Gratuities ARE Appreciated

Some comments about tipping in America.

As some readers know, I’m currently up in Page, AZ doing photo flights and charter flights with my helicopter. American Aviation, which runs a tour operation here with airplanes, is booking my flights. I’m living in a local campground, right next door to two American pilots. And since I see many of the pilots any day I’ve got a flight, I’ve come to know them.

One of the things that all the pilots talk about once in a while is tipping — or lack thereof. And although I suspected it, I soon learned firsthand that European tourists don’t generally tip.

For those of you in other countries reading this post, an explanation may be in order. In fact, that’s what this whole post is about.

Who We Tip

Tipping is a way of life in America. I don’t know if this is good or bad — I’ve lived here my whole life, so it seems natural to me. We tip waitresses/waiters/servers (whatever term applies) in restaurants. We tip cabbies. We tip skycaps — if we need them; wheelie bags are quickly replacing them. We tip tour guides. We also tip free shuttle drivers, airport line guys, and of course, helpful bellmen (when we can find one).

Americans generally tip anyone who provides service that’s even slightly above and beyond what’s expected, and lots of folks will even tip people who certainly don’t deserve a tip.

Some of us also tip tour guides. I do. When I take a guided tour, when the tour is over, I hand over some cash to the guide. I also tip pilots for air tours.

How Much To Tip

In the U.S. the standard “minimum” tip is about 15% of the total bill when you’re in a restaurant. So if you’re having a fine dinner out with some friends and the bill comes to $100, you really need to be prepared to pay an extra $15 to tip your server. In general, Americans tend to tip servers anywhere from 10% to 25%. I’m usually a big tipper and lean toward 20%. But if service sucks, I’ll let my server know by being a stingy tipper. I even stiffed a waitress recently — something I’ve never done before — because of the treatment she gave us when we sent our breakfasts back to the kitchen so they could finish cooking the eggs.

If you go to a restaurant with a large group of people — 6 or 8 or more — it’s common for the restaurant to add an 18% gratuity to your bill. If you’re not sure if it has been added, look carefully at the bill. Although you can tip more if you like, you probably won’t want to go another 15% on top of that.

The thing about restaurant servers is that they don’t make a lot of money without tips. In fact, I’m pretty sure they make less than minimum wage — around $7/hour these days, I think — in a lot of restaurants. They literally depend on tip income to get by. So when they serve a party of foreigners who don’t know how to tip and they get stiffed, they’re not very happy — especially if they didn’t do anything wrong.

I usually follow the same restaurant percentage rule for cabbies. I tip tour guides based on the length of the tour, the quality of the tour narrative, and the cost of the tour. I have no set formula. For example, I recently took a $35, 3-1/2 hour tour of Monument Valley and tipped the guide $20. I thought she was worth it.

Air Tour Pilots

The guys who fly tours don’t make a lot of money. In fact, they often earn less money they they could stocking shelves and wearing an orange apron in a Home Depot. Most of these guys are young and don’t have families to support. They’re starting their careers. They’re not flying for the money. They’re flying to gain experience and build time so they qualify for better jobs where they can actually earn enough money to really live on.

In other words, they’re paying their dues.

Most of them do a good job. They fly safely and, when language is not a barrier, point out the sights of interest to their passengers. They’ve had a lot of flight training and they’ve been tested many times to make sure they know what they’re doing. A few of them can get a little rambunctious, especially on a slow day or a day near the end of the tour season. But that’s usually because they’re bored and ready to move on to something more challenging.

Gratuities Are Appreciated!

Tipping tour pilots is entirely a personal matter. It’s a way to say “thank you.” While saying “Thank you” in words — in whatever language you speak — is a nice thing, handing over a few bucks for the pilot to buy a beer at the end of the day or a latte early the next morning is a lot nicer.

To encourage tipping among people who might not be sure it’s acceptable, the pilots here have small placards they’ve posted in their airplanes. They look like this:

Gratuities are appreciated.
Des pourboires sont appréciés.
I gratuities sono apprezzati.
Se aprecian las propinas.
Trinkgeld sind wilkommen.

I don’t know if the grammar or spelling is right and would definitely appreciate any corrections that a reader can provide.

imageIt’s funny. The guys get everything from pocket change — literally! — to $20 bills. We laugh about the change, especially when it includes pennies. If an American tipped like that, we’d know he was insulting us on purpose. But when a European does it, we know it’s because he just doesn’t know any better.

