Tapped out on tipping

A pair of recent columns about tipping customs upset some readers and raised more questions for others.

One fellow decided my detailed list of suggested tipping amounts for hotel staff and airport personnel proved I was simply “ ... a paid huckster for the shake-down elements in society ...,”  while many others agreed with the sentiment of a reader who concluded that these columns were a sure sign that tipping in our society has just generally gotten way out of hand: “I feel that charges for all the areas that you indicate for tipping [are] a false way to pressure travelers into paying for what companies should be doing — namely, paying a sufficient wage!”

On the road, it does sometimes seem as if there are outstretched hands at every turn. But remember, while customary, tips remain voluntary tokens of appreciation for good service. You decide if you’re going to tip and how much you’ll tip; these lists just offer some guidelines. But as some readers pointed out, many situations remain murky. For example:

Who’s holding the bag?
Ann from Philadelphia writes: “I’m a frequent traveler, but one thing has flummoxed me lately: you pull up to the hotel in your car, and the valet/bellman takes your bags and puts them onto a cart, the cart is then pushed by a different bellman into the lobby check-in area, and then after you check in, yet another bellman actually takes you and the cart to your room. Who do you tip?”

I asked Louise Smith, Chef Concierge at the Grand Hyatt Seattle for some advice on this one. She said while it’s customary to tip the bellman who actually takes your luggage to your room, “if a guest feels comfortable giving something to the doorman or valet who welcomes them and gets their baggage to the bell stand inside the lobby, a small tip of $1 or $2 is appreciated but not necessary.”

But a concierge at a four-star hotel in Boston (who asked that I not use his or his hotel’s name) said he considers an “experienced traveler” to be one who tips “both the bellman who brings their luggage up to the room and the doorman whose job it is to welcome the guest to the hotel, take their luggage inside and arrange for a valet to park the car.”

Butter ‘em up at the B&B
Arriving at a big hotel teeming with uniformed lobby staff is one thing, but Karla from New Orleans finds herself confused about tipping customs when staying at small bed-and-breakfast establishments: “These are often owned and managed by individuals and/or couples so they do all the tasks involved. Any different suggestions for this situation?”

Rickie Hart, who owns the Creekside Inn in Salem, Ore., and answers the phone for the Oregon Bed and Breakfast Guild, says “At B&B’s with one or two rooms that are run solely by the proprietor, owners do not expect to be tipped. But at larger B&Bs that hire outside housekeeping staff, tipping is appreciated as in any other lodging.” She adds, though, that for owners of small inns, “in lieu of a cash tip you can give something more valuable: a good referral.”

A guy walks into a bar …
While most of us are comfortable tipping 15 percent to 20 percent on a restaurant tab, Richard from Beverly Hills, Calif., poses this question: “[W]hen ordering a high-end scotch that costs $115, is the 15-20 percent still appropriate or is a lesser amount acceptable? And with wine, is the tipping percentage the same for a $40 bottle of wine as for a $400 bottle?”

With little — OK, absolutely no — first-hand experience ordering or paying for drinks in that price range, I asked two Seattle-area restaurant insiders to help me explore this tipping scenario: Mark Canlis, Managing Owner of the classic and very sophisticated Canlis Restaurant and Brandon Gillespie, owner of six-month old Beàto Food & Wine.

“Wine does throw people off,” says Canlis, “But I always encourage people to tip on what they feel and less on what the check says.”  For example, he says, there’s a difference between just looking at the wine list, ordering a bottle and “Boom — the guy comes out, opens the bottle, pours it and you drink it,” and a situation where it may be a busy night in the restaurant and the sommelier spends quality time answering your questions about the wine list, making suggestions, helping you choose the exact right wine for your special meal and making you feel very comfortable. “I believe you don’t need to tip the standard 20 percent on a very expensive bottle,” says Canlis, “but if you do, you should have received significant service and you should feel really good about it.”

Gillespie from Beàto Food and Wine agrees: “If someone is ordering a [very expensive] bottle like that, it’s about experiencing the wine and having your expectations met. I don’t think there are any rules that you have to tip of 15 percent or 20 percent on wine. Ten percent on an expensive bottle may be fine. “The bottom line,” he says, is to analyze the situation a bit: “Has the server guided you through the meal, based on what you told them? Are you happy?  Have you had an experience or just a ‘regular’ meal?”

Craig from New York agrees, “To me it would depend on the restaurant, the cost of the wine and the fabulousness of the overall experience ... After a nice dinner, a generous tip enhances ones feeling of all being right with the world, don't you think?”