How to Tip Like a Boss (A Dummies Guide for the Culturally-Aware)

paying the bill and leaving a tip in a restaurantWhen I travel I make a point to become aware of the local customs. I wore long pants and shirts all throughout Morocco. I covered my head in mosques and temples throughout Indonesia. I only ate with my right hand in India. I’m sure I got it wrong sometimes (like not taking my shoes off before going into a store’s changing room in Japan).

But it’s important to me to make the effort.

So when it came to going to America, a land that’s almost as culturally aligned as ours, I thought it’d be easy to follow the local customs.

Except for tipping.

Thanks to reading plenty of US-based personal finance blogs, I knew a lot about tipping before we got to America. I knew that 10% was no longer the standard (more like 15-20%). I knew that servers were taxed based on estimated tips, so not tipping was tantamount to taking money from their pocket

But it still felt weird essentially deciding how much our server deserved to get paid to do their job.

So here are the lessons I learnt to navigate the minefield that is optional-but-really-not-tipping.

 Pick A Number and Stick to It

“Tip anywhere between 15-20%, depending on the fancy-ness of the restaurant, whether it’s in New York or not, if your waitress smiled at you, and whether it’s raining outside” – guide books everywhere.

The concept of having a range is great, but frankly when I’m on holiday I like to switch my brain off. So when deciding on your tips for restaurants, just choose your number (15%, 18%, 20%) and then don’t worry about it.

We tipped 20% everywhere – it’s an easy sum to calculate in your head and if you then round down or up when actually leaving your tip then you’re not going to accidentally leave too little.

If you’re better at math calculations, you could settle on 15% or 18%.

 You Do Have to Tip

Yes, even if the service sucks.

Consider it like paying for a plane ticket for a shitty flight. Yes you were disappointed. But in the end you were fed. If the service was really bad then you could mention it to the manager. Or just remind yourself that you’re on holiday, while your server has probably just pulled an 8-hour shift to earn a below minimum wage before tip.

Look this is the part of the whole tipping thing that totally lost me (and my American friend who’s also a waitress agrees). It doesn’t necessarily reward great service if you just leave the same tip no matter what.

Although, I’ve had some pretty bad service in Australia and sometimes I’d love a way to really show my displeasure in such a visceral way.

But you’re on holidays, not there to try and change an entire remuneration system. So just get with it and tip. Coolio?

 Try Not to Stress About It

Yes you will make mistakes and probably undertip at some point (sorry to that place where we did this). But you’ll probably be forgiven (or forgotten) if you were generally easy to serve anyway.

If you don’t have enough small bills, ask for change. If you’re not sure where to leave the tip, just hand it to your server or ask the counter staff to give it to them.

Remember the best part of travel is experiencing different customs and seeing how other people live and getting to be a part of that.

When you’ve travelled, what local customs did you find difficult to get your head around? Let us know in the comments below.

Image by: Flicker/Ed Yourdon

New York for the Budget Traveller

New York for the Budget TravellerSo you’re planning a trip to The Big Apple. The Empire State. The City That Never Sleeps.

But you’ve heard it’s expensive, right? And you’re wondering how you’re going to manage to do anything fun within your budget.

Well as it turns out, New York is surprisingly quite affordable for budget travellers, as I found out.

Forget the Hotels and Stay AirBnB

Okay, if you haven’t heard of AirBnB [affiliate link], it essentially it allows residents to rent out a room (or their whole place) to visitors. Rates are generally a lot cheaper than a hotel room, and in mind staying in someone’s apartment is a lot nicer than staying in a generic hotel chain.

Of course staying in an apartment has other benefits for the budget traveler. Most hosts will allow you access to the kitchen, so you can prepare meals and keep groceries in the fridge. And just about every place offers free Wi-Fi so you can post your travel pics to Facebook and make everyone back home jealous.

The best thing about AirBnB though is interacting with a local. You can share a bottle of wine, swap stories and find out what it is they love about the city.

Plus having a local on hand means you can find out great places to go, like that awesome burger bar with the $10 lunch deal, or that cute vintage store hidden in the arcade.

Get Around on the Subway

Perhaps it’s my exposure to American movies, but before I got to New York I sort of had in my mind that the subway would be a bit dirty and unpleasant.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. The New York subway system is probably the easiest and cleanest underground system I’ve been on (although Tokyo’s was amazingly clean, it was a little harder to get around on).

The network is really easy to understand and serves just about everywhere you would want to go in the city. And it never stops – trains run 24 hours a day.

Plus it’s cheap – just $2.50 a ride. Although if you’re staying for more than a few days and plan to use the subway a lot, you can get a 7 day unlimited ticket for $30. Amazing value!

Take Advantage of Pay-What-You-Want

I’m a bit of a museum junkie, particularly on holidays. But it’s an expensive habit and visiting just a few museums can quickly eat through your budget.

Happily for me though, many New York museums offer a Pay-What-You-Want option. They’ll have a suggested entry fee, but it’s completely okay if you want to pay less than that.

It’s such good idea, and one I wish more museums would practice. It means that art becomes more accessible to people, fostering a greater appreciation of the great art works and why they need to be protected.

And even with the option to pay nothing if they want to, people will still pay money to enter. I was watching visitors in the queue ahead of me and everyone was still paying something for entry – usually around $10 per person. It kinda makes you think what other things could successfully be offered as Pay-What-You-Want and benefit both the buyer and seller.

If you want a complete listing of Pay-What-You-Want and free museums and galleries in New York, check out this listing.

2014-07-09 16.17.16Enjoy the Free Sights

Of course, if you get tired of museums or just want a really cheap day to offset those expensive cocktails, there’s plenty of free things to do in New York.

Walking around Central Park has to be the most quintessential New York experience. And it’s huge. You could easily spend a whole day walking from one corner to the other, stopping to sit and people watch and catch a bite to eat at one of the kiosks.

And there’s heaps going on. Street performers, artists, and the general quirky people that make up New York all seem to descend on Central Park on any given day.

Beyond Central Park, there’s still plenty to see for free. My favourite spot in the city was the High Line– a disused freight railway perched above the street that’s now been turned into a community space-slash-walkway. The boardwalk itself runs along the west side of Manhattan from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street, from the Meatpacking District to Chelsea.

As well as people watching on the boardwalk itself, you also get a birds eye view of the street below. Grab lunch from one of the local stalls then sit back and watch the traffic flow beneath you.

And once you’re done then, catch the subway to any of the boroughs of New York and wander around window-shopping and sipping a coffee at a local coffee shop. You might even be able to pretend for a moment that you are a local out on a break from working at your fabulous studio apartment nearby. Okay, maybe that’s just me.

Have you been to New York? Have you got any tips for cheap things to do or see? What was your favourite place to visit?