Sunday, September 25, 2011

How to tip in the U.S and why you should do it.

To travel is to go out of your comfort zone. Imagine if every place on earth would be exactly like home. What fun would that be? The differences in our cultures are what makes traveling so exiting. Few things in my opinion manifests so the differences in cultures as the art of tipping. How many times have I not stared at my bill in some small Italian town, absolutely flabbergasted on what I should pay, what i should tip, whether or not service charges are included? It is also one of those things that so clearly points you out as a tourist instead of the sophisticated globetrotter you would like to be perceived as. Well fear not. I will set this straight for you. Here comes my guide on how and when to tip while in the U.S.A. The rest of the world is beyond the scope of this blog and my knowledge, but with my experience from our recent travels and a lot of help from friends in the U.S this is what I've learned o far.

First of all. The word tipping if you didn't know that, derives from To-Improve-Service(in short tip) and in some parts of the world this is exactly how it is looked upon. If you receive good service you can choose to show your gratitude. This however IS NOT how it works in america, and I'm now gonna try to explain to you why it is so and how tipping might save you from getting carried out of town covered in feathers and tar.

In many parts of the service industry, especially restaurants, cafes and bars, tips are the main income for the people working there. In fact(and I'll quote my friend D in Seattle on this)" Waitstaff in the U.S are legally allowed to be paid BELOW the minimum wage, with the expectation that their tips will make up the difference. Also, tips are not just for your waiter! They get split between the waiter, dishwasher, busboy, and other service staff that you may not see during your meal." I've also heard even if I can't verify it that bartenders in some bars in New York get no wages at all and their tips is their only income.

So how much should you tip and when?

This is the easy one. 1 $ for each drink(beer, wine, mixed drink) is the standard in any bar. Cocktails that are a bit more complicated and require more work you usually tip extra for, 2 or 3 $ is enough. For a pitcher of beer you tip 2 - 3 $.

Here's a little something I've learned myself. More than often if you tip really good early in the evening and strike up a conversation with the bartender. Free drinks and great discounts might come your way.  An advice though! If you start getting free drinks it's even more important to tip good!

Restaurants/ diners/ cafes
The general opinion is that tips should be in the area of 15 - 20 % if service is good 10% if service is bad and as someone suggested in a forum on this topic, the only time you don't tip is when service is so bad that you should notify management about it. Keep in mind this rule is for table service. Whenever you order at a counter(fast food places etc)there is no need to tip(even if some people do). A trick that some people use is that you tip double the tax on the bill. In some states tax is in about 9% so that would make your tip around 18 % which is good. However the tax varies in different states so I'd go with the 20 % rule if I was you. 

A warning! Some places add a gratuity and service charge. This should count toward your total tip. However(as my friend M from Tampa pointed out) some places will try to hide this from you so that you would tip another 20% on the bill. It should be in plain writing on the bill and if anything on the bill is hard to understand just ask the staff. I have never experienced someone trying to scam me myself but apparently it happens so maybe it's good to know that it does.

One last advice from D in Seattle, "One other note: not tipping at all is insulting. Tipping a tiny amount (ie, leaving pocket change as a tip for a $30 meal) is even more insulting though - it says "I didn't just forget to tip. I went out of my way to tell you I thought your service was worth almost nothing"."

Tipping a cab driver is not a necessity but is often expected(thanx T). I go for the 15-20% rule here as well and usually round it up to the closest dollar. A few bucks extra if they help you with your bags. 

There are a variety of services that could require a tip with your overnight stay.

Valet parking - Tip the person who gets you your car 2 $ each time. 

Housekeeping - Not all people tip housekeeping. Someone I met said they only do it at cheaper hotels and motels since they believe the nicer hotels pat better wages. I guess your own moral will have to guide you here. I personally prefer to tip the house keeping(since I learned i should). Tips should be between 2 - 5 $ a day. I think the staff prefers if you tip on a daily basis since different people work different days. Only tip if you have service done and the size of tip should relate to how messy your room was. A reason why I think you should always tip is that most house keeping staff in the U.S are low income earners. Some argue that you should only tip if you stay more than one night since they tidy the rooms in between guests anyway. Again it's up to you here.

Bellhop - If someone carries your bags to the room it's a dollar a bag.

