Here's a tip: Get a grip on gratuities
By Thurston Hatcher
(CNN) -- Whether you're on a cruise, in a cab, or at an elegant cafe, there comes that moment when you've got to grapple with the gratuity.
Is a 15-percent tip, you worry, too much for that woefully inadequate waiter? And what's it take to keep from stiffing the steward?
Calculating the tip can be a vexing way to bring your outing to an end, but it doesn't have to be. Just stay cool, educate yourself, and remember the old adage: The customer is always right.
"The thing people ought to understand is a tip is not something the waiter is guaranteed, and that you as a customer ought to relax and do what you think is right and don't be scared," says Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat Survey guides to restaurants and hotels.
"So many people lack self-confidence, and that's the worst situation possible -- sitting there worrying if you're doing the right thing."
So what should you tip?
A recent nationwide survey suggests 18 percent has become the tipping standard at restaurants across the country, Zagat says.
That means a tip between 15 percent and 20 percent is perfectly appropriate, he says, and that diners rarely go above or below those extremes unless the service is extraordinarily good or bad.
"Our recommendation is if you're really unhappy, leave 10 percent and don't come back," Zagat says.
Americans may encounter very different tipping customs when they travel abroad. But it's easy to find out what those customs are by checking out the countries' tourism Web sites, says Gary Walther, editor-in-chief of Expedia Travels magazine.
"The Internet is a really powerful tool for getting this kind of information, but something that can really put your mind at ease," he says, warning travelers: "Don't necessarily pack your 15-percent mentality."
In France, for example, the service charge is already built into your restaurant bill. Walther suggests leaving a couple of extra francs if you're particularly pleased with your service, but don't feel obliged.
"You're not expected to, and sometimes a waiter would look at you in wonder if you put down 15 percent," he says.
Overseas isn't the only place to look for built-in service charges. Sometimes a hotel may include the charge on your tab for, say, room service, and still leave a blank space for a tip on the bill.
"Hidden gratuity is something you should look for, especially at resorts or at better big-city hotels," Walther says.
Among others helping you at the hotel, the bellhop who carries your luggage should be tipped a dollar or two per bag, some suggest. Others argue $5 should be the absolute minimum. Give another dollar to the doorman who hails you a cab.
Sometimes overlooked are the anonymous folks who tidy up your room and leave the mint on your pillow. The rule of thumb for them is $1 to $2 per person, per room, per day, either every day or at the end of your stay. Others say $5 per day is a good standard.
More upscale hotels typically have a concierge who assists travelers during their stay, but some people don't realize they accept tips, and others "wildly overtip," Walther says. The National Concierge Association recommends tipping anywhere from $5 to $20, more when the concierge does something extraordinary.
If you're just asking for a recommendation on where to eat lunch, a tip probably isn't necessary, Walther says, but if the concierge gets you theater tickets and a table at a top restaurant after the show, $20 to $30 might not be inappropriate.
Walter Sanders, of Diners Club International, agrees.
"If a concierge could get me tickets to 'The Producers,' I would consider that miraculous. You're talking about a very generous tip there," he says.
Elsewhere, 15 percent is the standard for a cab ride, and $1 to $2 per bag is the norm for the skycap who handles your luggage at the airport curb.
Tipping on a cruise is an art in itself, with various theories on how to best approach it. One thing that's clear is it's a good idea to check with your cruise line before boarding to get a sense of how much money you'll want to budget.
"You do have to think about that when you're pricing a cruise, because it can easily add a couple hundred dollars," Walther says.
Princess Cruises recommends tipping $3.50 per passenger per day to waiters and stateroom stewards, $2 per passenger per day to assistant waiters, and $2 per day to butlers. It also suggests rewarding the headwaiter and maitre d' if they provide a special service.
Norwegian Cruise Line, on the other hand, automatically bills each passengers $10 per day for gratuities to spare them a last-minute scramble for cash. Passengers who want to adjust the tip can do so.
While it's traditional to tip on the last day, some experts suggest passing along part of your tip early on in the cruise to increase your chances of better service along the way.
Diners Club's Sanders has been a caddy, a waiter, a bartender and a tour guide, and he knows from personal experience how gratifying it can be to be rewarded for doing a good job.
Although he recognizes that nobody's entitled to a tip, he believes in erring on the side of generosity.
"I think good service should be rewarded," he says, "and exceptional service should be rewarded exceptionally."
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