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June 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Tipping on Dive Trips: Part II

how tips tie into the global economy

from the June, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Last month, Undercurrent wrote about how our subscribers, quite a worldly group of divers, tip; how much and to whom. Many report being uncertain and even frustrated about how to handle this sensitive matter.

What Travel Agents and Dive Operators Suggest

We asked travel agencies what they advise their clients. It varies, as you can imagine. Teri Dold at Aqua Dreams Travel says land-based-divers should tip 10 percent, whether for a two-tank dive or a multi-day dive trip. “If they are really great then a 15 percent tip would be better.” She doesn’t recommend tipping dive crew individually. “Most divemasters share their tips with the crew.” Caradonna Dive Adventures, on the other hand, recommends $10 per diver for each day they dive.

Caradonna’s Ann Louise Tuke says, “Your should check at the front desk or dive shop to find out how to handle tipping.”

We also asked dozens of dive operators worldwide about their tipping policies. Of those who replied, they had one thing in common to say: Tipping is your choice and if you choose to leave one, the amount is up to you. What wasn’t common was the suggested percentage for what makes a good tip. Mermaid Liveaboards in Indonesia is happy with 5 to 10 percent of the liveaboard’s full cost. Sam’s Tours in Palau recommended 10 percent of the dive bill, while Divetech in Grand Cayman said 15 percent, and Southern Cross Club on Little Cayman suggested 15 to 20 percent for their hotel/dive packages (notice how the closer the dive operation is to the U.S., the higher the suggested tip.)

Despite trying to stay impartial, a few dive operations wanted to explain why extra money was needed by employees to get by. “The staff very much needs tips to live on and supplement their salary,” said a general e-mail we received from Divetech. “They must also carry insurance, renew their instructor ratings each year and attend their training agencies’ annual updates.”

“Our crew support families, so they choose a life at sea partially due to the salary and tips they can earn onboard,” says Mermaid Liveaboards’ operations manager Kay Golding. “Foreign dive crew have to get the necessary permits required to work outside of their home countries, so every bit helps.”

At the opposite end is Bill Tewes of Dive St. Vincent. “We don’t beg for tips, it lowers the class of our establishment. We just tell customers that staff makes living wages.”

Are Tips Split Fairly?

Many divers believe tips they give to the owner are split evenly among staff. That’s not always true. When we asked dive operations how tips are distributed, again it was all over the place, with no commonly shared practice. Some pool their tips, others trust the owner to distribute fairly, a few set up funds, a few do something in between.

Chris Ferreira, Southern Cross Club’s general manager, says tips are pooled unless a guest specifies a divemaster by name. “If not, we split tips by how many hours each person worked that month.” Tewes of Dive St. Vincent says the ones “out front” who interact with divers get more as they’re the ones who make guests decide to tip. Sea Saba pools tips evenly among the all-instructor crew but a share of the monthly pool is split three ways for the behind-the-scenes staff.

On the Pacific side, Fiji liveaboard N’aia says tips are evenly split, from captain to apprentice engineer. Mike Ball liveaboards in Australia divide 90 percent of tips among crew while the remaining 10 percent goes into a social fund for throwing parties every few months for all staff. Sam’s Tours doesn’t have a tipping pool; general manager Dermot Keane says tips go to boat captains and guides. “They often share their tips with our compressor room, rental locker and shuttle service staff for assisting them, but that’s internal to the dive team.”

In the South Pacific, it’s common for dive boats and resorts to have tip boxes, one box for the dive crew and one for the rest, but the pooling strategy can be confusing – and possibly unfair. One reader remembers two boxes on Indonesian liveaboard Cheng Ho, one for the four divemasters and one for nondiving crew -- but the dive crew tips were split six ways. “Once for the two Indonesian dive guides, once each for the American divemaster couple, and once again for the American cruisedirector couple. I’m not sure how many guests caught this, and it wasn’t fully explained.”

Not every dive operation is as persistent in asking for or collecting tips. On a recent dive trip to the Dominican Republic, Conrad Kantor (Westlake Village, CA) asked his divemaster how many divers tip. The answer – only 25 percent. “Considering the service provided and the safety issues where we depend on them to help us in an emergency, it’s hard to understand how cheap some divers can be,” says Kantor, who regularly tips 10 to 20 percent.

Americans Versus Everyone Else

Kantor’s view is not shared by most of the world. Everyone knows Americans are the biggest tippers. That puts U.S. divers in a dilemma overseas. Will you be taken advantage of by crews only being nice to get tips? Will European divers snub you for ruining Third World travel with your gratuitous money?

