Image: Restaurant bill in Paris
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At tourist destinations such as Paris, "the waiters will often not return with your change," Edward Girardet, a Swiss-American journalist and producer, says. "Then they act surprised if you call them on it."
updated 10/1/2009 9:01:49 AM ET 2009-10-01T13:01:49

In early September, Murray Nossel, an international communications consultant, arrived jet-lagged at the airport in Zagreb after an all-night flight from New York and was baffled by the wad of Croatian kuna a bank machine spit into his hand.

En route to his hotel, he was seized by a familiar fear. "I said to myself, 'I hope there's not a bellboy or valet to carry my luggage,' " he recalls. "I'll have no clue what to tip him."

Sure enough, an elderly gentleman in pinstriped trousers and tailored jacket whisked Nossel's bags up to his room. Soon came the face-to-face moment that Nossel, who runs a New York company called Narativ, had been dreading. "You don't want to give him the 50 you just got from the automatic teller," he says. "But you don't want to not tip him; this is a human being standing in front of you."

Nossel's conundrum is all-too-familiar to today's typical road warrior, especially when he or she must travel to some never-before-visited destination around the globe.

In hopes of helping international travelers figure out how to cope with such awkward moments, we checked in with a half-dozen frequent fliers and travel experts.

Nossel's way out of his Zagreb hotel dilemma: "I said to the bellman, 'I'd like to give you something when I next see you. I'll remember you.' "

Make a beeline for reception, Nossel recommends, and befriend the person at the desk. Ask for change and a quick primer on local tipping, including the gratuities expected by hotel staff, taxi drivers and waiters.

Nossel has worked in Dakar, Mombasa, Johannesburg, London and Cyprus in the past year, and he says he always keeps some American currency handy, just in case. "When all else fails, the American dollar won't," he advises.

Travel experts agree that it's always best to err on the side of generosity. "Even when you're a business traveler, you are still an unofficial ambassador from America," observes Erica Duecy, an editor at Fodor's. She recommends getting a stash of small denominations as soon as you arrive in a country. Keep your tipping cash in a separate compartment in your wallet, or in a change purse.

"You never go wrong by tipping big," says Joe Brancatelli, who runs a noncommercial Web site for business travelers. Tip the maid in your hotel every day, he advises, not just at the end of your stay. "If she sees you in the hall, she'll try to find out what else you need."

Image: Hotel porter
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In South America, tip hotel porters $1 to $3 per bag; concierges get $2 to $10.

A notable anomaly: Japan, where tips are not expected. The last time Duecy was in Tokyo, she was sticking to her rule of always being a generous American ambassador and left a couple of dollars on the table at a noodle house where she had lunch. "A man came running out of the restaurant with the money," she recalls.

Tipping does have a dark side: It can be demanded, and shade over into bribery. Edward Girardet, a Swiss-American journalist and producer, was driving through the streets of Kinshasa when a policeman stopped him and declared in French, "You broke the traffic rule. You didn't stop at the line. You must give me a 50-dollar tip." What line, asked Girardet. "This line," said the policeman, and he proceeded to draw a line with a piece of chalk. "I just shook my head and drove on," Girardet says. "I figured that as he had no gun or mode of transport, there was nothing he could do."

Girardet refuses to pay bribe-type tips in corrupt international destinations like Kabul, Afghanistan, where, he says, policemen will agree to exempt your bags from a security check if you pay them "baksheesh." He says he tips airport handlers only when they encase his bags in plastic or straps to protect them from probing hands, and he always gives 20 Afghanis, or about 40 cents, to the "baba" who cleans the toilets in the airport bathroom.

Though shakedowns are most common in especially corrupt nations, Girardet says you should also beware when visiting European tourist destinations such as the south of France or the big cafés on Paris's Champs-"Élysées. "The waiters will often not return with your change," he says. "Then they act surprised if you call them on it."

© 2012


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