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Tipping Customs in the USA

Travelling or living in another country can be a wonderful and exciting experience. However there is one situation that lots of people find confusing and stressful and that is ‘tipping’ (also known as paying a gratuity). Tipping is the practice of showing appreciation for the service you received by gifting an additional amount of money to the person or persons who served you.

The USA is a country where tipping is heavily embedded in the culture and where it tends more towards a compulsory practice than a gift of appreciation. In the USA the anticipated tip is typically not listed on the service bill/invoice/check (though occasionally it may be), but is usually left to your discretion as the person receiving the service. While tipping customs can initially feel difficult to understand and navigate, there are often common customs that can influence and guide the amount of your tip.

There are four aspects about tipping that typically confuse or frustrate travellers in the USA (and many Americans as well!)

1) Is tipping compulsory?
2) Which situations require a tip?
3) How much to tip?
4) How to tip?

Is tipping compulsory?
Some travellers may be aware that tipping is expected in some situations in the USA, while others may assume that because other American practices are similar to their own, that the service industry would also be similar. Yet in many countries tipping may not exist at all, or may be rare or reserved for extremely attentive or exceptional service. While it is fair to say many first time travellers to the USA may not be familiar with the tipping customs in America; likewise many Americans do not realise that tipping is not common outside of the USA and that it is difficult for some visitors to understand the practice. Therefore there is a lot of room for misunderstanding on both sides when it comes to tipping, or non-tipping, interactions with visitors to the States.

You should be aware that some restaurants or service providers will include a mandatory gratuity and this should be advertised or explained to you before the service. In this situation, where you have been informed upfront, you should pay the gratuity or you could face theft charges – though whether this would be upheld by a court is debatable.

Aside from the above situation – tipping is not compulsory, although it is a very fine line as the social expectations are very strong. Think of it like coughing violently in a crowded elevator without covering your mouth – no one can force you to cover it but it’s the height of bad manners. For what many travellers to the USA do not realise, but which is fairly well understood amongst Americans, is that wages in the service industry are often just a few dollars an hour, and tips are expected by both the employer and employee to supplement these very low wages.

For people visiting the USA from countries where service staff are paid good wages, the idea of an industry where low-waged employees can only survive from a tipping culture that is variable and uncertain may seem unfair and overly complicated. However whether you like it or loathe it, tipping is a fact of life in America and it is best to be prepared so that you can do the right and fair thing when it comes to tipping time. It is also worth visitors to the USA remembering that while it can seem unfair to be expected to pay an additional amount in tip; the meal or service you received was most likely much cheaper than it would have been had the employers wages costs been higher.

Which situations require a tip?
While many travellers on their first visit to the USA will be aware they are expected to tip in most restaurants, it is not commonly known that tipping is also expected in other service situations such as hotels, airports, taxis, bars, beauticians, hairdressers and certain therapists. This is where many travellers can feel confused and even a little anxious about getting it right. As an outsider it can be difficult at times to understand what is fairly included in the bill, and what can be considered additional service that requires a tip. For example if you have just checked into a hotel and tipped both the valet and bellhop, do you also have to tip housekeeping when they bring you extra pillows because there were only a couple on the bed when you arrived? Sometimes this comes down to an individual judgement call, but below are some guidelines that can help you to decide.

How much to tip?
This is where you get to exercise your own judgement. Some guidelines are below to help you with the minimum standards, but remember to factor in your own circumstances (i.e. if you are more well-off you may wish to be more generous, likewise if you require extra assistance). You should also consider the level of service you are receiving when deciding on the gratuity.

Some people use a mantra of ‘doubling the tax’. While this can make it easy to calculate – it doesn’t take into account that different states have different tax rates – i.e. doubling the tax on a restaurant bill in California might be fine, but in Hawaii or Alabama, where tax rates are lower, it would make for a very low tip. Therefore it is perfectly acceptable to use a calculator such as the one on your cell phone to discreetly calculate the percentage of tip that you feel is fair for the service that you received.

<15% of the bill = Servers will generally assume you were unhappy with their service 15% of the bill = Standard service of an acceptable quality >15% of the bill = Better than normal service

Calculate your tip based on the before tax amount of the bill.

Bars & Nightclubs
• Bartender $1 per drink or 15% of the total bill. Tip more generously (especially on the first round) if you want the bartender to remember you and to serve you quickly and with generous pours next round
• Coat check person $1 per coat

• Bell Hop $5. Tip more if you have more than a couple of bags or if they are particularly heavy or you have extra needs
• Housekeeper or chambermaid between $2 and $5 a night
• Concierge – tipping is not as expected in this situation but if you receive extra help or special service $5-$10
• Other staff – only tip if someone gives you extra help or exceptional service, usually a few dollars is acceptable

• 10-15%

• Skycaps. $1 per bag. More if you have special needs, unusually heavy bags etc.
• Rental Car Shuttle Driver. $1 per bag. More if you have special needs, unusually heavy bags etc.

If the tip isn’t already included:
• Tour Guides $2 to $3 per day
• Bus Drivers $2 per day

• 10 to 15%

Valet Parking
• Between $2 and $5 – Tip when receiving your car rather when dropping off

How to tip?
It is best to tip in cash. For this reason you should try to carry a lot of low bills (perhaps even in a separate pocket for quick access). If you are low on small bills many restaurants, if asked, will happily change a large bill to allow you to tip. In restaurants it is good to round up rather than to count out the exact pennies. While it is ok to leave some coins as part of the tip – servers typically prefer notes so that they are not weighed down in small change at the end of their shift.

It is also acceptable to tip by adding the tip amount to the bottom of the credit card slip– though keep in mind that most servers would prefer cash if you can pay that way.

If tipping by cash in a restaurant, it is the usual practice to leave the cash on the table for your server to collect later. This can be a difficult custom to adapt to as many travellers fear it will end up in the wrong hands – but don’t worry, leaving cash on the table is customary and usually the servers are watching what is happening and will collect their tips promptly.

If tipping in other situations (such as taxis, bell-hops, skycaps) where you have to hand money to a person directly, do it as discreetly as possible. It can feel awkward but approach it like a handshake – stand as close to the person as you would if you were to shake hands. Have the ends of the notes poking slightly out of your cupped hand so that the person can see or feel it (and remember they are usually anticipating it) and say ‘Thank You’ as you reach out for a handshake and palm the money into their hand.

Don’t try to wave the notes about or make a big statement about the fact you are tipping. Discretion is appreciated and will be less awkward for both of you.


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1 Comment

  1. Kate
    February 27, 2013 at 2:15 pm — Reply

    I’ve often wondered how the room cleaner knows that the few dollars lying around are intended as a tip and that you are happy for them to take it

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