How much to tip on tours

Richard E. Smith of Long Beach, California, opened up the topic of tipping on tours (April ’07, 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.

This topic has drawn one of the biggest responses ever among ITN readers. Among those who specified, 74% would like gratuities to be included in the cost of the tour and 26% prefer the option to tip individually chosen amounts. Read some of their comments in the July and August issues. Here are a few more. Care to add something? Write to How Much To Tip on Tours?, c/o ITN, 2116 28th St., Sacramento, CA 95818, or e-mail editor@ (please include the address at which you receive ITN). When possible, include which tour company you traveled with, which countries you visited and when (month/year) each tour took place. (Remember, ITN prints no information about destinations in North America or the Caribbean.) Photos are welcome.

Richard E. Smith’s saga of tipping on his Overseas Adventure Travel tour to Central America immediately set the bells ringing in this household.

My husband and I are stalwart Elderhostel (Boston, MA; 877/426-8056, travelers, when we’re not on our own. Tipping on Elderhostel trips — at least on the domestic and international ones we’ve taken — simply doesn’t happen.

Three years ago, however, we took a Rhine River trip and were introduced to the practice. Our small group, part of a much larger one, was organized by the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and I can’t recall the tour operator, but suddenly we were expected to tip. We didn’t like the practice AT ALL!

First of all, we were not prepared for daily tipping and had to scramble to find money in appropriate small denominations for the purpose.

Secondly, the guides we had on shore excursions were well-educated people, sometimes a retired professor or a local historian. We felt their pain as each had to stand at the bottom of the coach steps, hand outstretched like a common beggar, waiting for tips. How demeaning! Why couldn’t the tour operator simply add in a top-off surcharge to each trip’s cost to cover this expense? In that way, the guide could be assured of a fair and regular pay packet.

After a few Elderhostel and independent trips, we fell for a Danube River tour with Grand Circle Travel (Boston, MA; 800/248-3737, in 2006. It was our first time with GCT. We were not told about the tipping practice until after we had signed up and paid our money for the tour.

We were surprised by the tipping amounts suggested — not as high as those for GCT’s sister organization, Overseas Adventure Travel (Cambridge, MA; 800/221-0814,, but nevertheless difficult to manage. We were directed to bring U.S. dollars, since we were touching on multiple countries, each with a different currency (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary). That’s a huge wad of dollars to be carting around or locking in your cabin on the ship.

Before shore trips, we would be told how much we were expected to tip the bus driver and the guide for half-day or full-day service. Again, we found the whole tipping process offensive for both the recipient and us. Again, why could not this targeted amount be included in the overall cost of the trip so drivers and guides could be paid a living wage?

Bless Elderhostel!

Peggy Zeigler

San Francisco, CA

I think we have forgotten what a tip is supposed to be for.

A tip is a reward for the quality of service received!

A tip is NOT intended to. . .

• supplement servers’ pay. Their pay should be based on what the employer determines their value to his company is; it should not be based on any anticipated supplemental tips. The tip is a reward above and beyond their base pay.

• be included in the price a customer pays for the services he is buying. Not only does this raise the price of the service, it does not allow the customer to decide what the various services were worth to him.

• be uniformly applied to all services. A suggested tip is nothing more than a recommendation from the service provider. Some services are worth much less than the suggested tip; some services are worth much more. The amount of the tip can vary from one customer to another, depending on the quality of the services each receives.

We have been on 10 Grand Circle Travel tours (nine GCT and one OAT) during the past seven years. Our latest tour was to Malta/Sicily in February ’07. Overall, the quality of the services provided on these tours has been very good.

But an example of the difference between services provided came on this last tour. The Program Director in Malta was excellent! He knew what he was doing and took very good care of the 43 tour members in his charge. On the other hand, the P.D. in Sicily apparently had been on the job too long and was very callous, in our opinion. She had trouble working with the 16 in her charge.

Our tip did not follow the recommended amount in either case.

Rog & Joan Matthews

Ada, MI

On group tours to China 20 years ago, we used to tip $2 per day for the guide and half that amount for the driver. Since then, the living standard has risen and the exchange value of the U.S. dollar has lowered, thus an adjustment is more than fair.

The amounts I give for tips in China depend on the size of the group:

Group size Guide Driver

2 persons $10 per person $5 pp

3 to 8 $6 $3

9 to 15 $4 $2

16 and up $3 $1.50

Cruise ships have their suggestions: shore excursion guide, $2 per person, and driver, $1 per person.

Hotel bellboys, $1 per room for delivery and $1 per room for loading during checkout.

Of course, good and extra service deserves more. Tips can be in U.S. dollars or Chinese yuan.

I obtain envelopes from the hotel. I mark one “Guide” and another, “Driver.” One envelope for a group is sufficient, unless someone wants to tip individually.

