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Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railway
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21st August 2012
The founder of Bradt Travel Guides considers the pros and perils of giving gratuities to your local guides
There are few things that cause more anxiety for travellers than tipping. It’s not just the unbudgeted drain on your holiday money, but the embarrassment of not knowing how much is appropriate, compounded by the skill of the recipient in expressing disappointment rather than gratitude.
How much to tip guides and drivers has exercised me for all of my 30 years of tour leading. In the mid-1980s there was a sharp reminder of the harm it can cause when a teenage forest guide in Madagascar was murdered by jealous villagers. He was earning in a day more than the local school teacher received in a month, and unwisely flaunted his relative wealth.
Despite this, as the years have gone by I’ve found it easier to accept that over-tipping is the norm; on the surface, at least, it satisfies everyone. I, like the local tour operator, have an interest in motivating the best guides to work with us again. On one trip I was soundly castigated when I suggested the $100 bill a client was about to hand the guide might do more good if given to a local charity. The same man would vigorously bargain for local handicrafts; I suppose the difference in his mind was that he had established a relationship with the guide but not the vendor.
Tipping has recently been the subject of a flurry of emails between Daniel Austin, my co-author, and me as we work on Madagascar Highlights. It’s aimed at people taking an organised tour so sound advice on the subject is important. We wanted to elaborate on the recommendations in Bradt’s Tips on Tipping guide. Check what the tour operators recommend, I suggested; £25 a day per couple, they advised. This seems perfectly reasonable to people accustomed to adding a gratuity of £10-15 for a good meal out in London. So for two weeks’ work that would be £350; for a group of 12 the guide might be disappointed only to receive £1,000.
On a recent cruise around Madagascar we were recommended to tip the driver of our city tour a dollar each. There were 40 people on the coach, so that’s $40 (£25) for a couple of hours’ work. Again, perfectly reasonable by London standards. Daniel then asked a friend working for an NGO in Madagascar for some average monthly salaries in her local area. Here’s what she reported: teacher at the lycée, £60-90; head of the maternity ward at the local hospital, £75; pre-school teacher, £30; night guardian, £22. And for a local tribesman guard with a spear, shopkeepers might pay £6. Remember, these are monthly salaries, for people lucky enough to have jobs. Each employed person could be supporting up to seven family members.
It’s a topsy-turvy world for which I have no solutions except, perhaps, to feel less guilty if you tip less than the recommended amount in the developing world, and give any extra that you can afford to a local charity working with the underprivileged. Because of one thing there is no doubt – people working with tourists are spectacularly privileged.
What are your views on tipping? Should you tip at all? Do you often get it wrong? Tell us your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
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I tend not to tip but I do pay for extra services which I have requested so my usual driver/guide in Madagascar gets paid a lot extra because he does a lot extra including, teaching me French and Malagasy, translation, explaining Malagasy customs, beliefs and traditions, negotiation of prices, and a brilliant piece of negotiation which got me a permit for a resticted area of a national park. Not to mention help with luggage, finding someone to do laundry, advice on road conditions, phoning ahead to book appointments, checking money in the bank, knowing where to get the best exchange rates, explaining to Malagasy what I am dong there, the guy is worth a lot of money. Finally he is a good and safe driver.
I tip where the locals would tip. For instance, in France, bars and restaurants include a 15% service charge by law, so you might only tip a few small coins received in change if you had a particularly good experience and it's appreciated but not expected. I wouldn't tip a bus driver, unless it was customary for locals to do so (and I don't know anywhere they do), but handing out large wads of cash to a surly fellow that provided a non-personal service to a large group of people for a short time is absurd. Tipping should only be a way of showing that you were pleased to receive a good service, not an additional payment that's expected or even demanded simply because you're a tourist.
I am startled to think that a guide would be disappointed with a 'tip' of £1000 for 2 weeks work. The UK average salary is somewhere around £26,000 pa, so a 'tip' at this disappointing level would be equivalent to the UK average salary - and the UK is one of the wealthier countries in the world.Presumably these guides get paid as well...
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