Virtually all our clients ask about tipping on safari. Like anything to do with money, perspectives on gratuities are shaped by so many different factors, including your culture, the culture you are visiting, your personal relationship with cash, your expectations of service and prevailing social norms. It’s a complex issue so let’s start at the beginning:
1. Why give tips?
In Africa, it is customary – but not obligatory or mandatory - to give tips to service staff in gratitude and thanks for good service. Gratuities can be increased or decreased depending on the level of service you are given: a high tip for exceptional assistance or a low one for going-through-the-motions, just-doing-my-job mediocre service.
2. Who to tip?
Generally, tips are given to workers who are not ‘professionals’ in the sense that they haven’t necessarily had significant tertiary education to qualify for a specific job. There are some exceptions though, like spa therapists or guides, who generally hold formal qualifications.
You wouldn’t normally tip the following on safari:
- Lodge or camp managers
- Cabin crew
- Airport desk staff
- Sales assistants in safari shops
- Medical or evacuation crews
- Lodge or tour owners
You would tip the following:
- Back of house staff: cleaners, cooks, gardeners, maintenance workers, guards and anti-poaching units
- Front of house staff: guides, spotters or trackers, waiters and waitresses, spa therapists and transfer drivers
3. How to hand over tips
This is where it gets tricky because there is no uniformity – every camp or lodge has its own system that you have to navigate. Generally, these are the most common:
- Communal tip box Located in the main area or mess tent, this is the easiest option as you simply put your tip into the locked box. Sometimes there are separate boxes for front- and back-of-house staff. The manager generally shares out the accumulated tips in intervals. Sometimes there is one box for your guide and tracker and another for all other staff. This system eliminates any awkwardness about having over money and does not allow staff to know how much specific guests tipped them.
- Handing money to the manager when you leave If there is no box, some guests do this among departure. Some will specifically say to whom the money must be given while other guests leave it up to the manager’s discretion.
- Handing cash to individual staff This is also an option but makes it clear that you are tipping some and not others as well as how much money you are giving.
- Leaving cash in your room when you depart This is not recommended as staff may assume you’ve forgotten it and radio the guide to drive back for you to get it. Staff are well trained not to ‘steal’ and will hand over anything found in your room to the lodge manager (this has happened to me with small items like plastic combs and water bottles). Honesty is a big part of running a successful lodge.
- Adding it to a credit card bill This is only possible in the few lodges and camps with credit card machines. Since they attract hefty surcharges, many camps don’t have them. If you have purchased something from the safari shop and want to add a tip to the bill, chat to the manager to arrange this and make a note on the slip indicating how much the gratuity is. This method can be a lifesaver if you want to tip generously but don’t have enough cash with you.
4. Should you tip?
This is hard to answer as it’s not a clear-cut issue for many travellers. Let’s look at it from different perspectives:
Travellers from America come from culture where tipping is the norm and expected while those from Europe or Australia generally don’t so are often unsure of how to do it. Some would simply like to do away with tipping altogether and add the money onto the final bill for a safari. Although this is a commendable idea, it’s hard to put into practice because a safari has so many moving parts. Also, would brilliant staff at one lodge sacrifice a good tip for average staff at another?
Some guests object to tipping on the grounds that the workers’ salaries should be enough to cover their living expenses and that lodge owners should pay more. This, once again, is a commendable idea but your safari costs cover not only wages but also concession fees, fuel, insurance, security, maintenance, food, beverages, Wi-Fi, entertainment, maintenance – the list is endless! An increase in wages would cause an increase in costs to you as other costs – like conservation fees or pumping borehole water – are fixed. Many lodges are using solar power, starting their own kitchen gardens and so on in order to cut costs where possible and pay workers as much as possible.
Bear in mind that a major cost for owners is housing, feeding, clothing and medically caring for staff who must live on the property for weeks or months at a time. Workers cannot catch a bus or train home to their apartments at the end of their shifts and they cannot work a second job either.
Most guests expect to tip and make provision to do so in their budgets but we stress that gratuities are completely at your own discretion for service you feel warrants them.
Of course, you say, staff will want tips. Who wouldn’t want ‘free money’ on top of their salaries? Once again, it’s not as simple as that. Think of a tip as more than just a ‘thank you’ for making your bed or showing you a lion – it’s also in recognition for the following:
- The long periods that staff spend away from their children, families and friends. They are often on duty for weeks at a time because getting in and out of the bush is so difficult. It’s compensation for not being able to return to a spouse or child after a long day at work.
- The expense incurred travelling home. Most staff live in far-flung rural areas or cities that are difficult and expensive to get to. Your US dollars go a long to helping families reunite.
- The bittersweet burden that almost every employed person in Africa carries is the expectation to support their extended family members who are unemployed or at school. This support network is vital is bringing up children and to stop unemployed people turning to alcohol or crime. A good tip has wide-ranging and positive ramifications. The vast majority of workers do not fritter their money away on frivolous luxuries but pay for school fees, doctor’s visits, groceries and so on. They may not have access to social security or medical aid like workers in the rest of the world.
