Tipping appropriately in China

This item appears on page 28 of the February 2011 issue.
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FROM THE EDITOR — Several months ago, Kathy Wilhelm of Cary, North Carolina, wrote, “I was very surprised by the reader’s recommendation that others ‘be prepared to spend $300-$400 per person in tips, not including the tip to the tour director, on a smarTours trip to China (“Notes from Visit to China,” June ’10, pg. 48).

“China is a nontipping country! Traveling independently in China from late September to early November 2004 after two earlier visits with tour groups (Smithsonian and Intrepid), I occasionally tried to tip a taxi driver whom I felt had gone well beyond the norm, only to have the tip returned. I have read that tipping is described by the Chinese as a ‘stupid foreigner tax.’

“No doubt the tour company recommended that its clients tip.”

I contacted smarTours (New York, NY; 800/337-7773) and was told by a reservations agent that, actually, on an 18-day China tour, the total amount a tour member will pay in tips, including those to the tour director, will be about $200 per person.

How does that break down? SmarTours suggests that the tour director receive $6 per person per day; each city’s local guide, $3 per person per day, and the driver in each city, $2 per person per day. Group members tip collectively in each city. In addition, on itineraries that include a cruise on the Yangtze, an additional $40 for those four nights on the ship is recommended.

Of course, tipping amounts are just suggested; how much one tips depends on the level of service provided.

SmarTours does not advise leaving gratuities for others in the service industry in China, such as maids, waiters, taxi drivers, etc.

Eli Milbaur, Manager of smar­Tours, corroborated those guidelines and wrote, “This is in line with what we recommend for trips to other Asian destinations and is also taking into consideration the type of trip we offer (deluxe) and the comprehensive level of included services that clients receive.

“SmarTours handles tips to waiters and hotel room maids. Tour Directors may advise clients that if someone provides service above and beyond what is expected, they might leave that person a dollar.”

Mr. Milbaur continued: “The assertion that ‘China is a nontipping country’ is simply wrong. This may have been the case 20 years ago, and, regrettably, some guidebooks seem to be printing new editions without bothering to update some basic information, such as that on tipping.

“Over the past two decades and especially in the last 10 years, China has made tremendous progress in developing its tourism infrastructure, and today it is able to offer one of the finest travel experiences worldwide.

“At the same time, while the political system is still a one-party system, the economic system very much resembles a capitalist system and, as such, service providers expect and are accustomed to receiving gratuities when providing excellent service. The tipping expectations are not much different than what one would expect in the US or in Europe. The only possible exception is taxi drivers.

“We discourage overtipping but, at the same time, are surprised when some travelers who have been provided with good service avoid tipping, citing the ancient ‘nontipping’ policy. The vast majority of smarTours clients are delighted to reward service providers with the appropriate gratuities.”

I then wrote to two ITN advertisers who regularly offer tours to China and asked them a number of questions. Here is my exchange with David Peng of Asia Connect (Wayne, NJ; 800/803-3656):

Q: On the tours to China that your company operates, do you suggest that tour members give gratuities to your local guides and drivers in each location?

A: Yes, tour members should give the gratuities to the local guide and driver at the end of the visit in each city. In general, $3-$4 per person per day for the local guide and $2-$2.50 per person per day for the driver. However, it varies with group size.

Q: And to the main tour escort as well?

A: Yes, the national guide will get the gratuity at the end of the China trip, in general, $4-$5 per person per day. Again, it varies.

Q: What do you advise tour members regarding tipping people in the service industry in China, such as room maids, waiters in restaurants, taxi drivers, etc.?

A: Taxi drivers are not expecting tips; passengers just pay the fare based on the meter. There is no tipping for waiters in restaurants. In a hotel, if a bellboy delivers your luggage to your room, you should tip him around $1 per piece. For hotel maids, at the end of your stay, and using your own discretion, tip around $2 per day, just like in the States. On the Yangtze River, at the end of a cruise, passengers will receive a note from the ship regarding tipping crewmembers; however, that does not cover the tipping for the local guide and driver during each shore excursion.

Dave Bruels of Interlake China Tours (Seattle, WA; 206/368-9074), who took his 51st trip to China in November 2010, wrote, “I mostly organize private tours — groups of two to five people using only local guides — but do have some larger tours for organizations.”

He continued: “Before about 1993, there used to be signs in hotels that simply read, ‘No tipping allowed.’ Guidebooks also mentioned this. Today there is an automatic 10%-15% service charge added to bills at hotels and restaurants, so, indeed, there is ‘no tipping’ needed in hotels or restaurants.

“The exception is the bellboy who takes your luggage to or from your room. For one or two suitcases, perhaps 10 or 20 yuan (about $1.50 to $3) is sufficient. Doormen need not be tipped.

“For maids in hotels, we often leave the petty coins or some special little gift, like some American candy, but it is not expected or necessary. A tip might be given for some special service, and even then it’s only left in the room.

“In restaurants, tipping is not necessary. If you do leave a tip for a waiter or waitress, he or she is required to give it to the owner!

