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July 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Last Word on Dive Tipping

rules for American divers maybe even I can observe

from the July, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When it comes to tipping on a dive trip, you can tip anyone you want any amount you want. It’s your business. But if you have some regard for money, the purpose of the tip, the country and its culture you’re visiting, as well as your fellow divers who come from other countries, you might try to be thoughtful rather than reckless. Of course, hardly anyone at a dive resort or on a liveaboard will turn down a tip, but it’s not necessarily appropriate to pass out money as you would business cards at a convention.

After reading the hundreds of responses we received from our readers to our e-mail question about tipping, it’s clear that most divers don’t know what is “right.” Most Americans feel guilty if they don’t tip big, while just about everyone else in the world tips more selectively, tips less, and often never. Not because they’re cheap, but because they believe people should properly perform the job they are being paid for and that it’s not up to the customer to reward them a second time. They often view American tippers as foolish and crass.

So if you’re an American diver and want some guidelines, other than what travel agents and resort and liveaboard owners urge us to do (15 percent, maybe 20 percent, of the total bill, which means hundreds of dollars that may never end up where you intend), you should pick those who did something for you tip them individually. If you jump into the tipping pool, you have no control over the results.

Ben’s American Rules

I believe tips are for the so-called working stiff - - minimumwage earners, people not earning a living wage, people in deadend jobs, and people who are neither managers, professionals nor owners, and who don’t get a share of the profit.

Tips are for:

* People who serve you, like waiters and bartenders, but not your butcher or the lady selling you jewelry.

* People who clean up after you, like cabin attendants and maids, but not your dry cleaner or dental hygienist.

* People who deliver things to you, like bellhops and pizza drivers, but not the FedEx guy or the furniture delivery man.

* People who transport you, like a dinghy driver or a cab driver, but not an Amtrak engineer or a liveaboard captain.

* People who point you in the right direction or help you out, like guides who point out fish or a concierge who scores you World Series tickets, but not your librarian or travel agent.

* People who touch you, like masseuses and barbers, but not nurses or your tailor.

* People who save your life, like the boatman who tracked you down a mile from your liveaboard, but not the dive guide who forgot to count you.

* And you might consider tips for the folks who work when you sleep, like those raking the leaves on the beach, scrubbing the kitchen floors, or washing the urine out of your wetsuit.

Of course, most Aussies and Brits I know are scoffing at my laundry list, but remember guys, these are American rules.

Because tips are not for owners, managers or professionals, it means that it’s not for chefs, trip leaders, scuba instructors who teach you (did you tip your underpaid high school gym teacher?), airplane pilots or bus drivers. Nor are they for people who grab your suitcase without asking, or guides who don’t point out fish, say rude things to you, talk behind the back of others, are sexist, racist and just plain stupid . . . and, of course, for anyone who suggests a tip, no matter how subtly. A tip is not an entitlement.

If you boil all this down, the American traveling diver should consider tipping dive guides, tank attendants, chase boat drivers, and servers and cleaners. A tip pot or tipping request that includes the photo pro, the chef, the engineer, the tour director or the boat captain, to name a few, is excessive and ought to be ignored in favor of individual tips.

The rule works very well on a liveaboard, where you’ve got plenty of time to tip people individually. It’s a little tricky, however, because the chef might also be the one who makes your bed, so he might deserve a small tip for that, but not if he fails to wash his hands afterward.

At a resort, where for each day you have a different guide, dinghy captain and guy washing out your wetsuit, it gets tough, especially if you haven’t learned their names. But at many venues, giving a ten spot to the guide and asking him to spread it around is like asking a tot to share her Christmas candy – only after she gets her fill. You might feel less guilty, but you may just be empowering a bag man.

When in Rome...or Raja Ampat

No matter where you go, most everyone you tip will be a local (though some guides might be American or Aussie). If you follow my approach, you should then fashion a tip based on local standards, which may not be easy to figure out, but give it a shot.

For example, with a quick Google search I learned the average wage in Bangkok is less than US$30 a day, but that’s weighted by high-income earners. When you go lower down the income levels, it’s more like $10-$15 for office workers and even less for laborers. Minimum wage is around $6 per day.

