Tip more a bit more than expected, because it doesn't take much to look like a big shot, says New Yorker Mark Orwoll.
STEP ONE The word "tip," as everyone knows, is an acronym for the Old English phrase, "To Irritate People." At least, that's what it seems like. If it makes you feel any better, Americans are just as clueless about their own tipping customs as are overseas visitors. So here's a handy rule of thumb: some workers expect a tip of 15-20 per cent of the fee, some are used to a dollar-per-service gratuity, and some don't deserve/expect any handout at all.
STEP TWO You'll always be safe giving a tip of 15 per cent (calculated before tax) for decent service or 20 per cent for excellent service. Here's a brief list of those workers: waiters/waitresses, spa technicians, taxi drivers, and barbers/hairdressers. Their tips – in fact, all tips – are paid only after the service is performed (otherwise it's called a bribe).
STEP THREE Here's where it gets tricky. Some workers are tipped on a dollar-per-service basis. Examples: bartenders ($US1 per drink, more for a super-glam cocktail), bellhops ($2-5 a bag), washroom attendants ($1), hotel maids ($2-5 a day), car park valets ($2-5), coat-check attendants ($1), tour guides ($5-10, even for free tours), airport porters – aka "skycaps'' – ($3-5 per checked bag), and hotel concierges ($10-20 if they do something special, such as procure hard-to-get theatre tickets).
STEP FOUR Not everyone gets a tip. Keep your money in your pocket when it comes to workers at fast-food restaurants, salon owners, grocery clerks, anyone whose bill includes an automatic service charge or gratuity, and people who serve you from behind a counter.
STEP FIVE Tipping is never mandatory. If you don't tip, you may get a dirty look, but you won't be collared by the fuzz and hauled off to the slammer (and you can use the money you saved, you cheapskate, to buy an American slang dictionary!) But don't forget that most tip-based workers rely partly on gratuities for their livelihood. So toss a couple of bucks into the busker's tip jar, give that barman a fiver, and smile at the pretty waitress when you add a big bonus to your cheque. In the long run, it's a cheap way to feel like a big shot, and it's a nice thing to do.
Veteran New York-based travel journalist Mark Orwoll has tipped service workers in 47 of the 50 US states and in more than 65 countries.