WASHINGTON — What is it about tipping that makes people lose their minds?

I’m still reeling from the vitriol that came my way following a recent column in which I argued that tipping should not be about ourselves but about the food-service workers trying to earn a living.

One email — in all caps — had so many f-bombs that I stopped counting.

Travel expert Christopher Elliott, who writes the Navigator column for The Washington Post, thinks people responded with such disdain about my suggestion because they’re really angry about the lack of price transparency. The price isn’t the price anymore, they argue.

“Tipping isn’t just a restaurant issue,” Elliott said. “Gratuities affect a wide range of service workers, from hotel housekeepers to tour guides. And this isn’t about depriving servers, housekeepers or tour guides of their salary. It’s about truth in advertising.”

Whether it’s for a hotel room, a restaurant meal or even a muffin, businesses owe it to their customers to be upfront about the true and full cost, Elliott said.


“One of the tenets of capitalism is that you tell the truth about your prices,” he said. “So if you say that this cup of coffee is going to cost $2, then you should be able to pay $2 for it. And that’s the end of the transaction.”

Of course, that’s not happening, which is causing tipping fatigue, especially for travelers. The economics of the service industry has shifted to make it the direct responsibility of the customers to subsidize the salary of the workers.

Tips are no longer really optional.

Going on a cruise? There are a number of people who will expect a tip. That scuba-diving excursion means tipping the guide.

And don’t get Elliott (or anyone else, for that matter) started on how airline tickets are priced. Spirit Airlines charges travelers to have a customer service agent print out a boarding pass. Does it really cost $10 to print out a piece of paper?

It’s at the point where travelers need to pack a lot of cash just to tip all the people helping them along their journey.


Elliott, meanwhile, is opposed to the suggestion that restaurant customers tip 20 percent, no matter the quality of service.

“A mandatory 20 percent tip is a slippery slope,” he said. “We’ve already seen how it plays out in the travel industry. Cruise lines now ‘automatically’ add tips to your final bill. In coffee shops, you’re getting hit up for a tip before you get your beverage. Hotels add tips to your room service tab. No one is against employees being paid a fair wage. But you don’t do that by lying to customers about prices. You raise your prices to the point where you can pay your workers a living wage.”

Many of the readers who wrote me said they don’t like the anxiety that comes with tipping. “What’s fair?” they worry. They’re concerned that they’ll insult someone or tip too much.

“I always tip,” one reader wrote. “I just struggle to determine how much to tip.”

Of course, there are guides to help you figure out how much to tip. Check out the tipping guide at the Emily Post Institute.

Here are some questions from readers unsure of what to do in certain situations, and my answers.


Q: Do you tip before or after taxes?

A: There’s no consensus on this issue. The general tipping guide for the Emily Post Institute on etiquette says you tip pre-tax.

However, some servers argue that quibbling over whether you should tip pre- or post- the tax is petty.

For example, let’s say your meal pre-tax comes to $100. With a 6 percent sales tax the bill comes to $106. Before taxes a 20 percent tip would bring the bill to $120. At $106 including tax your bill would be $121.20

So, no, you aren’t going against etiquette protocol to base your tip on just the meal and not the tax. And neither should you be called a miser if you tip pre-tax. But just consider that the extra money could go a long way for someone trying to make ends meet on a low-wage salary.

Q: If you have a coupon, do you base your tip on the discounted price?


A: Your tip should be based on the original menu price.

Q: If you get something complimentary at a restaurant, do you tip the same percentage as if it hadn’t been free?

A: Tip on the full value of the comped meal or item.

Today, service always has a cost — and is never subject to a discount.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at c/o The Washington Post, 1301 K St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071, or  michelle.singletary@washpost.com.

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