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November 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Etiquette of Tipping on Dive Trips: Part II

are Americans just good tippers or total suckers?

from the November, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In August, we wrote how our subscribers, a worldly group of divers, tip on their dive travels, how much, and to whom. Many report being uncertain and even frustrated about how to handle this sensitive matter. And the farther they travel from the U.S or Canada, the more frustrating it gets.

If you're diving in Florida or Hawaii, you might think differently about tipping than if you're in, say, Indonesia. No American in that crew is going to work for Indonesian wages, so there is a pay disparity. If you're not from a tip-happy country like the U.S. or Canada, you may not think about it at all. But for North Americans, the wage difference makes it hard to know how much of a tip is too much.

$500 Tips per Person on Indonesian Liveaboards?

Consider the luxurious and highly regarded Dewi Nusantara in Indonesia, which carries 18 guests and is served by 22 crew. There are 18 bunks, the least expensive currently being $6,855 for an 11-night trip, but assuming they were all filled at that price by Americans, who will probably go along with the recommended tip of 10 percent of the trip price (although, see the boat owner's comments farther below about tipping), then the tipping pool will have about $12,330 in it. That would be about $560 per crewmember, if everyone gets an equal slice. On that amount, crew members could be kings of their villages.

Do you think that's what happens? Or would you think the person who cleans the cabins or loads the tanks gets maybe $100 (typical pay for these people in Indonesia is less than $250 a month), while the dive guides get $2,000? Is it possible that only $10,000 is shared on the boat and the rest goes elsewhere? You can ask, but can you ever be certain of the response? And when you consider that white-collar jobs may average from $500 to $1,200 a month in Indonesia, one must wonder whether these workers are getting $560 tips for every 11-day cruise.

A liveaboard in Europe is a different matter. My wife and I recently went on a Danube River cruise, where the recommended tip for the employee tip pool was $19 a day, per person (two percent of the total cost, for an average of $82 per crew member). They also suggested tipping those who provided excellent service, to whom I added the maid and our meal server. I ended up tipping $233 on a $6,500 bill, or four percent. Afterward, we hiked five days in Italy with Backroads, an American company, which cost $3,900 per person. The suggested tip was $190 per hiker (less than five percent) to be divided among three guides. Both amounts were considered adequate for each leg of my Europe trip, where every worker is paid a fair wage, and a tip is to thank some for good service, not to supplement their income. When have you seen a suggested tip of two percent on a dive boat -- or in an American restaurant?

What Dive Operators Suggest

Many liveaboards and resorts suggest a tip of 10 to 15 percent of the overall cost of the stay, but with many of them operating in developing countries, that doesn't take into account local salaries and cost of living. As Undercurrent subscriber Dave Marchese (Hummelstown, PA) summed it up in a question to us, "Do you tip differently in a developing country where wages average $5 per day, versus a place like Grand Cayman, where wages are $15 an hour?

Besides our readers, we also asked dive operators worldwide about their tipping policies. Of those who replied, most had one thing in common to say: Tipping is your choice, and if you choose to leave one, the amount is up to you.

Max Benjamin, who operates the MV FeBrina and MV Oceania in Papua New Guinea, says there are no set rules on tip amounts, although the trip-details sheet suggests US$15 per day. "We set our tipping guidelines low because tipping is not expected in Papua New Guinea. We pay our crew fair wages, and the excess that we charge in nitrox goes directly to the crew. That being said, the crew are incredibly grateful for [tips], as the money usually goes back to their families for school fees and healthcare."

But other dive operators who responded said tip pools are the norm, and individual tips are not recommended.

Avi Klapfer, who owns the Costa Rica-based Undersea Hunter fleet, says, "Each of our vessels works in its own way, but in general, there is no single individual tip. All the money that goes to crew has to be shared by everyone equally. The crew must submit to the captain all personal tips at the end of the cruise." He says that, on average, passengers pay about $20 to $40 per crew member.

Cheyne Benjamin, at the Walindi Resort in Papua New Guinea, tells guests to leave tips at the reception desk. "This way, tips can be collected over a period of time and distributed evenly among staff. We pool tips because there are back-of-house staff who help make the front-of-house staff look good, and therefore, it is only fair they also receive tips -- it is a team effort." However, if guests want to give more to a specific staff member, Benjamin says you can specify who at the reception desk.

