How much to tip on tours?
Published in the July 2007 issue. This article is viewable for non-subscribers.
Richard E. Smith of Long Beach, California, opened up the topic of tipping on tours (April ’04, pg. 4). Questions he asked included 1) “Should the cost of tipping be included in the tour price?,” 2) “Should there be an existing standard for tipping adhered to by most tour companies?,” 3) “Should an escrow tipping account be set up for each traveler, to be refunded partially or in toto (the reason being that some cheapskates never tip a penny)?” and 4) “Should travel companies be required to advise of their tipping recommendations in their advertisements?
Richard said that for his fall 2006 tour in Central America, Overseas Adventure Travel recommended tipping the driver $3-$4 per day, the trip leader $7-$10 per day and each local guide $3-$4 per day. He wondered what amounts other companies recommended in various countries and how much readers actually ended up tipping. He also invited readers to share what they feel are appropriate amounts to tip drivers, accompanying guides, daily local guides, housekeeping, etc.
“Beverly Burke McGhee of Chesapeake, Virginia, seconded the inquiry, questioning the tipping expectations on a river cruise-tour in China (pg. 38).
Well, they must have hit a nerve with you readers because the responses haven’t stopped coming in. Some appear below. More will be printed. The biggest split seems to be between those who would like gratuities to be included in the cost of the tour and those who prefer the option to tip individually chosen amounts. Among those who specified, at press time that ratio was running 70% (include it) to 30% (tip separately).
Richard Smith has raised a number of interesting questions. Before addressing them specifically, let me give you my two-cent opinion on the subject of “how much?”
Bus drivers — we generally give a tip that is the equivalent of $1-$2 per day — more if the drive is long and traffic is tough (ex., Vietnam) or less if it’s a half day or short trip.
Tour guides — we like to vary this somewhat, based upon the kind of job done and our rapport with the person, but generally it runs $5-$10 per day. For those who do minimal narration, have poor language skills or spend shorter periods of time, it would be on the lower end. In China, our guide worked late into the night, arrived early and earned every penny of a larger gratuity.
Day guides — our practice is to tip $2-$5. Guides’ skills and abilities vary greatly, and the time they spend with us varies as well. Use common sense and you won’t go wrong.
Housekeeping — we try to leave some local currency in the range of $5-$10 for a stay of a few days, perhaps nothing for a simple overnight.
As to the questions, 1) I would not like the tip included in the tour price, as there is less uniformity of service. 2) See No. 1. 3) The escrow is a nice idea, but it might lead to all kinds of political issues that I would rather avoid. One person may be well served, another slighted. 4) Unlike shipboard service, most tours are going to have a lot of variation in local quality. I would appreciate a “guideline” but not a hard recommendation that could become an expectation.
Thanks, Richard, for bringing this up.
I welcome the opportunity to voice my opinion regarding tipping on tours. I have been traveling internationally for over 50 years and have witnessed all extremes of tipping or not tipping.
Like Mr. Smith, I have traveled many times with Overseas Adventure Travel, or OAT (Cambridge, MA; 800/221-0814, www.oattravel.com), as well as with the parent company, Grand Circle Travel, or GCT (Grand Circle Corporation, Boston, MA; 800/248-3737, www.gct.com). About three years ago, GCT/OAT hosted a brunch in Sacramento, California, at a Holiday Inn. At that affair, one of the chief honchos of the company welcomed comments from those present. I raised the question regarding tipping, since I had just returned from a GCT tour of Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast and had been bothered by the tour director’s constantly reminding us as to how much we were to tip the driver and the step-on guides.
I commented that I was none too happy with the constant reminders and suggested that the company factor into the cost of the tours the tips so that we would not always have to be making sure we had the proper amount of euros or dollars in our pockets for this bothersome task.
He was most emphatic that the thought of including tips in the cost of the tour was out of the question, since tipping was an individual choice and the company did not presume to make anyone feel that this was required.
