Gratuities, once limited to restaurant servers, bellhops and concierges, are being solicited more than ever, and travellers are prime targets.
It's happening at a time when tipping is reportedly being phased out, leading to confusion and the inevitable question: When should I leave a little extra money on the table?
Consider the experience of Robert Rose, a television producer from New York, who was visiting South Beach in Miami recently. He needed to fix a cuff on a pair of pants and found a nearby dry cleaner. That's when he noticed a tip jar next to the cash register.
"I declined their services," he says.
Hands are out in all kinds of places, including fast-food restaurants, coffee shops, food trucks, ski rental stores and even public restrooms. Usually, the gratuities are optional, though they can be strongly encouraged with signs or payment systems that pressure you into adding a little extra. But not always. Some cruise lines automatically add gratuities to your final bill "for your convenience," and they can be difficult to remove.
It's a bewildering time to be a tipper. Last year, Joe's Crab Shack eliminated tipping at some locations, becoming the first major restaurant chain to do so. Another company, Union Square Hospitality Group, said it also planned to end tipping at its restaurants. That led to breathless predictions that tipping was on its way to extinction.
If only. Travellers report that solicitations are alive and well, and in the places you'd least expect them.
When Ariel Nicole, a social worker from Jacksonville, Florida, recently visited a county fair, she encountered something new: an attendant directing women into stalls, wiping the counters and handing out paper towels. "She also gave women a spray of perfume or dab of lotion if requested," she says. "She had a tip jar." Nicole didn't know how much to tip a restroom attendant, so she declined to do so. (Generally, the tip is about 50 cents, in case you were wondering.)
Hilda Mitrani says she was stunned when the South Florida bowling alley she frequents solicited a tip from her when she paid for her game, asking her to fill in a gratuity amount on her credit card receipt.
"I found that odd," says Mitrani, a marketing executive from Hollywood, Florida. She also didn't leave a tip.
The inequalities created by the spread of tipping are a concern to experts such as Holona Ochs, an associate professor at Lehigh University and co-author of "Gratuity: A Contextual Understanding of Tipping Norms From the Perspective of Tipped Employees." Her research suggests that more gratuities are not necessarily good for workers, either.
The trend coincides with a decrease in real wages and what she calls the "de-professionalisation" of some jobs. In other words, as servers, concierges and other employees become more reliant on gratuities, they become a less professional workforce; that can lead to lower service levels for consumers.
Tip jars and lines on credit card statements are a form of pressure that perpetuates tipping, Ochs says. "For example, tour guides and shuttle drivers will sometimes clip bills to a clipboard or some other place visible to customers," she says. "In these cases, people may be pressured by other customers to tip."
It worries travellers such as Peter DeForest, a consultant based in San Francisco. "This has been happening more and more," he says. "When I pick up a takeout order from a restaurant - even a small order - I see either a tip box by the cash register or get an expectant look and get a tip line on the credit card receipt. I'm just waiting for a tip jar at the supermarket to start showing up."
Actually, the wait is over. Benjamin Glaser says he recently saw a tip jar at the checkout counter of a grocery store in Manhattan, and, like DeForest and Rose, he was hard-pressed to see the benefit of giving the cashier a gratuity.
"I guess it's a good way to show thanks for a bagger who doesn't put eggs on the bottom," he says.
But over the long term, he doubts the benefits to customers. "Tipped employees regularly receive a lower mandated minimum wage," says Glaser, who edits a consumer website based in Huntsville, Alabama. "I think it's important to note that, when employers and the government factor in tips in wages and therefore allow a lower minimum wage, it's they who are asking customers for more, not the employees."
Escaping the growing tip vortex is possible, if awkward. To stop the spread of tipping, you have to stop tipping. Travellers have to reward businesses that pay their workers a fair wage and reject tips. But they also need to decline to fill the tip jar in places where the cost of the product should cover employee salaries, such as coffee shops and food trucks.
That's what Elizabeth Megan did when she was confronted with a tip jar at a doughnut shop in Boston. Megan, who runs a tour business, says she thought the chain had a no-tipping policy, "but I think some stores ignore the rule."
That made it easy for Megan to ignore the tip jar.
• Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate, journalist and co-founder of the advocacy group Travelers United.