Stephanie Spitler
June 11, 2013 9:00 am

I don’t know about you guys, but one of the most confusing (and awkward…and uncomfortable) things about traveling to a different country is trying to decipher their tipping etiquette. My first big overseas adventure was a high school trip to Germany, and since it was a tour (and pretty much everything except souvenirs and random snacks at McDonald’s was already paid for), the issue of tipping never really came up. I didn’t give it a second thought (or a first thought, come to think of it).

Fast-forward a few years to my epic backpacking trip across Europe. I flew in to Paris, and promptly sat down at a quaint little sidewalk café, huge backpack and all. After my coffee and croissant, I realized I had no idea how/what to tip. I knew enough to know that tipping norms can vary greatly from country to country, but I’d never thought more about it until I was sitting there, clutching the bill.

Now, I had worked as a server and take great pride in tipping well (it’s hard work, you guys). I didn’t want to stiff anyone, but I also didn’t want to waste money if the gratuity was already included. I was watching every penny on this trip, and a few extra dollars could’ve meant the difference between eating that day or going to a museum.

I was mortified at my own ignorance, and irritated at myself for overlooking such a basic thing in my research. Also, this was the pre-smartphone era, so I couldn’t just whip out my iPhone and start googling. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that things we never think twice about while we’re here in the States can turn your trip into an anxiety-ridden nightmare every time you step into a restaurant. But luckily, there are some easy remedies.

Get an app! I’ve mentioned this tipping app before, but I really do heart it so much. GlobeTipping will calculate any percentage tip you want, but really, any old calculator can do that. What makes GlobeTipping special is that you can search by country to find their tipping etiquette. Ever wonder how to tip in Fiji? GlobeTipping can tell you.

Go online or consult a guidebook. If you don’t have a smartphone, or won’t be bringing one with you on your travels, include tipping in your pre-trip research. You can make a note in a notebook you’ll be bringing with you, or photocopy some pertinent pages.

Watch what other patrons do. Ok, don’t stare in a creepy way that may get you branded as a weirdo, but if you find yourself in a country and don’t know the deal with tipping, casually observe what other patrons are doing. Are they leaving a few coins on the bill tray? Are they tucking folded notes under the saltshaker, or handing them straight to their waiter/waitress? Sometimes it’s hard to tell (especially if most people are paying with a credit card), but this is a reasonable first step to take. However, if you’ve watched several other customers and still have no idea, then it might be time to…

Ask someone. I know; this will most likely be super-awkward. And it can kind of make you feel like an idiot, but I always just shrug my shoulders and tell myself that it’s better to feel dopey for a minute than to stiff someone who is trying to make a living. I would start by looking around at the tables around you (this is probably more advisable at a café or a more casual restaurant), and approach anyone who seems nice. Start off by excusing yourself (in the native language, if possible) and then ask about how to tip. This is a risky prospect, and you’re never sure what response you might get, but it’s worth a try if you’re desperate. In a nicer restaurant, you could ask the maître d’ or the hostess. Personally, I try to ask someone at my hotel or hostel, before I head out for my first meal. The front desk clerk or the concierge should be able to answer your question; they’ve probably answered it a million times before, and asking them will spare you the embarrassment of walking up to random tables of unsuspecting diners.

What are your best tips on tipping?

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Featured image via Shutterstock.

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