Believe me, I have seen it all! I have seen people intentionally pick an argument with the tour director and then complain that they were not going to tip because they did not like the attitude of the person. I have seen cheapskates suggest that a hat be passed and everyone put their tips in the hat so we could present it as a whole contribution from the group. I have heard couples comment that the amounts suggested in the guidelines were too much for a couple to give and they would be giving less than what was suggested because “After all, there are two of us giving.”
Since the death of my husband, I have traveled almost exclusively on tours because of the companionship and safety of a group. Even friends sharing with me have accused me of being overly generous and “making others look bad.” Even if the driver cannot read English, I continue to write a few lines and enclose it in an envelope with my tip so they can know that I have appreciated their good work. I do the same for the tour director.
What the others do is of no concern to me; however, I do believe that tour companies should factor into the price of the tour the tips they expect the rest of us to give to the people they have hired to transport and guide us on the tour. I would welcome not being harassed on this subject.
I can still hear that tour director in Sorrento admonishing us for giving the driver two dollars each instead of two euros. And telling us to be sure to give a tip to the waiters in the dining room, since they had been serving us for the past two days. She told us there would be a napkin folded into a basket on a table and to look for it to put our tips in!
I took a tour of Costa Rica in March-April ’07 from Caravan Tours (Chicago, IL; 800/227-2826, www.caravantours.com). They suggested $4-$8 per traveler per day for the tour director and $2-$5 per traveler per day for the driver, but tips to local guides, waiters, porters and bellmen were included in the tour price.
Jeanette W. Dewey
Most often, two people are traveling together, so consider that the recommended tipping is doubled. We have been on several tours and river cruises, and the recommended amounts vary with the tour companies.
The $7-$10 per person per day recommended by Overseas Adventure Travel is very high, in my opinion. I would suggest that $3-$6 per person per day to the group leader is adequate — that is, if the leader is responsible and with you for the entire trip.
For local guides, $1-$2 per person is usually adequate. This would depend on the length of the tour.
For the bus driver, it would depend if he is with you all the time or is just a local driver. For a full-time driver, I would consider $1.50-$2 per person per day as a fair tip.
We should also consider that the tour company or their employer also pays all of the guides and drivers. I understand that the tour companies want to keep their costs down to compete for lower prices, but should we pay for their advertising? What percentage is paid to the guides by the tour companies? I believe that excessive tipping is getting out of hand.
Vero Beach, FL
We were on an Overseas Adventure Travel tour to Machu Picchu, Peru, and Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands in December ’06. The tipping guidelines were $7-$10 for the trip leader and $3-$4 for local guides plus regular tipping for bus drivers.
We always come close to following the guidelines if the service is good. What truly bothers me, however, is that others on the trip gave far less and in many instances did not even tip the drivers. (We were told this by our fellow travelers, themselves.)
I would prefer to see some type of tipping included in the price. I do not mind tipping the main guide, but, frankly, it is a pain to tip the others every day or so. Our next trip is to China, and one of the reasons we have chosen to go with Odysseys Unlimited (Watertown, MA; 888/370-6765, www.odysseys-unlimited.com) is all tips are included in the price except the main guide’s.
I advertise in ITN. Regarding tipping on tours, I do China only so have only the input from a tour operator’s perspective as well as from the guides themselves. In December ’06 I was invited to lecture at guide schools in Beijing, Xi’an, Chengdu and Shanghai as well as at established travel services in each city. They wanted to know more about Western tourists and how to best serve them. The subject of tipping came up at each lively session.
Shopping with guides has become a big problem. The travel services in China often do not pay their guides and so the guides depend on tips and kickbacks from shops to earn a living. Also, travel services often require guides to take tourists shopping at certain shops where they too get kickbacks.
In addition, tourism in some areas is only seasonal, so guides must earn as much as they are able to while they can, especially in cold climates. In some areas even, the drivers pay the travel services in order to get tourists because they get a share of the kickbacks from the guide. This has caused many problems with some of the tourists and so this is starting to change in some areas.
