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How Much to Tip when Traveling Abroad

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- How much money should you tip in restaurants when traveling abroad? The short answer:

Nothing.

No tip is necessary in countries who do not have the custom, nor is it expected, nor should it be given. To do otherwise as a rule is to flaunt your money, it is to give a handout. But the trail of tip leavers can be seen in tourist locations around the planet — 15% gratuity is often added to the bill in tourist restaurants, even in countries where tipping is not a part of the culture. Why?

Because tourists will pay it.

Tip jar in El Salvador cafe

This is, apparently, just a move to skim a few extra bucks off the top, though it is a hustle that was more than likely invited. If a precedent is started, it will continue — especially if it involves receiving money for nothing.

It is funny to me how one restaurant in a town will charge a 15% gratuity when the one next door to it has no concept of tipping. The difference is the clientele: tourist restaurants will charge gratuity, while local ones will not. Why?

Because tourists will pay it.

If the cheap, local restaurant can make it without receiving tips then surely the $10 a plate tourist restaurants can as well. Tipping is a sign of class — and imported culture is always classy — and the little message that says “A 15% gratuity will be added to your bill” that is printed at the bottom of a menu is a message that really says “This restaurant is for the upper class, tourists, or anyone else stupid enough to leave a tip.” It is a message to tell people like me to get out.

So I get out.

No table service sign means no tips

The food houses that I frequent were always, and, hopefully, always shall remain tip free. I eat where it is cheapest, I eat from markets, supermarkets, or in local restaurants. Thankfully, tipping is not a part of the local customs of most countries in the world. In most places, restaurants pay their employees, they do not hold out on the hope that other people may cover their payroll for them.

It is my impression that a tip is not to show appreciation for good service, but it is to ensure good service in the future. In this way, a tip is an insurance plan: it wins you special service.

To demand a 15% gratuity off the top or to feel obliged to always leave a tip is to corrode the purpose of the exchange: you leave a tip to get something special, not what is already expected, not the same as everyone else is getting.

There is a little cafe in Suchitoto, as of late I have been going in there each morning to work on a couple additions to the site. There is one table that I want to use each time I go into this cafe, it is strategically located near a power strip — the other tables will not do. I go into the cafe, buy a coffee for 50 cents, and then sit on the internet working for two or three hours. I am not hurried out, I am not pressured to purchase something more, the music in the cafe is turned off each time I make a Skype call, and the girls who work there smile each time I walk through the door.

There is a little jar for propinas sitting on the checkout counter of the cafe, I have been known to make it jingle.

I want special service here. I want my table. I want the music turned off when I am on Skype. I don’t want to be pressured into buying something more as I nurse a 50 cent coffee for four hours. This is worth a quarter or two to me.

But do I believe that I would receive the same service if I did not tip a grand total of 65 cents over the course of four visits?

Perhaps not, but I honestly believe that I would.

Cafe in Suchitoto

I do not believe that the girl in the café rushes over to turn off the radio when I am on Skype because I might tip her 25 cents. I also do not really think that they don’t throw me out or pressure me into buying something more because I am a “tipping” customer. This is not a tipping culture here in El Salvador, so I am unsure if dropping a few coins into a jar really mean what I intend them to.

But my intent was the same regardless.

Tipping to provoke good service is perhaps a North American construct, I acted by the invisible hand of my own culture: if I tip then I will be given good service. My culture is one where it is normal for service employees to sing little songs, do little dances, jump through a hoop or two, and paste on phony smiles for the prospect of receiving pocket change. It is my impression that people from the USA don‘t tip because they feel they have to, they tip because they liketo. Perhaps we like the feeling of power it provides to decide what another person‘s efforts are worth, perhaps tipping just makes us feel real good about ourselves. This is my culture — we are a people who pay to get what we want, whether it is status, respect, the feeling of dominance, or to be left alone as we slowly drink a coffee at a cafe.

As far as you travel you can never really leave your home, your own acculturation will follow you everywhere, and your footprint will be left in the places you trod. The cultural card that you are dealt is the one that you will keep. A Japanese will always be a Japanese, an Israeli an Israeli, a Russian a Russian, a Latino a Latino, and an American will always be an American. It is my impression that the capacity to absorb culture ceases with the climax of childhood, the symbols of your culture are put into a sack and it is cinched shut for good. What is in this sack are the symbols that will guide you through the rest of your life.

The propinas jar is probably sitting in that little Salvadoran café as a service to the foreigners who feel obliged to practice up on their own culture while abroad.

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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, El Salvador, Food, Intercultural Conflict, Money

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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