“Taxi drivers in China make a very good living. In 2002 the government reduced taxi fares, as drivers each were making as much money as senior government officials.

“It is not necessary to tip a taxi driver except to round out the fare to the nearest yuan or close to it, which is just pennies. If an express road is used to the airport or a toll road is used, the cost of the toll will be added to the taxi fare. In most large cities, a short taxi ride of fewer than four kilometers costs about 10 yuan.

“Local tour guides in China each are paid a small salary and then depend on tips from the travelers they serve. Keep in mind that it is a seasonal business, so they must do well during the season in order to be attracted to that position. Also, they may not have a tour every day.

“The price breaks for tours are based on groups of two to five; six to nine, and 10-plus.

“For two to five people, the tip from the entire group to each local guide should be about $15 per day in large cities (where the cost of living is much higher) and $10 a day in smaller towns.

“The tip to the driver should be about half of that, or about $7 per day from the whole group (not per person). However, if he is required to drive all day in the countryside rather than in a city (where most of the time he is just waiting), then his tip should be about the same as the guide’s.

“For six to nine people, the tip from the group to each local guide should be about $30 per day and to the driver about half that.

“For a group of 10 or more people, the tip for each local guide should be about $4 per person per day (because a group can have as many as 35 people).

“In addition, a group of 10 or more usually is accompanied 24/7 by a national guide, who usually is tipped at the end of the tour. For a national guide, the tip amount can vary, depending on the tour’s length, but for 15 to 17 days it should be $25 to $50 per person. (I have never suggested a specific amount for national guides, but my Chinese associates tell me that, for a two-week tour, a national guide likes to get at least $600.) Of course, you could pay more if you feel you had exceptional service or less if you feel you were not given the service you expected.

“For groups of 10 or more people, the driver’s tip should be about $2 per person per day.

“On the last day that you will see a driver, tips should be put in an envelope and simply handed to him as you depart at the airport or train station. Transferring you from or to the airport is not considered a full day, of course, and no tip is necessary for just a portion of a day.

“Also, I suggest to members of private tours that when they first meet a local guide, if they do not want to be taken to shopping stops they should advise him of that and say that if they are required to stop at retail shops, then he will not receive any tip.

“Foreigners have caused some problems by overtipping. For just taking him to the airport, a wealthy client of mine once gave a guide and driver a 100-dollar bill to split between them. This can lead to their thinking that others will do the same, and so sometimes a traveler’s modest tip becomes a disappointment.”

I hope the above guidelines prove helpful. — DT

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FROM THE EDITOR — Several months ago, Kathy Wilhelm of Cary, North Carolina, wrote, “I was very surprised by the reader’s recommendation that others ‘be prepared to spend $300-$400 per person in tips, not including the tip to the tour director, on a smarTours trip to China (“Notes from Visit to China,” June ’10, pg. 48).

“China is a nontipping country! Traveling independently in China from late September to early November 2004 after two earlier visits with tour groups (Smithsonian and Intrepid), I occasionally tried to tip a taxi driver whom I felt had gone well beyond the norm, only to have the tip returned. I have read that tipping is described by the Chinese as a ‘stupid foreigner tax.’

“No doubt the tour company recommended that its clients tip.”

I contacted smarTours (New York, NY; 800/337-7773) and was told by a reservations agent that, actually, on an 18-day China tour, the total amount a tour member will pay in tips, including those to the tour director, will be about $200 per person.

How does that break down? SmarTours suggests that the tour director receive $6 per person per day; each city’s local guide, $3 per person per day, and the driver in each city, $2 per person per day. Group members tip collectively in each city. In addition, on itineraries that include a cruise on the Yangtze, an additional $40 for those four nights on the ship is recommended.

Of course, tipping amounts are just suggested; how much one tips depends on the level of service provided.

SmarTours does not advise leaving gratuities for others in the service industry in China, such as maids, waiters, taxi drivers, etc.

Eli Milbaur, Manager of smar­Tours, corroborated those guidelines and wrote, “This is in line with what we recommend for trips to other Asian destinations and is also taking into consideration the type of trip we offer (deluxe) and the comprehensive level of included services that clients receive.

“SmarTours handles tips to waiters and hotel room maids. Tour Directors may advise clients that if someone provides service above and beyond what is expected, they might leave that person a dollar.”

Mr. Milbaur continued: “The assertion that ‘China is a nontipping country’ is simply wrong. This may have been the case 20 years ago, and, regrettably, some guidebooks seem to be printing new editions without bothering to update some basic information, such as that on tipping.

“Over the past two decades and especially in the last 10 years, China has made tremendous progress in developing its tourism infrastructure, and today it is able to offer one of the finest travel experiences worldwide.

“At the same time, while the political system is still a one-party system, the economic system very much resembles a capitalist system and, as such, service providers expect and are accustomed to receiving gratuities when providing excellent service. The tipping expectations are not much different than what one would expect in the US or in Europe. The only possible exception is taxi drivers.

