Tipping etiquette in Trinidad : Who and Who not to tip!

From a previous series of discussions on “crappy service charges in Trinidad” based on another post on “What to eat in Trinidad in 72 hours“, I realized that many travellers to Trinidad might not even know the actual tipping etiquette in Trinidad. Overall, we know that 90% of the travellers have at least once been confronted by a person they should be tipping and thus felt embarrassed. However before I provide my opinion based on growing up in Trinidad and all the Trinis I know, I should offer some stand alone context before I provide my opinion on “How to tip in Trinidad” or “Tipping etiquette in Trinidad”.

Cultural Background:

  1. Trinidad is not the same as Tobago.
    All points mentioned in this post are sort of related to Tobago, but not really. This post only applies to tipping etiquette in Trinidad.
  2. Trinis are not accustomed to tipping. Period! End of story!
    This has nothing to do with cultural backwardness or failure to reach the 21st century … but simply, it’s never been part of the culture. There are many cultures and countries where tipping is simply NOT part of the norm … see my post here for a sample list of those countries.
  3. Trinis regards tipping as a foreign habit and generally indicates a level of “stoucheness”
    We as a people hate pretentiousness, “uppity-ness” or “stoucheness” … it’s why a lot of people hate “Providence, Convent or SAGHS girls” (These are the female product of upper class girls high schools … it would require a book to explain that phenomenon. See the following videos for examples of “different accents” in Trinidad. The second one is a bit egregious because the poor children aren’t even really aware of their “Convent” accent.
    in Trinidad also regard those who live in upper middle class/wealthy neighbourhoods of Valsayn, Gulf View, Westmoorings as also somewhat foreign. In Trinidad, if you live in these areas, one has to make an additional effort to appear unpretentious, since Trinis just naturally assume that people who live in these areas are just naturally “stouche” or “uppity”.

So now that I’ve set the background that Trinis are different from Tobagonians,  didn’t grow up with tipping, hate stoucheness in all forms and manners … I can deep dive into the topic.

Appropriate places to tip:

  • Anywhere frequented by foreigners i.e. White People.
    This requires ZERO explanation, if you’ve ever been to Trinidad. Blame our post colonial mentality. Blame our post Slavery hangover. Blame what you want … but anywhere you see a white person in Trinidad, expect that a tip is required. Canadians and Americans have brought that aspect of their culture over in Trinidad and it’s just part of standard operating procedure in establishments that cater to foreigners. Here’s a couple nuances to the “foreigner” term (these are only my opinions BTW) …

    • A Trini who lives abroad and visits Trinidad and speaks like a Trini … is not a foreigner
    • A Trini who was born and raised here till 20+ and now lives abroad and visits Trinidad and speaks like a foreigner … is a pretentious jackass or wants to show off that they live “away”. This works wonders on the local girls though … so I understand why it’s done.
    • A person who was born in Trinidad but who has left so long ago/hasn’t visited in 20+ years and speaks like a foreigner … they get a pass 🙂
    • Anyone white … assumed foreigner, even though we have “local” whites/expats here! This is another post for a later time.
  • Hotels
    Higher end hotels like Grand Hyatt, Hilton and Crowne Plaza are definite tipping zones
  • Restaurants that cater to foreigners, expats or people in the Oil sector
    See the bullet above … it’s classified as anywhere.
  • Chain restaurants (TGIF,Ruby Tuesdays,etc)
    I don’t really know how chain restaurants in Trinidad became a posh thing, especially because of the sub standard food they serve. However the service in these franchised restaurants tends to be better because of service quality control directives that come from the US based head offices. There are numerous spot checks on these types of restaurants for the service … I can’t speak for the food. I’ve never had a great meal at a chain restaurant in Trinidad. I also only recommend 10% … I’ve also never had an amazing service experience in a Trinidadian restaurant.
  • Some service people (Hairdressers, guys who carry your groceries to your car etc)
    It is also recommended that you tip if someone did something for you for free or really went out of their way like putting your luggage in your car or carrying something down to the beach for you or made your stay/tour really memorable.  A typical tip in such a case could be between $5-$20 TT depending on the assistance provided.
  • High end bars in Port of Spain
    See the first bullet. If you see foreigners … then you should tip. In fact, these bars are the one place you really do want to tip because …

