On the Spot: Tips on tipping, and how to decide the currency


Question: We will be on a cruise and visiting 10 countries. Only four countries accept the euro. Can I tip tour guides and hotel staff with U.S. dollars?

J. Lesczynski

By email

Answer: Ah, tipping. At its heart, a wish to express thanks. At its core, the topic of angst, arguments and occasional public shaming (websites devote space to the lousiest celebrity tippers) among travelers and anyone else who has ever wondered, “Um, should I give this person a little extra money?”

Americans are particularly conflicted, but the practice didn’t begin with us. If you want to glare, many people focus on Britain.

“The most common belief is that in England during the 16th century, tipping became a way to ensure prompt service,” Sharon Fullen wrote in “The Complete Guide to Tips & Gratuities,” noting that “tips” may have derived from the first letters of “to insure prompt service.”

“Brass urns with signs stating ‘to insure promptitude’ could be found in coffeehouses … and eventually in pubs,” she wrote.

Or its source may be another country, Fullen noted.

Whatever country or language prompted the custom/habit/source of soul-searching, we know, thanks to Fullen and others, that tipping is a multimillion-dollar concern at home and even more so abroad.

“I think we feel such angst over tipping in foreign countries because our confusion about customs in different cultures takes on heightened importance in situations when we are concerned with treating other people fairly and with respect,” Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, N.Y., said in an email.

“We are right to be concerned,” Alaimo said.Studies show that how we treat other people when we travel has a profound influence on their views of the United States, which in turn affects everything from their livelihood to travel to our nation in the future to how highly they value products made in our country.”

OK, no pressure there.

Experts don’t always agree on how much to tip and, in this case, in what currency.

Alaimo noted that those who work in tourism are accustomed to “working with multiple currencies,” adding that overtipping to compensate for currency conversion rates would be appropriate.

April Masini, a relationship and etiquette expert who writes the “Ask April” advice column, said in an email: “It’s good etiquette to tip in the currency of the country in which you’re traveling. If you can do that, that’s your best bet.”

Mark Anderson, whose Adventure Vacations takes travelers around the globe, said in an email, “When the travel literature loudly proclaims that ‘Tips are an insult!’ what it really means is that they love to be insulted. Whether those insults take the form of dollars or euros, they will most certainly be appreciated.”

Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette and multicultural expert and author of the book “Access to Asia,” said in an email: “Use the currency of the country you will be visiting. Exchange U.S. dollars into the local currency of the destination country at your home bank prior to international departure.” And, she noted, “Watch the cruise ship TV channel for country-specific tipping information and follow [those] recommendations.”

You may also ask the concierge or purser’s desk.

By this show of hands, the answers are evenly divided, but on this topic I’d vote for tipping in the currency of the country and using dollars or euro as a fallback.

But note that none of the experts suggested not tipping.

We know that you’re already forking over big bucks to what seems like a small city on your ship. On some lines, you hand envelopes of cash to your cabin steward, your waiter, a bartender, the sommelier (if you use his or her services) and others.

On other lines, tips are totaled for you and added to the bill. On some luxury lines, tips are included in the cost of the cruise.

However it’s done, it can add up to as much as $16 or more per person per day, notes when you figure in shore excursions.

If you don’t want to tip because the service didn’t warrant it, don’t tip. But do the non-recipient a favor: Let someone know your displeasure is based on service, or lack thereof, and not stinginess.

Better to have people understand that your belief system doesn’t go on autopilot just because you’re on vacation.

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