We’ve all been there before. In the back of a taxi in a new country, frantically whispering back and forth. Worried that you’ve made the wrong decision. Anxious that you’ll make the taxi driver upset. The etiquette of tipping is a stressful affair, because there is no consistency. While we always recommend researching the travel etiquette of a country prior to arriving (not just how and when to tip, but also what to wear or not wear, how to say “please” and “thank you”, etc.), the reality is, that with different expectations in different countries, it’s easy to forget or to get mixed up.
We experienced this firsthand on our trip around Asia. We arrived in Tokyo in the early evening, hungry and jetlagged from the flight. So, of course, we dumped our bags, sought out the first restaurant we could find, and sat down to eat. Halfway through our meal, we realized that we had forgotten to research the tipping etiquette for Japan (we typically do a refresh of basic traveller etiquette in the country before heading out on the first day). As the meal came to an end, we frantically began looking around at other tables, trying to gauge what we should do. No luck. English is not commonly spoken in Japan, so we couldn’t resort to politely asking the server, either. So after paying our bill and receiving our change, we cautiously pushed the change back across the table to the server…only to watch her horrified expression as she quickly pushed the change back to us. Mortified, we grabbed the change, mumbled an apology, and rushed out the door.
Lesson learned: tipping can be potentially considered insulting in Japan. We’ll keep that in mind when we return this fall. We’ve learned from our mistakes (for the most part, with a stumble here and there), and have a number of sure-fire ways to approach tipping etiquette in a new country.
There’s an app for that: When in doubt, utilize your smartphone for guidance on tipping. The GlobeTipping app offers not only advice on when and how much to tip in over 200 countries, but it also provides a calculator that helps you figure out the proper tip amount, and how much per person, if you’re with a group.
America, the Unusual: While traveling, keep in mind that the practice of tipping in the US is quite unusual when compared with most other countries. While the US doesn’t often include gratuity in the final bill, many other countries do. Or, like in Australia, service employees are paid well, and tipping is not a common practice in the country, as a result. The expected 15-20% tip at a restaurant in the US is often much higher than what’s expected in other countries, so it’s important to keep this in mind when traveling—you don’t necessarily need to feel guilty when you just leave the change in a restaurant in another country. That most likely is what is expected of you.
Don’t make it a big deal: It’s best to tip discretely, particularly if you’re not 100% familiar with the norms of the country. In some countries like Argentina, China, and Vietnam, tipping is technically illegal, but it is rarely policed; you’ll find that many servers in these countries welcome tips, provided that it is done discretely. In countries where business transactions are more reserved, it is best to hand over a folded bill with a handshake rather than make a big display of it.
When in doubt, round up: If you’re finishing up a meal or paying your taxi fare, in many countries the tradition is to simply round up from the final bill if you’re leaving a tip. In instances like this, it’s best to leave coins or cash, because a tip on a credit card may not make its way to the server.
Check the bill for any signs of a service charge: If you’re at a restaurant, and you’re in doubt as to whether or not the service charge is included, check the bill. If it’s a 10% service charge, and you’re not in a country where tipping is frowned upon, it’s okay to simply round up and leave the change or you may not need to leave anything extra at all. If you’re not sure if the service charge is included, ask your server.
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