What’s appropriate for tipping in Cuba

Question: I’m travelling soon to Cuba and would like to know the norm for tipping at hotels or restaurants. Is it legal to tip with gifts such as certain hygiene products (toothpaste, shaving product, makeup) or school supplies (pencils, notebooks)? Is this appreciated or insulting? What constitutes an appropriate gift?

Answer: Tipping – whether with money or small gifts – is an acceptable way to express your satisfaction with service rendered. Tipping is also something that is culturally determined: some countries practice tipping and others don’t.

In Cuba, tipping is done by Cubans (many, not all) and visitors alike – those visitors, that is, who come from countries that practice tipping within their own borders.  And tipping is done at both peso and CUC (pesos convertibles) establishments, although at tourist resorts, your monetary tipping would (of course) be in CUC.

In tourist resorts, hotels or restaurants, everyone benefits. You yourself feel good about being able to express your pleasure with the service received. And the policy is for Cuban tourist staff to share tips with their co-workers (and families) who don’t have access to them. For instance, at hotels and restaurants, it’s usually those working at the front desk or as porters, waiters and chambermaids who receive tips, as they have direct contact with visitors. Those who work in maintenance, security, the kitchen, etc. don’t have direct contact, and sharing the tips is a way for all to benefit. Workers at tourist installations also donate a portion of their tips to the national health and education systems. Although what one wants to tip – and here we’re talking about monetary tips – differs from individual to individual, the following suggestions can help provide a guideline:

  • Porters: CUC 1.00 or more if you have lots of bags
  • Waiters: 15% of the cost of the meal or CUC 1.00, whichever is greater
  • Chambermaids: CUC 1.00 per day
  • Taxi drivers: 15-20% of the fare in CUC
  • Bus drivers: CUC 1.00 per day per person (if you’re with a group)
  • Guide/translator: CUC 1.50 per day per person (if you’re with a group)

Note: Don’t leave coins, unless they’re in CUC, as Cuban banks do not accept foreign coins for exchanging into local currency, whether pesos or CUC. Sometimes hotel or restaurant workers are “stuck” with substantial sums of coins from which they are not able to obtain any benefit (unless they’re able to find an individual from that country who is willing to exchange them).

As for leaving (unused) gifts as certain hygiene products (toothpaste, shaving product, makeup, shampoo, nice hand soaps, etc.) or school supplies (pencils, notebooks, colouring books, crayons), these too are appreciated although they’re more appropriately given in resorts and hotels rather than in restaurants. If you make a special friend with your chambermaid, for instance, a nice gift is always appropriate (financial, or a lovely scarf, or a shaver with razor blades, etc.), together with personal things – including clothing items – that you don’t need to take home.