Monthly Archives: February 2014

To tip or not to tip? That is the question…

The prospect of giving a tip can be one of controversy and is something that has triggered much debate and discussion among friends, family and colleagues over the years. As such, I thought I’d share some views and stories of recent tipping experiences whilst travelling, as the whole concept and the unknown ‘rules’ between different countries is one which continues to baffle me.

Tipping is clearly a point of anxiety for many travellers. The fact that we now see sections in travel guides advising on the appropriate percentage to tip when visiting specific countries shows this is something that plays on peoples’ minds during and even prior to a trip…and I am testament to this! There is nothing more awkward than a bell boy taking luggage up to your room and then hovering around for a few moments whilst you have an internal moral dilemma about how much to give him. And that’s made even worse when you have just arrived in the country you are visiting, unable to think straight after a long flight and haven’t yet grasped the currency break down. Then after some fumbling around you realise you don’t even have any small change. Mega awkward! I wonder if these moments of mild discomfort are intensified because I am British or whether the experience is just as uncomfortable for others around the world?

So, correct me if I’m wrong but I always thought that you tip someone based on how you rate their service and their ability to make your experience in a restaurant, hotel, taxi or whatever it may be painless…perhaps even enjoyable. That’s the way it works right?

Apparently not…

A friend recently told me about how she was asked to pay AND provide a tip upfront when having a manicure done in the states. I get that it would be easier to deal with payment before having wet nails, but how on earth was she expected to decide upfront how much tip she should award the manicurist? Surely a tip is something that should be earned and the amount given should be based on my friend’s judgement post receiving the service and assessing how good the manicure was?

Another friend actually got kicked out of a restaurant in San Francisco because she is Australian and Australians have a reputation for not tipping. She was told whilst ordering drinks that unless she paid $11 upfront (which the waitress described as ‘the worth of her seat’) she would have to go outside. That’s pretty shocking on a number of levels.

Now I know in the likes of America it seems that people in the service industry are not paid particularly well and rely on tips to beef up their wage. But what I don’t think I’ll ever really understand is why they can’t be paid more in the first place to avoid relying on customer donations so the actual cost of something is spelt out from the start. Anything extra should be earned and awarded at the discretion of the customer. Because what really starts to anger me is when customer facing staff don’t provide an adequate level of service but STILL expect a tip.

I was in a restaurant at JFK airport last week and received some appalling service. The waiter pretty much forgot about my colleagues and I to the extent that one of us had to go and get the drinks ourselves, Larry David style. When another waitress walked past with a tray of dirty plates half the food got spilt over another colleague and there was a mix up with orders (among a number of other mishaps). Consequently, when calculating the bill we decided that our waiter did not worthy a tip. After handing back the payment to him and swiftly trying to leave the restaurant (obviously being British and wanting to avoid confrontation) I caught a glimpse of him frowning and adding up the dollars against the bill. He was confirming that we had indeed not given him the tip he somehow felt he deserved for his non existent service and started shaking his head in disbelief. He then turned towards us and gave what can only be described as ‘the look of death’ – not what you want before getting on a plane – leaving me questioning what planet this guy was on if he thought he deserved a reward for his horrific ability to ‘serve’.

I’ve also started to notice on restaurant bills that some places actually dictate how much tip you should give on the bill itself. A few months ago I was actually chased out of a Mexican restaurant in New York for not aligning my tip to the one that was ‘suggested’ on the bill. The service was average at best and the food wasn’t anything worthy of an Instagram upload, so my colleagues and I thought a 15% tip was actually quite generous all things considered. And that is what we decided to award our waiter, despite the bill giving three tip options only with a little check box beside each one for 18%, 20% or 22.5%. This did mean having to calculate the amount ourselves rather than ticking one of the three pre-calculated options, but we were standing our ground here! The waiter clearly disagreed and just as I was opening the door to leave the restaurant I heard heavy footsteps and a voice behind me shouting “maaaam I think you’ve miscalculated this!” I glanced back awkwardly, told him it was perfectly correct based on 15% and left feeling like I’d committed some sort of crime. Ridiculous!

It seems these tipping games are played by lots of people I know and there are actually a number of different ways that people approach the ‘to tip or not to tip?’… or ‘how much to tip?’ dilemma:

The tip Jar approach is most suited to a restaurant type situation and involves setting a maximum amount that you are prepared to tip upfront (say 18%). Then each time something goes wrong during a meal, whether that be a waiter getting an order wrong or forgetting to bring something, a deduction of 1% is made to the final amount.

The pre-tip is something a friend told me their father does from time to time. When checking into a hotel he’ll hand over say a couple of $50 notes and give the simple instruction ‘make it a good stay’. Apparently he has seen this pay off a number of times and has been known to have staff in hotels (clearly thinking there might be more where that came from) running round him as a result.

The tip and run is probably the one that I and most Brits are guilty of. Assessing the service you have just experienced, deciding the amount the waiter or whoever it may be deserves (which is often likely to be lower than they expect) then shooting off as quickly as possible and not hanging around for a confrontation. BEWARE – sometimes this results in being chased out like a criminal.

