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Coping With Tipping

I don’t have a simple solution to the ever-vexing subject of tipping, but perhaps a few observations might give readers something to ponder.

My recent visit to Tokyo and cruise departure from Yokohama brought the matter to mind again, as I was most impressed to discover that tipping is not a practice that is part of the Japanese culture. Consequently, travelers in the country are not confronted with outstretched palms, and gratuities are not expected. Instead, I received the refreshing impression that workers in Japan are honored that visitors trust them to serve their needs and feel sufficiently rewarded if their service lives up to expectations.

The other side of the coin became apparent as the sailing continued to Alaska. After calls at several ports in the 49th state, I chatted with an English-speaking Japanese couple who registered shock and dismay with signs posted prominently in sightseeing vehicles as well as with comments made by tour guides, even excursion boat captains, openly asking guests for tips to “register their appreciation.”

I suppose we Americans have become so accustomed to handing over extra greenbacks for service that in many cases is nothing special, a national phenomenon not specific to Alaska, that as much as we may not enjoy the process, we’re resigned to going along with it. The real problem is that tipping is becoming so endemic to our society that even those who provide any service beyond their basic job descriptions expect us to pony up more than we have already been charged.

When I had my own tour company, we included all gratuities to tour directors, coach drivers and step-on guides, and we never had a problem with or a complaint from anyone involved, as guests were paying reasonable and very competitive prices, and our employees and contractors were being well compensated for their work. On mass-market cruise ships today, where service provided largely by staff members from Third World countries normally is very good or excellent, at least gratuities are now added automatically to onboard accounts so we don’t have to run around on the final day clutching envelopes stuffed with cash. I still do hear complaints, however, that “automatic” 18 or 20 percent tips assessed on bar beverage and spa purchases sometimes unjustly reward poor service. And, of course, quite a few upscale “luxury” lines include the gratuities in their basic fares from the outset.

Over the years, I’ve noted that Europeans generally pay less attention to tipping than we Americans do. Seldom do I see them give gratuities to guides on cruise shore excursions or more than some loose pocket change for meals at restaurants that add an automatic “service charge.”  But the photo below from tour documents issued to guests of one of my consulting clients by a major international operator shows just how confusing and, in this case, bizarre the whole tipping procedure has become. Mind you, this was for a full-coach move operated only for my client’s guests, on which all gratuities had been prepaid in full. So why would it be necessary for the travelers to put vouchers into tip envelopes to be handed to the tour director and coach drivers?

One final thought: I always tip those who provide memorable, superior service, including exceptional tour guides who have learned their trade well and provide fascinating commentary. I hope you do, too.