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September 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 34, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Dive Trip Tipping Conundrum: Part I

is there an etiquette?

from the September, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

There may be no other topic that generates more passion and diversity of opinion among divers than how much to tip. Subscriber John Whitehead (Atlanta, GA) sums it up perfectly: "Tipping remains one of the great mysteries of the universe."

So many questions, so many replies given for each: Do you tip no matter what? Do you tip individuals such as your guides or put it in a community pot? Do you tip at all? The variables are endless, especially for European divers, who tend not to tip because in their cultures service people are paid a fair wage and don't need tips to survive.

Then think of the people you typically might consider tipping. On day boats, you have a boat captain, a dive guide, sometimes a support staff than schleps tanks and washes gear. At resorts, there are bartenders and waitstaff, room cleaners, bellhops, etc. And to complicate matters, on liveaboards (and at some small dive resorts) diving, eating and accommodations are all part of the same operation, and you've probably paid a fixed fee for your stay.

And on what do you base your tip? The amount suggested by the company? The way you tip at home? The overall good experience? To thank individuals who have done something special for you? To supplement the pay of a worker who is probably underpaid? Or to do what you think is expected of you?

With this as a backdrop, it's interesting to see what dozens of Undercurrent divers wrote to us about tipping. Clearly, Americans and Canadians are the biggest tippers because they come from a tip culture, where tip jars are even found in take-out sandwich shops and movie theatres (called a "college fund"). But not all North Americans share that mindset -- emotions and experiences among the mostly American divers who shared their tipping opinions ranged from wholehearted approval to grudging acceptance to utter annoyance.

So while there's still no one clear-cut answer about tipping, we gleaned some good information about the ranges of percentages and dollars your fellow divers divvy out, whom they tip separately, and what situations encourage them to tip more, less, or not at all. Hopefully, this will help you better understand tipping protocol and whether you care to observe it.

What's a Tip Actually For?

Presumably, the purpose of tipping is to give a reward for a job well done. But garnering future good service at places you plan to return to is another intent -- Clark Parker (Kingsport, TN) believes tipping is an absolute must at dive destinations and operations you frequent regularly.

Most Americans and Canadians also tip when the crew goes above and beyond to make your dives more blissful. One incognito Undercurrent subscriber we'll call John Smith tweaked his back when picking up his dive bag at Grand Cayman's airport. "While on the dive boat going out to the wall, the divemaster asked if my back was bothering me and if I felt I could dive OK. I said yes (my back twinged when I moved a certain way). He said if I waited to be the last one in the water, he would hand my gear down to me in the water so I didn't strain my back, and when I surfaced, I should remove my gear and he would pull it up on the boat for me. I really appreciated his observations and solution. After doing 12 dives with them, I privately handed the divemaster $200 in addition to the 'crew tip.'"

But how much should one reward for good service to an employee who's getting paid regularly to ensure divers enjoy themselves anyway? There's little doubt that in many dive businesses where employees are tipped, the owner has a strong incentive to maintain low wages and expect the additional tips to make up for a proper wage.

That's why Kendall Gray (Roswell, GA) doesn't like tipping. "I do it because it's expected. I don't want to be a jerk to people who treat me well and have come to rely on tips. But when I'm on vacation, I don't want to worry if I'm playing the tipping game right. I don't like the awkwardness or the ambiguity. I never really know what the fair amount should be, and when I ask my fellow divers, they aren't sure either. It would be much better if employers would pay employees a fair wage, and the employees would treat all clients well and equitably."

Many divers share Gray's opinion, and it is certainly the way Europeans look at tipping in their home countries. But, North Americans, and some others, often feel embarrassed if they don't tip as much as the next guy, so they tip, which can lead to difficult situations for group leaders such as Nat Stark's, who took his San Diego dive club abroad. "After he collects everyone's envelopes, if the total falls below 10 percent of our group's trip cost (and it always does, thanks to cheapskates), he pays out of his own pocket to bump the total to 10 percent! He owns a reputable dive shop, works hard on his relationships and reputation, and doesn't want to leave a pathetic tip. I am amazed that someone who can afford a scuba vacation in a faraway place cries poor when it comes to tipping."

Yes indeed, but there are many divers who resent having to supplement a crewmember's wages by tipping, considering that the boat owners, often an American or European, charge thousands to a diver and make big money. "Some dive resorts and liveaboards ask for 10 percent of the trip price as a tip, and some of these trips can run upwards of $5,000 per person," says Mike Traylor (El Paso, TX). "Add to that airfare, port fees, taxes, drinks, etc. I think tipping should only be for exceptional service; it shouldn't be expected."

Still, other divers, such as Dave Demming (Chagrin Falls, OH), know how it works and tip well. "Because tips are a critical part of our dive guides' livelihood, we always tip generously. The Maldives Blue Force One liveaboard listed a mandatory $195 tip for the 10-day trip, and we added funds on top of it."

Dave Marchese (Hummelstown, PA), who always tips 10 percent of the diving expenses, adds, "I certainly want the staff to make a decent wage for their work. If tipping is the only way to make that happen, then there certainly should be tipping."

What Do Your Fellow Divers Tip?

How much should one reward for good dive service? Most readers say they tip 10 to 15 percent of the dive costs, whether it's a liveaboard or shore-based operation.

Other divers think about tips in dollar amounts. For day trips, most said they tip $5 to $10 per tank, while others give $10 to $20 for a day's worth of good diving. If they're on liveaboards, the per-diem-tipping they give ranges between $10 and $40.