Front desk/ Concierege - Tip 5 - 10$ if they help you to get tickets or dinner reservations. General advice such as directions does not require a tell you I thought your service was worth almost nothing".

So there you go, i hope this guide will assist you and if anyone feels like contributing with more thoughts I'd be happy to update this guide. Let's think of it as a work in progress.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Still a state of mind...

Yesterday I wrote the last part of our 2011 road trip of which you can read all about in the blog. But no road trip would be complete without the ceremonial fitting of the refrigerator magnets. A monument if you will, over our vast and wonderful journeys. 26 states ladies and gentlemen! Plus the nations capital in the District of Columbia(which for some reason is not part of a state). This marks a milestone in that we now can claim to have been to more than half of the states in the U.S. Keep in mind now that these are all states we have actually spent some time in and experienced something(we don't count stop overs at airports etc). I hope you forgive me if I come across as arrogant but I am mighty proud of this accomplishment. 5 years and thousands of miles covered in our yearly summer trips and if luck is on our side we will keep going for at least 5 years more. We still have 24 states to go!

These are states we have visited as of this date:

New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
South Carolina

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Miami (south beach) - Day 28, 29 & 30

So at last we have come to the end. Had we still been on the trip this would have been a dreaded moment, but since as you who have followed the blog know by now, that we have been home for quite a while, I am happy to finally be able to share the last part of our road trip of 2011. 

Our departure from the keys brought mixed feelings. Part of me felt like I could easily do another month of the exact same thing over again. Another part said I cant do anymore take me home and hook me up on dialysis. We left with the feeling that this trip was already perfect. Already almost a month on the road and our expectations were surpassed at every single point of the trip. Miami at this point was just a bonus. A place to kick back with a cocktail with a last glimpse of the ocean before returning to a rainy Swedish summer. Having been in Miami once before in 2008 we already knew that we were aiming for South beach and nothing else. South beach is the southernmost part of the barrier island that has formed off the coast of Miami. It's well known for it's numerous stylish art deco hotels and also for being a party hot spot on the east coast. 

We arrived on a busy South beach in the afternoon. It's kinda funny that last time I was driving in Miami I was terrified of the traffic but five road trips later I was acing it. We pushed through the mad traffic jams and found ourselves a spot in one of the big parking garages. Parking in South beach is hard to find and expensive. In the big garages you can at least control the damage and it'll "only" set you back twenty bucks a day. 

After collecting as many bags as we could carry, we checked into our hotel. Riviere hotel is a good budget choice on Collins avenue with super clean and spacy rooms. We stayed there on our first stay in Miami and chose to stay there again. I wish i could post a link to it but a new luxury hotel with the same name has opened in South beach and no matter how hard I try to google it I cant seem to find it. It's on 1424 Collins avenue if you feel like looking it up. Right after dropping off our bags we walked a block down to Ocean avenue, Miami's famous bar strip on the Sea front. This is a great place to buy huge cocktails and feel out the vibe. Miami is a place for the rich and the beautiful people and sitting on one of the bars on Ocean gives you a front row ticket to the show. I find it more amusing then impressing but it is good fun! We had a few more drinks and then called it an early night.

Next day we got up early for the drive to Haulover beach. Haulover beach is the only "optional clothing" beach in Florida and though neither me or M consider ourselves naturists in any form, we saw a golden opportunity to get a perfect tan! Tanning is for Swedes the only accepted way to verify if someone had a good vacation. We show off our tans when we get back and we get judged by them. Might sound weird to the rest of you all but it has to do with the climate here. Let's just say that we don't get an awful lot of sun here. The beach was beautiful and felt a lot cleaner then the rather dirty South beach. After lying on the beach for awhile I got restless as I always get so I took a walk up and down the beach. When I returned M was all excited and pointed out to the ocean. I could see other people doing the same thing while others where hurrying up from the water. The reason of course a great white shark! It was the first time we've ever seen one in real life and it was mindblowing. At first you only saw a big shadow but when it turned around it's distinctive fin emerged above the water. M after this naturally refused to go swimming but after waiting for a good while I convinced her that as long as we swam next to other people we'd be safe. We also spotted two stingrays in the water before leaving.