    • There are many lovely lasses looking for a moneyed guy or foreigner. Seriously!! If you’re a white person in Trinidad, you can get massive amounts of play … and even if you’re homely/average looking and girls won’t beat you with a stick in Canada or US … you’re guaranteed in Trinidad, if you’re here for a reasonable amount of time i.e. a week or more.
    • Tipping bartenders here will get you a lot of inside information – so definitely spread your money to those bartenders. It’s an investment into a better time in Trinidad.
  • Kids selling stuff on the beach
    Buy something on the beaches and give the kids a buck or two extra. You’ll actually be spending your tip money on people who really need it.

Inappropriate places to tip:

  • A fete …

    If you see a bar like this … don’t be an ass and tip the bartenders. There will be no special service or special cocktails. These people are here to pour alcohol and process your thirsty ass. If you’re tipping, then you might as well flush your money into the mud. No normal self respecting Trini will tip here. Cooler fete … bush fete … jungle fete. It doesn’t matter. No tipping required.
  • An all inclusive fete during Carnival
    This is a picture from Moka golf course on Carnival Sunday. This fete is known as a high ticket fete (between $100 and $200 USD) … Johnny Walker Blue flows like water here … and there is NO Tipping here. In fact, it would be a little “gauche” and “stouche” all in one to tip here – so if you REALLY want to look like an over moneyed, pretentious douchebag tourist … then let your money rip in an ultra premium fete.
  • A rum shop

    A rum shop is where the common Trini man drinks. The only females are usually waitresses. Most women look down on other women who actually drink in rum shops.
    A rum shop is where the common Trini man drinks. The only females are usually waitresses. Most women look down on other women who actually drink in rum shops. So if you’re a female traveller to Trinidad … this is not high on my recommended types of those places that you should be in.
  • A roti shop, village restaurant, doubles stand or roadside vendor

    If you offer a tip here …. not only might you be laughed at, people all around will know you’re a tourist and you might actually encourage some negative attention. In Trinidad, drawing attention to yourself isn’t a good thing. So be aware!
  • Anywhere you see a stage … like this one

    Apply the same rules as a fete. BONUS POINTS for avoiding any GirlPower or Island People fete … http://www.rishiray.com/good-morning-and-fuck-you-islandpeople-girlpower-2012-fete-review-february-17th-2012/
  • Taxis of any kind in Trinidad
    Maxi taxi Trinidad
    Taxis in Trinidad are run on a fixed fare basis. Fixed fares are awesome. You know exactly what to pay. The pay schedule is located somewhere within the taxi or your can just ask someone how much the fare is. Never tip on public transport in Trinidad. Keep your tips for the surly taxi drivers in NYC/Toronto/Chicago/San Fran etc. As a rule you don’t tip taxis at all. Tipping in this situation would draw unnecessary attention to yourself. Airport taxis are included in this rule. Those guys rip you off anyway … so don’t tip them either.
  • Gas station attendants
    Full service gas stations are not the norm in big North American cities but they are the norm in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Trinidad, no one tips the gas station attendant … it’s not your job as a visitor to break the social contracts and create something different. My girlfriend now wife … attempted to tip a gas station attendant on her first visit to Trinidad and he was more confused initially, but he actually refused the tip and said it’s included in the price. I gave him $30 just because he was honest with her … if only a lot more people were like him.
  • Take out restaurants
    If I have to explain this … then just forget why you came here.

Here’s a oldie but goodie by one of the Original Trini etiquette police : Manners and Entertaining with Marguerite Gordon.

