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(Updated July 11, 2016)
First off, tipping is not a common practice in Cuba outside of the all-inclusive resorts. However, it has become fairly common in these resorts, mainly because many of the tourists do tip. Frequent travelers to the all inclusive resorts in Cuba relate that you don’t need to tip to get good service, but you need to treat the staff with respect. Go out of your way to be friendly, and have conversations with them. If you feel you must tip, tip for good service, only if it feels right to you. And tip with convertible pesos (CUC). Do not tip with coins of your own currency, because foreign coins can not be exchanged in any country. Do not tip with US dollars either. Since 2004, the US$ has been subject to a 10% penalty when exchanged in Cuba.
Above all, it is important to understand the reasons for tipping. A tip is an expression of appreciation for good service. A tip is not something given because one feels sorry for the Cubans and the poor wages they earn. (Resort workers are among the most well-off people in Cuba.) A tip is not a bribe to obtain services you have not paid for, such as room upgrades, etc.
Two issues that are important to most people are how to tip, and how much to tip. First of all, if and when you tip, do it discreetly. The show off who tosses money around indiscriminately and just for show doesn’t gain respect from the staff, nor from his fellow tourists. Most of one’s fellow tourists are not that interested in how much someone else tips anyway. And observing other tourists is a poor way to decide how much to tip, as someone may be tipping so discreetly that it appears they are not tipping at all. As far as amounts to tip, each traveller should make the decision as to how much he/she is comfortable with. The following is a summary of the average amounts that seem to suit many tourists visiting an all-inclusive resort, and is based on feedback from a number of frequent travellers to Cuba.
At the bar, one CUC for three to five drinks seems reasonable. When you have your meals in the buffet, try to stick with the same servers as much as possible, and you will be quite OK to give one CUC per meal every two days. In the a la carte restaurants, the consensus among most travellers is to tip between 1 to 3 CUC per meal.
When you go to the beach, on the first day, give the guy that sets out your lounge one CUC. The next day, give him a big smile, a sincere thank you, and shake his hand. A couple more times in the week, give him a CUC.
Give the bellhop one CUC when he carries your bags to the room. Similarly, one CUC for the guy that carries your bags to the bus, and one for the guy that takes them from the bus into the airport when you leave.
On average, the usual tip for the maid is about one CUC per day.
For the trips to and from the airport, some tip the driver, so leave a single CUC in the bus driver’s tip basket each way.
In general, tip when the service is rendered. For example, tipping the maid at the end of your stay has, at times, resulted in poorer service (you might not get the bottled water they are supposed to leave every day, or toilet paper when you ran out, etc.). If you leave something each day, along with a note, the service might improve. And it may be as much the note as it is the tip that makes the difference! It can be helpful if the notes say a bit about ones self, and ask some questions. Cubans are such warm, open people, they like to get to know you, and through your notes, you could get to know the person that is doing the job. If you happen to go back to your room occasionally when the maid is doing her rounds, take a few minutes to talk with her briefly.
You may even try to be more generous with the conversation. People everywhere will respond better to someone who treats them well than to someone who is miserable to them, even if the miserable person seems generous with the tips.
In the past, small gifts were thought to be appropriate for the maid. Typically, something small was suggested, like a sample size hand lotion, a bar of soap, or some costume jewelry. But this idea now seems to be out of date. With the recent increases in tourism, gifts have become redundant, as there is likely an oversupply of these kinds of items in the possession of hotel staff. Most travellers now recognize that gift giving has been overdone, and that a cash tip is more appropriate than a gift. This allows the maid to choose what she spends the money on.
That’s not to say that if you have formed a bit of a personal relationship with one of the staff members that you shouldn’t exchange gifts, but as many travellers have expressed it recently, tip for good service, give gifts to friends, and donate to charity.
If you go on a jeep safari, or other similar excursions, don’t take presents to hand out across the countryside. That doesn’t seem to really help anybody. A little soapboxing here: the Cubans survived the special period by being resourceful and smart, not by getting a lot of random gifts from tourists. The gifts tourists give don’t help Cuban society, and may actually be harming it.
Some good common-sense advice on the topic of gifts is available here:
In short, tip when you have received good service, just as you would do at home. As to the amount to tip, remember that one CUC is close to a day’s wages for a Cuban, so be generous, but you don't need to go overboard with the tips. Also be generous with your smiles, conversation and a sincere wish to treat the people you meet like the worthwhile human beings that they are.