“I used to tip $25 per person, per day, as a rule of thumb,” says Mona Cousens (Santa Barbara, CA). But say you’re with a boatload of Australians and you know they are not going to tip at all. I feel somewhat exploited because businesses expect more from us than from folks in non-tipping countries. But as Americans, we are going to tip something. It is just too much a part of our culture not to leave anything.”

Dive operations know this – and admit it. “Yes, generally Americans tip more than any other nationality,” says Mike Ball. “Everyone knows Americans tip better than, say, Germans,” says one Caribbean dive shop owner who prefers to stay anonymous. “But we treat all clients with the same high level of service, whether from California or Canada.” Bill Tewes agrees. “The English don’t tip at all but they get the same good service for nothing -- and they usually want more services.”

But many dive operations take advantage of Americans. Some Brits have told me there’s no tipping on Red Sea boats because most divers are European. Some resorts in Papua New Guinea have different booking policies for Americans, often marking prices up by 30 percent compared to other divers.

Randy Preissig (San Antonio, TX) was on Palau liveaboard Sun Dancer with a group of Europeans and Americans when crew announced tips could be put on credit cards. “Some of the Europeans were outraged and insisted this was a hidden increase in trip cost. One of the European crew took them aside and said not to worry, that the tipping pitch was ‘just for the Americans.’ I have also been told by dive crew elsewhere that they like getting more Americans, as this means more tips.”

For this, Americans get bashed by divers in the rest of the world. “Tipping is all but unknown amongst European divers and is grudgingly observed only in places with North American majorities,” says British reader Richard Connell (Devon, England). The tipping culture is resented and often used as just another reason to ‘hate’ Americans.”

The Canadian view, according to Dwight Chornook (Ottawa, ON): “Tipping for salary seems to be an American way of having people work for no money.”

“On most British dive boats, and even in the Red Sea, most divers don’t tip at all unless the service has been exceptional – maybe 25 Euros or US$40, and dive staff would not expect a tip,” says Neil Stead (London, England). “We find it difficult to understand the American mentality that you have to tip 10 percent even if service was awful.”

Unfortunately, the American style of tipping is spreading further afield. Places that see a lot of American customers are now demanding a 10 to 15 percent tip, whereas before they would have regarded 5 percent as an unexpected bonus.

Service Charges on Cruises

So what can Americans do? Some Undercurrent readers questioned why tips couldn’t be included as a service charge, as many European restaurants do. “If the tip was included, then I wouldn’t have to stress about it,” says Kathryn Mitchell (Lafayette Hill, PA). “I almost always tip 15 percent, but I think it would fairer if everyone paid this up front,” says Preissig. “I hear this is becoming the standard on several cruise lines.”

Yes it is, according to Linda Garrison, the Cruise Guide writer for “Most cruise lines have an established policy of turning tips into service charges, saying, ‘As a convenience to you, we’ve added it to your bill.’” The average charge is $10 to $15 per person, per day. Most cruise lines give it to the service staff in housecleaning and food service (officers and the captain are excluded). For example, Carnival Cruises charges $10 per person daily -- $3.50 goes to the cabin cleaners, $5.50 goes to the dining room staff, and $1 goes to kitchen and other service staff.

So compare a 10-day trip for two people on a cruise versus a liveaboard. A cruise’s daily service charge of $10 per person would amount to $200 by trip’s end. For a liveaboard that charged $3,000 per person, a 15 percent tip would be $450 per person, totaling $900 for two people. That’s a hefty difference.

But cruises do add on extra charges, such as tips for drinks at the bar – Carnival automatically adds 15 percent to the bill as tips for bartenders and support staff. It says tipping to room service staff and the restaurant maitre d’ is at your discretion.

“Passengers can ask for the service charge to be taken off their bill, but I recommend considering it as part of the fare, unless the service was terrible,” says Garrison.

The tipping/service policy is spreading to European cruises too, she adds. “I was recently on a French and a German ship, and both encouraged to tip. In fact, the only non-American server who refused my tip was a bellhop in Japan who schlepped eight bags to my room. He said flatly, ‘I don’t accept tips.’”

Tipping in the Third World

While some dive destinations like Fiji and the Maldives are known to actively discourage tipping, other countries don’t mind if you do. But there are no clear guidelines.

“I was in Thailand, where I had heard that they don’t tip but later found out from a guide that tourists were expected to provide ‘a little money,’” says Mary Caton. “Because of my culture and experience, I almost feel guilty not providing a reasonable tip, but I wish I had better guidelines as to what that is.”