A few divers tip, at least in part, with goods and services. Sue Hutchings (Bordeaux, France), a 14-time visitor to a Papua New Guinea resort, doesn't give cash anymore. "We've sponsored individuals to learn to dive or gain a qualification. We take toys and educational resources for the local school, where the children of the dive crew attend. We take orders for equipment they can't buy in Raja Ampat, and we also take vast quantities of chocolate for all staff. Sometimes I think they like this better than cash."

Back in the day, it was common to leave dive gear, including computers and wetsuits, for dive guides who often went without.

Who to Tip?

Some divers count the people who helped them with their dives -- divemaster, panga driver, tank filler -- and come up with a proper sum for each based on how many dives they did. Then there's the non-dive crew -- housekeeping and service staffs at dive resorts are also relying on tips.

John Whitehead (Atlanta, GA) tips individuals directly rather than contribute to a pool. "On private, two-dive day trips for a few of us, I usually give $100 to the dive guide and $100 to the boat captain. If there's a spotter in the boat, I give $75 each to the captain and the helper. If we're with other people on the boat, I give $20 to $50 to the dive guide, captain and helper, depending on how many of the others are going to tip. At a dive resort, I make sure waiters and bartenders get a 20 percent tip. Chambermaids get about $10 a day per room, and the turndown folks get $2 to $3 for that."

Bill Jurney (Roseville, MN), who leads dive groups, suggests $10 per day for the dive operation, $2 a day for housekeeping and at least $5 a day for food services.

If you're fortunate to have a dedicated divemaster and boat crew for all your dives, it makes things easier. When Owen Poole (Walnut Creek, CA) stayed at Chuuk's Blue Lagoon Dive Resort to dive in Truk Lagoon, he had one divemaster and his assistant for the entire week. "At the end, with both together, I gave them $500 and told them to split it as they saw fit."

How to Tip

How do you hand over your money? That's often the most frustrating part. Where tipping pools are established -- on liveaboards, for example -- you may not know where the money goes. Tipping pools make it easy, so you don't have to make choices about whom to reward. But, are there crew members who should not be included in the tipping pool, such as the boat captain or the cruise director? Should they not be paid as professionals and not be included in the tip?

When the money is distributed evenly or equitably, what does that really mean? With a crew of 10 and a tip pool of $4,000, does the captain, earning $40,000 per year, get $400, the same as the deckhand earning $4,000? Or is it based on a percentage of salary, so that the deckhand gets one-tenth ($40) of what the $40,000 captain gets ($400)?

And, there are unseen persons. Alison Bygrave (Dewi Nusantara) told us their tipping pool includes "the four girls in the office (who get a tiny amount as appreciation; without them the crew wouldn't be able to perform, it's one big team effort)."

Divers may not know the behind-the-scenes distribution, but regardless, anonymous tip-boxes make it easy; they can drop in what they want and hope it will be distributed to their liking.

This suits Sue Hutchings (Bordeaux, France), who, when booking a liveaboard through a British travel agency, was recommended to put in a 10 percent tip for pooling. "This was useful as it took away all the dithering, and I got the feeling it was shared out among all staff. We have always asked the operator's policy of tip distribution, and have just trusted it was the truth."

Steve Dussault (Dover, NH), who budgets 10 percent of a liveaboard's upfront cost for tips, gives 20 percent of that amount directly to the dive guide and the rest to the tip pool.

But what if you don't feel an employee deserves to be included in the group tip? It's frustrating when you can't leave that person out. So some divers seek out specific crew members who gave them extra attention. "I always discreetly cash-tip individuals who have offered instruction, been my private divemaster, or some other special circumstance," says Nat Stark.

Gina Razete (North Fort Myers, FL) gives a 15 percent tip and wants it distributed evenly to every crew member, both on liveaboards and on day boats, "and if I have any doubts, I distribute them myself." She carries an extra $20 for every day she dives, "for the divemasters and crew who gave me special attention. If I feel someone hasn't lived up to at least the medium standard of quality, these amounts can be cut in half, or worse. I don't have a guilty conscience if someone doesn't do their work correctly, as tips are the only measuring tool I have."

In Fiji, it's common for resorts to turn much of the tip pool over to the village from which their workers come, where it is frequently used to support the local school.

When to Tip

Some divers also recommend certain times of the trip to give tips -- they don't wait till the last day.

Douglas Peterson (Naperville, IL) starts tipping the dive crew on Day One, "because they might not be around on the final day, and it doesn't hurt the service level to let them know you appreciate their efforts and attention."

Stephen Cann (Winnetka, IL) says "There are a few dive trips where I have tipped 20 percent to the divemaster at the beginning, saying, 'Thanks in advance for helping keep me safe.'" Comments like that can go as far as cash to remind dive staff of their purpose.

Raymond Haddad (Candiac, Quebec) tips in advance to ensure top-shelf service. When he and his wife went to Yap, he was told they would have the same dive guide and boat driver for their 10 days. "At the beginning, I gave them a tip and said, 'My wife is number one, and there are more tips to come based on the service.' Our boat always departed before the others to get to the best sites first, and they would treat my wife like a queen. The other divers, mainly European, on our boat, asked me, 'How come we leave before the other boats, and how come they always ask you where you want to dive?' I told them, 'Tipping is magic!'"

Next month: We'll take a look at crews who push too hard for tips; how divers perceive tipping in underdeveloped countries versus those in wealthier regions; what advice dive operators give about tipping their staff (or not); and whether Americans are perceived by other divers as total suckers or those Yanks who have ruined everyone else's dive trip budgets.

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