We continued the afternoon with some last minute gift shopping and then ended up drinking more oversized cocktails. The early drinking took it's toll though so we went back to the hotel to rest a "bit" before the nights activities. Our little rest however lasted a little longer then we thought and it was close to midnight when we woke up. At first we were devastated that we had lost one of our last night, but after some internet research we realized that one of our favorite bars The Deuce was open until 5. Happy days!

If there is anything negative about South Beach I have to say it's that almost every bar & restaurant has a gratuity charge included on your tab. This means prices will be a lot higher then you expected and I'm sorry to say that service in South Beach is poor at best since they already get their tip without having to work for it. Knowing this in advance will save you the shock and still let you have a good time.

The deuce on the other hand is the opposite of this. It is the dive bar of all dive bars and even if the bartenders can come across as a bit reserved at first they are super nice and more than happy to share what they know about Miami. There are a lot of regulars in this bar and I can easily understand why. Staff is friendly and the decor is just what you need in a dive bar. A bar, a jukebox and a pool table. Nothing more, nothing less. We met tons of cool people and some of them invited us to come back drinking next day and we even got invited as special guests to a club. The door man at Club Deuce is almost a legend if you check out any forums in the web. A huge guy by any definition that spends the night playing pool if he's not at the door. Patrons are a mix of every kind of person you could imagine and as a cool trivia this is where Miami Vice had their wrap party at the end of the show. I rank this as the number one dive bar in the world!

It would turn out this would be our last night out on the road trip though. The last day we made it back to the beach again but after returning to the hotel I could a bad fever and that was kinda the end of the trip for me. I can't really complain though. This has been the best road trip or any trip for that matter I have ever been t. Every step of the way everything was perfect. I thank all of you who has followed this trip and I hope that you will stay with me as we plan for the next one. I am now looking forward to some shorter stories and points of interest I've been dying to share with you for awhile. Hopefully this will allow me to write more frequently as these long stories has taken quite some time to write down. 

Last of all thank you to all new and old friends we met along the way. Hope to see you all again in the future!

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Day 25, 26 & 27 - Key West

The drive from Sanibel Island to Key west was a six hour adventure that could have ended in disaster. For the first leg of the trip which is an almost 3 hour drive from Florida's western coast to it's east coast you must drive through the big national parks Big Cypress National Preserve & Everglades. The reason it could have ended in disaster is that after driving for almost a month, and being used to see a gas station every other mile or so we left Sanibel with almost no gas in the car thinking we'll just stop for gas and food around lunch time. Turns out there are not too many gas stops in national park areas. In fact we found none. We were probably riding on fumes when we finally found a gas station and I remember trying to figure out how long it was between the road side assistance phones if the car would stop. You don't really want to be caught in a car with no AC and no water, in the blistering florida sun right next to an alligator filled swamp. So after finally filling up on gas we went on with the trip now taking us from the vicinity of Miami and down through all the keys until finally arriving on our destination Key West.

The first thing we did was to locate our hotel. Turns out we were living right off Duval street which is the famous party street in Key West. The hotel Olivia by Duval was super cozy and also had a sun deck with a large pool we made good use of. Key West being the southernmost point of the continental USA is actually closer to Cuba then to Miami and the heat down there is immense. A dip in the pool was the perfect remedy whenever we felt overheated. The first night we went to explore Duval and the surrounding area. First we hit a few of the gay bars. We've always found out that the gay areas in most American cities are the friendliest areas and so it seemed even here! After working our way down Duval street we ended up on a small bar on the seafront where we met a couple from Germany and an American guy we drank the night away with on local hotspot Rick's. An awesome start on our adventure  on the keys.

Early next day we were booked on a snorkel cruise so two rather exhausted and slightly drunk Swedes were seen running up and down the streets of Key West trying to find their way to Sebago watersports. We eventually made it aboard the catamaran that took us out to the reef. The weather was perfect for snorkling. Not a cloud in the sky and the water lay really still so the visibility was great. We got a short instruction and in we went. It was my first time snorkeling a reef so I don't have anything to compare with but I thought it was an absolutely amazing experience, right up there with swimming with manatees in Crystal River. There was an abundance of fish in all shapes and colors and we even got to see a barracuda. We were so caught up in the moment that we took almost no photos at all but sometimes memories are best kept the way we remember them and not represented by a photo. On the way back in they opened a free bar on the boat. It seemed like all activities around Key West included a free bar in some way. So a few margaritas in the sun later we made landfall and headed for the hotel after making plans to return the day after for a sunset cruise. 

