Tips for tipping while traveling

Most of us understand that, in North America, we tip people who provide us with a service, whether that is the waitperson or bartender at our favorite restaurant; our barber or hair stylist; the taxi or car service driver. But when we’re traveling, the range of possibilities can change in ways we might not have even considered.

Traveling will bring you into contact with people who provide a range of services, and many of those should be considered for a gratuity.

If you take a taxi or car service to the airport as you begin your trip, consider 10 to 15 percent for the taxi driver; 20 percent for the car service driver if it is not included in the fare. At the airport, if you use a skycap to carry or check your luggage, $1 to $2 per bag is considered acceptable.

Shuttles at MCO
Once at your destination, you'll head to your hotel. If you use a shared shuttle, consider 10-15 percent of the fare for the driver, particularly if he or she is hoisting heavy bags for you. If your hotel provides a courtesy shuttle, consider tipping the driver a couple of dollars per bag.

Whether you arrive by shuttle or drive yourself, when you arrive at the hotel’s front door, more people will generally handle your luggage. Some sources suggest tipping the doorman who moves your bags from the car to the bell cart while others say the only one who should be tipped is the one who actually brings the bags to your room. $1 to $2 per bag is the suggested tip for either or both.

Housekeeping is probably the most misunderstood area for tipping. For a number of years, it never even occurred to me to tip housekeeping unless we had left a real mess. However, leaving a couple of dollars each day will help ensure good service.

And don’t wait until the end of your trip to tip housekeeping. Many hotel staff members don’t work a Monday through Friday schedule, so the person who gets the $10 bill you left at the end of your week-long stay may have just come on duty while the others who tended your room won’t share in that sawbuck. Consider an extra dollar or so if the hotel fulfills your special requests, such as my standard request to have my room made up early in the day when I’m in town for more than a single night.

Many upmarket hotels offer concierge services. It’s not necessary to tip the concierge for standard directions such as marking a map with the route to a recommended restaurant. However, special services warrant special attention. If they were able to get you tickets to a sold-out show or used their connections to get you hard-to-get reservations at that special restaurant, then show your appreciation proportionately.

But don’t expect miracles. Some years ago, I became acquainted with a concierge who was working at a major hotel in downtown San Francisco when Oprah Winfrey and her entourage arrived. Oprah wanted to have dinner at the vaunted French Laundry in the wine country town of Yountville before heading back to Chicago in just a few days. Those who are familiar with the restaurant know that reservations must be made two months in advance. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the establishment literally stops answering the phone when it has filled its reservations calendar for the date 60 days hence. And no, the concierge was not able to convince it to make an exception for Oprah.

Tipping at bars and restaurants in hotels is no different than those outside: 15 percent to 20 percent for good service, more if something was exceptional. If you’re simply enjoying a pre-dinner drink or a nightcap at the bar, the minimum tip should be a dollar per drink regardless of the 15-20 percent guidance; more if the drink requires a lot of preparation, such as a hand-mulled Mojito or a true Old Fashioned.

Tour guides also derive a significant portion of their income from tips. Generally, three or four dollars or Euros for a shorter tour, seven to eight for a full-day tour is considered a good tip. Ask either the tour operator or at your hotel for guidance if you’re in doubt.

When traveling outside one’s home country, become informed about the local customs and – this is important – plan to follow them.

That advice cuts both ways. No tip is expected in Denmark or New Zealand, and tipping in Japan and China is actually considered rude. If it is necessary to give a person money in Japan (other than a clerk at a shop or store), it is considered particularly uncouth to simply hand them cash; it should be placed inside an envelope to maintain discretion and decorum.

If you’re in Europe, servers are paid a higher base rate than in the U.S., so a smaller tip is considered acceptable. Rounding up a bill a couple of Euros is often sufficient in Switzerland and Germany; for example, rounding up a €47 bill (never a “check”) to €50. In Poland, where tipping is usually left to the discretion of the guest, a 10 percent tip is considered a good tip. In Norway, a 10 percent service charge is typically included int he bill but double-check the bill and leave 10 percent if it is not.

In other places, the service charge doesn't always cover the full tip. In Aruba, 15 percent is automatically added to the bill, but this is split among all the service categories, including servers, bussers, and kitchen staff. If you receive particularly good service, an additional 5 to 10 percent given directly to the server will be appreciated.

If you’re a resident of another country and are traveling to North America, you're on the other side of that scenario. Understand that, in the U.S. and Canada, a gratuity - particularly at a bar or restaurant - is the norm. In some instances - such as when party size is greater than either six or eight, or in certain geographic areas like Miami, Florida - establishments will add an automatic gratuity but this is not usually the case.

In a bar or restaurant setting, 15 to 20 percent should be added to the bill, depending on how good the service.

I’ve read comments from people who simply refuse to do elsewhere what they don’t do at home. That type of behavior reflects poorly on them as individuals and, fairly or not, often on their entire country.

