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Tipping point? The traveller’s dilemma

Shelling out: a bill at a (very good) bar on the Camino from Santiago to Finisterre in Spain (Charlotte Hindle)
Shelling out: a bill at a (very good) bar on the Camino from Santiago to Finisterre in Spain (Charlotte Hindle)

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Occasionally, I am offered the odd £1 by way of thanks for assistance granted.

The circumstances are generally these: part of my duty is to cover chaos at railway stations, airports and ferry terminals, from bad weather to strikes; I wear a high-visibility jacket to cycle to the appropriate location; and on arrival, I am sometimes taken to be a member of station staff.

Should an older or less able lady or gentleman ask for help with awkward luggage, I naturally oblige. Once the errand is completed, sometimes the passenger may thrust a pound coin into my hand. I politely decline and suggest they drop the money into a charity box.

My earnings are not (yet) calculated to take into account gratuities – unlike those of many restaurant staff.

On Wednesday evening, I took my appetite to what turned out to be a disappointing restaurant for the first and last time. I won’t name it, because the principle is what counts. The venue had been highly recommended in a travel guidebook. As it was fairly late I ordered a starter and salad and settled back in the expectation of a gastronomic treat.

There comes a point when anticipation is displaced by annoyance. On this occasion, in what was only a lightly populated restaurant, that point was about half an hour after I had ordered.

“It’s next up,” I was assured. “Should be ready in a minute.”

Almost an hour after I had ordered, the dishes finally appeared. As it was late in the evening, I asked for the bill before I had tasted a mouthful, which is never an indicator of a great evening out.

Very tasty: the guidebook was right about that. I noted the bill added a 15 per cent service charge. As the delay indicated some failure of management rather than the waiter being at fault, I would not ask for it to be deducted. But I was certainly surprised when the waiter asked: “Would you like to leave a tip?”

After I related the experience in Thursday’s travel podcast, the response was swift: “Always ask for the service charge to be removed, regardless of the service,” urged Grahame. “If it’s been exceptionally good, then I tip them. I work on the basis that no one tips me for doing a good job. It’s expected.”

Colin told of a generous Christmas gift from his son: afternoon tea at a posh restaurant in Bath. But, he says: “They added an £8 service charge! For what? Two of us having something that had already been paid for?” He adds, parenthetically, “(I did leave a cash tip though)”.

“France got it right when they prohibited service charges many years ago,” declared Roger. “Tips are no longer expected. Good service can be rewarded at the customer’s discretion.”

Top travel writer Pat Yale chimed in with a Turkish perspective. In that country, she says: “Tipping used to be almost unknown, but now some restaurants automatically add it and, yes, sometimes it’s even 15 per cent.

“Personally, I reckon people should be paid properly for their work and that tipping should go.”

Laurence has a classy response to poor service: “When I had a similar experience in a London restaurant, eventually presented with a bill stating ‘Service Not Included’, I asked the waiter for a pen and wrote underneath: ‘We noticed’.”

Perhaps Robbie got closest to the truth: “As a Brit, I just can’t cause a fuss when the service charge is automatically added. I simply don’t go back to the restaurant.”

In my experience, British travellers may inadvertently cause a fuss by sticking rigidly to the principle that 10 per cent is appropriate in all circumstances.

You should never have a fixed percentage in France or elsewhere in continental Europe – and if you want to leave without tipping, that’s just fine. In many parts of the world, including much of Asia and Australia, there’s no tradition of tipping.

However, in America, if it moves, it probably expects a tip. Some waiting staff in the US are paid below minimum wage on the assumption that they will be rewarded by customers. Waiters expect a minimum of 18 per cent – however long the wait.

For more comments on the tipping debate, listen to the latest travel podcast for The Independent