In Indonesia, where the minimum wage is $3 a day, local crew excluding dive guides generally make $50 to $150 a month. Local dive guides range between $100 to $700 a month. Expat dive guides/cruise directors, usually around $800 to $1,500 a month, some more. In Papua New Guinea, laborers may make $100 to $200 a month and dive guides more.

So in countries like this, I think a tip of $5 a day would be fitting, even generous. If the person was serving 12 divers on a liveaboard, he’d be getting twice his wage in tips (he can be paid less and still be paid fairly if he is fed). If he were my private guide, I’d give him $10, maybe $15. If someone in a hotel carries your bag, a five-spot is not the appropriate tip; two-bits is closer to it.

If there are five people on the liveaboard who meet my tipping criteria, then I should be shelling out $250 for a ten-day trip. Divers who think 15 percent of a $3000 trip would be shelling out $450.

The Caribbean, of course has a higher standard of living and pay scale. In the Cayman Islands, depending on what island and what resort, monthly wages range from as low as US$1,000 to nearly $2,000. Tipping $10 to $15 per day total for those involved – you pick ‘em – seems fair. If you’re tipping everyone all at once on a $1,500 bill for the week, then $150 to $200 would make sense – if you’re an American. If you’re Canadian or a Brit? Well, at least buy your dive guide a pint or two.

Do You Know Where Your Money Is Going?

Of course, the operators, who rely on tips to ensure their staff is paid enough to stay on the job, won’t be happy with what they will see as a parsimonious approach from Americans with deep pockets – after all, we Americans are subsidizing all those other divers who don’t tip. But let us remind them of cruise ships. These days, tipping is becoming standardized. It’s $10 a day per person for everyone but the bartender, who is tipped separately. And you, with the deep pockets, should keep in mind that if you’re traveling with Europeans, Aussies and Kiwis, you might be the only one tipping. And they’ll consider you daft.

Regardless of what leaders tell you about the fairness of their community pots, you have no control over how it’s disbursed so you can’t be sure of the distribution formula. While the money often gets to the hardworking soul who just cleans cabins or tends to the engine, it may not. So carry a dozen plain envelopes, lots of small bills, and pass them out to the people whom you want the tips to reach.

And tip for the service you received, not so you’ll be remembered when you return. That may make sense if you go to the same bar or restaurant every Friday night, but if you’re going back to Captain Don’s or Beqa Lagoon Resort once a year, chances are most everyone you dealt with has moved on, and if not, you’d be remembered only if you dropped a hundred-dollar bill everywhere you went. Sure, you “felt like family,” but a hundred people a week leave feeling like family.

Finally, of course, you can tip anyone any amount you care to. It’s your money and you can give it away. However, there’s something gauche about an American tossing money around, and while you might put a moment of joy in the hands of the recipient, a little prudence will benefit the greater good. And if you still feel like a cheapskate, give it to a school or library. At the airport, drop it into one of those buckets for a local charity. Instead of tipping the photo pro or the tour director who makes living wages, you can feed five families for a week.

I asked several people to read and comment on this before it went to print. Here are two views I want to share.

John Bantin, Technical Editor of Diver in the UK, says this: “Yours is an interesting yet uniquely American perspective on tipping. I believe it is best to do what is considered normal in any situation. In America, people who serve seem to live on the tips they get but in the EU, people must be paid a proper wage. In some countries like Papua New Guinea, not only is tipping not normal but it is actively discouraged. In Thailand, everyone hustles for more. When you tip a liveaboard boat crew, often it is the people you never see who deserve the most, such as the engineer who stayed up all night to mend the compressor or fix the sanitation flush, so individual tipping is often unfair. And giving 10 percent of the cost of your holiday is a ludicrous idea that makes other people think Americans have got more money than sense.”

Ken Knezick, American owner of Island Dreams Travel in Austin, had this comment: “Personally, if I ‘overtip’ and it helps to change someone’s life, then I am happy to be able to do so. I don’t think we are required to perpetuate disparities of income and lifestyle. I have been graced with much good fortune, be it due to luck of birthplace, education, opportunity, and a body and brain that work. Sharing that wealth is part of what makes me who I am. On the other hand, I have had a resort manager tell me, ‘Don’t spoil the wogs.’ What a pitiful attitude.”

- - Ben Davison

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