The first week I flew here, I got a $2 tip from extremely enthusiastic passengers who had spent $900 for the flight. But the next day, on the same sort of flight, I got $50. (Go figure, huh?) Today, after five flights, I’m still tipless. The odd thing is, it doesn’t matter how much you talk to the passengers or make a special effort to position the aircraft so they get the perfect picture. Either they’re tippers or they’re not. Today, mine were not.

What’s Reasonable?

imageWith the dollar amounts ranging so wildly, a tourist from a non-tipping society might be wondering what’s a reasonable tip for a tour pilot. Here’s what I think. For one of these 30-minute flights the guys are doing, I think $5 per passenger would be a reasonable minimum tip. That’s less than 5% of the cost of the flight. $10 per person would be extremely welcome. Anything more than that would give the pilot bragging rights back in the pilot lounge between flights — which isn’t such a bad thing, either.

The more passengers the aircraft can hold, the more tips the pilot can earn per flight. One guy who flies a 172 does very poorly because he can only take three passengers. I can also take just three. I think the rest of the guys should be buying us drinks at the end of the day.

Of course, I’m not suggesting you tip for bad service. Rude people who can’t give you the respect you deserve don’t deserve your respect, either. Just remember that it isn’t the tour desk conducting your flight. It’s a highly trained, professional pilot — who is likely still paying off the loans he needed to learn how to fly.

That’s the Way It Is

Right now, with the U.S. dollar being so weak, the U.S. is a real bargain for European tourists. But for the people who serve those tourists in restaurants, on tours, etc., it’s not quite as appealing. Many of these people depend on gratuities for their work to make their lives a little better. It’s disappointing to them when the extra cash doesn’t add up at the end of the day.

11 thoughts on “Gratuities ARE Appreciated

  1. Thanks Maria – an interesting and useful post.

    I live in New Zealand, a country where we don’t tip, but am hoping to travel soon to Hawai’i for a short visit. The whole issue of tipping has been on my mind: how much? When? What for?

    For me it feels weird, embarrassing, and somehow wrong – because we don’t do it here.

    Perhaps it’s the cash thing – I have sometimes given a small gift of chocolates or something when someone I’ve paid for a service has gone out of their way to provide specially good service. The value of the gift wouldn’t be anything like 15% of the total cost though.

    I can see the incentive value of tips for good service, but it seems wrong that anyone should be paid less than the minimum wage for their work.

    All very interesting. Thanks.

    Miraz Jordans last blog post..Trip to Hawai’i – the Visitor’s Visa

  2. I’m also embarrassed when I give a tip anywhere other than in a restaurant or at the end of a cab ride. In both of those instances, I’m paying for service anyway, so I just add a bit more and hand it over with a phrase like “No change necessary” or “The rest is for you.”

    When I tip a tour guide, airport line guy, etc. — someone I’m not handing money to anyway — I always prepare it in advance, fold it up into a little bundle, and hand it over at last contact, saying something like, “Thanks very much. This is for you.” Sometimes the recipient is embarrassed and I realize that he/she doesn’t get tips very often (or at all).

    I remember the first time I got a tip. It felt weird. But at the same time, I realized that it was kind of special because it wasn’t expected. The person tipped me because he did appreciate my work — not because he had to tip me.

    Anyway, in your travels, the only tips you really are expected to hand over in the U.S. are for restaurant servers (one tip for service) and one-on-one transportation (cab drivers, bike shuttles, etc.). 15% covers it nicely, although you can probably go lower for the cab driver.

    Other tips are optional. But if you get great service from someone whose job it is to serve you, handing over a few bucks folded up small might make his day. It sure cheers up the tour pilots around Page.

    When I travel, I always have a collection of small bills — singles, fives, and tens — on hand for tipping and for making exact change when necessary.

  3. Wow, Maria, you know the way it is….

    I was a Jeep tour guide at Pink Jeep Tours in Sedona for 16 years as well as the Guide trainer, 4×4 trainer, and guide manager during my last ten years.

    We actually created a team to investigate and develop a better tipping sign for our Jeeps. Our original sign said:

    ” Tipping Policy: If you enjoyed your tour, please do. if not, please don’t”.

