Random Travel Tips – Part #10:  Tipping

New Orleans      Over the last eight years with Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, we’ve learned more about tipping than we ever really wanted to know.  The bottom line is usually, locals and regulars, yes, tourists and one-timers, way less so.  I read a recent article in the New York Times on tipping with interest.

They reported on counter-service tipping, which is what coffeehouses offer.  On point-of-sale systems they claim the nudge suggestions are converting into rates of almost 50% tipping in the United States and in some cases averaging 17%.

More interesting is the problem of tipping while traveling.  The article tried to claim this was increasing where they had Square-type systems, but my own experience is that such systems are still rare in EU countries including Great Britain, so I’m skeptical.  At bars in the UK, tipping seems common, especially where regulars know the servers and bartenders.  The article claimed that tipping was becoming more common in South Africa.  Perhaps that’s true since South Africa has traditionally had the strongest economy on the continent, but having just been to Tunisia, it was clear that tips were not expected although appreciated when we rounded up the bill.  I wasn’t sure whether workers actually received the tips on a bill as opposed to when the money might have been left on the table.  Generally, tipping seems nonexistent in other African countries where I have traveled and largely unexpected.  This may be especially true in Francophone countries since tipping still seems rare in France, and less an income substitute.

In Europe, it is not uncommon for servers to actually return or refuse to accept tips, especially in my experience in Germany and France.  In Italy, at espresso bars, exact change is given back by the cashier and a receipt is presented to the barista for service, so there is no exchange of money at the counter at all.  Latin America is also not a big tipping region.

The Times reported that tipping on Uber in the forty=eight countries where they operate is now on offer.  Uber, as always, was unwilling to provide exact data, but claims that “the United States and Germany have higher rates of tipping, whereas countries where tipping is not standard, like Brazil, have lower numbers.”  Lyft admitted that tipping was very low, certainly less than 10%, and often not yet standard practice, so not a large contributor to driver income.  None of that is surprising, since use of the service requires pre-payment on a previously provided credit card.

Lonely Planet and other guidebooks often offer information on local practice, but most of it is speculative.

The best tip is that when you are traveling you should do what feels right to you without embarrassment.  If you tip, high or low, it does make sense to make sure it goes directly to the worker, rather than the establishment.  There’s nothing good as an economic or moral principle about tipping, so you must navigate precious little local information with spur of the moment impulse and hope for the best.

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Random Travel Tips – Part #9:  Price Alerts and Flying Deals

New Orleans      We joked the entire weekend while I was in Canada about Thomas Cooke, the one-hundred plus years travel agency and tour airline, going under.  Not because we didn’t feel for the tens of thousands of passengers and disappointed British vacationers, and certainly not because we didn’t envy the fact that the British government was footing the bill to bring many of them home, which would have absolutely never happened to Americans and even Canadians in the same situation.  No, our lame bit of humor focused on the fact that in Canada we depended on the Cooke airlines for our travel as well, meaning Peggy Cooke mastermind at finding and securing the best deals on our flights in and out of the north.

Peggy is a genius at the two-ticket deal and the airline double deal.  Where airlines always want you to believe that you will do better roundtripping with them, Peggy invariably finds that not to be the case when working the difficult airline market in Canada, dominated by national interests with AirCanada controlling many of the routes.  This time I had flown up on Delta via New York’s LaGuardia and back on American.  The return route ended up being soul crunching because of what the American called a plane “diversion” to Pittsburgh, and in addition horrid customer service handling, they froze all of us at the faraway gate while they supposedly were rebooking people to call them up, but then announced exactly at 3:59 when the plane was schedule to depart, that everyone had to move to the customer service counter where more than seventy people lined up and down the concourse where one agent was working.  For my part, fifth in line, I became the #1 standby for a booked flight at 5:59 to Miami with a connection from there New Orleans putting me home past midnight, and ecstatic not to be stranded.

The moral there is less about Thomas Cooke Airlines, than how airlines routinely leave you “stuck like Chuck,” and that is part of the travel tip.  One of the down sides of bargain shopping for airfares is a high tolerance for being stuck in modern airports, which are essentially high-priced shopping malls with specialized plane parking.  Recently, booking the best I could find to Tunisia for several travelers, meant one would get to visit Istanbul for more than twelve hours, another would have the same experience in Malta, and another would enjoy the pleasures of Frankfurt for eight hours.

My children gave me a subscription to Scott’s Cheap Flights which gives me a steady stream of multiple daily alerts every time their algorithms find something on any of the airplane routes where I have indicated a preference.  Scott’s is free, though there is a premium which provides some special fares and other benefits.  I have forwarded recommendations that were useful in getting our head organizer from the UK over to New Orleans, and tempting our French head organizer in the same way.  Personally, I find it valuable, though careful reading indicates a traveler also has to be ready for some extensive airport experience on some routes.  One treat is that Scott’s is so wide ranging that it tempts you with amazing fares to places like Madagascar that might not otherwise have occurred.  Scott’s is teaching me that if I’m willing to be flexible, I can do much better flying to Nairobi at half the price, and I’ve warned my colleagues that I could be there any minute since I’m on the alert.  Some of the other alerts, like Matt’s take you to travel agencies, which are suspect in my mind, but Scott’s links you to Google flights giving you an option to go directly to the airline’s website for the deal where you can have more confidence.

Furthermore, that brings to mind an additional tip you’ll notice when you use Expedia or Kayak or any of those services, you invariably do better taking a first look at their price, and then going on the airline’s own website to compare the price, and finding it is better than the aggregator offered.  You may have to scroll down a bit, but there’s frequently a reward.

You do have to be careful when you find alerts only pricing half of the ticket, since that may not be a deal.  Bag fees also are often separate though with Scott they tell you that fact along with the price on the front end.

If you’re going to take full advantage of cheaper flying deals, you need to stay away from checked bags regardless. It’s worth the money to look at clothes you can launder while you shower, but that’s a travel tip for another time, and perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.

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