C.F. Kwok, Special Travel Consultant, Annandale, VA

Since my retirement, my “job” has been to enjoy life, and that has included as much traveling as time and money permit. I have, as such, taken tours with various companies, all of which, to the best of my recollection, have had suggested tipping guidelines.

Because the job of tour manager, tour leader, program director or whatever term you would like to use can often be seasonal, I am well aware that some of these people will need to use these tips to “exist” during the times of year when they are not escorting tours — unless, of course, they have other jobs to support themselves.

I have had the good fortune of having had some truly exceptional tour guides, but I also have had a few less-than-stellar ones. One who was very mediocre stands out, and I had a “discussion” with another woman who had decided not to tip this man at all, something with which I disagreed. In this particular case, I tipped him the absolute minimum recommended by the company, but I did tip him.

I have had some wonderful bus drivers who went “beyond the call of duty” and I tipped them more than the suggested amount. In general, I usually tip within the guidelines suggested, adjusting the amount to what I feel each person deserves.

I would much prefer for all tipping, with the possible exception of the tour leader’s tip, to be included in the trip’s price, even if that necessitates a higher price for the trip. It can often be somewhat of a hassle, for lack of a better word, to make sure that one always has smaller bills on hand to tip the others deserving/expecting a tip.

I would like to comment on another aspect of this topic. Because I generally travel by myself, I pay the single supplement, which can be quite costly. Therefore, I take issue with those who travel as a couple but do not tip the suggested amount per person. It seems, to me, if you can afford to travel, you can afford to tip, and whatever you would tip for both of you as two separate “entities” is far less than what I have to pay as a single supplement.

Also, having traveled with OAT, I concur with those who mentioned that their suggested tipping is higher to “compensate” for the small group*, so that their leaders end up with approximately the same amount as someone with 30-plus tour participants. There are, of course, numerous advantages to small-group travel, and I have always been more than willing to pay that gratuity differential.

Thank you, Mr. Smith, for creating this interesting and thought-provoking topic.

Donna Seymour

Arlington, VA

*On land tours, worldwide, OAT, with a maximum group size of 16, suggests tipping the Trip Leader $7-$10 per person per day; GCT, with some groups up to 45, suggests $4-$6 per person per day. This info is not on the websites but is mailed two weeks prior to departure.

I do tip but only because, under the present system, it’s expected. However, I don’t necessarily follow the guidelines. On cruises, for example, I will not tip the headwaiter, the maitre d’. He’s the boss. He isn’t entitled to tips. I much prefer those cruises where, if tipping is expected, it is added to the bill according to a schedule specified by the cruise line.

I also will tip on tours but, again, only because it is expected. The amount of my tip depends on the effort I believe those concerned put forth to please me — which, incidentally, brings out one of the evils of the system: those who traditionally are big tippers are, over the long run, favored by those who serve them.

However, my purpose in writing is to condemn the practice of tipping. It should be abolished. It passes on to the customer, so to speak, the obligation of the employer.

I strongly believe that the wages of every employee should be raised by an amount at least equivalent to the estimate of the total tips each would receive were the recommended guidelines followed. To meet this increased legitimate business expense, the company should raise the cost of the tour, the cruise or the trip accordingly.

Customers should be strongly discouraged from tipping, and it should be pointed out to them that, in fact, the trips are not costing them any more than in the past because now every expense is included. The price charged those who expect better accommodations and more luxurious service (in other words, the former big tippers) will be higher than that charged to others on tours with lesser accommodations. There’s nothing wrong with that. After all, some people travel by train in coach and others use the Pullman.

Admittedly, one argument for tipping is that it encourages the employee to put forth his best effort, since the size of the tip probably depends on it. However, each person has his own idea as to the appropriate amount of a tip and whom should be given a gratuity. If only the employer is responsible for the entire compensation of each employee, everyone will be fairly paid for the work done and, of course, those who do not properly perform their duties will be discharged.

I’ve done a lot of traveling in my lifetime. There are countries where tipping is not practiced. I have never noticed poorer service in those places.

Walter B. Grimes

Arlington, VA

While I believe that tipping should always be in relation to the service provided, I think knowing what someone is paid does affect the size of the tip.

Everyone knows that waiters in the U.S. are paid very little, that their actual earned income is definitely dependent on the tips they receive, so Americans are very generous tippers, by international standards. The IRS taxes wait staff on a certain percentage of the restaurant’s gross, working on the assumption that the staff are tipped.

When it comes to international situations, things are not always so clear. Perhaps you are traveling with an American company which has local guides. Use the American standard? Use the local standard? Follow the “recommendation” of the company? Compound that with a situation where you are a member of a group led by a “distinguished scholar.”

