A Funny (and True) Tipping Story

Clash of the cultures.

Yesterday, I took a Japanese couple for a photo flight over Lake Powell. The wife was the photographer; she was shooting photos for a book she’s writing. Both spoke English reasonably well, although with a somewhat limited vocabulary. We communicated well as long as we all spoke slowly and clearly using simple words.

Lake Powell in the Afternoon

Here’s a frame capture from the video my GoPro Hero shot during our flight. The light gets much better after 4:30 PM this time of year; we started our flight at 2:30 PM. In the photo: Gunsite Butte, Padre Bay, Navajo Mountain.

We flew for an hour in mid-afternoon. The flight was nice, the lake was beautiful, the light was a bit harsh for serious photography. When we got back to the terminal, we planned another flight for the next day during the “golden hour” when the light would be softer and redder.

The husband handed me a credit card to pay for the flight. I ran it through the swiper on my laptop, processing the sale immediately with the building’s WiFi connection. I entered his e-mail address to e-mail him his receipt and gave him back his card.

The wife turned to the husband and said in an undertone, “Do you have bucks?”

At first, he didn’t appear to hear her. It had been a hot flight and I think we were all a bit dehydrated. He was an older man and I don’t think he was accustomed to the heat.

She turned to me and said, “Yes, tomorrow afternoon the light will be better.” Then again to her husband in a lower tone: “Do you have bucks? You know, for coffee.”

He heard her that time and started rummaging around in his wallet and then pocket. She turned to me and continued a conversation. I’d already packed up my things and was ready to go. She was trying to stop me without telling me why.

Eventually, he produced $30 and handed it to me. “For coffee,” he said.

She seemed embarrassed. “For coffee or lunch.”

“Or dinner,” I said, taking the money. “Thank you so much.” I bowed my head and shoulders in a short bob as I so often do when dealing with Japanese people. My bow was likely more natural to me than tipping was to them.

And that’s the thing. My understanding is that the Japanese don’t tip. In fact, I’ve been told that most of the world does not tip. But these folks knew the American custom and wanted to make sure they did things right. I thought the whole thing was pretty cute. Especially, “Do you have bucks?”

How to Tip a Tour/Charter Pilot
If you’re wondering how to tip a tour or charter pilot, I don’t think the 15% rule applies. I think the tip should be based on the amount of time you’re together and the quality of the flight. For a 30-minute tour, I think the pilot would be tickled pink to get $5 to $10. For a lengthier flight — especially a custom flight where the pilot met your requests — $20 to $50 would be good. The $30 tip I received from the Japanese couple was quite generous; I think $10-$20 would have been just as appreciated.

As for me, I get tips about 1/2 of the time that I fly. My flying services are not cheap and I suppose many folks feel that my hourly rate is enough. When people do tip, the amount varies widely. I once did a $750 flight from Page to Monument Valley and back for two Italian men. They tipped me $3. I was not insulted; I know they probably did not understand how to tip. Another time, I took three folks from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon — a flight that cost them $1,800 — and was tipped $300. One photographer I’ve flown many times would end each flight with a crisp $100 bill in my hand. Sweet. The best tip I ever got was $600 from a couple I took on one of my multi-day excursions. That really made my day.

I appreciate all the tips I get and don’t usually feel slighted when I don’t get tipped at all. The only exception is when I spend a great deal of time with clients and provide services beyond what should be expected. Then I usually expect something — but again, I don’t always get it.

That’s part of being a tour/charter pilot.

3 thoughts on “A Funny (and True) Tipping Story

  1. @Walter
    These folks were VERY generous. After yesterday’s flight, they wanted to tip me again and I told them they’d given me enough for two flights the day before. They insisted, however, to give me another $50. It’s folks like these who make up for the folks won’t don’t tip. It all comes out in the end.

  2. One of the hardest travel “things” must be “how to tip”. There are so many “unwritten” rules that even I, as an American, get anxious about it sometimes. Ha ;)

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