Jerry Hobart (Ransomville, NY) was on the Maldives boat Baani Explorer in January. Typical divers are European, and crew said they’ve only had a handful of Americans in the last three years. “They’re not used to American tipping, so $2 to $5 goes a long way.”

That’s something to keep in mind when you consider how to tip while diving in non-Western countries. Say you tip 15 percent on a Palau liveaboard costing $3,000. If ten passengers tip that, the total tip is $4,500. Divided among a crew of eight, that’s $562 per person. That could be ten times the average daily wage of a middle-class worker in the South Pacific.

There is no tipping in Southeast Asia, says Marc Hansen (Menlo Park, CA), who lived and dived in the area. “Only certain businesses like dive boats catering to Westerners encourage it. Hotel porters and waiters do not expect anything, least of all a percentage. If I spend $100 on dinner in Jakarta, my Indonesian wife thinks a tip larger than $2 is too much.”

It’s helpful to understand the compensation there, says Hansen. “The dive manager, probably a Westerner, is earning several thousand dollars. The English-speaking Indonesian dive guide, maybe $500 per month. The remaining crew is probably earning less than $50 per month and very happy to have the job. For this lower class of worker, a small tip for good service is not unusual but not required. An educated Indonesian local might think a tip of $2 per day for a crew of 25 to split is generous, while a divemaster has most likely learned the Western tipping philosophy. Even then, they know Americans tip much larger than Europeans, like double or triple.”

As for the tip boxes, Hansen believes they’re separated because crew expects tips for divemasters to be “Western standard” and tips for the crew to be “Southeast Asian standard”. “In developing nations, I consider the compensation of the person, and tip as a percentage of their compensation for the time they helped me, adjusting it based on performance.” For an excellent divemaster, he tips at least as much as they are paid for the same number of days, around $20 per day, while an average divemaster would get 20 percent of what he is paid, or $4. “For a good crew, I pay $1 to $2 per day for everyone.”

But Keane of Sam’s Tours says the disparity between a 15 percent tip and the daily wage is not out of line. “The typical wage for our local boat captains is $55 to $70 per day, based on seniority, and divemasters get $50 to $75. Five days of two-tank diving costs $600, so a 15 percent tip of $90 divided between driver and guide is in line with their daily wage.” Perhaps, but if there are six people on the boat, multiply this by six.

Gabrielle Villarino, who has worked on many Indonesian liveaboards and is now at Max Ammer’s Sorido Bay resort, says Indonesian operators requesting tips of 10 percent or more of the trip price are asking too much. “Tip an average of 5 percent and only give more if you absolutely feel they deserved it.”

Some Fiji dive operations have sidestepped the tipping issue by establishing special funds for divers to donate to, although they didn’t specify if it was split evenly. The Wananavu Beach Resort puts guests’ tips into a Christmas fund that all resort staff share at year’s end. On crew’s request, the Nai’a puts a predetermined amount of all tips in an interest-bearing account for Christmas distribution, in time for school fees in January. Owner Rob Barrel says the fund is also used to make interestfree loans to crew for everything from funeral costs to nightschool tuition. “They don’t have to buy their own dive gear as we provide it for them. Ditto medical care.”

“In Fiji, crew tipped individually don’t share their tips with the rest, so our solution is to ask guests to not tip direct and instead make a small donation to the staff fund and the school fund,” says Dive Kadavu manager Cameron Forster. “This way we can distribute funds evenly among staff, based on consultation with the village elders and the position they hold. With the school fund, we’ve put desks and chairs into classrooms, provided teacher aides and even purchased some computers. Our company matches guests’ dollars, and we have students who completed high school who wouldn’t have been able to afford it without the fund.”

Rethinking Tips During Recession

Still, like some of their counterparts in the U.S. and the Caribbean, divemasters in less-rich countries are expecting to get First World tips. “I usually tip my dive guide in any Asian country $50, but then I found that those on the Thorfinn in Truk expected nothing short of $100 – and that was way back in 2000,” says Helga Cookson (Brussels, Belgium). “More dive crew spoiled by American divers.”

Now with prices rising dramatically while the U.S. dollar falls through the floor, a traveling American diver may think more carefully about the amount of his tip. Reader Dave Bader (Norwood, NC) sums it up: “Increased costs shouldn’t necessarily be translated into increased tips. Diving professionals and boat crew work hard and deserve a reasonable tip, but divers need to reevaluate how they tip and base the amounts solely on the services provided, not the charter cost.”

- -Ben Davison


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