One hopes the stories are apocryphal: the cab driver who tries to run you over, the vindictive bellhop rifling your bags. But travelers who don't practice proper tipping etiquette abroad can expect repercussions--if only the devastating sneer of a maitre d'. To save yourself embarrassment, it pays to know the rules.
By the standards of many other cultures, Americans tip too often and too much. Far from appearing munificent, says Hilka Klinkenberg, managing director of Etiquette International, a New York consulting firm, they come across as vulgar. "The biggest problem for Americans abroad is that we're perceived as crass capitalists," she says. "You don't want to look as though you're storming in there trying to buy the place."
Nearly everywhere outside the U.S., hotel and restaurant bills include a service charge equal to 10% to 20% of the total. You may leave an additional 5% of the check in restaurants, but you don't have to, and more makes you look dumb. In Germany, it's customary just to round up the change to the nearest mark. If you're not sure whether service is included in the bill, ask the person who presents it to you.
FARE MAZE. Americans are accustomed to tipping taxi drivers, but in Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Thailand, and some Latin American countries, it's just not done. To avoid surprises, ask a native friend or hotel staffer about tipping before you hail a cab. In some Arab nations, drivers theoretically don't take tips, but your fare may mysteriously double at the end of your ride. Always agree on fares before climbing into an unmetered taxi.
Chinese, Icelanders, and Tahitians consider all tips an insult. This cultural phenomenon, which has nothing to do with economic systems, can make even seasoned American travelers seem boorish. President Reagan in 1984 humiliated a Beijing shopkeeper--and made headlines--by telling him to keep the change from a small purchase.
Undertipping, of course, is just as offensive. Roger Axtell, author of Do's and Taboos Around the World (John Wiley & Sons, $10.95), says that if you're unfamiliar with a foreign currency and likely to make mistakes, it's better not to tip at all than to hand someone the equivalent of a nickel. In a large hotel, ask the concierge about proper gratuities for various services. Annoying the wrong person could spoil your good time.