After a much needed sobering up at the hotel and a swim in the pool we headed to a restaurant simply called The Cafe, renowned for it's vegetarian food. This place turned out to be a gem! Food was absolutely fantastic, another one of those bars where you wanna eat through the entire menu. With a meal in our belly it was time to hit the bars again. We had a pub crawl planned for the evening. We started out with frozen margaritas on Duval and then worked our way down to the cult restaurant called Blue Heaven. An huge outdoor courtyard styled in a hippie slash beachcomber style with wild roosters running around all over the place. A band was on that was playing some kinda Caribbean lounge music. They did a pretty good cover on Free Falling by Tom Petty. We had a few mojitos and just kicked back to the island experience. After Blue Heaven we walked a few blocks to The Green Parrot, a dive bar that the crew on our snorkeling cruise told us of. Probably the most genuine Key West bar we went to. A typical locals place I imagine, however we didn't have to much time to stay in one bar only so we kept moving.

We ended up back on Duval Street and went for one of the many drag queen shows you can find in Key West. It was good fun but it felt a little like the artist were more into collecting tips from the audience then actually performing.  We then proceeded to the original Sloppy Joe's, the famous hotspot where a certain Mr. Hemmingway would spend his nights with his drinking buddies. It's not the one on Duval street as they would have you think but just off Duval a place now called Captain Tony's. You'll recognize it from the women lingerie hanging off the ceiling. Neither the original or the new Sloppy Joe's is that much off an experience though. It's a complete tourist trap today and if you want to feel the Hemmingway vibe head to the Green Parrot instead or any other dive bar away from the main tourist area. Anyways the rest of the night is a bit blurry but it did involve M trying to teach me to dance salsa back at the Green Parrot. Some time in the morning hours we returned to our hotel.

So next morning we woke up a bit later then planned but did a remarkable effort to do the most of our last day in the keys. We started out with brunch at Blue Heaven. I had vegetarian eggs benedict which were to die for! Place was packed so the food took awhile to get which meant we had a few breakfast cocktails too many maybe, but this was one of the last days of our vacation so it felt like it was ok. After brunch we headed to the aquarium. It was small but it had some nice features. We got to see some amazing sea turtles and even though I prefer wildlife in the wild it was still a pretty neat experience. We went on to visit a wrecking museum which was really interesting. Something that might be good to know is that they still have the same salvage laws today meaning that if you get stuck on a reef with your boat and accept someones help to get off they are entitled to everything on board. 

After some museum and gift shopping we went back to The Cafe for lunch. Food was just as amazing this time. We went to the hotel for some relaxation by the pool before our sunset cruise. Around six at night we boarded the catamaran again for our cruise. This time they started serving drinks right away and pretty soon we were in conversations with all these nice people from all over the states while we cruised the beautiful seas surrounding Key West. We met a couple from Tampa that we really hit it off with. It's interesting in the states and it's one of the things I love most about America, how nice everyone is and how they are genuinely interested in getting to know you. We talked away with our new found friends from Tampa and after awhile it felt like we had been friends for a long time. The sunset itself was absolutely gorgeous. M got some great photos but even them cant bring justice to how beautiful it really was. It's one of those things you have to see first hand I guess. After the cruise was over we ended up chatting away with our Tampa friends at the dock and decided to continue the night together at a bar nearby. After some pints and pizza they already invited us back to visit them in Tampa next year which we really hope will be the case. This is kind of the quintessential thing about traveling. To learn about different cultures and making new friends so we can learn from each other and make the world a better place. A cliche I know but nevertheless true. R & M, thank you so much for your kindness to strangers. Hope to see you soon again! This marked the end of our stay in Key West and next up I'll tell you about the last stop, Miami. I'm really ashamed that writing has taken so long time but I have had so much to do after returning to Sweden with university and all. Looking forward to finish the last big entry of this road trip soon so I can start updating this blog more frequently with shorter posts as well. Thank you all for reading!