Further – and let’s be honest here – taking the position that, “I won’t do here what I don’t do at home” is simply an excuse. If those people were traveling somewhere that tipping was frowned upon, I sincerely doubt that they would insist on tipping because “That’s what I do at home.” And if those people truly believed in following their home practices regardless of the where they find themselves, they would insist on driving on the same side of the road as “at home.” That would be fine if they were from most of Europe but if they were from the U.K., Japan, or Australia, it wouldn’t work out very well in North America.

Even if the culture in one’s home country does not include tipping at all, or tipping done more modestly, remember the old adage: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

Finally, carry a fair number of singles when you're traveling, whether dollar bills in the U.S., Loonies in Canada, or €1 coins in Europe, to ensure you have a cache of cash at hand. (Sorry; couldn’t resist the word play).

Safe and pleasant travels.

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Rental cars and paying tolls electronically

Approximately two years ago, I wrote a blog post, Rental Cars and the True Cost of Tolls, which dealt with the option of renting an electronic pass to pay road and bridge tolls in certain areas. That can be pretty handy in certain parts of the country but it can also prove to be surprisingly expensive on a per-use basis.

When I rented a car from National Car Rental during a recent trip to Chicago, I was offered the option of renting an I-Pass to pay my tolls electronically. For $6.99 per day, the pass would cover as many tolls as I incurred; quite the deal when compared to the PlatePass offered by Hertz for rentals in the San Francisco Bay area.

According to Hertz’s web site, drivers who use PlatePass will be charged a $4.95 service fee for each day of the rental including any days on which PlatePass is not used, up to a maximum of $24.75 per rental, plus the cost of the tolls at the cash, or undiscounted, rate.

While I didn’t find the convenience of an electronic pass from Hertz worth the extra cost, renting an I-Pass from National made sense.

I knew I would be traveling about 30 miles on I-294, which is part of the Illinois Tollway. In one direction, I would encounter four tollbooths, and five on the way back, for a total of nine tolls. Drivers who pay cash pay $1.50 toll per booth, while cars with the I-Pass are charged $0.75 per toll. However, visitors aren’t likely to have an I-Pass, so that particular trip would have resulted in $13.50 in tolls.

I made that trip twice and headed into downtown Chicago once so, for less than $14 for the two-day rental, the I-Pass more than paid for itself.

Even if you’re not sure how many tolls you’ll be incurring, an electronic pass could still be worth the extra expense. Depending on the reason for your trip, the time of day you’ll be traveling, how tight your schedule is, and how long you’d otherwise have to wait at a tollbooth to pay in cash, it could be valuable to be able to keep moving at 55+ miles an hour and bypass queues for the tollbooths.

And here’s an important twist: an increasing number of toll roads, bridges and tollway exits simply don’t offer cash toll booths at all. In such cases, renters will simply have to pay the service charge in addition to the tolls, or will have to find another route.

Finally, consider this: if you choose not to get the pass and miss a tollbooth, National will charge a $15 processing fee plus the cost of the toll and any fines. Other rental car companies have similar charges for processing missed tolls, so the cost of missing one tollbooth could easily eclipse the cost of the electronic transponder.

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United Airlines offers two ways to stay on-line in flight

While I often seize the opportunity of air travel to enjoy a few hours of being serenely disconnected from all that’s happening on the ground, there are times when one simply must stay in touch. My recent flight from Seattle (SEA) to Chicago's O'Hare (ORD) to attend a funeral was one such occasion, so I was pleased to learn that United Airlines began installing United Wi-Fi on select airplanes in 2013.

Unlike competing service GoGo, United’s Wi-Fi is satellite-based, while GoGo uses a hybrid of satellite and ground-based cell phone technologies.

While United has installed United Wi-Fi on 190 aircraft as of the date of this post, the airline also offers GoGo service on all of its Boeing 757 aircraft on p.s.® premium service transcontinental flights between New York (JFK) and both Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).

Pricing for both services will vary based on the length of the flight. “The correct pricing for your flight is displayed in the United Wi-Fi portal prior to purchase,” is the way United’s FAQs about the United Wi-Fi service put it. My flight of a little less than four hours was $9.99, which I judged to be quite reasonable. On the return flight over the same route, the charge was inexplicably a dollar less, at $8.99. By contrast, 90 minutes of GoGo access aboard a recent Alaska Airlinesflight between Seattle (SEA) and San Antonio (SAT) cost me $10, and that was thanks to a “Buy 60 minutes, get 30 minutes free” special.

There are limitations with both services, as one might conclude from the proviso that they do not support video streaming or other high-bandwidth functions. Speed is somewhat limited but generally fine for checking e-mail and cruising most websites. According to, I got about 0.6 Mbps download speed and 0.1 upload speed. Not lightning-fast, but pretty decent considering I was at 35,000 feet over southern Minnesota.

