A guide to tipping in the US: when do I tip and how much?

Constantly tipping staff can be exhausting.
Constantly tipping staff can be exhausting. Photo: Jennifer Soo

There are few social customs in the US more confusing to travellers than tipping. To most Americans, gratuities are normal, like adding sales tax at the register. To foreign visitors, though, the very idea can induce anxiety or panic.

Australians are notoriously poor tippers. Partly this is accidental ignorance, but partly it is self-righteous rejection of an institution many of us see as unfair. I once had a meal in New York with a woman from Brisbane who refused to tip “on principle.” I nodded in agreement ... and then tipped for both of us.

The truth is, federal minimum wage for adults in the US is just $7.25 an hour. In industries where tipping is routine, employers are legally allowed to pay wages as low as $2.13 an hour. So while travellers may stage a quiet rebellion, refusing to tip, the bereaved party is never going to be the restaurant owners (who earns their profit through the itemised bill), but the poor waiters.   

Until the US government raises minimum wages to Australian levels (something that will probably never happen), tipping is here to stay. Which means travellers need to accept it, then learn the rules. First rule: After clearing immigration get your hands on a stack of “singles” ($1 bills). You’re going to need them. 

Getting around

In theory, tips should only go to people who are helpful; the more helpful, the more bountiful their reward. In reality, tips are par for the course, and to “stiff” somebody is tantamount to slapping them in the face. 

If a airport porter helps you with your bags, give them $1-2 per bag. If they meet you at the gate with a wheelchair, give them $3-5.  

For most travellers, the first real test comes with transports away from the airport. If you’re lucky enough to have a hotel worker collect you from Arrivals, give them $10-15 for the effort. If you take a taxi, a little more thought will be required. Many taxis now have seat-back displays that offer “default tipping” amounts at the end of a journey: in New York, 20, 25, and 30 per cent. You should only really tip 30 per cent if the taxi turns out to be the Batmobile, getting you to your destination in record time. Even 20 per cent can sometimes feels a little high. Tipping is subjective: I often manually override the default, leaving 15-20 per cent, or a few extra dollars if I’m paying in cash. 

If you hire a car and take advantage of valet (all but mandatory in Los Angeles), be prepared to tip the worker $3-5 upon pick-up, depending on how ritzy the establishment is. A quick rule of thumb: more ritz equals more tip.  

Hotels

If you arrive at the hotel and somebody opens the door for you, that’s on the house. If they carry your bags, that is not on the house. Give them $2-3 a bag.

If the hotel has a concierge, their friendliness isn’t contingent on your generosity. But if they perform a service for you – book a trip, hire a car, charter a private jet to the Bahamas – acknowledge this effort with $10-20 at the end of your stay, presented with a handshake. 

One case where tipping can have a direct impact on the quality of service you receive is housekeeping. Each morning, leave $2-5 on your pillow with a thank you note. This ensures different cleaners get their due, and it also means cleaners will be extra diligent for the rest of your stay. If you think this is a little rich, keep in mind that these people are picking up your dirty towels, so spare change for a cup of coffee is the least you can do.   

One point of confusion with hotel tipping is the in-room dining. Some hotels include a default tip on their dining bills; some include a “service charge,” which goes to the hotel, and should not be treated as a tip. If there’s no obvious tip included on the bill, slip the server 15-20 per cent when they knock on your door.

Dining and drinking

Nobody can force you to tip in a restaurant, though they can try to counteract your miserliness by stating on the menu that tips are automatically added to the final charge. This is increasingly common in areas catering to large numbers of foreign travellers; it’s also pretty standard when your table has more than six people.  

If tips have been added by the time you come to hand over your card, no further gratuity is needed. If no tip has been included, you might need to leave some money on the table. How much exactly depends on what kind of table it is. 

If it is a fast food table, no tip. If it is a table at a restaurant ranging from modest diner to upmarket eatery, 15-20 per cent for the waiter is standard (err on the high side in major cities like New York and San Francisco). If you leave less than 15 per cent, staff will assume you weren’t happy with their service. If you leave two pennies on top of the bill – a code – they will know you were very unhappy, and feel bad even as they silently loathe you for being a Scrooge. It is almost never okay to withhold a tip; if you’re considering doing that, you should also be considering complaining to the manager.   

If it is a very fancy restaurant, perhaps one with Michelin stars, prepare to hand over 25 per cent of the bill (before tax) to the waiter, who will divide it up among his or her support staff. You should also tip the sommelier if they suggest wine, and perhaps the maitre'd, if they gave you a fabulous table.      

Always, without exception, tip a bartender a dollar for every drink; bigger tips can mean stronger second cocktails in my experience. 

As for coffee shops, despite the increasing prevalence of tip jars, and “suggested tips” when paying with a card, this is cheekiness and should only be taken seriously if the barista goes out of their way, like the man who once drew Darth Vader in my cappuccino crema.

Everything else

This guide covers the most common situations a traveller will have to contend when in the US, though the list is not exhaustive. For example, do you tip a massage therapist? Yes, 10-20 per cent. A hairdresser? Same. Tour guide or hiking leader? 15-20 per cent of the total charge, depending on their performance. That Elvis impersonator who officiated your wedding in a Las Vegas chapel? Same. 

Tip anyone, in fact, that provides you with a service: 15 per cent is a good default to keep in mind. Just remember, nobody is affronted by the offer of a gratuity, so you shouldn’t feel bashful about giving one. 

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