Tipping: Who Gets Too Much; Who Gets Too Little?

I think I’ve finally got the business of tipping in restaurants pretty well sorted out. I tend to tip around 20 percent in the more ordinary establishments where the modest prices mean smaller gratuities, but closer to 15 percent in the “fine dining” establishments where the higher menu prices mean bigger tips. (I never stiff a server, even if they’re lazy and unpleasant; they’ll just think I’m a cheapskate. Instead, I’ll leave two bucks; that sends the right message.)

I must say, I like the French approach, with the tip automatically included in the overall tab. Yes, there’s the potential of the mandatory gratuity going to an undeserving server, but that’s a respected profession in France and I’ve found the service there to be almost universally excellent.

On the other hand, appropriate tips for housekeeping staff in hotels has caused me angst for years. Typically, I would be looking over the room one last time before checking out when I would suddenly think about leaving something for the housekeeping lady. I’d pull out my wallet and … Damn! Two or three fifties and one single, meaning I would slink away leaving the dollar bill and 23 cents (all my pocket change, mostly pennies).

Then about a dozen years ago, I had a kind of epiphany … a realization that a hotel housekeeper—whether at a Best Western in downtown Seattle or the Fairmont’s Chateau Frontenac in Quebec—was performing the most menial of tasks, directly affecting my comfort, no doubt for minimum wage or close to it.

Furthermore, it also dawned on me that it was a mistake to leave a gratuity for the entire stay as I was checking out, not knowing if the lady cleaning the room that day was the some person who had been making my bed and mopping my bathroom floor during the previous three days. Ever since that belated moment of illumination, I make a point of leaving four or five dollars on the pillow every morning during my stay when I leave my room.

For Amtrak travel, I tip my sleeping car attendant a minimum of $5.00 a night for average service—double that if my wife is traveling with me—and double that again if the attendant is genuinely pleasant and I’ve asked for any extra service. Tips for servers in Amtrak dining cars should be at least 15 percent of the published menu prices. It’s very disappointing, but some sleeping car passengers don’t tip in the dining car because their meals are “free”, with the cost included in their fare. When you stop and think about it, that makes no sense at all. Adding insult to injury, the IRS assumes they are being tipped and they’re taxed accordingly.

Bottom line: tipping is part of the system, like it or not. (And, yes, of course we should increase the minimum wage!)