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What's The Protocol? Tipping In Latin America

09/24/2013 08:06 am ET | Updated Nov 24, 2013

We're often asked about the protocol for tipping in Latin America. And when it comes up in conversation, we're always surprised at the difference in opinion people have about this subject.

But here goes... and remember, tipping is not something you are obliged to do. It's totally up to you if you offer a tip for exceptional service or not. Every culture has different customs when it comes to tipping. For instance, in Japan it is not customary to tip for services at all. It's not really customary in Europe either. Instead -- especially in restaurants in France -- the custom is to leave on the table whatever loose coins you receive in change after paying your bill.

In Ecuador where we live, as in most of Latin America, you'll commonly see a 10 percent "propina" or "servicio" added to your restaurant bill. That's in addition to the VAT or value-added-tax. At some small hostels and family-owned restaurants, tax and service will be folded in and won't be broken out on the bill.

So should you tip an additional amount? Again, totally up to you. If it's an upscale restaurant and you've received exceptional service, you may want to leave an extra 5 percent to 10 percent or perhaps a little more if you are so inclined. (Personally, and even in the States, we always tip on the before-tax amount.)

In upscale hotels it is customary to tip $1 per bag to the bellman. You may want to slip 50 cents or $1 into the hand of the guy at the hotel who helps you get a taxi... especially if he instructs the driver about where you are going. And in both hotels and small hostels, we like to leave $2 or $3 per day on the pillow for the housecleaning staff.

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Photo Courtesy of Hugo Ghiara, InternationalLiving.com

Many Latin Americans don't tip in restaurants. And they NEVER tip taxi drivers. And you really shouldn't either, unless they go out of their way to help you or have taken you a good long distance without driving like a madman or blaring the radio at ear-splitting decibels.

And yes, we know... those of you who have toiled long hours in the service industry like to give healthy tips for good service. And that's completely your prerogative.

Here's our personal take on the matter: We tip our regular driver $5 when he takes us back and forth from our home to the airport -- a distance of about two hours and a fare of $55. (He drives slowly and safely and always carries our bags up four flights of stairs.) But we wouldn't tip any taxi driver who drives us from point A to B in Quito or Cuenca or any other town in Ecuador.

Tipping taxi drivers and overpaying for services is just not the custom. And once we start doing that... or if we decide to pay our housekeeper $15 instead of the going rate of $10 for three hours (just because we think she is under-paid), then we create problems for our Ecuadorian neighbors, because the taxi drivers or housekeepers no longer want to work for them. Instead, they want to work for the gringos who pay more.

Case in point: Our maid was practically in tears one day because she can no longer buy produce at the local market. The vendors are charging more and they told her it's "because the gringos will pay it."

The vendors don't care if the locals have to go elsewhere to buy for less. The difference between paying 30 cents for broccoli or 50 or 80 cents may not be a big deal to us, but it is a HUGE deal to the locals here who make minimum wage.

Bottom line: we have to be very careful that we don't skew the local economy with our homegrown customs. Instead, we need to understand and abide by the local customs. That's why we're here, right?

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