Thursday, June 10, 2010

"Tipping - How Much Is Too Much?"

Tipping - How Much Is Too Much?

Tipping while on a Peru vacation or while touring in Guatemala or any of the countries on the Latin American continent is the same minefield as the USA, Europe or Australia, but with a couple of added complications. It's very difficult to provide generic amounts for tipping in all Latin American countries due to the widely varying cost of living; conventions on tipping do of course also vary from North America to Europe and Australia. However, the following advice can provide a good starting point.

Get to know your new countryYou are no doubt excited about your destination already, and probably doing some research. Your guidebook will doubtless offer some suggestions for tip-ical situations (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist). I've included a few examples below for your reference, if your research doesn't bring any results.

Don't get mislead by the exchange rateWrite down a couple of conversions between currencies on a slip of paper which you can always quickly check when negotiating prices or trying to calculate the value of a tip. Try rounded amounts, like $1, $5, $10 and $20 to form a basis for rough calculations.

Use local currency when you canThe American dollar is accepted in many Latin countries (and in some like Ecuador, El Salvador and Panama is the only option), but avoid the temptation to only stick to what you know. Using foreign currency forces the service provider to change the currency, which is a hassle and you could end up getting stung on the exchange rate that they use anyway. Saying that however, the US dollar will be happily received, particularly for larger amounts.

Pay the person you want to tip directlyMake sure that your server, porter, guide or whoever is providing you the service gets the tip cash in hand, personally. If a number of people need to be tipped, it is a good idea to have a couple of seal-able envelopes with which you can give them a confidential, independent tip.

If your local research has been lacking in examples for amounts to tip, I can suggest the following as starting points:

Tip 1: Have to hand coins worth around 50 cents in local currency or a US$1 bill.

Tip 2: In restaurants, the tip is usually at least 10% of the total bill. Even when service charge is included, it is customary to round it up to the nearest full figure.

Tip 3: Local guides may be people relying on their tip as a significant proportion of their income, or they may be students working their way through college, retired people, or part-timers supplementing their income from other sources. Most people prefer to tip according to their level of satisfaction with the service. However the following rule of thumb may be helpful: if you are in a group of more than four people, accompanied on a half-day tour by an English-speaking guide, a tip in local currency to the value of a meal and a drink in that country is reasonable; if you are in a smaller group and have enjoyed a more personalized service, you might double this amount; double again for a full-day tour. Many clients who have been particularly satisfied give more.

Tip 4: Don't forget your driver who, in many cases, may have shown extreme skill on difficult roads. In general terms, he / she should be tipped a lower amount than the guide. Wages paid to people in employment of this type are normally very low - often since employers assume that gratuities will be given - but, refraining from giving a tip as a statement to discourage such practice will only serve to deprive the workers in question of an amount upon which they have normally come to rely.

Tip 5: Though it is not obligatory to tip taxi drivers, it is often common practice to round up the fare, and indeed, it is usual to agree rates in advance if the taxi does not have a meter or it is turned off.

Tip 6: If you are on a cruise, there is often a single 'kitty' tip for all. The convention is usually US$10 per person per day, although this is only a suggestion as we understand that tipping is a personal choice. You will be given specific guidance on board - some companies recommend US$15 per day per person for the crew, and the same again for your guides.

Tip 7: For the Inca Trail or other treks, there are quite specific conventions concerning tipping, which may well change during the life of this article, as access to the trail is to be severely restricted. Generally accepted rates are as follows:

If you are part of a group, each group member should allow:

- US$5 per person for the porters (ratio is 1 client: 1 porter)- US$10 per person to the cook- US$10 per person to the guide

However, if you are part of a very small group, you may consider increasing these amounts.
If you are on a privately escorted trip, you should allow:

- US$25 for the porters- US$10 for the cook- US$50 for the guide

This works out at a total of US$85, irrespective of whether you are alone, or with another person. Please note also that the weight a porter may carry of an individual client's personal belongings has been set at 8kg (in addition they will be carrying food, camping and cooking equipment to a maximum weight of 25kg). We would also encourage you to donate any unwanted outdoor clothes or sleeping bags to the porters. There may also be the added complication of assistant guides and cooks who should receive less than the principal guide or cook but more than the porters.

When dealing with gratuities on any Latin American trip whether to Mexico or Argentina, the following golden rules are helpful to keep in mind.

Only pay when you want toFor all this talk of giving the perfect gratuity, don't forget that nobody should expect a tip. Don't feel obliged to provide anything if you have not been satisfied with the service.

But, at the same time...

Be nice!Even if the service isn't great, or even good, consider leaving a tip. Customs and language barriers are just a few of the circumstances that may prevent you from seeing the situation in its entirety.
Gary Sargent is the Managing Director of the tour companies Escaped to Peru and Escaped to Latin America and has lived in South America for over 10 years. Gary is passionate about life here, the people, customs and places. To learn more or to book your next adventure please visit

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