“We discourage overtipping but, at the same time, are surprised when some travelers who have been provided with good service avoid tipping, citing the ancient ‘nontipping’ policy. The vast majority of smarTours clients are delighted to reward service providers with the appropriate gratuities.”

I then wrote to two ITN advertisers who regularly offer tours to China and asked them a number of questions. Here is my exchange with David Peng of Asia Connect (Wayne, NJ; 800/803-3656):

Q: On the tours to China that your company operates, do you suggest that tour members give gratuities to your local guides and drivers in each location?

A: Yes, tour members should give the gratuities to the local guide and driver at the end of the visit in each city. In general, $3-$4 per person per day for the local guide and $2-$2.50 per person per day for the driver. However, it varies with group size.

Q: And to the main tour escort as well?

A: Yes, the national guide will get the gratuity at the end of the China trip, in general, $4-$5 per person per day. Again, it varies.

Q: What do you advise tour members regarding tipping people in the service industry in China, such as room maids, waiters in restaurants, taxi drivers, etc.?

A: Taxi drivers are not expecting tips; passengers just pay the fare based on the meter. There is no tipping for waiters in restaurants. In a hotel, if a bellboy delivers your luggage to your room, you should tip him around $1 per piece. For hotel maids, at the end of your stay, and using your own discretion, tip around $2 per day, just like in the States. On the Yangtze River, at the end of a cruise, passengers will receive a note from the ship regarding tipping crewmembers; however, that does not cover the tipping for the local guide and driver during each shore excursion.

Dave Bruels of Interlake China Tours (Seattle, WA; 206/368-9074), who took his 51st trip to China in November 2010, wrote, “I mostly organize private tours — groups of two to five people using only local guides — but do have some larger tours for organizations.”

He continued: “Before about 1993, there used to be signs in hotels that simply read, ‘No tipping allowed.’ Guidebooks also mentioned this. Today there is an automatic 10%-15% service charge added to bills at hotels and restaurants, so, indeed, there is ‘no tipping’ needed in hotels or restaurants.

“The exception is the bellboy who takes your luggage to or from your room. For one or two suitcases, perhaps 10 or 20 yuan (about $1.50 to $3) is sufficient. Doormen need not be tipped.

“For maids in hotels, we often leave the petty coins or some special little gift, like some American candy, but it is not expected or necessary. A tip might be given for some special service, and even then it’s only left in the room.

“In restaurants, tipping is not necessary. If you do leave a tip for a waiter or waitress, he or she is required to give it to the owner!

“Taxi drivers in China make a very good living. In 2002 the government reduced taxi fares, as drivers each were making as much money as senior government officials.

“It is not necessary to tip a taxi driver except to round out the fare to the nearest yuan or close to it, which is just pennies. If an express road is used to the airport or a toll road is used, the cost of the toll will be added to the taxi fare. In most large cities, a short taxi ride of fewer than four kilometers costs about 10 yuan.

“Local tour guides in China each are paid a small salary and then depend on tips from the travelers they serve. Keep in mind that it is a seasonal business, so they must do well during the season in order to be attracted to that position. Also, they may not have a tour every day.

“The price breaks for tours are based on groups of two to five; six to nine, and 10-plus.

“For two to five people, the tip from the entire group to each local guide should be about $15 per day in large cities (where the cost of living is much higher) and $10 a day in smaller towns.

“The tip to the driver should be about half of that, or about $7 per day from the whole group (not per person). However, if he is required to drive all day in the countryside rather than in a city (where most of the time he is just waiting), then his tip should be about the same as the guide’s.

“For six to nine people, the tip from the group to each local guide should be about $30 per day and to the driver about half that.

“For a group of 10 or more people, the tip for each local guide should be about $4 per person per day (because a group can have as many as 35 people).

“In addition, a group of 10 or more usually is accompanied 24/7 by a national guide, who usually is tipped at the end of the tour. For a national guide, the tip amount can vary, depending on the tour’s length, but for 15 to 17 days it should be $25 to $50 per person. (I have never suggested a specific amount for national guides, but my Chinese associates tell me that, for a two-week tour, a national guide likes to get at least $600.) Of course, you could pay more if you feel you had exceptional service or less if you feel you were not given the service you expected.

“For groups of 10 or more people, the driver’s tip should be about $2 per person per day.

“On the last day that you will see a driver, tips should be put in an envelope and simply handed to him as you depart at the airport or train station. Transferring you from or to the airport is not considered a full day, of course, and no tip is necessary for just a portion of a day.

“Also, I suggest to members of private tours that when they first meet a local guide, if they do not want to be taken to shopping stops they should advise him of that and say that if they are required to stop at retail shops, then he will not receive any tip.

“Foreigners have caused some problems by overtipping. For just taking him to the airport, a wealthy client of mine once gave a guide and driver a 100-dollar bill to split between them. This can lead to their thinking that others will do the same, and so sometimes a traveler’s modest tip becomes a disappointment.”

I hope the above guidelines prove helpful. — DT