Tipping is a traveler's last resort for getting and rewarding good treatment.
But now, suppliers are toying with that sacred cow by imposing mandatory gratuities and other charges. The result? Confusion and conflicts on the front lines.
Hotels, cruise ships and restaurants have become the venue for such disputes, but tensions are highest at curbside check-in, where passengers are locked in a struggle with skycaps over tips.
United, American and other airlines say a $2-per-bag curbside fee instituted at several major U.S. airports last year is in lieu of a gratuity, although passengers can still tip for excellent service.
Baggage handlers, on the other hand, complain that they "don't see a dime" of this fee and sometimes campaign for tips, even though they are not supposed to.
Meanwhile, some travelers are not only mad about being forced to tip, but they are also suspicious about where their money is going. And many are asking: "Should I pay the fee and tip, or am I getting taken for a ride?"
The answer is not clear-cut. It never has been when it comes to this highly fickle practice. But one thing's for sure: The explosion of service fees is mainly to blame.
In Europe and Japan, such fees are common and expected. Tips are included in the charge. But in this country, service fees are new, largely unwanted and very misunderstood.
"When someone adds a service charge in the U.S., it's newsworthy because that's not what people want," says Tim Zagat, founder of the Zagat restaurant guides. "More than 90 percent of the hundreds and thousands of people we've surveyed dislike these charges."
But now that travel providers have discovered how lucrative service fees can be, travelers can expect to see more of them.
PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the hotel industry alone will collect $1.6 billion in fees from guests this year, up from $1.4 billion in 2005.
"That's due to new fees, higher fees and more hotels charging them," says Bjorn Hanson, who heads up the consulting firm's hospitality division.
A 2005 poll of top-rated hotels and spas by Michael Lynn, a tipping expert and associate professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., revealed that almost 50 percent of those businesses added mandatory service fees and gratuities to guests' tabs.
"It's much higher than I would have expected in this country," Lynn says. "It clearly seems like upscale hotels and resorts are moving away from voluntary tipping."
Problem is, not all service charges are alike. Some include the tip; others don't.
Tips about tips
How can a traveler tell when tips are included? It's difficult sometimes.
"Service fees," by definition, are charges imposed by and paid to a company. Resort fees fall into this category. "Gratuities," on the other hand, are discretionary and by law must be returned to the tip-earning employees minus any credit card fees.
Automatic gratuities are the newest wrinkle. "They're closer to a service charge than an actual tip," Cornell's Lynn says.
And they can lead to costly mistakes for those not in the know.
Take room service, for example. Many guests don't know that a service charge and tip are included at many high-end hotels. It's not always on the menu, and waiters rarely mention it.
"It's so misleading. You end up double tipping," says Kathleen Cochran, general manager of Loews Coronado Bay Resort in San Diego, which has joined Marriott hotels in removing the "gratuity line" from its room service checks.
But that hasn't stopped employees from pressuring guests for tips.
Claire Gould, president of Rx for Catering, an Atlanta-based event-planning consultant, says that she recently got the "stare down" from a bellman and other workers at an upscale Phoenix-area hotel, even though their gratuities were covered by resort fees.
"They have a way of intimidating you because they still expect a handout," she says.
That's because workers don't always get all the tips collected on their behalf, despite laws requiring they receive them.
Typically, hotel workers pool gratuities, which are then divvied up by seniority and hours worked. But in some cases, employees don't get anything. "One non-union operation here in Anaheim, [Calif.], keeps all the tips," says Mike O'Brien, a staffer at Local 681 of the hotel workers' union Unite Here.
The union is threatening strikes in major U.S. cities this summer if wage and gratuity issues are not resolved.
Back at the curbside, skycaps, who once earned a good living from tips, now get paid hourly wages, benefits and bonuses from bag fees.
They are well-paid, says Al Johnson, president of Atlanta-based Premium Services Management, which serves United Airlines customers at eight U.S. airports, including Chicago and San Francisco. "If someone refuses to provide service - or solicits a tip - that's grounds for termination."
Although many consumers fear they will never see their bags again if they don't tip, Johnson says not to worry.
Any skycap who retaliates by sending a nontipper's luggage astray can be traced by his or her ID number, which must be entered to check in a bag.
Even if a flier gets stuck tipping a pushy skycap, there is recourse. "They should complain to the manager on-site, who is able to intervene," Johnson says.
Customers who don't get tip-worthy service from other travel suppliers that impose mandatory fees and gratuities should also register a gripe.
When all is said and done, travelers should not be intimidated by the new tipping rules. It's still an acronym for "to improve service," Zagat says.
You're judging them. They're not judging you," he says. "Do it to get pleasure, not an anxiety attack."
Laurie Berger is a freelance writer for the Los Angeles Times.