How Much (Whom and When) to Tip in the United States

Tipping is more common in the United States than in other countries, and it often causes confusion – even for Americans! If you get it wrong, it can lead to embarrassment, misunderstandings, and even angry confrontations. Here’s a guide to tipping in the Land of the Free.

image-of-waiter-serving-drinks
Servers expect tips, but how much is appropriate? Photo Credit: Florian Plag.

Travel Tips

How many times have I heard horror stories of first time visitors to New York City being chased down the street by waiters and told that their tip was insufficient?

  • Click HERE to skip to my Definitive Guide to Tipping in the United States>>

One person actually told me that his tip had been thrown at him as he walked out the restaurant door. I asked him to explain exactly what had happened, and this is what he said:

“We stopped to have lunch before heading to the airport. We had accumulated a lot of small change during our stay in the United States, and we wanted to get rid of it because we wouldn’t have any use for it when we got back to Europe.”

I asked him how much “small change” he had left, and he assured me that it was equal to the amount that the tip should have been.

“While I do NOT think the waiter should have thrown your tip at you, I think I understand what happened. I think he had interpreted the ‘small change’ as an insult,” I said.

I TOTALLY agree that the waiter was out of line. There is NO excuse for throwing something at anyone in any situation.

But I also understand that the waiter probably had enough on his hands serving customers without having to deal with a considerable amount of small change that had been left on the table.

  • Click HERE to skip to my Definitive Guide to Tipping in the United States>>

The Rationale Behind Tipping

The simple fact is that tipping is a well-entrenched custom in the United States, and it’s not likely to go away any time soon.

People working in certain positions – particularly waiters, waitresses, bartenders, and taxi drivers – are not only paid low base salaries. In some states they are actually paid BELOW the minimum wage!

So a tip is not considered something extra, such as a “reward” for exemplary service. It is actually an integral part of a service employee’s salary. The tips should, in fact, account for the lion’s share of a service employee’s earnings.

The United States Internal Revenue Service actually taxes employees working in these positions on their “assumed” earnings, which includes the amount of money they would be expected to receive in the form of tips.

  • Click HERE to skip to my Definitive Guide to Tipping in the United States>>

Tipping vs. Service Charges vs. Sales Tax

What some travelers visiting the United States don’t take into consideration is that in their own countries, it is usually customary for restaurants, bars, and hotels to automatically include a service charge at the foot of the bill.

It is  arbitrarily included in the bill, and it usually amounts to 10%. And a small tip is often expected on top of the service charge.

Similar businesses in the United States do NOT generally include an arbitrary service charge on the bill.

So if you left a small tip of 5% in Britain (where a 10% service charge had already been added), that would be equal to leaving a 15% tip in the United States.

Many foreign tourists see the TAX box at the bottom of the bill and mistake it for a service charge. But the sales tax goes to the government, neither the restaurant nor the server.

In some countries, the sales tax is incorporated into the price of a produce or service. In the United States, it is not. It is always added at check out, which can be an unpleasant surprise if you are not familiar with this system.

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Tipping Etiquette

When all is said and done, tipping in the United States can be complicated – Americans themselves often get confused. And if truth be told, many Americans dislike it as much as visiting foreign tourists do.

Why can’t employees just be paid adequate wages?

I must admit, having spent most of my adult life living overseas, I prefer traveling in those countries where tipping has yet to catch on – such as Japan and Singapore. And I hope it never does!

Preparing for my first trip back to the United States in several years, I decided to brush up on my tipping etiquette.

On previous trips, I had usually been picked up at the airport by friends, and I stayed at friends’ houses, as well. So it wasn’t much of an issue. I pretty much knew how to deal with food and beverage outlets – tip  15% to 20% of the pre-tax bill.

On this trip, however, I will be playing the part of a tourist at least part of the time,  staying at hotels and taking taxis and shuttle buses and sightseeing tours. So …

I decided to look into U.S. tipping expectations so as not to look like a cheapskate – or make a fool of myself.

And as long as I was going to all of this work for myself, I figured I might as well take it a step further and put together a guide that would be helpful for others, including foreign tourists not familiar with American tipping etiquette as well as for other American expats like me, who need a refresher course in the fine art of tipping in the Land of the Free.

To assemble this guide, I consulted the websites of the  Emily Post Institute and the American Society of Travel Agents as well as two tourism boards: NYCGo and Legacy Texas – not mention numerous newspaper and magazine articles.

Generally speaking there was a consensus. But interestingly, the American Society of Travel Agents – much to my surprise – tended to recommend tips on the lower end of the scale.

Definitive Guide to Tipping in the United States

At the Airport …

Skycaps

Generally speaking, airline employees don’t expect tips, but there is one exception: skycaps. If a skycap carries your bag from the curb to the check in counter, you should tip at least US$2 for the first bag and US$1 for each additional bag. More generous travelers tip as much as US$5 for the first bag.

At the Hotel …

Doormen

It is not necessary to tip the doorman of the hotel for opening the door for you, but make sure to make eye contact, smile , and say thank you. If he carries your luggage to the front desk, tip him US$1 to US$4. If he hails a cab for you, tip him US$1 to US$2 – more if it is raining or he has to go to considerable effort to find you a cab.

Bellhops

Tip US$2 for the first bag and an additional dollar for each additional bag.

Housekeepers

There is a growing trend toward tipping housekeepers, a.k.a. maids. To avoid confusion, leave a note saying “for housekeeping” or “thank you” along with the tip, which can be left on the nightstand next to the bed or under a water glass in the bathroom.  US$2 to US$5 a night is the norm.

