How to tip: The delicate art of greasing palms in Asia
It's that moment the international traveler knows only too well.
After consuming a delicious meal you start to feel queasy, your palms perspire and your eyes desperately rove for the exit signs.
Such symptoms can mean only one of two things. Either the prawn curry was a bad idea, or it's time to figure out how to tip. And what to tip.
Knowing how to tip can be a stressful business, particularly across Asia where reactions can range from delight to displeasure.
To help, we've compiled a guide to gratuities across the region, explaining how to tip and what to tip.
How to tip: Overview
Most people anywhere are going to be happy to get a little something extra.
There’s no escaping wild wealth disparities in Asia, and tipping guidelines seem to exaggerate these further.
Upscale restaurants often add a service charge of up to 15 percent on top of your check.
Meanwhile, someone working in a popular street restaurant a few storefronts away expects nothing on top of the tiny sum he charges for almost exactly the same meal.
One argument circulated by skinflints is that handing generous tips to poor folk in the service industry discourages them from pursuing a decent education. It also sets a cheapskate precedent that “ruins it” for other budget travelers.
But look what a good education did for these miserable tourists. It left them believing that by withholding a few extra cents from a guy laboring away at a street cart they're doing a good thing.
Even if they’re right, let’s hope they order the prawn curry.
How to tip: China, Vietnam, Laos
Tightfisted travelers love countries like China because they assume dirty capitalist concepts like tipping aren’t necessary.
But while running dog rewards might be scorned in backwater canteens, they're almost mandatory (though not required) in the glitzy haunts of China’s urban elite.
The same can be said for Laos and Vietnam.
You can guarantee that if anyone has translated the menu into English, the language of tips will also be spoken.
Tipping isn’t expected in cheaper restaurants, but no one is going to complain if you drop an extra five or 10 percent.
In some restaurants in China's tourist towns, there are two menus. The one with English names usually have higher prices. So consider a gratuity already included.
Likewise, there’ll be no objections from taxi drivers if you want to chuck them some change and round up the fare -- richly deserved if they get you from A to B without mounting the sidewalk.
Tour guides are a different matter. In the cutthroat world of bellowing at visitors through tiny megaphones, wages are often slashed in anticipation of a tourist top-up. If you don’t want to hear a grown adult sob into a cheap electronic amplifier, US$10-a-day should keep the tears at bay.
The communist exception is North Korea. While your tourist dollars would work wonders in the cash-strapped kingdom of the Kims, their possession might land ordinary citizens in a labor camp. Cigs, booze or cosmetics will serve as substitutes.
How to tip: Japan
In Japan tips in nearly all circumstances can be insulting -- although not as insulting as the price of a Tokyo taxi.
It just isn’t part of the landscape here. You pay for a service, close your wallet and that's it.
That old saw about gratuities causing confusion in Japan is actually true -- if you leave a little behind in a restaurant, bar or wherever, someone’s sure to chase you down and return it.
Similar to Korea, some tipping does happen at places like hairdressers where regular clients may fork out upwards of ¥1,000 (US$12).
Basically, a traveler in Japan will never need to tip anywhere at all. Save the money for some sushi.
How to tip: Korea
The concept of tipping doesn’t really exist in Korea. Press some won into someone’s hand and the usual response will be, “What’s this for?” -- a polite version of, “What is this idiot foreigner doing?”
Apart from Gangnam Style ladies who tip their hairdressers regularly for being their therapists, there are only a few exceptions: if you're male and booking a table at a nightclub with a group of other guys, you may be expected to tip the waiter US$30-US$80 for bringing hot girls to your table. The more you tip, the hotter the girls will be -- in theory, anyway.
Taxi: No tipping.
Hotel: Due to the 10 percent service charge that hotels add to the bill (in addition to another 10 percent for VAT), hotel staff are instructed not to accept any tips.