Guides prefer group tours, as the tips are much greater than with private tours of just two to five people. Regarding the amount of the tips, my experience in 13 years of doing group and mostly private tours is that some tourists are excellent tippers and then there are those who tip as little as possible. The guides are aware of this, so they look at it as “chance of the draw” when they get assigned to tourists. The senior guides usually get assigned to groups that tip high, and they are aware of the foreign tour operators that suggest giving higher tips.
Guides also look closely at the tour to see if it is using 3-, 4- or 5-star hotels, because the tips usually follow the cost of the tour; if 5-star hotels are being used, it generally means larger tips for the guides. Inexpensive group tours or private tours generally get assigned the younger or newer guides, which isn’t always bad. Some of the newer or younger guides are more active and strive harder.
Dave Bruels, Interlake China Tours, Seattle, WA
A friend and I have traveled on many different tours, but our favorites have been with Overseas Adventure Travel and Odysseys Unlimited.
Our most recent OAT trip (our third) was to Machu Picchu and the Galápagos in January ’07. The tipping guidelines were $7-$10 for the trip leader, $4 per day for the coach driver, $4 per day for each city guide and a dollar or two for various others who came in contact with us.
Our most recent of four Odysseys Unlimited trips was to China and Tibet in the summer of 2005. I believe the tipping guidelines at that time were $8-$10 a day for the trip leader, but that was all, except for the Yangtze River cruise portion. On all cruises, tips for the ship’s crew are required (strongly suggested).
I also took a fall foliage tour with Globus (Littleton, CO; 800/221-0090, www.globusjourneys.com) in 2006, our third with them. Tipping guidelines were $3-$5 for the tour leader and $3-$5 for the bus driver.
And we’ve been on multiple trips with Grand Circle Travel (roughly the same tipping guidelines as OAT).
I’ve only included figures on recent trips, since I’ve watched prices rise, as with anything else. My guess is the Odysseys trips would be $10-$12 about now, if the rises in recommendations of OAT are any indication. (The Odysseys tour director tips the coach driver and any others.)
Among the companies, there is quite a difference in what is expected of a tour director. In the case of the recent Globus tour, the tour director wasn’t that good, as far as information about the area was concerned, and the bus driver was much more helpful, so I ended up tipping the bus driver more than the tour director.
For both OAT and Odysseys, the tour director/guide acts as a professor in a college course. He/she prepares many handouts and gives a comprehensive discourse on the country; our guide in India even referred to his daily talks on the coach as “lectures.” The difference is the Odysseys tours cost a little more, but you are relieved of the constant tipping.
My favorite story of OAT is from the Thailand tour. We traveled by many means of transportation — air, coach, truck, train, elephant, boat, raft, etc. — and were expected to tip the driver of each local means. After our elephant ride (yes, we had to tip the mahout), we embarked on a rafting expedition down to our luncheon place where the bus would meet us. We were told to leave everything on the bus except our cameras; all would be safe.
We followed those guidelines only to be told, as we boarded the raft, to be sure to tip the poler! I was on a raft with three other women and, of course, our purses were safely on the bus. Fortunately, I carry a bit of money in my camera case, so I did the honors for the four of us and the others paid me back.
I have been ’round and ’round with OAT about this. I would rather pay more up front and be spared this constant tipping, or, at the least, our guide could collect money from us at the beginning and take care of the tipping, but they always have one excuse after another, so we live with it. But, if itineraries are the same, we are more prone to taking Odysseys Unlimited tours because of it.
I think the question “How much to tip?” has several variables. I usually only take land tours with a bus driver and a guide and a group of around 20 people. I refuse to take a cruise because I don’t like the line of hands expecting a tip at the end of the cruise.
I’ve been advised by the land tour groups on the recommended amounts for tipping: usually $5-$7 per person per day for the guide and $3-$5 per person per day for the driver. Prior to the start of the trip, I always set aside about $100 for the guide and $70 for the driver and then tip according to the way I feel we were treated.
Notice I said that for the driver and guide I use dollars. If I’m tipping in euros, then I’m tipping about 30% more (because of the loss in the currency exchange).
