In troubled financial times, Nigel Richardson navigates the etiquette and ethics of tipping.
A hotel room in Phoenix, Arizona, 7pm. A weary traveller, recently off an 11-hour flight from London Gatwick, has just eaten in the hotel restaurant and is about to get into bed.
Caller: "Hi, Mr Richardson. This is Brad here. Your waiter for this evening."
Me (puzzled but friendly): "Oh, hi, Brad."
Brad: "I was just calling to check you enjoyed your meal this evening."
Me: "Well, cheers for asking, Brad. It was fine."
Brad: "Only, I guess you being tired and all, you forgot to express your appreciation in the customary way ..."
Like a lemon I get dressed, go downstairs and hand Brad a $5 note. The recollection of this episode has tortured me ever since.
Yes, I know that Brad gets paid diddly-squat and like all American waiters relies on tips. I forgot, I screwed up. But I was already in my pyjamas, for God's sake.
Tipping is a cultural and pecuniary minefield. There are complex cultural variants, such as baksheesh in the Middle East (basically, daylight robbery) and ta'arof in Iran, a preposterous formality whereby offers of money are refused two or three times before being greedily gobbled up. But these require a lifetime of study.
Simple tipping – the handing over of money as a token of gratitude for services rendered – is complicated enough. I have been travelling extensively for nearly 20 years and trying to get it right (how much, when, how) still leaves me feeling like a chimp at the Ritz.
Recently, it has also left me feeling poorer. Tipping has been getting so out of hand in certain destinations that it amounts to a stealth tax on Western tourists and distorts local economies – and I blame the Americans.
A little on the side in the Med
France VAT on food in restaurants has been reduced recently from 19.6 per cent to just 5.5 per cent, making eating out good value this European summer. A service charge of 15 per cent is always included (service compris) but, if you're happy with the service, round up the bill to the next euro and even add a euro or two.
Greece Service is included in taverna bills. Round up or even add more as you see fit.
Spain Don't mistake the 7 per cent VAT charge on restaurant bills ("IVA") for the service charge, which is not included. This is not a big tipping culture but staff at restaurants in tourist hot spots will expect at least 10 per cent. For tapas and drinks at a bar, just round up and add a euro or two.
Italy A cover charge (usually about €2.50 a person, for bread and so on) is always included and a service charge sometimes, so check the bill or ask. In any case, that service charge is unlikely to go to the waiter, so a couple of euros will be appreciated. It also makes sense if you will be eating there again. If there's no service charge, 10 per cent in cash is sufficient.
- The Telegraph, London