The reluctant is actually my Ozzie friend’s attitude – she does not enjoy the whole concept of tipping because she feels “putting a five dollar note in a grown man’s hand is like tapping him on the head like a dog” as she describes it.

And my favourite which another friend recently told me about… The just get drunk or Pretend to be more drunk than you are approach to avoid the situation outright. This isn’t necessarily designed to get out of giving a tip full stop, but could help you get away with only giving the amount you feel is deserved by playing dumb to subsequent confrontation or help to innocently justify your inability to add up correctly.

I’m sure many more approaches exist (which I’d love to hear about). But just a final point to end on… I have mentioned how tipping is not really part of the Australian way of doing things. Australians are in fact paid a lot better and the minimum wage is higher than most other countries. As a potential result of this, I think some of the best customer experience I have ever encountered has taken place in Australia. The service over there feels genuine – not just with a potential reward in mind like it is in many other countries. The impact of this actually on some level made me want to be more generous with my tipping for the duration of my trip down under. Go figure!

Fighting Jetlag

Tomorrow I’m off on a business trip to New York. I feel (just about) prepared for the week ahead and am looking forward to what will hopefully be a successful few days with a little time on the side to enjoy one of my favourite cities. However, one menacing element of travel which is currently lingering in the back of my mind and threatening to accompany me for the next few days is Mr Jetlag.

I’m sure many will agree that, when travelling, there is nothing more irritating than jetlag. It’s every long haul travellers enemy. For leisure travellers who have limited time to spend at a destination, jetlag eats into precious holiday time and can often prevent us from really making the most of a trip. When recently arriving in Adelaide, Australia at midday after what seemed like an eternity in the air, I tried my best to fight the beast and stay up as late as possible. This resulted in falling asleep standing up in the middle of a busy street at 6pm whilst en route to a restaurant, with a very hazy memory of what happened after that. Needless to say, I didn’t make it to dinner and consequently sacrificed one of my precious evenings to then find myself wide awake at 2am. Is there anything more frustrating?!

For business travellers jetlag can take the enjoyment away from any spare leisure time and seriously hinder the ability to think and function during meetings, presentations and conferences. When in Los Angeles on a business trip in November I experienced what felt like mini earthquakes the evening we arrived. I kept asking my colleagues if there was an earthquake happening as my head felt all over the place and I soon realised the swaying feeling was indeed one of my jetlag symptoms. Thankfully we had incorporated a day to ‘acclimatize’ into the schedule otherwise I’m not sure how I’d have been able to work productively.

I asked a few friends about how they deal with jetlag and thought I’d share some of their words of wisdom to help anyone else who wants to overcome the jetlag blues:

1. Choose a destination with limited time difference. As good a solution as this sounds, we don’t want to restrict ourselves from travelling afar and experiencing the likes of Asia, the USA and Australia. However, there are some fantastic holiday destinations if we fly South from the UK and visit places like Cape Town which is only 2 hours ahead. Some friends did exactly that over the Christmas period and only spent a week there which (for a long haul leisure trip) seemed a bit ambitious. But, due to not suffering at the hands of jetlag, they were able to really make the most of their time away and could fully enjoy their first few days without feeling like death.

2. Cut ties with the homeland. Small things like adjusting your watch when you’re on the plane and not checking Facebook to remind yourself that everyone in the UK is fast asleep can help get you adapt to the time zone of the country you are visiting.

3. Don’t fly in economy. I know most of us don’t have the luxury of being able to afford a premium cabin. However, for business travellers especially, if budget allows it’s always worth going to your boss with a case for flying in business class or even premium economy, emphasising that being more comfortable on the flight will help with productivity at the destination. For leisure travellers, it’s worth sticking with one airline and earning points with their loyalty scheme to then use as an upgrade treat for that long awaited long haul trip.

4. Acclimatization time. Be sure to factor in allocated time to acclimatize when arriving at a destination that has a time difference of 5 hours. Where possible, it’s worth having at least a day in the place you are visiting prior to any business events. When travelling for leisure, it’s worth considering the first day/evening as a write off and then if you do happen to feel more alert than anticipated, there’s a bonus time reward. Don’t forget about your trip home too. Jetlag can be at it’s most powerful on the return leg, so it’s always worth having a day to recover at home before going back to work.

5. Make the most of it. If you do find yourself awake before sunrise cursing the clock then why not use the ‘can’t beat em, join em approach’? Treat it as bonus time to catch up on work emails on a business trip. Have a work out in the hotel gym. See if there are any activities you can organise prior to your trip that require an early start and plan this in advance for the first day. WARNING – this is not advisable beyond the first day of a trip otherwise getting over jetlag will be hard to achieve in the long run.

Some airlines have acknowledged the pain and frustration their customers experience as a result of jetlag and have measures in place to try and help their customers deal with it.

On a recent Cathay Pacific flight from Sydney to Hong Kong they purposely blacked out the inside of the cabin to help passengers get to sleep. In theory this was a good idea as it’s difficult to get to sleep in a fully lit cabin. However it didn’t particularly help my situation when arriving in Hong Kong fully alert at 10.30pm after a good sleep on the plane…so it might have been better for my specific travel requirements if the entire duration of the flight was not in full darkness.

