Tipping Abroad: How Much Is Enough?

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Tipping Abroad: How Much Is Enough?

Tipping can be tricky here in the U.S., so when we leave our borders—and all the usual rules are off—it becomes downright confusing and completely common to feel ripped off, or like we unknowingly ripped someone else off. 

Tipping when you're traveling can be downright confusing. The good news? The tipping rate within our red-white-and-blue borders is much higher than we’ll ever be expected to shell out abroad. The bad news? As we Americans get out and explore the world more, our tipping habits are catching on in other countries, leaving higher expectations than ever for healthy gratuities around the world.

The United Kingdom
As someone who lived in the UK for a little while, I can attest that adjusting to a new tipping culture can leave us feeling a little in the dark. The rules here (unfortunately for my travel funds) are closer to American tipping etiquette than more far-flung locales, though they are still a wee bit lower. About 10 to 15 percent at restaurants is polite and expected unless you see a “discretionary service charge” of around 12 percent at the bottom of your bill. (This means they’ve included it in for you.) The going tipping rate for a night in a pub is a pound or two left with your bill at the end of the night. Add 10 percent for taxis and a few pounds for tour guides and porters.

Western Europe
In general, tipping (by our Yankee standards) is pas nécessaire on the continent. Most countries in Western Europe tack on the gratis automatically, taking the thinking entirely out of the matter (which is great after enjoying that French champagne). French law actually mandates that a 15 percent service charge be included in all menu prices. All this said, rounding up a few extra euros is a great way to spread some American good cheer and say grazie for good service. But don’t go overboard! “We call it pour boire,” says Gaelle Moyal, who grew up in Paris. “It means we just leave excess change or round off the bill.” The term literally translates to “for a drink” because it’s just enough for the server to buy a drink after work.

And for other services aside from restaurants? Taxis don’t expect a tip, although rounding off to the nearest euro is a completely normal and nice gesture. Hotels? “Tip extremely helpful porters a euro or two, but that’s it,” says Moyal.

Eastern Europe
“Over-tipping is really common here,” says Darren Sather, a Californian who worked as waiter in Prague for a few years. “People feel like they’re still in Europe, so they do what they’d do in France, but the expectations are actually a lot lower.” If you find yourself dining behind the former Iron Curtain, leaving a little extra is much appreciated since monthly wages in Eastern Europe are much lower than their western counterparts. “Locals don’t really tip, so anything is appreciated,” says Sather. A good rule of thumb is to estimate about 10 percent, then go down a bit. Unless you’re in Hungary, where 10 percent is expected, according to Rick Steves’ Best of Eastern Europe. Round up around 5 percent for taxis and toss a few coins to helpful porters and valets.

Also, play it safe and physically hand the tip (if you choose to leave one) directly to your server—some cultures consider it gauche to leave money sitting on the table. ‘

Here’s some good news for travel budgets: in China gratuity is officially discouraged. “Even though 10 percent used to be more of a norm in nicer Chinese restaurants, now it’s sort of looked down on,” says Heather Fung, a technology consultant who travels to China a few times each year. “But, if you offer a little extra in favor of good service, no one’s going to throw it back to you.” Japan also considers tipping to be in very poor taste, so this is another place to refrain from throwing money around like you’re in Vegas. Same goes for Thailand, Tahiti, Fiji, and Singapore.

“Tipping in India varies drastically depending on the type of joint you’re in,” says Erin Milley, who spent last summer working for a micro-finance company there. “In restaurants people generally tip, but only small amounts—just a few rupees.” Tipping anywhere else (salons, rickshaws, porters) is considered strange, says Milley. Unless you find yourself at a tourist hotspot or ultra-westernized resort—then tipping is much more expected.

If you’re set on showing your thanks somehow, bring a few gifts, like t-shirts and baseball caps, from the U.S. and leave them in your room for maids or tour guides.

Middle East
“Customs vary a lot depending on what country you’re in, so definitely look into the specific place that you’re headed to,” says Maya Moussavi, a former medical volunteer in Lebanon. Headed to Istanbul? Tipping isn’t required—and is usually tacked on to restaurant bills. Israel? Ten percent is customary and expected. Dubai taxi drivers don’t expect anything, but valets and porters do. If you’re lucky enough to be headed to the Middle East, check out this breakdown courtesy of concierge.com before you hop on that long flight.

Australia and New Zealand
I traveled to New Zealand last year, and before I left, I read and reread the paragraph in my Frommer’s guide that urged travelers not to tip. I thought it was just too good to be true, so I asked a few hotel concierges along the way and they confirmed it: In a country where employees are paid more—and it’s never been part of their culture—they don’t expect or depend on tips. I tipped just once in my two weeks there, handing some change to an especially helpful concierge at the end of my trip, and he looked like he was about to fall over in shock.

Australia’s not quite so unaccustomed to the art of gratuity, but it’s still a far cry from the States. “Tipping’s not necessary because minimum wage there is a lot higher than it is in the U.S.,” says Bryan Silverman, a Californian who lived in Australia for the past two years. “Usually people just round up to the nearest five-dollar on the bill.”

In South Africa and Kenya—especially the most posh spots—there’s usually a 10 percent service charge automatically included on restaurant bills. Former British outposts don’t find the custom totally foreign, so especially helpful hotel porters or taxi drivers will appreciate the gesture. 

I traveled through Tanzania last year, and tips were pretty uncommon there—at least outside of the main tourist traps. When I did hit those travel hot spots, I noticed a lot more people holding their hands out for tips, from taxi drivers to souvenir pushers. When you’re from somewhere where a huge beer costs less than a dollar, leaving a little extra isn’t too big of a stress on the bank account. I also brought gifts, like American t-shirts, gloves, and sweaters, and gave those to tour guides and hotel staff at the end of the trip, which were a huge hit. 

South America (and Canada, Too)
It seems like the closer we are to the States, the higher the tipping expectations climb. To our south, 10 percent is a pretty standard expectation in restaurants—even if the bill says gratuity has been added. “The servers rarely see that extra fee,” says Andrea Ponce, whose grandparents own a restaurant in Mexico City. “So any extra reward for good service should be handed to the server, not left on the table.” Really, though, this is another region where just about everything is so cheap that tacking on a few extra for a friendly tour guide or server doesn’t ding the budget too much. As for taxis, porters, and tour guides, it really varies by country. GoSouthAmerica.com has a more specific breakdown

When it comes to Canada, customs are even closer to what we’re used to. According to a Canadian etiquette article on TripAdvisor, it’s pretty standard to tack on 15 percent—20 percent for exceptional service. And it doesn’t stop with dining. Taxis, hotel staff or anyone we’d tip here in the States will probably expect a tip there, too. 

When In Doubt
Forget to do the research beforehand? Beeline it to a hotel concierge and he or she should be able to give you the lowdown on tipping expectations. No concierge? There are some basic guidelines to stick with. 

  • According to Magellan’s Worldwide Tipping Guide, don’t tip if in any of these eleven locales: Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, Oman, New Zealand, Samoa, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.
  • Do tip anywhere in North and South America and anywhere in Western Europe that doesn’t have a “tip included” line at the bottom of the bill.
  • Forgot this list? (As though you would do that!) If the service was really great (and you’re not in Asia), leaving around 10 percent is likely more than enough. If it’s a valet or a porter, a dollar or two (or euro, or pound) will show your gratitude. 

In the end, it’s really up to us if and how we want to shell out a little extra to say thank you. So don’t stress. After all, you are on vacation.