All tips are given in plain, white, sealed envelopes that I take with me in my briefcase. Sometimes it’s hard to get an envelope from a hotel at the end of the trip.
My wife and I travel as a couple but do not tip “per person.” I consider us as one entity and don’t believe that I should tip extra for her. I also don’t believe that tips should be included as part of the price, because if I get poor service I want to be able to tip for poor service.
I also keep in mind that the guide is taking us to places where he/she will get back a percentage of everything that the tour group spends in said shops or restaurants. Most guides will admit that they get a percentage of the profits, and I expect it and don’t mind at all.
On my last tour of France, the guide put about €100 in her pocket by getting 10 of us to go to the French Army Museum at Normandy, where we had to pay our own way in; if we had gone with her to see the Bayeux Tapestry she would have had to pay the 10-euro entrance fee for each of us. That was taken into consideration when most of us made out our tip envelopes.
I usually tip local guides €3-€5, depending on how personable and knowledgeable they are. A lot of people just act like they’re busy and walk away from the local guides without tipping them. To each his own!
Tipping at restaurants is usually according to the customs of the country. Many countries include 15% in your bill as a tip, but you are expected to leave a few small coins on the table for good service.
When we took our trip to Australia, we were told that tipping was not expected. I did give a few tips when our driver went out of his way to serve us.
Also, on personally guided tours I always tip the driver at the end of the trip, generally using the same $100/$70 guide rule that I use on tour buses, depending on the length of the trip.
The perplexing issue of “whom to tip how much and when” was handled in a unique way on our last trip.
In January ’07 we visited Myanmar on the Railway Touring Company’s “Steam to Mandalay” tour, booked through The Society of International Railway Travelers (Louisville, KY; 800/478-4881 or 502/454-0277, www.irtsociety.com). Including airfare from London, the cost for this 2-week trip was $4,298 per person.
This was a trip for steam locomotive enthusiasts, with some general tourism to attract nonrailfan spouses. Our well-traveled group of 14 rail buffs (along with six “understanding” spouses) collectively had ridden trains in 121 countries — and after this trip thought we had seen 121,000 Buddhist temples! We were seldom out of sight of one, and hundreds were in view from some vantage points.
Our British tour leader (a well-known railway journalist and train photographer rather than a professional tour guide) had asked us to bring the modest sum of $100 per person. He accepted this in large-denomination U.S. bills and then handled all the tips to local guides, bus drivers, hotel staff, etc.
This was much better than our each having to fumble with small change in local currency at every stop or carrying a wad of U.S. dollars for this purpose.
(I recommend the U.K.-based RTC for off-the-beaten-path tourism, e.g., over Eritrea’s recently reopened railway line from the port city of Massawa to the capital, Asmara, at 7,628 feet — a spectacular journey described as the “Darjeeling of Africa,” referring to the famous Himalayan Mountain Railway. Some offerings have a fair amount of tourist appeal, whereas others really are designed for hardcore train enthusiasts.)
Missouri City, TX
In response to Richard Smith and his interest in attitudes on tipping, I also am a frequent traveler with Overseas Adventure Travel and also have noticed the discrepancy between their tipping advice and that of many other tour companies. I do think that one reason for this is that OAT has small groups, so of course at the same amount per person, the tour directors, local guides and drivers each will get less with 16 travelers than with 35 or 40.
Beyond that, however, I would love to see most tips included in the basic cost of the trip. I would probably exclude the tour director from this. He is the most important person in making a tour successful, and his tips really should be based on how well each individual traveler has viewed his performance. But it would be great if all other tips were included, including local guides, drivers, etc. (One company that does this to a great extent is Odysseys Unlimited.)
This is a great subject for discussion. I hope there are a lot of responses.
Santa Rosa, CA
I would like to point out that the Chinese do not tip. In Rome, do as the Romans do. There are also many other countries where tipping is not the custom.
Whenever we travel to another country, we try to find out how much the average local person earns, i.e., a teacher, a hotel worker or a laborer. The next consideration for tipping is the kind of service we receive.
