Tipping under the spotlight

The Spanish are the worst tippers in Europe, according to a new survey commissioned by hotel review site TripAdvisor.

Eighty percent of Spaniards confessed that they did not always tip on holiday when questioned for the survey. They were closely followed by 78 percent of Italians and the French in third place, with 76 percent saying that they didn't always tip.

But why does it matter what we tip at all? Many travelers simply assume that a tip is a discretionary payment for excellent service and that not tipping remains a traveler's prerogative. Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

With around 15 percent of British respondents saying that they have been confronted by staff for not leaving a tip, it is no wonder that the widespread practice still remains a source of worry for some.

For Europeans, who often feel uncomfortable in countries such as the US where tipping is the norm, the embarrassment of misjudging a tip can ruin a nice meal or vacation.

"Tipping can be socially awkward and can cause endless embarrassment, especially on holiday when we are unfamiliar with local customs," cautioned Emyr Thomas, who runs concierge company Bon Vivant.

"In some countries it is considered rude not to tip, so you might need to justify yourself, just as in others, such as Japan, it is often considered rude to tip at all."

However, this centuries-old custom could soon be on its way out even in the US.

The American Hotel and Lodging Association recently criticized a decision by Chicago's five-star Elysian hotel to warn guests of a no-tipping policy when they check in. The hotel, which claims that it pays its staff well enough to forego tips from customers, says that it simply wants to make things easier for guests.

A recent study from Cornell University's Center for Hospitality Research could encourage other establishments to follow suit.

According to report author Michael Lynn, both black and white restaurant customers show racial discrimination when tipping. His research showed that when customers rated the service a perfect 5 out of 5 points, they tipped white servers 23.4 percent of the bill and tipped black servers 16.6 percent of the bill.

For restaurateurs, who could face legal action from black servers, the research is likely to be another argument in favor of abolishing tipping or introducing a standard service charge.

For now however, tipping is likely to stay common practice. Reading up on the customs of a particular country is the best way to avoid embarrassment, according to Thomas.

"However, if you are stuck, adding a tip of 10% is the course of action least likely to cause offence and embarrassment, especially in Europe, where customs do not vary too much."