Meal: Given the amazingly cheerful and efficient service at most restaurants in Korea, it’s astonishing that tipping is not expected and most certainly not required.
The only two instances where you would see any form of tipping is 1) at a barbecue restaurant where the server will be cutting and grilling your meat for you (suggested tip is US$5-US$10), or 2) at a very expensive Japanese restaurant where you want to show off in front of your client. Anything goes here, US$50 to US$200 is not unusual.
In the case of the former, it's in your best interest to tip before the grilling actually begins, so that your help will be more attentive. And cheerful.
How to tip: Hong Kong
Most low- to mid-end restaurants prioritize speed and efficiency over friendliness and customer service.
At Hong Kong food stalls, service consists of giving you food. That's it.
Restaurants: A 10 percent charge is added to most restaurant bills and some bar bills. But often it's unclear how much of that charge will get to wait staff.
So, if there's a service charge, leave anything starting from a HK$5-HK$10 (US 65 cents to US$1.30) on top, just in case. Though tipping is not expected it's quickly becoming the norm at higher end establishments.
You should go by the quality of the service and feel free to add 10 percent (to the 10 percent) if you want to show your appreciation. Cash is often best as it gives a better chance for the tip to get to the staff that looked after you.
Hotels: Locals don’t often tip in hotels, but if the porter carries your bag in a high end hotel, HK$10-20 (US$2-US$3) is sufficient.
Taxi: Tipping isn't expected in taxis, but don’t be surprised if the driver doesn’t return small change like HK$1 or HK$2 coins. For passengers, rounding up to the nearest ten is not unusual.
Hong Kong coins are thick and heavy, so people often leave small tips -- not for the service, but to relieve their bursting pocket seams.
How to tip: India
South Asia isn’t often likened to the United States, but both places were created equal when it comes to gratuitous gratuities. Tipping protocol in India is about as convoluted as its multi-layered service culture.
At times it seems impossible to walk down a street without having to tip someone every couple of paces.
It gets more confusing in India because of the myriad workers underemployed in tasks like opening doors, making tea, stirring tea, pouring tea, washing tea cups, drying tea cups, polishing tea cups … and so on.
Tipping here acts as a guarantee for better minimum service the next time, rather than as a token of appreciation for services received.
So, tip the maid, tip the laundry guy, tip the driver and tip the barman. Anything from Rs 100-RS 500 (US$2-US$10). Not because they just did a good job, but because you want them to continue doing a good job.
In any case, tipping is a national institution.
If in doubt tip, because the only place you feel like you have a choice these days is in upscale hotels or resorts. Tip there, and you can expect the world.
Taxi/auto: No. A longstanding gripe in India is how taxi and auto wallahs consistently try to hike their fees, so tipping is deliberately avoided by most passengers.
Barber: Yes, especially if you expect to return. Rs 100.
Bellboy: Not expected at luxury hotels or resorts, but if you do you can expect regal treatment. At budget and midscale hotels an Rs 50 tip will go a long way.
Meals: Most restaurants these days include a 10 percent gratuity in the bill, so most locals do not tip extra.
Good to know: During Diwali (the "festival of lights), working classes such as maids and garbage collectors will knock on doors for tips. Don’t hold back, this is a once-yearly opportunity for them.
Also, if you’re a guest at one of India’s over-populated weddings, tip the waiter Rs 500 at the start of the evening and he'll be sure to bring you drinks throughout the night, saving you from having to fight the crowd.
How to tip: Thailand
Given Thailand's status as a world tourist destination, those in the hospitality industry are well versed in the art of tipping -- even if it's not mandatory.
Locals have no problem accepting a little extra something for a job well done. But if you're not impressed with the service, no need to pay up.
Taxi: Rounding the fare up a few baht is the norm. In Bangkok, taxi fares start at just over 35 baht (around US$1), so be sure to carry small bills (20s, 50s, 100s) to avoid that awkward moment at the end of the ride when the driver shrugs his shoulders at your 1,000 baht note.