In 2006 we traveled to Bali, Java, Singapore and Cambodia. The service provided on Bali and Java through PACTO (multiple offices in Indonesia plus Germany and Australia; www.pactoltd.com) was excellent, with good drivers and well-prepared guides. Since we were only two, they did not mind spending more time with us, above the normal hours, and we tipped them above average.
In Siem Reap, Cambodia, our guide from the Indochina service was poorly trained, and at times he wandered off and we had to find him. The driver, however, was very good, so — unusual but so deserved — his tip was higher than the guide’s tip.
In 1998 we traveled with Grand Circle Travel to China, and the tips recommended would have been extremely higher than the salary of a local teacher. As a matter of fact, for our group of some 30 persons the collective tips recommended for guides as well as drivers would by far exceed those of persons employed by local enterprises.
Looking back at our five trips to Asia, we always had good luck and good guides and drivers. If we look at the traffic in larger cities — Cairo, Bangkok or Mexico City — the drivers carry a large responsibility and often are undertipped.
There is no “standard”; education and information are key when it comes to tipping.
I really appreciate it when a tour company informs me of standard tipping practices in the country before we’re on the trip. Cultural understanding and a knowledge of the value of currencies are critical.
Understanding what tipping means to the various people who provide the services as well as understanding any customs when it comes to tipping is a fine art, so it’s best to arm yourself with knowledge. Knowing ahead of time takes the stress and concern out of last-minute guessing and keeps you from offending, offering too little or offering too much!
If tipping is not an acceptable practice, that needs to be communicated. If excessive tipping (again, they need to explain to guests what would be considered excessive) has a negative impact on their culture, the tour operator needs to let guests know.
Being armed with as much insight as possible before leaving on your trip also allows for budgeting and planning. Always plan on having to tip for services. Don’t expect to see tipping guidelines in advertisements; simply expect to tip, period! And it’s not the tour company’s responsibility to ensure that you tip properly; it’s your responsibility. Set the money aside in an envelope just for tips.
As tipping varies from country to country and the value of the dollar fluctuates with various currencies, it’s best to ask for advice. My favorite tour company, Treasures of Travel (Edmonds, WA; 800/572-0526, www.treasuresoftravel.com), does an incredible job of communicating tipping expectations when you’re in the process of booking a trip. As an example, here are the tipping guidelines Treasures of Travel provided for a sea/land tour of Turkey in May 2005:
As in the United States, tipping is appropriate and should be commensurate with the quality of service received.
Driver, $3-$4 per guest per day.
Guide, $5-$6 per guest per day.
Guide/driver, $8-$10 per guest per day.
Entire gulet crew (includes captain), $8-$12 per guest per day.
Taxis — no tipping in Turkey.
Restaurant tips, 8%-10% for a main meal. No tipping is necessary for snacks or small meals in local cafés. Treasures of Travel generously tips the wait-staff for all group dinners.
Don’t get frustrated with cheapskates or egomaniacs. They will always be lurking during your travels. Instead, find a personal way to say ‘Thank you’ to those who have gone above and beyond during your trip. (I always take a small, artisan gift from home and precut ribbon. Handmade Dagoba Organic Chocolate Bars are my favorite standby.) And a side tip, a ‘Thank you’ card, a photo or something you mail once you get back home: all are ways to show your appreciation.
Also, I do not believe in giving money to “beggars,” but I do take things like pencils, toothbrushes, etc., if I’m going to be visiting a school or some place where there will be children who would benefit from these types of items.
If your trip is “unguided,” don’t be shy about asking what is appropriate when it comes to tipping, or get online and do a little research before you leave. Again, this is another reason why I take small gifts from home to leave behind. (Plus then I have more room in my luggage for the little gifts I purchase during my travels.)
Finally, never, ever feel uncomfortable asking your tour operator about what is appropriate. I also ask if I’m out of line if I want to give more or less than is expected, as I truly believe that tipping has value. It’s my way of “voting with my pocketbook.”