Aug. 5, 2012— -- Has travel tipping gotten out of hand?
Consultant Keith Anderson of Atlanta thinks so. "I'm 51 years old and I grew up when it was pretty black and white who you tipped. It's grayed tremendously in the last decade or so."
Nowadays, it seems everyone has his or her hand or tip jar out, travelers say, and tipping guidelines can be 50 shades — or more — of gray.
A July USA TODAY online travel survey drew 4,700 respondents, with 79% saying "too many people expect something extra." Seventeen percent said "hard-working people deserve tips," while 4% said they never or rarely tip.
"The rage you encounter over tipping is incredible," says Steve Dublanica, a former waiter and author of Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper's Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity. What to give whom causes confusion, guilt and anger that is heightened by what he calls "tip creep" — the expanding number of workers seeking extra bucks for their services. He even saw a tip jar at a newsstand in a Pennsylvania mall.
Anderson, who also has worked in the service industry, is not averse to laying down 20% for a competent server or a couple of dollars daily for a hotel housekeeper. But now "I see people tipping stewards and stewardesses," he says. "I don't know if it's unsophisticated fliers or what." (Veteran flight attendant Sara Keagle, author of theflyingpinto.com blog, confirms that "passengers try to tip on occasion. Flight attendants are generally not allowed to accept gratuities, but if the passenger insists, then it is OK to accept" to avoid a scene or embarrassment.)
Retiree Phil Matthews of Goodyear, Ariz., is one of many USA TODAY survey respondents who say that in days past, "tipping was for service beyond minimal. The greater the effort, the greater the tip. Now, even terrible service expects a tip. It's more people expecting tips, and people you used to tip expecting more."
Anyone who has drawn glares from an inattentive server for daring to leave 5% can relate, as can those who travel light and play tug-of-war with roll-aboards with bill-seeking bellmen. Consider some tipping trends:
•More U.S. restaurants include a service charge, even for small parties. The stated reason may be so that international visitors know something extra is the custom, but many customers "don't see this inclusion in the menu's fine print and actually tip another 15% to 20%," says traveler Ken Perry, 67, of Columbia, Tenn. Ditto with that blank line for tips on hotel room service bills, which typically already include a gratuity and delivery charge. Whether to tip on a restaurant bill before or after tax is much debated. "I tip on the tax, but you don't have to," says Dublanica, who also has a blog called waiterrant.net. "But everyone would like you to."
•More cruise ships automatically put gratuities (sometimes $12 a person per day) on bills instead of relying on passengers to hand out tip envelopes. Cruisers such as George Matey, 67, of Arvada, Colo., and Tony Ellis, 55, of Pflugerville, Texas, are among those who dislike set tips. They don't think that encourages better service, and "a mandatory tip is no longer really a tip, is it?" Matey says.
Ellis, a computer-support technician who in the past has driven limos and worked for tips, says they do drive customer service in his experience. And he doesn't want someone "to tell me what I need to give," especially if a waiter messes up and order or his luggage wasn't handled properly.
•Staffers at all-inclusives might solicit tips, though such resorts sell themselves as "everything covered" getaways. TripAdvisor's Negril, Jamaica forum has a heated discussion about tipping at Sandals resorts, which have a no-gratuity policy. Some found tips expected, others say tips were refused. Some travelers can't help handing out extra, especially to those who live in poverty. Donna Mussotter, 58, of Royse City, Texas, saves $5 bills to reward low-paid workers, because "while I am by no means wealthy … sharing my good fortune gives me pleasure."
•Drivers of some airport rental-car shuttles seek bills via theatrical patter and by racing to help passengers who don't need aid. That drives Fort Worth sales manager Azor Phelps crazy when "I just have a briefcase and a little bag" and the driver is looking at him "like a hungry dog."
Phelps, 54, is a tipper and one of the generous who hand chips to dealers in Vegas after a win. But he says it can cost $22 now just to get him and his family to hotel rooms ($2 for the valet parker, $10 to the person who takes multiple bags from the car; $10 to a second person who ferries the bags to the room). "Too many people have their hands out," he says.
Tipping expert Dublanica, who has interviewed scores of workers, says tipping is "a personality test" that exposes whether you're mean-spirited or generous. It also "will always make your life easier when you travel," just as will paying extra for better legroom on a plane.
Program coordinator Judi Drews, 63, of Hamilton, N.J., agrees. If servers remember she likes ice in her red wine, "they get 25%." She and her husband give more to people who make their trips smoother. Consultant Anderson has a strategy to make stays at crowded all-inclusive resorts more enjoyable: "I give the bartender $50 when I arrive," order a drink and say, " 'Remember this face.' It gets me to the front of the line every time."
Some travelers even try to slip hotel front-desk staffers a bill for an upgrade, though that policy is not endorsed by hotel management.
In fact, tipping is outlawed save for food and beverage outlets at The Waldorf Astoria Chicago. "People love" not having to worry about what to offer "and say how comfortable it makes them feel," reports general manager Richard Evanich. Staffers are paid more to make up for lack of tips and sign a pact not to accept gratuities.
But even that policy has its gray area: If a guest keeps pressing money on a worker, "the third time they can take it," Evanich says.
Lindsey LaMont, 27, an American working two waitress jobs in Sweden, puts in a word for servers. Though they're paid more in Europe, expenses and taxes are high. "People live off tips because what they are getting paid is not enough, and maybe they are working their behinds off," she says. A server may make $2-$3 hourly in the USA ($2.13 is the federal minimum hourly wage for tipped workers); a hotel housekeeper, minimum wage ($7.25 an hour) unless unionized or senior. (Unionized housekeepers in large cities may make $15-$20 an hour.) Valet parkers, bell staff and others rely on tips to pay the rent.
Washington, D.C.-based executive coach Lou Hampton, 65, puts in a special word for hotel housekeepers. They "are the most deserving of tips and probably get the fewest. Cleaning up after people can be a gross job."
Meanwhile, many survey respondents say tip creep won't stop until travelers change behavior. Tennessean Perry shares his theory: "The more we tip, the less company employees are paid. The less company employees are paid, the more we are pressured to tip. The solution: Companies should be forced to pay employees reasonable wages. How do we (help) that? By tipping less."
But in reality, the cycle continues. "I tip generously," Perry says. "Because I'm made to feel like a chump when I do not."