Travel to US and Europe – Tipping an American Culture

by Abdul Quader | March 6, 2012 4:35 am

It was Airbus A380 that we flew on the first leg of our journey from Sydney to Los Angeles (LA). Any long flight is a nightmare for me, as it may be for some other air travellers. I can’t sleep on a plane, and feel restless and discomfort on a flight that takes over 5 hours. That means I can somehow survive travelling from Sydney to Perth. I remember my precarious plight on the torturous flight from Singapore to Vancouver back in 1989. Having no sleep in-flight and most of the time worrying about a new student life in the Simon Fraser University in Canada, I was kind of devastated when I arrived in Vancouver. Anyway that was another story.

Our travel plan was to fly to New York via LA. As LA was the first port of entry we had to go through the immigration and customs procedures at the LA International Airport (LAX). As we were connecting to another flight for New York, we were required to go through the US Customs prior to re-checking at the departure terminal.

After disembarking from the plane we went to the immigration checks. Although LAX is generally very busy with tens of thousands of travellers handled daily by the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the system appeared to be efficient unlike in Heathrow (where we had to wait for more than an hour to pass through immigration checks.)

There are so many CBP counters at LAX and the officers handling the travellers do not generally take a long time to process entries. We passed through without that much problem I should say.

The flight from LA to New York is not that short as we understand. It is a five-and-half hour journey. We already spent over thirteen hours in the QANTAS flight from Sydney to LA. Now another sort of long flight was awaiting us. Anyway, our American Airlines plane took off at 12.30 pm and arrived at the John F Kennedy International Airport in New York at 9.00 pm (3 hours time difference between LA and New York). As we were a group of six passengers, it would have been better for us to pre-book a large taxi from the airport to our hotel in Manhattan.

On arrival, we were approached by a person asking whether we need a taxi and where was our destination. I replied to his queries and agreed to take his taxi ride at a negotiated fare which was almost 50 per cent higher than normal fare as I realised later. As we were exhausted and had a granddaughter, I wanted to go to our Grand Hyatt Hotel at 42nd Street in Manhattan. It is located just outside the New York Grand Central Rail Station and is very close to Times Square. Everything is close to the hotel – shopping, restaurants, Rockefeller Centre, the United Nations Building, the Empire State Building, Broadway, Central Park etc. Location and facility wise, the hotel was a comfort for us, so to speak.

Tipping in the US is interesting. While it is not mandatory to pay tips, employees working in the hospitality sector, including taxi drivers, and many other service providers, expect tipping. In the US, average award wage is lower than that in Australia. Moreover, tipping is used by many employers to pay below award wages, and can make the service look cheap to customers at the face value. However, the service could be costly at the end with tipping and a service charge if any.

The term “service charge” or “cover charge’ is another way to rip off customers as we experienced in Italy. That’s for another episode.

I had my first experience of tipping in the hotel after arrival. It was around 10.30 pm when we arrived at the hotel. Luckily the taxi driver did not ask for tips. After checking-in, we were led to our hotel rooms on 11th floor by a hotel bellman. He put all the suitcases and carry-on bags on the floor of our rooms and waited for about a minute. I know why he was waiting. At some stage, he said, “Í am done, Sir”. I pretended not to pay attention to him”. He again said, “I am done, Sir”. Then I paid $10 as a tip. The rule of thumb for tipping a hotel bellman or porter is $1-2 per bag. Standard tipping rates vary for other services provided to customers. For example, taxi service incurs 10-15% of fare as a tip while a hotel limo driver may ask for $15-$20. As there is no legal requirement to tip any person in the US unless it is stated in a contract for service, one can get away without tipping. However, it is an accepted American culture.

New York is a city that never sleeps. While it was mid night, we realised we needed to eat something. The hotel restaurant was closed but there was kiosk in the hotel which sells sandwiches, snacks, fruits and drinks. So I bought some food and drinks from there and satiated hunger and thirst for the night. There were shops in the 42nd street still open, including an Asian eatery. I did not venture to go out that night as I was feeling very tired and exhausted for obvious reasons. It took us thirty-two hours from door to door – from our home in Canberra to the hotel in Manhattan, New York. What a demanding journey!

We were in the middle of American winter in New York. It was 23 December 2011 and the temperature was cold, but not that cold in fact. We did not experience any snow or sub-zero temperature as long as we stayed in New York and Washington. The weather was kind to us I should say with occasional overcast and a bit chilly wind. That was quite tolerable for me having lived in Canberra for about two decades. The clock ticked past mid night to 24 December – Christmas Eve. Time to go to bed now.

Abdul Quader writes from Canberra

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