Jimmy Praet, owner of West Papua Diving in Indonesia's Raja Ampat region, runs his crew's tipping pool on a point system. "Every staff member (in all departments) is evaluated on a monthly basis and given a score. At the end of every one or two months, tips are shared between all staff members, based on each individual score."

Normally Praet doesn't allow individual tips, "but if we know someone on the team did extra for a specific person and receives a direct tip, we often turn around and pretend we didn't see that. If they earned it, then they also deserve it."

Tips are at the client's discretion (Alex Bryant - Emperor Divers Fleet).

As for splitting up what could be a $12,330 tip pool for an 11-day trip, Guido Brink, owner of the Dewi Nusantara, replies, "With all due respect, it's no third party's business what tip we receive, or how it is divided. What we can guarantee is that 100 percent is fairly divided among crew."

"You are correct to say that, all in all, the tip is divided over more than just 18 boat crew. It's plus [another] five dive crew and the four women in the office (who get a tiny amount as appreciation, because without them, the crew wouldn't be able to perform.)"

Brink didn't say whether the tips are handed out regularly or held for distribution, but he did say, "In a good year, we hand out a year-end bonus of an extra month's salary. And for those crew who work through the yearly docking time, we also give an extra bonus in the form of a fixed amount. Another company policy is that all crew can request an interest-free loan of twice their monthly salary. And in case of family emergencies (healthcare related, home damage due to earthquakes or floods), the company helps as well."

Alexander Bryant, owner of the Emperor and Constellation fleets in Egypt, Indonesia, and the Maldives, recommends a $150 tip per person and discourages individual tips, but says the argument about tips subsidizing poor salaries is a weak and naive one. "In the three destinations we work in, our staff's salaries are way above the national average, and we must also factor in that crew have no personal living costs, as food and board are covered. [But] if we moved away from a tip system to a service-charge system of 10 to 20 percent, like in most hotels and restaurants worldwide, customers would end up having far higher costs. Tips are at the client's discretion, and our recommendations are merely a guide to what is deemed to be fair for three meals daily, three dives daily, and a week's accommodation."

Americans versus Everyone Else

Mark Shandur, owner and general manager of Worldwide Dive and Sail, says his boat crews get very excited when they have a full charter of American passengers because they know they'll get big money. When they have mixed-nationality charters, crews have certain ways to maximize their tips. For example, at the end of a trip, the cruise director aboard the Galapagos Master, says as he writes this on the white board:

We promised hammerheads.
We gave you hammerheads -- $100.

We promised Galapagos sharks.
We gave you Galapagos sharks -- $150.

We promised whale sharks.
We gave you whale sharks -- $100.

We promised iguanas.
We gave you iguanas -- $75.

We promised sea lions.
We gave you sea lions -- $75.

We promised rosy-lipped batfish.
We gave you rosy-lipped batfish -- $100.

We promised dolphins.
We gave you dolphins -- $150.

So that's a $750 tip. But as you are such good passengers, I'm going to give you a big discount and reduce it to $300.

The result, says Shandur: "The Americans fork out the full amount, and the rest tip $300."

Europeans, Australians and New Zealanders pay fair wages for most jobs and don't live in a tip culture, and in some cases, tipping may be seen as degrading. Nonetheless, these days, in those countries, it might be appropriate to tip 10 percent at a meal, a buck or two to a cab driver, or leave a coin for a bartender. But the idea of putting a substantial percentage of a dive trip cost into a tip pool doesn't go down well, and so most divers from these countries don't. Asians don't tip much, but that doesn't mean their countries pay fairly.

Many divers complain that some dive operations are too pushy

Bill Taylor (San Francisco, CA), who lives part-time in Indonesia and dives mostly there, says he tips, but not like an American. "We tip about $15 per day for the two of us."

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 their overseas travel with your gratuitous money?

I travel all over the world, says Brent Thompson (Chicago, IL), and it is a stark reality that Westerners come first, especially Americans, before their own people. I don't like it. and I agree with the op-eds begging Americans to please stop tipping.

However, when Thompson asks what others on the boat will tip, with the most common reply being 10 percent split evenly among the crew, he admits, "I bump it up to 15 percent, simply from an American habit."

For this, Americans get bashed by divers in the rest of the world. But some of our readers don't care. For them, there's pleasure in tipping what amounts to a local's monthly wage, when, to an American, it's peanuts.

