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Guides are the unsung heroes of the travel business. They are storytellers, teachers, and, often, skilled athletes with a true passion for sharing what they love. In many instances, we put our lives in their hands; in turn, they put theirs at risk for us. At the end of a trip, then, why are we often so baffled about what to tip the guide? In the United States, tipping your server 15 to 20 percent on a restaurant bill is a no-brainer, but how much to tip the wrangler of your daylong horseback ride can be puzzling.
“How to be fair and appropriate when tipping is one of the toughest challenges in the industry,” says Kevin Callaghan, president of Mountain Travel Sobek. While some guides get paid a livable base salary, many survive on tips. Since most companies don’t advertise what they pay their guides, and because it can be considered tactless to straight-up ask your guide, travelers are often left dumbfounded.
After learning how little money most guides make, Daniel Yaffe was inspired to launch AnyGuide, a website that acts as a platform to help guides throughout 100 countries run their businesses—like turning their phones into tip-receiving credit card machines that can suggest pricing. “I paid $2,000 for a guide to trek Mount Kilimanjaro. The guide told jokes in Swahili, he had summited Kili 200 times, and he knew shortcuts through the mountains,” Yaffe says. Despite being the most valuable asset to the trip, the guide was paid just $5 to $10 a day. “Most of my $2,000 was going to the company, which suggested I tip my guide $20 to $40 per day.”
It’s easy to factor in the time spent on the trail or river, but many of us forget to factor in all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into guiding. Michelle Duffy, director of marketing for DuVine Cycling and Adventure Co., says that when the guides are exceptional, the work looks effortless. “But these are just some of the hats they wear: bartender, translator, photographer, historian, porter, host, mechanic, chef, driver, and conflict resolution specialist.”
The “how much” factor can vary widely. For example, Rocky Canon, lead guide manager at the Experience Center at Turtle Bay on Oahu’s North Shore says surf school operators spend a lot on equipment and insurance, which leaves guides to rely heavily on gratuities. “Surf and SUP guides really take your life into their hands. A show of appreciation usually comes as $20 for a half- or full-day session,” he says. “A $50 tip for spectacular service.” Stephen Oddo, co-founder of Walks of New York, Walks of Italy, and Walks of Turkey, is a former guide himself and says the established tipping average is about 10 to 20 percent of the total tour price. If the group size is smaller, tip on the higher end. Leigh Barnes, marketing director of Intrepid Travel, says tips on a standard Inca Trail trek consist of $2 to $3 per day for a group leader and $6 to $7 to per day to be split amongst porters, assistants, and cooks. For an Everest-region trek, Intrepid suggests $3 to $5 per person per day for a group leader, $2 to $3 per porter per day, and $2 to $3 for the local guide. Confused? Check with the outfitter in advance so you come prepared and can factor tips into the overall price.
Consider These Questions Before Tipping
- Did the guide take interest in me as a person?
- Did my guide go out of his or her way to make sure I had a great time?
- Were they skilled in what they did?
- Did they have good knowledge of the area’s natural and cultural resources, and did they share it with the group?
- Did they have a strong service ethic?
- Was it clear that their actions were focused on guests having a superb experience rather than the guide’s personal motivations?
4 Never-Break Tipping Rules
- If an envelope isn’t available, find your guide, shake hands, and say thanks. Then, place the cash in the palm of your guide’s hand and let him or her know who it is from (the individual, family, entire group).
- If you aren’t tipping at all or tipping less than recommended amount, explain your reasoning. Why? It may make for an awkward moment, but there’s one invaluable word any working stiff can relate to: feedback.
- If you forget to tip or run out of money, ask management about using a credit card or tipping after the fact. But remember, guides prefer cash.
- If you’re in a foreign country, tipping with the dollar is usually okay, but avoid handing over disheveled or $1 bills. Local banks will often refuse to exchange crinkled or smaller bills.