Stop Tipping Like an American When You Travel

Or: How to save money without looking cheap

Tipping internationally: It’s a matter of endless confusion, particularly for U.S. travelers. Here’s a handy interactive map made to answer our gratuity centric questions: How much to leave a porter in London? A cabbie in Amsterdam? A waiter in Paris? The map knows

Let’s pause, though, for a moment to discuss that final hypothetical. It’s an eternal question for Americans abroad, and the answer is found in the tip map: Why are Parisian waiters so nasty? 

Well, plenty of them are nice. But there’s an answer for the ones who aren’t: Because they can be, if they want to be, in a way that American waiters cannot. And this is a good thing.

Generally, French waiters don’t work for tips — they work for a restaurant. In many big European capitals, your menu will come with a note that service charges are included in your bill. The French word for “tip,” in fact, is “pourboire”: “for drinking.”  A tip, in Paris, covers after-work drinks — not rent. 

Here at home, tipping disguises the true cost of things. (It’s also the result of a long and complicated social history, well detailed in this story.) Let’s say that a steak dinner costs $30 in France, no additional tip expected. Let’s say it costs $25 in San Francisco, with the expectation of a $5 tip. The $30 cost to the guest is potentially the same in both cases — but only in the latter situation is the waiter’s livelihood dependent on the whims (and sour moods, and bad days, and racism) of said guest. (“Great service don’t tip black people.“) It also gives the restaurant the benefit of advertising $25 steak rather than $30 steak, a boon it happily accepts without suffering the same caprice as its wait staff: Diners don’t get to take five dollars off the food bill because they didn’t like the string beans. 

Maybe European wait staff envy their American counterparts; perhaps the no-tippers are balanced out by the NFL players and reality stars (well, maybe not all NFL stars) in a generous mood. For sure, wait staff at some big-city restaurants score big on tips, and have resisted efforts to end the practice. But those experiences may be the exception to the rule. Here’s an anecdote: Over Christmas, I went home to New Jersey, and to the diner I went to as a kid. In a just-got-paid-Christmas-is-coming mood, I added $20 to a $4 tip. On my way out, the waitress — who had, for hours, been graciously dealing with irascible post-mall crowds — came up to me in tears. “You have no idea what this means to me,” she said. I didn’t — it was a lark. At first I was elated; I felt like a superstar. Most of us know what it feels like to get an extra $20 on a day you really need an extra $20. But by the time I made it to the car, I worried for that waitress and I wondered over her solicitude, her constant smile, her patience: What percentage of that graciousness (97%?) was necessitated by whatever caused those tears? 

Honestly, I’d rather pay a few bucks extra for my mozzarella sticks than participate in an economy in which full-time American workers have to perform, like circus animals, to get by. 

As for the tipping map? It is extremely useful. But if you forget to tip in Paris, don’t worry: Your waiter, as I’m sure he’d be happy to tell you, expected — and needed — no better. 


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