How much to tip?

February 27 2016


It’s a question I’ve had hissed at me by uncertain fellow travellers all over Africa, and one I’ve also often been moved to ask awkwardly myself: should we leave a tip and, if so, how much? By Philip Briggs, Travel Africa Magazine

Unfortunately there are no cut and dried answers. As in the West, expectations and customs vary greatly from one country to the next. And things will also depend on whether or not you travel in a manner that involves dealing mainly with those locals whose income is largely tourism-dependent.

In most of Africa, tipping isn’t customary at restaurants or bars that cater primarily to the local market. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t leave a tip at a local eatery, but you will usually find that whatever small change you proffer is warmly appreciated, and the Western standard of 10-15% would be regarded as generous in the extreme.

By contrast, dine at an upmarket city restaurant, and declining to leave a ten per cent tip would be perceived as mean or implicitly critical of the service. Be aware, however, that many such restaurants implement a service charge which should theoretically suffice as a tip, but seldom actually filters down to the staff, particularly if you pay by credit card. It’s generally best to tip your waiter directly with cash.

An altogether different tipping-related scenario faced by independent travellers in North and West Africa is the prevalence of individuals who leech the fringes of the tourist industry, posing as guides or all-round friendly blokes, in the hope of coining a payment. In Egypt, some take this ploy to surreal baksheesh-extracting extremes. Simple rule of thumb here: steer well clear. Handing over money will only encourage them to try on the same routine with other travellers.

At the more upmarket end of the spectrum, you would expect your tour operator or lodge manager to be able to advise you on tips for guides and drivers. Be aware, however, that many East African safari operators now explicitly instruct clients to leave daily tips that greatly exceed daily wages on the basis that drivers and guides ‘live off their tips’. This is a rather cynical practice, in that it allows the operator to cut the upfront cost of a safari by shifting the onus of paying its staff onto the clients!

This phenomenon was taken to a radical level by one beach hotel that I recently visited ‐ a tip box at reception, another in the restaurant, a third in the dive centre, and, on every drink or meal chit, a pointed reminder that individual gratuities are encouraged. Posted prominently at the reception of the same hotel is a notice stating that “service charges are not included in the price of accommodation”, which strikes me as an extraordinarily self-righteous way of saying: “we can’t be bothered to pay our staff a decent wage”.

Many visitors from less tip-oriented European countries respond badly to this sort of barrage, perceiving it to be a kind of emotional blackmail. Fair enough, but any such issue should be taken up with the employer not taken out on the employee. Most salaried Africans are paid very poorly by Western standards, and what seems like an inconsequential gratuity to us will almost always be received with a display of gratitude that is genuinely humbling. And if one is to err when it comes to tipping in Africa, then ‐ except when dealing with dedicated baksheesh-hunters ‐ best let it be on the side of generosity.

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