    This sign was inherited by the 5th owner (and current owner of Pink Jeep) because it was installed in every Jeep. After a few years of operation some of the guides realized that the sign was counter-productive because it implied that you might not have a good tour!

    Our team, after much study and comparison to other company’s signs (“Tipping is not a city in China” – I just can’t tell you which company had this one) came up with the winner and current sign:

    “Tips are appreciated if you enjoyed your tour”.



  4. How does it work when the person you would normally be tipping is also the owner of the business?

    I’m specifically thinking of you in your role with Flying M Air, but also in situations with, for example, a restaurant owner as a maitre d, or a bar owner tending bar.

    I normally expect an owner to go above and beyond what I’d expect from an employee, but don’t really know what would be expected as a tip.

  5. This is a great question — but it all goes back to whether you think the service deserves a tip.

    I never used to tip one of my hairdressers because I thought he charged a lot of money for haircuts and he was the owner and got it all. But I tip my current hairdresser, even though she is the owner, because I think she does a good job and charges a reasonable price. I don’t tip maitre ds (in general) but always tip bartenders, waiters, waitresses, etc. — even if they’re owners. But that has more to do with the whole food service industry tipping policy that’s so ingrained in the American culture.

    As an owner, I don’t actually expect a tip and am really pleased when I get one. My business is consistently on the edge of profitability and I don’t draw any income from it, so an off-the-books bonus is very welcome. Oddly enough, I almost always get a tip when passengers ask if I own the helicopter. My response — a cheerful “Me and the bank!” — routinely earns me at least $10. (It’ll be all mine in a little more than 3 years.)

    I don’t have a “Gratuities are appreciated” sign in my helicopter when I operate out of the Phoenix area. But a friend of mine operating an almost identical business in Idaho has one in his helicopter. As he said, “Every little bit helps.” I might add one for the upcoming season when I go home.

  6. German for “Gratuities are appreciated.”:
    “Trinkgelder sind willkommen.”
    “Trinkgeld ist willkommen.”

    “das Trinkgeld” is singular, “die Trinkgelder” is plural

  7. This information is really helpful. I am going on a helicoptor tour later today and planned on tipping the pilot if he / she provided good service. This confirms the details of not only if it is appropriate but also that it is appreciated, and not expected. Thanks for the tips!

  8. I hated being a server for 4 years because everyone would give me the tables with guests from other countries, and I put up with it. A lot of the time people will come into a restaurant expecting 5 star service at McDonalds speed, and get tipped based on the fact that it took 30-45 mins for their food to cook, while they are being chewed out by their managers for having a full section, that was half filled all at the same time. I have had this happen to me many times and all of my tables tipped under 5% because they thought the service was bad. So in other words if you notice that your server or who ever seems a little stressed or worn, and you can see how busy it’s been…. tip above average because you just might make their day!

  9. My husband runs a sonic and many people dont realize it but the girls that bring your order out are paid a tip of $6 which is $1.25 under minimum wage here in kansas. The girls in this sonic are making drinks, ice cream answering speaker, taking orders out, and cleaning. So just to add I think it would be great if people learned this and if they do a good job tip.

  10. Also motorcoach bus drivers should be tipped. On tours they travel with you for days, they provide SAFE transportation in all weather conditions, handle your luggage, let you off at different sites and often must park blocks away where they can find parking large enough for the bus. Daily they clean the bus, wash the windows, and clean the restroom. All to help make your trip enjoyable. If they drove for 10hrs, then helped with unloading your luggage at the hotel, then shuttled you to the restaurant, and then back to the hotel again, at this time he does his paperwork, post trip and cleans the bus for tomorrow. Now his day is 12-13hrs. Most bus companies pay a flat daily rate or a minimum hourly wage. My husband makes $84.50 per day. (That averages to $7hr since most days are 12hrs) So they also depend on tips.
    How much you ask? A good rule of thumb; tours $5 per person per day, shuttle services (for example conventions) $1-2 per ride per person, charter groups (ie; sports teams, choirs etc) $100-$150 per day and if they drive you back after your last competition, driving all night (after shuttling you around all day) ADD an extra $100-150 (you arrived alive, didn’t you?)
    So if your bus driver was friendly, safe, always on time, helpful and your bus was clean. Say thankyou, TIP generously!!!

What do you think?