The Tap Dance of Tipping
From the November/December 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Hello, front desk?” “Yes, madame?” “This is room 308. I’m trying to take a shower, but it seems the water isn’t running in the bathroom. Is the water turned off in the hotel?” “No madame. Of course there is water.” “Not in my bathroom,” I point out.
I’ve just landed in Cairo after a packed overnight flight. As soon as I reached my room, I ran to the shower to rinse off my travels.
“So sorry, madame. I will call our hotel engineer. Please, only ten minutes.” I pull my sweaty clothes back on and wait.
Twenty minutes later, a stocky man in a rumpled black suit and white shirt appears: Mr. Asaf, the engineer. “You have problem?” he asks. I show him the shower. I open the water taps all the way. Nothing. Mr. Asaf frowns, mutters. He raps the pipes with his knuckles a few times and slowly opens and closes the taps. Then I notice something that makes my heart sink: Mr. Asaf the engineer isn’t carrying any tools. “So sorry, madame. I cannot fix today,” he declares at last. But, but, I need water! I sputter. Mr. Asaf rolls his eyes upward to heaven and shrugs.
“Tomorrow, inshallah.” A long pause. Then he looks at me sheepishly, and reaches out an upturned palm.
“Please, madame, baksheesh?”
Tipping is the bane of my traveler’s existence. I’m comfortable and relaxed handling myself in the most culturally exotic situations. The etiquette of a formal Japanese dinner doesn’t faze me, nor does an afternoon in the purdah quarters of a khan’s palace in Pakistan. But faced with the most routine travel situations—checking into a Houston Hyatt or a little pensione in Pisa—I become awkward and insecure. I feel stressed, often guilty, and sometimes foolish when faced with one of travel’s most commonplace rituals.
In markets and shops, the goods have price tags, or you can bargain. The tip is not so straightforward. It’s an invisible, open-to-interpretation price tag that hovers like a cloud over travel’s many small encounters. I know that lots of tourism workers rely on tip income to survive, and my instinct is to be generous. Yet we travelers are so often pressed for tips at our most vulnerable moments—like when we’ve just landed someplace and we’re frazzled and jet-lagged. Even worse, the tips don’t always relate to services performed. An example: The cab arrives at the hotel entrance and a bellhop rushes to open the cab door for me. Then he lunges for my backpack. Reflexively, I grip it and pull it closer to my body.
“It’s okay. I have it,” I tell him.
Do I detect a tightening of the bellhop’s professional smile? I do. But as a traveler on a budget, how can I justify handing money to someone to carry a bag ten steps to the check-in desk?
Provoking even more anxiety is figuring out an appropriate thank you when someone provides a service above and beyond their duties. Such as the owner of the pensione in Florence who insists on helping me lug my suitcase up four flights of narrow stairs to my room. It’s a massive effort that in this moment of arrival is worth more to me than gold. But this man is the owner of the establishment. If I try to tip him, will he be uncomfortable? Insulted? I err on the side of caution and keep my wallet closed. The decision haunts me during my stay.
I know I’m not the only traveler who experiences tip anxiety. Every guidebook I’ve ever read includes tipping guidelines, and “What do you tip?” is always a question I get asked by friends and acquaintances who are looking for travel advice on a particular destination. That, to me, is the sad thing; on the threshold of experiencing new horizons, unfamiliar cultures, and exciting adventures, shouldn’t we be obsessing about something besides how to hand out money?
When I first started traveling, I too would studiously look up the tipping guidelines for my destinations. But I’d overtip anyway. Old habits die hard (the word tip itself is old, dating to the 1700s). And in my hometown, New York City, tipping is practically a moral obligation. More than one New York cabdriver has growled at me when I ran out of change and only tipped 10 percent.
It didn’t take long before my rapidly thinning wallet made me see I had to modify this habit. What’s more, I discovered there were many parts of the world in which my New York City-style baksheesh was considered inappropriate, even eccentric. In tip-free Japan, where cash is king, and prices, by custom, include all services, I’ve actually had hotel housekeepers chase after me with the tip I’d left for them in the room.
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About those hotel housekeepers. Over years of journeys I’ve come to grips with my tip anxiety by cobbling together a set of idiosyncratic guidelines. While I wish that travel’s invisible tax would disappear, tipping will endure as long as there are underpaid frontline workers. So in lands where local prices and rates are relatively low and I can afford to be generous, I am. At the same time I try to give my limited funds to the people who do the actual work. That means making an effort to hunt down the less-visible hands that make my bed, sweep my room, cook and serve my food. Hands that belong, so often, to women.
As soon as I settle into a hotel, I find out who will be cleaning my room and tip her right away. It’s the smartest travel move—especially in cheaper hotels, as I learned in Belém, Brazil. The travelers in the rundown backpackers hotel where I stayed complained nonstop about their grotty rooms. Not me; my room was spotless, and I had fresh towels each day thanks to the modest amount of reales I slipped to Dona Iphigenia shortly after arrival.
As for those other eagerly outstretched hands, I make an on-the-spot calculation based on my heart, my budget, and the situation. In Cairo, where baksheesh is an ingrained fact of life, I gave a small token to Mr. Asaf, the tool-less (and probably salary-less) engineer. He couldn’t fix my shower, but he did help me in an important way: He helped me figure out my next step.
The manager at the front desk didn’t seem surprised to see me again.
“This is a terrible situation, madame. My apologies.” I smiled resignedly, sighed, and reached into my wallet. Room 405 was twice the size of old room 308, came with an expansive view over Cairo’s rooftops—and boasted a shower that flowed just as generously as the Nile.