I recently contacted a tour company which was looking for a distinguished scholar to lead a trip to a North African country. The friend I recommended speaks French, Berber, Arabic and English. He has taught at Harvard, had two books published on history and writes regularly for the Boston Globe. The leaders of the other tours offered by this company are professors from U.C. Berkeley, archaeologists at museums, etc.

What would you guess the salary of this person would be as a tour guide? Keep in mind that this is the person who handles all the day-to-day arrangements and any emergencies that might come up and informs the group about the culture and history of the country. He meets you in New York and flies back with you. If you are unhappy with your hotel room, he mediates for you with the hotel. If you run out of medicine, he is there to help you. He will lose sleep while your problems are being resolved. What is this person worth?

$50 per day is the salary. For all that these leaders do, it is astounding that anyone would work for this pittance.

When you consider what to tip your tour leader, remember to consider what they may be getting paid.

Oh, my Berber friend turned down the job.

Mary Lou Malphus

Santa Monica, CA

Regarding the four questions posed by Richard E. Smith about tipping on tours, I would like to add my personal comments.

1) Should the cost of tipping be included in the tour price?

On the surface this sounds appropriate, but doing so does raise the cost of the trip.

Also, in my opinion, the tip is not an automatically incurred cost but is for excellent service; the valuation may be different for each traveler. If the service is poor or mediocre, one should tip accordingly (and not necessarily the same amount as other tour members).

2) Should there be an existing standard for tipping adhered to by most tour companies?

In my opinion, definitely not! Different companies provide different levels of service plus leaders/guides of different types and different levels of quality. I’ve traveled with Australian and British adventure companies which frown on tipping at all, as they believe that their leaders are well compensated to begin with and, furthermore, they do not expect tips.

3) Should an escrow tipping account be established for each traveler?

I personally do not approve of this practice. Again, tipping is based on a personal subjective evaluation.

4) Should travel companies advise of their tipping recommendations in ads?

No. Many companies do provide tipping guidelines, however. This call is up to the individual company. Overseas Adventure Travel is a prime example of one that does. I personally believe that OAT’s recommendations are a little on the high side; I’ve been on two OAT trips and hardly anyone tipped over $5 a day to the tour leader and $3 a day to the driver. On the other hand, OAT’s land trips are limited to 10 to 16 travelers, so perhaps a higher tip recommendation is therefore justified.

I’ve also been on a trip with smarTours (New York, NY; 800/337-7773, where some travelers tipped absolutely nothing for a 16-day trip and others presented a token $10 for the entire trip as the leader’s service was so poor. In fact, several travelers wrote to the owner and recommended that this particular leader be “fired.” This was an exception, as most smarTours leaders are excellent to outstanding.

I do approve of the policy of Adventures Abroad (Blaine, WA; 800/665-3998, www.adventuresabroad. travel) of including all tips except that of the tour leader. This has never caused any degradation of service on any of their trips in which I’ve participated.

It should be noted that most companies utilize independent contractors as their leaders and, as such, these people are adequately compensated for their services. This was not the case 25 to 30 years ago when basic compensation was relatively low and tips were needed to make the work worthwhile.

When some individual personal services are provided, I definitely tip more than $5 per day but rarely otherwise.

On one occasion on the island of Rhodes, I erred at an ATM machine and mistakenly obtained $980, not $98, worth of Greek cash, which I was not able to exchange easily in western Turkey where we went the next day. My guide took the money and over a period of a week was able to get most of it exchanged for me. In addition, at the island of Santorini she was able to locate some misplaced keys left on a boat that had already left the terminal. These additional personal services deserved a substantially higher tip, and it was happily presented.

My personal recommendations for tips based on outstanding service are as follows:

Tour leader/guide, $5 per day (more if some personal or exceptional service is rendered and less for mediocre service).

Driver, $3-$4 per day.

Local guides, $1-$2 per half day.

Housekeeping, $1 per night.

I agree with previous writers about the nondesirability of having a tip pool with one collector for the group. When a tip pool is established or there is one collector, the “cheap Charlies” seem to avoid tipping altogether or contribute far less than the norm. In these cases, the overall pool is low and the leader gets shortchanged by the entire group and not just the cheapskates! I usually bring empty envelopes with me and place my tip as well as a note inside and present it personally to the leader and driver.

In almost all countries, U.S. dollars as tips present no significant problems, as they can be exchanged for local currency easily by those working in the travel industry. Along with or as part of my tip, I also include any remaining local currency which I was unable to spend.

What others do in regard to tour guide tipping is of little concern to me. I tip high or low based on the guide’s level of overall service, knowledge of the area, skill in handling people and problems, communications abilities and exemplary personal involvement.

