Tipping: Yes? No? When? How Much?

The tipping issue when I travel drives me crazy. I am never sure what’s expected, and I don’t ever seem to have the right denomination of bills or any change. It’s a constant hassle.

Almost everywhere else in the world, of course, they have it figured out. Certainly that’s pretty much universally true in restaurants. In France, for instance, “Le service est compris” … the gratuity is included in the bill. Then, if you have had really good service, you drop a little extra change on the tray … a euro or so, depending on the cost of the meal. It’s just an extra little acknowledgement of a job well done.

By the way, trust the French to tell it like it is: their word for a “tip” is “pourboire”, the literal translation for which is “for drink”.

The service people certainly like having the gratuity included on the bill and, as far as I’ve been able to determine, so do the patrons. It certainly simplifies the whole business and it keeps the cheapskates from stiffing the help. (Ask any server in an American restaurant: that happens a lot more than you would imagine.)

I do confess to what some people would consider over-tipping in the case of housekeeping staff in hotels. These are invariably low-wage people doing menial work. If I can afford a couple of hundred dollars a night for a hotel room, I can certainly afford five bucks a night for the person who makes my bed and tidies up after me in the bathroom.

Tipping — or, rather the frequent lack thereof — is a problem for the servers in Amtrak dining cars, however. Many passengers traveling in the sleeping cars somehow think that they’re not expected to tip because the cost of their meals is included in their fare. Not so. Sleeping car passengers on Amtrak trains should tip as they would in any restaurant: based on the menu prices.

I’m also frequently asked about tipping the sleeping car attendant. My rule of thumb is a minimum of $5.00 per night per passenger. That’s assuming the attendant is usually available, assists with you bags, and offers an orientation of you accommodations when you board. If you have any additional requests — perhaps having one or more of your meals brought to your room — the tip should go up accordingly. 

My acid test for a good sleeping car attendant? If he comes by your room 10 or 15 minutes before your stop and offers to help you with any bags. By the same token, if I happen to get one of the rare “invisible” car attendants, or if there’s an obvious bad attitude, I have no hesitation in not tipping at all. 
But how ‘ bout we solve this whole problem by eliminating the practice of tipping altogether and just pay these hard-working people a living wage?