Tipping is usually 10 per cent, but in more places it is now15 per cent (and since this book was written some restaurants are 20 per cent now). If service charge is added, you don’t usually have to tip, unless the waiter or waitress has been absolutely dreadful, you should give them a little something extra. This is because tips are almost always shared. I also don’t recommend you add the tip to your credit card bill, as you can’t be quite sure your waiter is going to get it. Though I am sure most restaurants are very ethical and pool the tips at the end of the evening, some may just be using the accumulated tips to buy more glasses and clean the napkins.” End of quote.

So where did the first idea of tipping come from? Actually it was not the US, it was developed in Europe (was it Italy where the fork first appeared in the Western world? The fork certainly did not come form the US as did neither many of the concepts of etiquette), but more about that another time.

It is alleged that the TIP is an acronym for the words: “To Insure Promptness.” OK, so the Americans may have ‘captured’ it, but now all countries endorse it. Tipping is supposed to motivate (difficult because as we all know people are not only motivated by money), staff to give of their best — and — quickly. Well, sometimes the kitchen lets down the waiter and/or the waiter lets down the kitchen, and the manager may be faulty in his or her time management and the ovens are not working as well as they should and there is general confusion.

However, THE waiter and/or waitress are supposed to give of THEIR best.

I can, however, think of one organization – that I know of (where up to a few years ago), the guests were instructed verbally and in general written information NOT to tip. This well-run, enticing, romantic and superb holiday resort organization to which I refer is ‘Sandals,’ owned and operated by the imitable Mr Butch Stewart of Jamaica. In his all-inclusive hotels in the Caribbean, tipping was not allowed.

So in the average restaurants and hotels, customers have some authority at their finger tips (or I should say their credit cards/cheques/cash), and can decide yea or nay. Still it should be remembered that many waitresses and waiters (now called “servers” by the Americans), really look forward to tips because this type of staff who receive tips sometimes earn less than the minimum wage rates. But this begs the question..are they really being TRAINED how to give Customer Service to the Customer?

Am I getting carried away? Perhaps, because the real questions you needed to think about were these… did the waitress (who by the way should NOT have asked about the tip, but there we go: did she know she should not ask that question, was QUALITY service explained to her?); was she pleasant, did she give an appropriate greeting and welcome you? Did she repeat your order? Did she have good knowledge of the menu? Did she give suggestions? Did she show some personal empathy to any — even a small – situation that may have arisen? Was she fast and accurate, apologising for any delay if there was one? Did you get exactly what you ordered? Was she too personal? Was she too familiar? Did she have a pleasant and warm smile?

Check your answers to these questions… because perhaps you just may have been right NOT giving her a tip. But then again, perhaps you should have!

Here’s another funny post on tipping in Trinidad : Cha with that: I Not Tipping (I also highly recommend browsing through Outlish)

So imagine I’m on my honeymoon in Jamaica, in a white van, strongly resembling a white maxi, travelling a distance processed as walking distance to my Trini brain. But like the Jamaican driver confuse my Trini accent with a Miami one, because on top of charging me $10US return – per person – he looking for a tip. You could believe that one?

Is best he started looking for world peace, or an honest politician one time, because all he received in return was a poker face, and a thank you. Not even the peer pressure of all the ‘proper’ tourists in the bus forking over 50% and 100% of the fare’s value in tips could melt my resolve. I guess the job situation in the US wasn’t as bad as advertised.

It got me thinking though. When did we reach here? How did we get to the place where tipping was expected as a right from those in the service industry? The bus didn’t even have AC self.

How did we get to the place where tipping was expected as a right from those in the service industry?

It seems that these days a tip is expected, regardless of service quality. Researching the matter, I read that “failing to give an adequate tip when one is expected is a serious faux pas, and may be considered very miserly, a violation of etiquette”. Personally I say ‘cha’ with that. If I give a tip at all, it’s because the person soldiered beyond the call of duty to provide my happiness. Not to satisfy anyone’s misplaced idea of etiquette.

