to tip 20% of the tour price?

    January 26, 2011 at 3:49 pm
  6. @azahar: Indeed, in Canada, the minimum wage for the catering industry is lower than the regular minimum wage, because it takes tips into account. Hence why it’s so important to tip well in Canada! In Quebec, try to go over the taxes (13%) and you should be fine, unless you received a particularly good or bad service, in which case you should tip accordingly.

    Tipping is certainly one of the most complicated aspects of travelling. Because you are brought up in a certain way in a given country doesn’t mean it works the same in other places, like this guide just explained. I remember getting out of a black cab in London for the first time and asking the driver if I should tip him or not, trusting his honesty. Too bad I don’t remember what he said.

    January 26, 2011 at 5:27 pm
  7. I appreciate this article and letting people know what is expected. I have been a server at a restaurant for years. In the U.S. our per hour wage is next to nothing. Also we have to tip others out like bartenders and bus boys. 10% is stingy, but at least we still make money when people tip this much, but any less and we are working for free.

    When people tip less it not only hurts us in our pocket books, but it also makes us feel unappreciated. A less than 15% tip makes us think we did a bad job and makes us wonder what we did wrong.

    January 27, 2011 at 2:15 am
  8. I think ‘do as the locals do’ is your best bet, but that’s not to say that local employers aren’t supplementing wages with tips.


    “This tipping automatically, it’s for the birds.”

    When tipping in the UK, we sometimes ask if all the tips are pooled and dished out at the end of the day – you’ll get an honest reply from a waiter unhappy with the system in their restaurant.

    For me, tipping becomes harder to justify the more expensive a meal gets: when I can see huge mark up, I tend to keep my money.

    Yet when its clear people have taken pride in what they do, making my experience that little bit more special, or live on low wages, I can only offer another quote as my advice:

    “Cough up a buck you cheap bastard.”

    January 27, 2011 at 4:11 am
  9. I’ve long been astonished that a glaring opportunity to fill a HUGE demand has been completely overlooked by the (normally v competitive) foreign exchange merchants.

    The first one at Heathrow, Gatwick, etc to offer little ‘tip bags’ will clean up.

    Change your money as usual and pay a small extra fee (£4.50?) for a packet of coins, say around £4 in value, with a guide to tipping in that country (sorry Matthew).

    That way you always arrive in the destination with change for the luggage porter, cabbie, doorman, etc

    …and the forex guys get a mark-up way above their going rate.

    January 28, 2011 at 6:53 pm
  10. I’ve both worked in hotels and in cafes in Sweden, where people barely ever tip. The few times I did get tip (from foreigners, Swedes would never give you a tip…) I would always make sure to give them extra good service 😉

    January 29, 2011 at 11:00 am
  11. Your point of do as the locals do is right on, but as an American (who’s wife and adult kids have all waited tables) I tend to lean toward erring on the side of tipping. Pretty sure no service personel are offended.
    Here’s a tip, in Italy it makes a big difference if you sit at a table or stand at the counter. You can save the “coperto” service charge by standing.
    Thanks for the interesting article.

    April 30, 2011 at 5:48 pm