Should you tip the housekeeper at hotels?

No one used to talk about this. But in the past year, several friends, all of them travelers I trust, have told me that when they stay at hotels, they always leave a few bucks on the nightstand for the hotel housekeeping staff.

News to you? This concept is growing. Call it Tipping Creep, which is the slow introduction of new optional surcharges in the world's service industries. But when to do it, where, and why are still open questions.

I asked one friend, who travels a lot for work, why she does it. "Because someone told me once that you should," is all she could think of. Not surprisingly, her rules are fuzzy: Leave money when she's staying for a few days, but not if she's only there for a night or two. Presumably, tipping in that way might encourage better service over time.

And there you have the two rationales for tipping: Because the staff needs it and because it buys better service.Yet many people I talk to don't tip housekeepers at all. Budget hotels and motels, especially, seem left out of the gratuity loop. What do the experts say? Good Housekeeping says tip.The New York Times says to as well. Travel + Leisure says do, depending on the country and whether your hotel also levies a service charge. But in almost all cases, the advice seems based on hotels rated three stars or above. The advice also usually says that tipping is a "considerate" thing to do, but not fully expected, despite the fact that cleaning is back-breaking work that many feel is underpaid by many hotels. And for business travelers, housekeeping tips may not be reimbursed, meaning the money comes out of the traveler's own pocket -- a further deterrent.

The generosity seems to be affected by geography: Some of my friends won't tip in America, where there is an assumption that employers take decent care of their workers, but when they go somewhere with less of a social safety net, such as the Czech Republic or South Africa, they do leave a little money.

A recent help topic in USA Today's Hotel Hotsheet blog concerned tipping hotel concierges. There are some of us who just assume that a concierge is considered to be a luxury amenity and that hotels pay these professionals appropriately. But in fact, it turns out that other people have been tipping concierges behind my back for a while now. I rarely use concierges myself, but if I did, I might come off as a cheapskate. Then again, that label would only apply to someone who knew they should be tipping, but didn't. Many people have no clue whether it's expected.

I'm all for tipping in restaurants. Almost everyone in the United States knows that our wait staff receives a substandard hourly wage because of the expectation that they will make up the difference with their tips. This payroll quirk confuses visiting foreigners, but we're used to it.

But to hotel housekeeping? I'm not thrilled about consumers having to make up for the shortfalls of appropriate employer pay. If the chambermaid at your Sheraton isn't getting a living wage (which these days can even mean above the minimum wage), then Sheraton, or whatever is running the hotel, ought to take care of that problem, not allow it to be passed on to the rest of us.

That may not be a reason to withhold tip, since it punishes those who are just holding on. There's a reason that many hotels hire recent immigrants for housekeeping jobs -- they're more likely to accept crummy, low-paying jobs and less likely to complain. But there's also a reason to come up with a clearer, kinder system. Trouble is, many consumers won't know if they're staying at a place where their chambermaid is being well treated. Besides, if I leave a few dollars, I don't even know for sure that the person who left me my nice, clean room will be the same one who gets the cash for it the next day.

Some companies use non-tipping policies as a sales tool. Grocery chains like Publix, for example, forbid their baggers and porters from accepting tips. Some shoppers, such as this Alabama woman, actually choose Publix partly because it takes the tipping dilemma off their minds.

Should businesses get away with underpaying their staff for supposedly dirty jobs? Is that the housekeeper's problem, or the consumer's? Come out from hiding, non-tippers, and fess up.

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