"At the start of a trip, we've been ridiculed by some nationalities for being big tippers," says Tim O'Connor (Orlando, FL), who tips 10 percent overall and gives individual tips. "But as an American, I would rather be known as a big tipper than as the ugly American."

Rich and Arline McGowan (Fairfield, CT) also get grief on liveaboards, "... but we know tips are a substantial part of the crews' income, and frankly, given the economic status of the workers, helping them out a little feels like the right thing to do."

Mel McCombie and Harris Friedberg (New Haven, CT) have no qualms about tipping but aim to make it personal and sincere. "We carry cards and envelopes to write a note of thanks for the crew's hard work. When we give cash directly to someone, it is with a smile, handshake, and words of thanks. Why be tight-fisted with those who bust their chops to help you out? We are given good service, maybe because we are Americans, and maybe because we let the crew know upfront how much we appreciate their help."

"I look at it as being blessed to be able (financially) to do this sport, and most of the working people in these countries are very poor and work very hard," says Mary Anne Pedoto (Liberty Township, OH). "So, maybe I'm a sucker, but I'm a happy one who can afford to tip well."

Pushy Crew, or When Not to Tip

However, many divers complain that some dive operations are too pushy about tips. An incognito diver we'll call John Smith has decided not to book with certain well-known dive operations and resorts because of their mandatory tipping policies. "How do we know the tips go to the individual crew that did the best for us? When we have questioned this, we have been told to feel free to give additional tips. Seriously? The mandatory or expected tips really lose their value in incentivizing people to give the little extra. I think divers need to become more proactive at objecting to mandatory tipping. In Asia specifically, they 'expect Americans to tip big before you get service.' No thanks."

The problem for Mike Traylor (El Paso, TX), is "that it's almost impossible to individually tip a divemaster or crewperson for outstanding service. . If one can't do it very discretely, the exchange gets spotted, and the rest of the crew want some of the swag. I wish that the smiles and obsequiousness I've seen at the end of a dive week after they had their mandatory tips could more easily be provoked at the beginning of the week."

To Belynda Warner (Dallas, TX), once the tips are collected on liveaboards, service levels drop off. "I realize that on the last day of a trip, the staff is often busy preparing to switch out guests, and they may or may not be on their rare day off. But I was astonished on one liveaboard in particular that after tips were collected the afternoon before disembarking, I didn't see some of the staff again, at any point. In some cases, once the incentive to earn a tip vanishes, service level falls."

This is why Francois Cadieux, a Canadian now living in Vésenaz, Switzerland, tends toward the European model: "No tipping, or more correctly, service clearly included in the total contract price." It's not out of stinginess, he says, but the desire to obtain transparency, equity, and coherence. "Stating the total price upfront, including service, leaves no room for caprice, and places responsibility for paying staff a decent wage squarely with the employer. This still leaves leeway for discretionary tipping for exceptional service -- which is the whole point of a gratuity, not the sterile and awkward convention it has become."

John Miller (Lubbock, TX) agrees. "If you have different divers from around the world on a dive boat, do Americans provide the most money to the crew and others provide nothing? Just charge me for the dive trip and cut out the hidden costs."

What would happen if dive resorts and liveaboards followed through on that? Would all North American divers decide not to tip? And if that happened, would the worldwide dive industry survive? Could North Americans, who are so used to tipping, be persuaded not to?

As the world becomes more westernized, why not make that a common standard across the dive industry worldwide? Sure, prices will rise, but then divers won't have to calculate the extra cost of tips to add to their budgets or have to carry around a wad of cash. However, in an industry where many dive operators are struggling to stay above water profit-wise, they're not about to start paying crews much higher wages. They'll still keep relying on their passengers -- especially the Americans -- to make up the difference.

It would be easier for all of us if a proper service fee were tacked on, so the Brits and the Japanese would become part of the tipping equation, regardless of what their cultures dictate at home. It would reduce our costs while increasing theirs (but since they tend not to be paid as well as we, would it mean less travel for them?)

It would also be helpful if travel agents came up with a statement for each boat or resort they served, stating clearly what is proper tipping protocol and the proper amount for each. Cruise ships make it clear and easy; travel agents ought to as well.

When it comes down to it, it's up to you how much you tip. Recognize that there is often some presumed social pressure from peers. While you could listen to your fellow divers, still tip what feels right to you. That way, you won't go home from any dive trip, good or bad, feeling either cheap or resentful.

-- Ben Davison

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