Bellboys: High-end hotel staff are accustomed to receiving tips, but they won't ever put their hands out for them. Anything from 20-100 baht will suffice, depending how many bags you have.
Meals: Thailand's high-end restaurants and bars usually charge a 10 percent service charge, so no additional cash is expected. A small tip is appreciated if the service is excellent.
At smaller eateries, like shop house restaurants, most diners will leave whatever coins come with the change.
At the spa: Depending on the service, a 20-100 baht tip will do for spa or massage therapists.
How to tip: Singapore
Tipping is not a way of life in Singapore. It's prohibited at the airport and discouraged at hotels and restaurants where a 10 percent service charge is included in the bill. A tip should only be given when the bill doesn't include a service charge.
Taxi: Tipping in cabs isn't expected, but it's a nice courtesy to round up or tell the driver to keep the change.
Bellboys: An exception to the no-tip rule is hotel staff. Tip bellboys around S$2-S$5 (US$1.50-US$4) if they help you with your bags or flag you a cab.
Meals: Despite the no-tipping rule, a small tip is greatly appreciated when someone has gone out of their way to help you, even if it's just the change.
How to tip: Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia
Similar to Thailand, the general rule in these three Southeast Asia nations is that tipping isn't mandatory, though hospitality staff in the big tourist hotspots have come to expect them.
As is the case in most Asian cities, a little extra cash to the bartender or door man in a crowded night club goes far when you're in need of a good table or fast service.
Taxi: If it's a metered ride, rounding up the fare is the usual practice in Southeast Asia. In the Philippines, many of the drivers will ask for a flat fee instead of using the meter. Don't pay anything extra.
Bellboys: An extra dollar or two depending on how many bags you're packing will do.
Meals: Service charges vary between 10-20 percent. If the service is awesome, leave a little something extra. In smaller venues where there's no service charge, most locals usually leave the change if it's a small amount.
How to tip: Australia, New Zealand
Australians generally have a frugal reputation. Tales of travel experiences and shopping purchases are regularly complemented with a line or two about how much it cost and/or what discount was achieved.
With such attitudes, tipping for a long time in Austrazealand barely existed, if at all.
That's changing. Slowly.
Taxi: Rounding up a taxi fare is advised, mainly to avoid gaining a few unnecessary kilos with the huge Australian 20 and 50 cent coins. Taxi drivers appreciate it and are often shocked with a tip of anything over a dollar. Especially since often they have no idea where they've been driving you to.
Hotels: Bellboys generally may expect a tip only if you're American. It's not unusual to drop a buck or two per bag though not the norm yet.
Meals: The only place tipping is becoming the norm on both sides of the pond are in restaurants. As the dining scene goes from strength to strength, these days something is expected at the end of the meal.
Tip according to the quality of the experience, up to 10 percent or thereabouts is the norm. Keep your waiter in mind; AU$3 to AU$4 barely gets a coffee these days. And certainly not a beer at a bar.
How to tip: Style Guide
This is pretty obvious, but once you’ve decided on the tip, you’ve still got to hand it over, which can be an art in itself.
Don’t be ostentatious -- tips in Asia should never be stuffed into top pockets or tossed across bar counters.
When rewarding good service, particularly in restaurants in Thailand, it’s often customary to hand money directly to the person you wish to tip. This must be done without attracting attention from unscrupulous managers who may want the tip for themselves.
Using the kind of sleight of hand normally deployed by pickpockets, place a folded banknote in the palm of your hand and gently extend it to the recipient. Maintain eye contact at all times and say thank you.
The recipient will usually know exactly what to do, subtly sliding the money into their own hand. Or they’ll back away slowly with a panicked look on their face.
In which case, pocket the cash and tip a taxi driver handsomely for getting you out of there as quickly as possible.
Got your own tipping tips? Let us know your experiences in the comments box below.