At present, a purchase of United Wi-Fi allows passengers to access the Internet for the duration of a single flight between two different cities. “In some cases, your trip may require you to make a stopover between your origin and final destination,” the FAQs said. “This is viewed as two different flights, even though you may have a single flight number.”

In the future, United hopes to offer additional options for its Wi-Fi product – possibly including daily, weekly and/or monthly access.

For the time being, though, that gives GoGo a slight advantage because it offers per-flight access, daily passes, and two monthly passes: one for “your favorite airline” and another “all-access pass” that works on any airline that offers GoGo. That could make GoGo the more economical option for frequent fliers; however, you won’t have the option to choose between GoGo and United Wi-Fi. If your aircraft is equipped with Wi-Fi, it’ll be either one or the other, not both, so the point is somewhat academic.

Regardless of those minor differences, it’s nice to know such connectivity is available if you want or need to stay in touch.

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Counting the cancellations

An article in the New York Times' travel section breathlessly reported that many flights cancelled because of the recent spate of bad weather in the Northeast "won't be counted as late or cancelled in the government's on-time statistics."

My response: "So what?"

Reading into the article, the focus turns to a rule proposed federal rule that would make the counting of delayed flights more accurate. Today, statistics don't include international flights or flights by regional carriers, among others.

Fine; count them. Count every carrier, and count them all the same way. I'm completely in support of that. But that brings me to the crux of my position. What I want to get out of these statistics is a picture of how well a given airline does, absent any outside factors like bad weather.

Why? Stuff happens. Exigent circumstances like bad weather can and do affect everyone, from the best to the worst. So don't lower an airline's on-time rating when Mother Nature, not the airline, was responsible.

A far more meaningful metric would be to chart the percentage of on-time departures by airport. Every experienced flier knows that some airports are worse than others for reasons that vary. Either they've incredible busy, like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson (ATL), they're in an area prone to bad weather like Chicago's O'Hare (ORD), or some other factor. Measuring the airports would quantify what many of us already know through experience: If you're traveling through XYZ airport, anticipate not being on time.

As for the airlines, on-time statistics should count the things over which the airline has control.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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SAN ANTONIO: Hilton Palacio del Rio

The Hilton Palacio del Rio is conveniently located on San Antonio’s famed Riverwalk, adjacent to the Henry M. Gonzales Convention Center and two blocks from the historic Alamo. It’s a beautiful property with service that, despite a couple of slips, generally met Hilton’s -- and my -- high service standards.

Guest Room 710
Arriving for a conference, I was checked in smoothly and directed to the elevators that would take me to my room, #710. The room itself was lovely with modern furniture and fixtures, deep rich colors, and all the amenities we expect when traveling, including in-room safe, iron and ironing board. The desk and workstation had enough power outlets to charge the electronics with which we travel, very good wireless internet connectivity in the 4.0 Mbps range ($14.99 per night unless you’re a HiltonHHonors Gold or Diamond member), and a panel of audio-visual inputs allowing guests to connect their electronics to the room’s large flat screen TV.

Guest room work station and TV
The first service slip-up surrounded that A/V panel. I hooked up my laptop, intending to listen to my music through the TV’s speakers instead of the small, tinny speakers on my computer, but I could not make the connection work. I called the front desk and, though the clerk could not offer any suggestions to assist me, he did offer to send someone from engineering to my room. Excellent service there. However, when I suggested that including instructions on how to operate the panel in the in-room literature might be helpful, the clerk audibly sighed before saying, “Yes, sir.”  Astute hoteliers at least consider their guests' input.

A/V Panel
The gentleman from engineering arrived quickly and provided a diagnosis of the problem immediately. He said the panels had all been disconnected and were to be removed. My initial reaction was that the front desk should have known that. However, when I e-mailed the hotel manager after I returned home to advise of the service shortcomings, he responded that the panels had not been disconnected. Second slip: inconsistent information across departments.

Later that evening, I stopped at the front desk and asked the desk clerk for a map of the adjacent Riverwalk. “They’re over there on the bell stand,” she said. Considering that there were no other guests in the area, what she SHOULD have done was offered to get one for me or walked me over to the desk, not just pointed and said, “Over there.”

Updated bath
The hotel manager agreed that, at a minimum, the desk clerk should have walked me to the bell stand and said, “We definitely will use this … as a teaching opportunity with our staff.” High marks there, both for responding directly to me, and for using this as an opportunity to improve.

Other staff members more consistently met Hilton's high standards.

Housekeeping responded quickly to my request for a robe, which arrived at my door within minutes. Staff members I passed in the hall or the lobby offered a smile and a “Good morning,” afternoon or evening. Bartenders at the Lobby Bar were pleasant and efficient. The desk clerk on checkout was efficient and corrected a minor error on my bill without hesitation. The bellman was very prompt in offering to store the suitcases of a colleague and me upon checkout, and the valet was quick to call a cab when it was time to head to the airport.

The Hilton Palacio del Rio is a nice place to stay in downtown San Antonio and will be even better when management gets its entire staff on the same page, service-wise.

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