- The long hours that staff work. They’re up way before hot tea or coffee gets delivered for your wake-up call in the morning and go to bed way after your last nightcap to put out the campfire, patrol the perimeter, prep the game-drive vehicle and hundreds of other chores that go into running a slick operation in the middle of the bush.
- The little extra lengths that staff go to like remembering your name, mixing your favourite drink without being asked, finding the specific bird you’ve always wanted to see… Again, our clients consistently remark on how incredible the staff in Africa are because of all the little things that they do with friendliness and grace.
Safari staff are responsible for our safety, comfort, health and nutrition, often under difficult circumstances that we know nothing about. While we’re enjoying drinks in the boma, kitchen staff may be fending off marauding vervet monkeys. While we’re out on a blissful boat cruise, they may have to contend with pipes broken by elephants looking for water. The behind-the-scenes dramas of a safari lodge are incredible and a tip is often a welcome recognition of that extra work.
Some guests may feel that a ‘safari is expensive enough’ so tips are an unnecessary added expense. From a worker’s perspective, who returns a village with no running water or electricity, it may be puzzling to see visitors who have pricy cameras, binoculars, watches and jewellery worth several years’ salaries baulking at paying a relatively small amount in tips. The thinking, rightly or wrongly, may be that a guest who can afford a $10 000 safari could surely afford to tip $100.
5. How much to tip?
Once again, this is a tricky one to answer because there are so many factors: the service you received, your personal budget, your ideas around gratuities. The rule of thumb is, tip as much as you can when the moment comes. I’ve never regretted a substantial tip but have often wished I had more cash with me to tip even more.
No matter how much you tip, don’t apologise for the amount. Simply hand it over in whatever form and say thank you sincerely. Gratitude, appreciation and recognition are always warmly received by staff.
Here is a rough guideline for Go2Africa clients who want to tip – feel free to adjust to suit your budget:
|Transfer||USD5 (American dollars) per couple to the driver. Consider increasing if you had extensive help with your luggage.|
|Guided tour||USD10 – USD20 per couple (or per day if it’s a multi-day tour) to the driver at the end of the tour.|
|Restaurants||Bills for parties of 8 or fewer generally do not have an automatic service fee. Add at least 10% of the total and round up.|
|City hotels||USD5 each to bellhops or porters.|
|Game lodge general staff||USD15 per couple per day|
|Guide||USD20 per couple per day|
|Tracker or spotter||USD15 per couple per day|
|Butler||USD15 per couple per day|
Of course, there are also regional variations and country-specific activities such as:
- Tipping in restaurants is optional especially if sales tax has already been added to your bill. If in doubt, enquire discreetly with the manager.
- Porters and hotel workers expect to be tipped but taxi drivers do not.
- It is customary to tip skippers, who will share it with the crew, as well as PADI staff, usually via a communal tip box.
- It is the norm to tip golf caddies
- It is also customary to tip skippers, who will share it with the crew, as well as PADI staff, usually via a communal tip box.
- It is customary to tip golf caddies.
- Self-drivers should tip ‘car guards’ (who offer to look after your vehicle while it is parked) and petrol attendants nominal amounts. It is illegal for anyone but trained staff to pump fuel.
- Staff on Rovos Rail will expect to be tipped.
- It is customary to tip PADI staff, skippers and caddies.
- It is usual to tip guides, cooks, waiters, porters and tent crew who ensure a successful summit – hand the tip to the head guide at the celebration after your descent.
- It’s a lovely gesture to hand over items such as spare (clean) socks, scarves, gloves, boots, headlamps, batteries and so on to the team who assisted you – they will appreciate getting these expensive extras that make their dangerous jobs a little more comfortable.
- It is customary to tip PADI staff, skippers and drivers.
Tanzania & Kenya
- It’s usual to tip a Maasai group of dancers who perform at your lodge.
6. Advice for easier tipping
After constant travelling in Africa since 1998, these are our practical suggestions to make tipping easier:
- Examine your itinerary provided by your Africa Safari Expert and note instances where you think you may be expected to tip - such as the transfer driver from the airport to your hotel, the porter at the hotel, the waiter for dinner that night – and how much you want or can afford to give them. Ask your ASE for advice if you’re in doubt.
- Divide the tips into separate envelopes – either per day or per accommodation. This makes it much easier to keep track of your cash.
- Get small bills like USD5, 10 and 20. These are easier to hand over and few places will be able to break $50 or $100 notes. In some countries, like Zambia, you are legally required to get all change in the local currency, leaving you with a handful of kwacha that you can’t use back home or elsewhere.
- Bring cash with you. The only place you can reliably draw money from ATMs or cash machines is South Africa.
- Keep your cash secure. Use the in-room safe. If there isn’t one, ask the manager to put your valuables – like money and passports – in the lodge safe or strongroom.
- Take US dollars. These are the most widely accepted across Africa especially in places like Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls. It’s also much easier to stick to one currency if you are crossing borders or doing a multi-destination safari rather than dealing with pula in Botswana and shillings in Kenya.