Travelers, beware of unexpected gratuities

Automatic tipping is everywhere, and it’s time to do something about it.

I saw it at a pizza restaurant in Provo, Utah, recently. When I paid for my order, the electronic payment system asked if I wanted to tip 10% (cheapskate!), 15% (better!) or the correct amount, 20%. No, the touchpad didn’t actually comment on the choices, but the incorrect selection was clear: the “no tip” box that wasn’t highlighted.

It was a takeout order, for goodness sake.

Tipping is a confusing ritual for consumers. Coffee shops, hair salons and fast-food restaurants now actively solicit tips from their customers. But automatic tipping takes it to the next level. When a business either strongly suggests a tip or just adds a gratuity to your bill hoping you won’t dispute it, that feels wrong.

Hotel tipping guide:Here’s how much – and who – you should be tipping at American hotels

Automatic tipping takes tipping to the next level

Consider what happened to Joshua Zweighaft, a New York-based travel consultant. When he ordered a beer at a poolside bar at an upscale hotel in San Jose, California, it added an 18% gratuity for his “convenience.” 

“I paid it,” he says. “But did not leave an additional tip. I hope the gratuity went to the bartender.”

Service charges for drinks are becoming common in resort towns, particularly Las Vegas. You can sometimes negotiate them off your bill, but do you really want to make a scene?

Also:Resort fees on Las Vegas Strip are on the rise. Here’s why they’re likely here to stay

Even when a business doesn’t automatically add a tip, it still feels as if you have no choice. Wade Eyerly, the CEO of an insurance company based in New Canaan, Connecticut, is unhappy about the airport restaurants that solicit tips through a tablet-based payment system like Square before you receive your food. 

“It’s like a mob threat,” he says. “Tip well, or who knows what happens, you know? But there’s no way for your tip to reflect the service.”

The cruise industry may be the worst when it comes to auto-tipping.

Cruise lines such as Carnival, Princess and Norwegian automatically add fees of up to $23 per person, per day to your bill. You can remove these tips before you disembark, but once you’re off the ship, there’s nothing you can do. Many cruise passengers don’t review their folio before they disembark. As a result, they sometimes tip twice.

Should tipping even exist?

A lot of service employees believe tips ought to be mandatory. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you the hate mail I’ll get after this story appears. Before chewing me out, they’ll inform me that a tip is part of their salary – and that by encouraging readers to withhold a tip, I’m an accessory to theft. 

That’s nonsense. Tips have always been optional. But the servers and tour guides are right about one thing: gratuities are starting to feel like an undisclosed tax.

“I think you hit the nail on the head by calling it a tax,” says Tanner Callais, editor of Cruzely.com, a website about cruising. “These fees are all but mandatory, especially on a cruise.”

The automatic tipping problem is forcing travelers to ask difficult questions. For example, should we be tipping at all? 

“Tipping is another word for dishonest pricing,” says Wayland Eheart, a retired professor from Urbana, Illinois. “It’s a way to advertise prices that are lower than what you’ll actually pay. Tipping should not exist. “If the salary of the provider is insufficient, raise it. And raise the price accordingly.“

Eheart has traveled abroad and seen how it’s done in other countries.

Most restaurants in Europe charge a flat rate “service charge” for a meal, for example, and tipping on top of that is entirely discretionary and not at all expected. In some places, like Japan, there’s basically no tipping. The service cost is worked into the basic price. 

I think many Americans would agree with Eheart. Ideally, the price of a meal or cruise would include everything. If you want to leave a tip for exceptional service, that should be your choice, but not an obligation.

So what should you do about automatic tipping?

If you see an automatic tip on your bill, do something about it quickly. No one should pay a tip before they receive the service. So as you might have guessed, I didn’t accept any of the suggested tips on my takeout order.

Don’t let a business tip shame you, either. When an employee pivots the payment screen to you, sign and tap that “no tip” button without remorse. (Although, if a server later provides outstanding service, feel free to leave a tip.) 

Remember, a tip is for great service. It’s not an entitlement.

What if it’s too late? Elaine Thompson thought it might be after a conference dinner at a fancy restaurant. Thompson, a history professor from Ruston, Louisiana, watched the dinner’s host write out a $200 tip.

“It dawned on me the next day that, as a party of more than eight, there was likely an automatic gratuity, so I called the (dinner) host to let her know,” she recalls. “Sure enough, she had accidentally tipped the waiter about $425 total. The restaurant was gracious enough to refund the additional tip because the waiter had not pointed out the automatic gratuity.” 

Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

How to identify and eliminate an automatic tip

Read before signing. Automatic tips often hide in plain view. On a restaurant bill, they’re rendered in small print just before your subtotal.

Talk to a manager. If you’ve inadvertently signed a bill that agrees to an automatic tip, or if a server or employee refuses to remove an automatic tip, politely ask for a manager. That person usually has the authority to override the gratuity.

If all else fails, dispute the charge on your credit card. Under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have the right to remove charges such as an automatic tip, especially if it wasn’t previously disclosed. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth a try.

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Author: USA Today