British Airways have a page on their website dedicated to helping their customers plan for jetlag. They advise on the best approaches to minimizing jetlag, such as how much light exposure you should get prior to a trip in accordance with Britain’s leading sleep expert. I’m not sure yet how viable this is, but the calculator has instructed me to seek light between 21:00 pm and 23:30  pm this evening and avoid light between 23:30  pm and 2:00 am – so will see how that goes!!

Airports – the best place to people watch

We can’t deny that airports are strange places. They are worlds within our world, home to endless amounts of continuous activity. I enjoyed reading a blog post this weekend from Blue Sky which referenced an infographic produced by cheapflights.co.uk on 50 things to do when you’re stuck in an airport, and not just because I have a geeky love for infographics, but because people watching, one of my favourite activities, featured on the list.

With some of the busiest airports in the world such as Heathrow seeing an average of 191,200 passengers arrive and depart each day, we are guaranteed to see lots of different types of people from all over the world and many different walks of life passing through. Sometimes I just like to spend a moment taking it all in, looking around and watching the drama unfold. Because yes, with lots of strangers thrown into what can often be a time-pressured, unfamiliar and uncontrollable situation, drama is guaranteed.

Over the past few months I have witnessed husbands and wives having full blown rows, people racing through the airport upon hearing their flight’s final call and of course the increasing anxiety as fellow passengers wait for luggage to arrive at the carousel, turning to panic and rage when it failed to show. One of my favourite moments at an airport this year was waiting for a colleague to meet me at Heathrow Terminal 5. Our meeting point was in the arrivals area and whilst waiting I shared some of the beautiful moments that can only be experienced in arrivals – watching exhausted yet excited passengers emerge through the doors to be greeted by loving partners and eager family members…smiles, laughter, hugs and even tears. It was a heart warming 20 minutes and I could definitely see where the inspiration for certain scenes in the film Love Actually came from!

Moments like this have often made me think that working in an airport must be one of the most exciting jobs in the world. Front line staff inside airports must have endless stories to tell about their encounters with passengers, from the awkward and bizarre to the magical and even tear-jerking. Ex TSA agent turned writer Jason E Harrington documents in his blog Taking Sense Away some of the weird and wonderful things he witnessed whilst working at Chicago O’Hare’s airport from 2007-2013. My favourite of these is a term he coined the ‘baby-shower opt out’  which describes when a woman opts out of going through the scanner, ‘explaining that she is pregnant to the surprise of the friends she is traveling with, who shriek and yell and have an impromptu celebration.’

I am really looking forward to reading Jason’s book when it comes out and to witnessing many more of the unique moments that airport people watching has to offer on my upcoming trips.

Plane banter

Following on from my post a few days ago about airline humour which looked at some comical interpretations of air travel, I thought I’d share some thoughts on a related subject…the antithesis of humour…the airline safety video.

When it comes to flying we all know that the safety video is a necessity and all passengers need to be aware of what to do in the event of an emergency. But we also know that safety videos tend to be as boring as hell. I for one, as a regular traveller, completely switch off and ignore the safety video as it plays whilst the aircraft taxis to the runway, knowing full well that if I did zone back in I could probably recite the instructions word for word. I imagine that many regular fliers are like me and think they’ve heard it all before. So why bother showing it at all if people aren’t going to pay attention? Well I guess there’s no choice in the matter… it’s got to be shown for legal reasons and we also need to be as up to speed as we can possibly be on safety procedures. But with this comes a dilemma… how do airlines get people who think they know it all to pay attention?

Well it seems that times are changing as airlines are beginning to acknowledge this. Strategies are now being implemented for the safety video to go above and beyond simply telling us about how to “adopt the brace position” or what to do “in the unlikely event of the aircraft having to land on water”. The safety video has taken on an additional role… to entertain passengers.

Air New Zealand were the first to get creative with their safety video, using Kiwi-centric themes such as the Hobbit and the All Blacks to capture the attention of passengers:

Virgin America recently launched a fully choreographed, pop style safety video with some quirky dance moves and catchy lyrics. Although specifically designed to ‘grab people’s attention’ according to COO Steve Forte, the video has been a success in the realms of social media and content marketing, with nearly 9 million views on Youtube:

And now Delta have just got ‘on board’, with the launch of their nostalgic 80s style safety video this week which acts as a tribute to their first ever safety video 3 decades ago. In it we see iconic hairdos, big glasses and rubik’s cubes as well as some celebs from the decade bopping along to the retro beats. The video has already had over a million hits in the space of a few days and streams of positive comments such as “Great way to reinvent (the always boring) safety videos!” Take a look here:

We can’t deny that this change in style is having an impact, with these videos now going viral and gaining millions of hits. People are clearly starting to pay attention. The key safety messages are not only being delivered, but they are being done so with personality and banter and as such, the airlines responsible have successfully found a way to engage even the most ‘know it all’ passengers, whilst raising their online profile. I certainly am looking forward to the prospect of seeing one of these videos on a flight and it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ to see which airline is going to get creative next!