In my lifetime, I’ve probably tipped fewer times than days in the week, and each occasion remains securely tucked in memory. A woman who recommended food to me that tasted good, and who changed my drink, when she realized I didn’t enjoy it. A Ruby Tuesday’s waitress with an upbeat personality, who ensured we got a proper seat, and didn’t disappear like Mumford every time we were ready to order. A lady in Tobago who made us feel at home, even though we were Trini…though technically we were at home. And the list goes on, albeit not very long.

If those things don’t seem particularly memorable, well you should and would shudder at the average level of service. Still, service staff expect extra for performing what, essentially, is their job description. One even flat out asked me for the extra contribution, even though the food was terrible, and she took years to bring me my char siu pork, something that you can get in less than five minutes by any two by four Chinese outlet. Immune to social expectations as I can sometimes be, I told her no.

Is either the person doesn’t want to be there, so they ‘face swell’, and they’re nowhere to be found…

Amazingly, I don’t consider my quality quotient to be particularly high. At this point, if I go to a restaurant, and can get my food in less than ten minutes – with no attitude from the attendant (I personally don’t even need a smile) – then tip passing like ball from Iniesta. Good luck finding that in Trinidad though. Is either the person doesn’t want to be there, so they ‘face swell’, and they’re nowhere to be found, or they’re in your face incessantly, trolling for tips, so the smile is plastic, and they’re badgering you to buy things you don’t want…and suggesting expensive ‘ting’ they know doesn’t taste well.

Thankfully, in Trinidad, most attendants seem to realize that the service ‘cheesy’, so they don’t demand tips, a relationship I’ve grown accustomed to maintaining. They don’t perform well. I don’t complain. They don’t look for tips, and I eh giving.

Abroad is a different story, and when I say ‘abroad’, like most Trinis, I’m referring to America, more commonly known as ‘The States’. The service is generally what I consider average, albeit wayyy better than ‘average’ in Trinidad. They do what you would expect from a restaurant of that price range, but they stop just short of demanding a tip. If I have to pay so much for average service, I say give me a tray and let me organize my own stuff.

I mean, am I not already paying service charge? Oh you say you’re underpaid? How is that my fault? I was underpaid at my first job, yet none of the people who enjoyed the websites I built tipped me. I would really like to meet and congratulate the marketing genius who transferred the onus of ensuring that workers in the service industry are properly paid from their employers to the patrons.

Again…how is that my fault? ‘Cha’ with that. I not tipping.

When I look at my bill in any restaurant, I see the food/drinks cost and the service cost (and VAT in Trinidad), so a tip, in my mind, is not for basic, expected service. To get a tip from me, you have to provide some intangible je ne sais quois. And since that is increasingly rare these days, I guess I’ll be saving my money – not giving it away to suit someone else’s idea of etiquette or reward for poor service.

So now you know about tipping etiquette in Trinidad … save us all from future nonsense and follow the rules.

How about you? Post below and let me know if I’m completely crazy in my Trini tipping primer

About Rishiray

Rishi Sankar is a Cloud HRMS Project Manager/ Solution Architect. Over the past 15+ years, he has managed to combine his overwhelming wanderlust with a desire to stay employed, resulting in continuing stints with 3 major consulting firms (IBM, Deloitte, Accenture). He documents his adventures around the world on "Ah Trini Travelogue" with pictures and stories from the road/tuk-tuk/camel/rickshaw. You can follow him on Twitter at @rishiray and on Facebook at "Ah Trini Travelogue . He doesn't like Chicken Curry but loves Curry Chicken and is always trying to find the perfect Trinidadian roti on the road. He also doesn't like cheese and kittens ... and definitely not together. E-mail from his blog is appreciated like a 35 yr old Balvenie at rishi@rishiray.com

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