Edward Lifset

Oceanside, CA

The cost of tipping should be included in the tour price.

I have taken several trips with the Stanford University Alumni Association (Frances C. Arrillaga Alumni Center, 326 Galvez St., Stanford, CA 94305; 650/725-1093, — not necessary to be an alumni to travel). These have included a “3-country walk” (Germany, Austria and Italy) in 1994; China in 1997, and Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand in 2004. All of these trips were priced to include all gratuities.

Including the gratuities sometimes makes a trip appear to be more costly than alternative trips, but it really isn’t when tipping is taken into account. This is the system I really prefer.

Harold Mozer

Bellevue, WA

In the last 10 years we have traveled about twice a year to Europe, Asia, Africa and/or South America, each time with one of about nine different small-group preorganized tours. The cost of each trip varied widely from the others, depending on the destination and the comfort level of the trip.

One thing the tours had in common — everyone expected a tip, whether his or her service was ordinary, extraordinary or even unacceptable. Further, it was very annoying that, in nearly every case, the tipping amounts suggested by the company’s brochure never corresponded with the amounts suggested by the personnel on location, and as we neared the end of the trip the latter became substantially higher.

Frankly, it irritates me to be “required” to tip as a matter of course rather than voluntarily for someone’s outstanding service. Ordinary services on a tour should be paid for by the provider and included in the up-front cost of the trip.

The tour operator is well aware of how many bus drivers, assistants, day guides and other providers are going to be providing services to the tour group. The operator also knows full well how many days the “trip guide” will be with the group and pays them accordingly. Why then should everyone have to “tip” for expected services?

There are, of course, exceptions, and when any of these persons provides an extra or exceptional service to an individual or the group, he or she is entitled to and should receive tips from those to whom the extra services were provided.

I believe that if the personnel know that they are entitled to tips regardless of the quality or extent of the service, there is no incentive to ever provide services above the very ordinary — and that ordinary service is, again, what I at the least expect to receive for the price I paid to the tour operator.

Another thing that “bugs” me is the so-called “local payment.” We are told, in the language normally used, ‘It is put toward local expenses, reduces the need to transfer funds and lowers our costs, allowing us to pass the savings on to you.’

What savings? No one has ever been able to actually tell me to whom the money is paid or how it benefits the traveler. Is it just a fancy and hidden way of saying that the tour price is really greater than advertised? It, too, should be included in the advertised price of the trip, so we know the total cost at the outset.

I would gladly pay a slightly higher set price for the trip if I knew tips as well as the “local payment” were included.

Robert L. Bletcher

Santa Barbara, CA

Dirty little secret? From what I can gather, and I have asked in a number of instances, the included tipping on group tours does not include tips for the hardworking chambermaids!

Have others asked about this? And, if true, isn’t it about time that tour companies included these ladies in the pool on tours which are promoted as having “all tips included” or something of that order?

Madeleine Grant

Wellesley Hills, MA

I use the tipping guidelines from the tour company but only as a guideline. I have tipped more and sometimes less than the recommended amount.

On a trip a few years ago the guide was terrible but the driver was wonderful, so I switched the tips and gave the guide the lowest tip recommended for the driver and the driver the highest amount recommended for the guide.

It would certainly be nice if all tips were included except for that to the guide.

On another point, I would like to know what other people do when, on a tour, there are optional tours that you choose not to take. Do you tip the guide the full per-day amount for all the days of the tour or do you subtract those days on which you were not with the guide?

I’ve always used the rule that if the guides go out of their way to recommend things I can do on my free days, then I’ll tip them, but if I don’t see them or they don’t do anything for me, then I subtract those days.

I would love to hear what other people do.

Ila Roudebush

Sparks, NV

My thoughts have always been to have the companies pay guides and service personnel a proper wage. Add that extra cost into the cruise or tour price and do away with tipping altogether.

There is such a wide variation in cultural standards and personal feelings, it is impossible to have any guidelines that are fair at all.

Harry Pearson

Cape Canaveral, FL

My travel (tip) philosophy is let the good times roll and share the wealth. The OAT tip guidelines work fine, for me, and with the dollar in the toilet I add a little to those amounts before converting to the local currency.

On my November ’06 India tour with OAT, I felt like my guide, Gopal, and I really connected, so I suggested that if he had enough money for a ticket to the U.S., I would pay all his expenses for a 5-week tour of all of the Western U.S.

We finished our tour — including 11 national parks — on June 23, and it was a great trip for both of us. We both feel like we have become lifetime metras (“friends,” in Hindi).

So, on a tour, if you see someone overtipping a student waitress or a cab driver with four children or buying 25 ice cream bars for the local children, that’s just me. A year later, I bet some of those kids still remember that fat old American.

John Brangwin

Bellevue, WA