Concierge

It is not necessary to tip the concierge for answering questions. If he arranges concert tickets or makes dinner reservations, however, you can tip US$5 to US$10. If the tickets are hard to arrange, you should tip US$15 or 10% to 20% of the ticket price.

Room Service

If a gratuity is included in the charge, you can add US$2. If there is no gratuity, you can add 20%. If you ask for something to be brought to your room, you can tip US$1 per item.

Storage

If you want to store your bags with the concierge, you can tip US$1 or US$2 per bag when they are returned to you.

Rest Room Attendants

If someone in a uniform turns on the water or hands you a towel, you can tip him US$0.50 or US$1.

At Food and Beverage Outlets …

Waiters and Waitresses

For table service – the standard tip is 15% to 20% of the PRE-tax bill. There are two easy ways to calculate this:

  • Move the decimal point over one digit and double it (US$25 >> US$2.50 X 2 = US$5);
  • Double the amount of the tax (in most states, the sales tax is 8%, so doubling the tax equals 16%; if the sales tax is only 6%, triple it; if there is no tax, follow the first strategy).

Even if you are not satisfied with the service at a food and beverage establishment, you should still leave at least 10%.

For Counter Service – because less walking is involved, a 10% tip is satisfactory when sitting at lunch counters or at the counter of a coffee shop.

At Buffets – a 10% tip is appreciated.

Take Out or Self Service – not necessary unless extra service is involved, in which case you can tip 10%.

Delivery

Tip 10% to 15% of the bill or US$2 to US$5 for pizza.

Tip Jars

Tipping is not necessary at cafeterias or other self-service restaurants. If you’re a regular customer, you’ve requested special service, or the cashier has been particularly friendly, you can leave a small tip. Many customers just throw in the coins they get as part of their change.

Bartenders

You can tip US$1 to US$2 per drink when your drinks are served or 15% to 20% of the total bill if you are running a tab.

Sommeliers

You can tip 10% to 15% of the price of the wine.

Coat Check ATTENDANTS

You can tip US$1 when your items are returned.

Parking Valets

Tip US$2 to US$5 when your car is returned.

Ground Transportation and Sightseeing

Private Tour Guides

For short tours, you can tip 10% to 20% of the price of the tour. For a half day tour, you can tip the guide US$5; for a full-day tour, you can double the amount. The driver can be tipped US$2 a for a full-day tour.

Tour Guides at National Parks

Never tip tour guides, park rangers, or other employees at national  parks.

Airport Shuttle Drivers

You can tip US$1 or US$2 per bag.

Taxi Drivers

You should tip 15% to 20% of the fare, but not less for US$1 plus US$2 for the first bag and US$1 for each additional bag. If the driver helps you with your bags, you can add one or two more dollars.

Other Service Providers

Barbers

Tip 15% to 20% of the bill.

Hairdressers

Tip 15% to 20% of the bill.

Shampoo Attendants

Tip US$2

Manicurists

Tip 15% of the bill.

Masseuses and Masseurs

Tip 15% to 20% of the bill.

Gas Station Attendants

Not necessary unless they perform some special service such as changing a flat tire.

Cruises

Generally, cruise companies will offer guidelines on how much to tip. Room stewards, assistants, maitre d’s, and managers expect US$1.50 to US3.50 per day, and the tip is given on the final day.

Bartenders, bell boys, and deck stewards should be tipped when the service is provided.

How to Tip

Tipping by Cash

When traveling, it is a good idea to keep a stash of one dollar, five dollar, 10 dollar, and 20 dollar bills at the ready. This will simplify your life as many of your tips will be “cash only” transactions, and it’s a bit awkward to ask your server for change.

If you arrive from another country and don’t have any small bills, go into a convenience store and make a small purchase.

Cashiers can’t open the cash register without ringing up a sale so don’t expect to walk into one and expect the cashier to give you change without buying something. But it’s perfectly okay to say, “Could I have five dollars of that in ones?”

Keep in mind that US$100 bills are not in widespread use in the United States, and some businesses will not accept them for small purchases.

Tipping by Credit Card

If you are paying by credit card, there is usually a spot at the foot of the bill to fill in the   amount of the tip. You can either fill in the amount of the tip there – or you can leave cash. Service providers tend to prefer cash tips.

If you do leave a cash tip, however, make sure to draw a line through the spot where you’re supposed to fill in the tip and fill in the exact amount where it says, “TOTAL”.

I have heard of unscrupulous restaurants filling in “tips” when this box was left blank, assuming that the customer wouldn’t notice.

Some Final Tips on Tipping

Unless you are Donald Trump or Paris Hilton, tipping should be discrete. It is considered bad from to wave big bills ostentatiously in order to show off or get preferential treatment.

  • When paying cash at restaurants or cafes, the tip is usually left in the folder your bill comes in. Otherwise,  put it discretely under a plate on the table.
  • If you are worried that the tip might be stolen by another customer (it has happened), hand it discretely to the waiter or waitress on your way out.
  • Try to plan ahead, asking someone in advance for local customs. If you are staying at a hotel, for example, you can ask the concierge or someone at the front desk for guidance.
  • Keep in mind that people tend to tip more generously in big cities such as New York, where tips of 25% are often expected.
  • Tip more generously at classy establishments, where service standards should be higher, than you would at more modest establishments.

When in doubt, there is nothing wrong with quietly asking. Be honest, and say, “I’m not from here, and I don’t know the customs. What would an appropriate tip be for this kind of service.”

It can be embarrassing to ask, but not as embarrassing as being chased by a waiter after leaving a restaurant and being told that your tip was insufficient!

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