By Sylvan Hardy
If you want to stir up a spirited discussion among Ecuador expats, bring up the subject of tipping. Ask what you should leave the waitress, the tour guide, the baggage handler, or the maid, and you’ll likely get as many answers are there are expats in the room.
In the U.S. and Canada, home turf to the majority of expats, gratuities are customary and expected. However, in many other countries, tipping isn’t common. In some European countries, such as Italy, Germany, and France to a certain extent, wait people and other tipped workers make a living wage and get health insurance. Many countries in Asia strictly forbid it and a tip will often offend a service worker. Tipping is also not the custom in India, New Zealand, or Australia.
Though it’s becoming increasingly common in tourist areas all over the world, tipping still has a long way to go before catching up (or, depending on your point of view, devolving down) to North American practices, where most tip-position workers earn minimum wage, rarely get employer-based health insurance, and are taxed at a rate based on assumed tips,
In Ecuador, as well as Latin America in general, there’s no cut-and-dried guide to tipping, which is why it’s a subject for debate. Many people believe it sets a bad precedent for foreigners to tip or, worse, to overtip in a country like Ecuador where only small tips, if any, are extended to waiters, waitresses, and baggage handlers.
The bad-precedent crowd says it’s a slippery slope, as evidenced by tipping getting out of hand in the U.S., where wait people in many restaurants now think of 15% as the minimum, and management tacks on 18% or even 20% to the bills of dinner parties of more than six or eight people (which, ironically, has the unintended consequence of discouraging larger groups to dine out together).
Also, playing for tips gives rise to the kind of overly obsequious service that you get in more and more U.S. restaurants these days.
In Ecuador, you can divide the restaurant tipping experience into two categories.
The first is for the almuerzo, the fixed-menu lunch popular throughout Ecuador. We very rarely see an Ecuadorian tip a lunch waiter or waitress. On occasion, local patrons might round up the $2.75 bill to $3 or $4.75 to $5 to avoid the wait for change. The same practice holds true with most expats we’ve talked to although some regulars routinely leave a small tip in expectation of receiving better service on the next visit — usually a reasonable calculation — or simply as a reward for a job well done.
In the fancier restaurants, or the almuerzo joints after lunchtime, you will often notice that in addition to the 12 percent IVA, a 10 percent service charge (servicio) is tacked on to the bill. As a consequence, many gringos consider 10% to be the standard for tipping on a dinner bill when the servicio is not included, though Ecuadorians usually tip far less, more like 5 percent, although some don’t tip at all.
Some of us have heard that a few restaurant owners pocket the servicio though no waiters we’ve talked to have accused their bosses of it. Several waiters we’ve asked told us that the owner splits the servicio among the staff, including cooks, bartender, cashier, and wait staff. Increasingly in Cuenca, you see tip jars or boxes at the cashier station.
Even at restaurants that charge the servicio, some expats leave an extra 5 to 10 percent tip. That money goes directly into the pocket of the waiter or waitress, almost all of whom are highly professional and provide excellent service, especially at the better restaurants.
Ecuadorian taxi drivers are rarely tipped although the practice is more common today than in 2014 when taxi meters became mandatory in Cuenca. Before meters, fares were negotiated, with the driver usually adding some padding. With meters, fares are typically lower than four years ago and some riders round up the fare by 10 to 25 cents. If the driver helps load and unload luggage or heavy packages from the trunk, he deserves a 50-cent tip.
Baggage handlers at the airport or hotel are happy with $1 per bag.
Give the hotel doorman a 50-cent tip if he provides extra service, such as hailing cabs for you.
A tip of a dollar per day, or $1.50 in the case of exemplary service, to the hotel housekeeper who cleans your room can translate into a friend for life.
Tour guides should be tipped $10 to $15 per person per day, depending on the class of the tour. If he’s also the driver, he deserves a little more. A separate driver generally gets about half of what the guide does.
At the end of boat excursions to the Galápagos or the Amazonia, naturalists are usually tipped $20 to $30 per person and kitchen staff $10 to $20.
For building concierges, maids, housekeepers and others you interact with in your household, it is standard practice to give a gift of cash, food or drink at Christmastime.