Hi Sgt21--Welcome to EpicSki!
Yours is a great question, and obviously one dear to the hearts of all instructors. We've discussed it several times in the past here at EpicSki, but no harm in bringing it up again!
First, you should know that instructors ARE paid in the US, unlike waiters in restaurants who are paid only a token and rely completely on their tips. BUT--the amount instructors are paid by the ski school is still appallingly low, especially compared with the amount you pay for the lesson. So, while instructors will not be uncompensated if you don't tip them, they will certainly appreciate any tip, always, very much!
What is considered a "good tip?" Well, there are no BAD tips. I always say that I'll appreciate ANY amount--no matter how large!
Tips to ski instructors vary hugely, literally from zero to thousands of dollars (with zero being, unfortunately, much more common). Yes, it typically depends on the length of the lesson, the original cost of the lesson, and to some extent, the resort. But there is certainly no "standard" amount, and instructors know better than to expect anything in particular.
I know that this doesn't help much. I know that you are asking for more concrete guidelines because you don't want to offend your instructor by under- or over-tipping. (Don't worry about OVER-tipping, if that helps--few of us are that proud!) Here are some VERY general guidelines. For a half-day group lesson, the typical range at a destination resort is probably $5 to $20 per student, although many group lesson students do not tip at all. Instructors may be disappointed, but they won't be surprised or offended with no tip from a group lesson.
For private lessons, $20-$40 is probably "normal" for a 1 or 2-hour lesson, $30-$60 for a half-day (3 hours, usually) lesson, and $40-$100 for a full day. As I said, though, WIDE discrepancies from these ranges are standard! Unlike group lessons, private lesson instructors DO usually expect at least some sort of a tip--not that they necessarily always deserve one.
So there are some guidelines, since you asked. BUT--DO NOT FEEL OBLIGED TO TIP YOUR INSTRUCTOR AT ALL! I feel strongly about this--other instructors may disagree. I feel that instructors are not ENTITLED to tips--they (we) MUST EARN THEM. So the real answer to your question is to tip your instructor the way tips are really intended--to show appreciation and gratitude for a job well done. Realize that instructors are very poorly paid, but that is hardly your fault, and simply being underpaid does not entitle someone to a tip! If you feel that the instructor did a good job, offer a decent "average" tip. If you feel that the instructor did a GREAT job, went beyond "normal" expectations either in effort or talent, or both, then tip accordingly. But if the instructor put out only minimal effort or seemed not to care about you, then you are not obligated to "care" for him or her either.
If you DO want to show your appreciation for a ski instructor (and again, I may not speak for ALL instructors), remember that, while they may appreciate a beer, or a bottle of cognac, it's hard to pay rent or buy groceries with anything but cash. And paying rent is a big issue for many instructors.
*WARNING--RANT ALERT--READER DISCRETION IS ADVISED!*
In a separate, but related, issue, you can also help instructors, students, and (ultimately) the ski industry itself, by expressing to resort management your shock and dismay at the dismal amount they pay their instructors. You pay a lot of money for a ski lesson, but VERY, VERY LITTLE of that goes to the instructor.
Half-day group lessons typically cost in the neighborhood of $50 per person, PLUS lift tickets. So a 6-person group lesson brings the resort AT LEAST $300. It is unlikely that even $50 of that will go to the instructor--$25 is not uncommon. That private lesson that you pay $300 for will probably pay the instructor $50-$75. (Again, there is quite a range, and the instructor usually makes a bit more if you ask for him/her by name, rather than having the ski school assign you an instructor.)
Remember too that, out of this paltry "wage," the instructor has to buy his own expensive equipment, possibly pay for his own uniform, and pay for PSIA membership, training, and certification (optional, usually, but important for both professionalism and for the benefit of you, the student). Rent in ski resort areas is exorbitant. And instructors get paid NOTHING if they aren't actually teaching--they can show up as required and be available all day long, and go home empty-handed. Hard to pay for even ramen noodle soup when you've got nothing!
Top instructors at major resorts eventually get to the point that they can support themselves if they are frugal. But to get to this "comfortable" point usually involves extraordinary talent, dedication, education, and many years of struggling. Top pros may make a living at it, but compared to professionals in other fields with their level of expertise (and their potential to make money for their company), their income is still appallingly low.
To bring it home, this is not only the instructor's problem. It's YOURS, as the paying customer. That so little of your dollars goes to the instructor assures that the quality of the average ski lesson will remain dismal. With many notable exceptions, it is highly unlikely that you will get your money's worth, at most ski schools in this country.
The very best "tip" you could possibly give your instructor would be to help change the industry itself. So complain to management about the price of the lesson, or about their exploitative profit margins, or both. Tell them that you want a $300 product when you pay $300--not a $50 product.
AND tip your instructor in the mean time, if you can afford it (and if he earned it), to make up for the difference!
Personally, I feel that for the price you pay for a lesson, the instructor ought to be able to make enough money not to need a tip on top of it. What you pay should be more than sufficient to assure that you ski with a highly skilled, well-trained professional. That is far from the case, however. The reality is that what you pay for an instructor goes a long way toward lining the pockets of the resort executives, while the instructor barely subsists. (After a record season, Adam Aaron, CEO of Vail Resorts, accepted 4.5 MILLION dollars--that's $4,500,000--worth of stocks and stock options as a personal bonus last season, while signing on to a wage freeze for all Vail Resort employees-!) We instructors are powerless to change it. It's up to you!
I hold out my hat and humbly ask...PLEASE HELP!
<FONT COLOR="#800080" SIZE="1">[ January 02, 2002 10:50 AM: Message edited 2 times, by Bob Barnes/Colorado ]</font>