Understanding (and Saving) Money in Costa Rica, Part 3: TIPPING

TippingBen and I always go Dutch when we go out. He and I have been good friends in Manuel Antonio for eight years, and we like the same restaurants and bars, so our checks are always similar. But Ben’s definition of tipping is completely different than mine. I love his company, and I want to keep going out with him, so we just ask for separate checks wherever we go. Problem solved. I still get to spend social time with my friend. Capricious attitudes toward tipping are certainly not unique to Costa Rica, but there are some pieces of information you may want to know prior to your arrival. I can’t help that some of my own opinions will come through in my guidance.

At restaurants/bars here, your “service charge” is included in your check; you have no choice. Even though it’s only 10%, some visitors abandon their normal 15-20% guideline, thinking “If they are going to compel me to give a tip (any tip), then I am only going to leave what they think their service is worth: 10%”. And that is fine. But remember, it’s a cultural thing in Costa Rica. Almost all countries (except The US) add a 10% service charge. Most folks tip a little on top of that. Up to you. Just remember that 10% is already there before you add 20% more.

Additionally, there’s a 13% sales tax. So your bill already is 23% over your food/drink charge. If you (unknowingly) tip 20% more . . . .that restaurant is really going to LOVE you.

There are (currently) ~570 colones to a dollar. For a group of six, each having about $50 worth of food/drink, your final bill could look something like this number: ₡171,384. Especially after a little wine, trying to figure the tip on that many digits can be a mathematical battle, especially when we are programmed to “think in dollars”. It’s best not to add that tip on your credit card voucher. Just put a “0” on the tip line, write ₡171,384 for your total, and leave any additional tip in cash. (Even in dollars). It will make for less of a surprise when you get your credit card bill next month.

At hotels, guesthouses and vacation villas, it’s customary to leave tips for the staff that helps you on your vacation. Casa Tranquila, for example, recommends, as a tip for the housekeeper, $3 per day, per guest. For a family of six that stays a week, that’s $126. Our one unbreakable guest rule at Casa Tranquila is: NO WORK ALLOWED. Every day, Jessica washes all dishes, makes all beds, hangs towels, cleans showers, windows and floors. Six hours every day. All with a smile. Her responsibility is to give you the vacation you came to Casa Tranquila to enjoy. It’s true she makes a salary. So, leave a tip. Don’t leave a tip. It’s completely your choice. It’s important you have a guideline for housekeepers . . . .wherever you are staying.

Your concierge gets “your stuff” accomplished. The butler/host/front desk staff reserves your zip lines and sunset sails. At Casa Tranquila, Nathan mends lamp cords, repairs remote controls, and makes late night visits to change gas tanks on your grill. It’s true those things should not need to be done in the middle of your vacation. But with guests coming and going all the time, stuff happens. Changes in a reservation, deciding you feel like a massage and starting it 30 minutes later, or having your husband’s birthday cake sitting on the table when he comes back from the beach are all examples of the magic Nathan (and other concierges) makes happen. At vacation villas, most of your planning (chefs, tours, restaurants, flowers) is done in advance. It all happens so seamlessly, that guests consider it the norm. Please remember there is a lot of effort that happens in absence of guests. Depending on the size of your family and the amount of detail you request, $15/day is an adequate benchmark to consider for your concierge.

We went on a vacation to Argentina recently and did many tours. It gave me a new-found appreciation for all that Manuel Antonio’s tour companies do for their guests. Here, they pick you up at your door, feed you lunch, and offer you guides that could double as comedians. I have never found that anywhere else. It’s true you are paying for the tour itself. And all those drivers, cooks and guides get salaries. Their tip (if any) should depend on their extra effort to make your zipline, sunset sail or white-water rafting experience an exceptional one. Most tours have some type of “hat-passing” system at the end.

Like everywhere, there are opportunists in Costa Rica. The guy who “helps” you park your car, or introduces you to his “cousin” who runs the jet ski operation, or has a handful or “Cuban” cigars to sell. I can’t tell you what to do with them, but it’s important to let you know they are here too.

Many businesses: hotels, tour companies, and even restaurants have a collective system for their tips. All are compiled and divided equally among employees, sometimes with the company itself taking a significant cut. So if you find that one specific individual’s service makes you happy, it may be best to pull him aside and put his tip directly into his hand telling him “this is for you alone”.

Tips are for exceptional service. You will find such service abounds in Manuel Antonio.

Now you know.