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:
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.
It’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.
With 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.