A Guide to Tipping in the USA
Featured destinations: USA
Published 22 June 2016
We’ve all been there: the porter stands awkwardly by the door of your hotel room, having just deposited your bags. Thoughts race through your mind. “Do I tip him? How much? Do I need to be discrete? Will he be offended?” Before you realise it, you’ve been standing there for far too long and you either grab a too-large banknote and hastily shove it into his hand, or just start shutting the door in the hope he’ll go.
Maybe it’s just me with my British social awkwardness, but I hate tipping. It’s not that I don’t agree with the principal, it’s just that I find it so incredibly difficult. Firstly, I never know how much to tip, or even whether to tip at all. Secondly, I get very flustered when handing over the money. In recent years I’ve given up trying to be subtle about it and instead openly hand it over with a smile and a thank you.
So if like me, the idea of tipping fills you with dread, how do you go about navigating the USA, the land of tipping? Here’s my guide to help ease your worries.
Keep a stash of small change
There’s nothing worse than wanting to tip and then finding you have nothing but fifties in your wallet. To prevent this embarrassing disaster, keep your one dollar bills and small change ready. Remember too when changing money that on arrival into the USA the first thing you’ll likely need to pay for is a tip for your taxi driver, porter or bellboy, so ask the cashier for some small notes.
You don’t have to tip
It is never obligatory to tip. However in the USA tipping is customary and is supposed to show your appreciation for the service you have received. It is especially appreciated in restaurants where the serving staff often receive a minimal wage and make up the rest with tips.
That said, if the service atrocious, don’t tip. Simple.
How much should I tip?
Generally 15-20% is a good amount to tip in a sit-down restaurant, but it of course depends on the quality of the service you’ve received. In the swankier places nearer 25% might be appropriate. In bars about a dollar for every drink you buy is a good rate. For porters we’d suggest $2-3 per bag. If your hotel concierge has called you a cab or made restaurant reservations for you, they’ll appreciate $10-20 or so at the end of your stay. Likewise your room cleaner will appreciate $2-5 left on your pillow each day.
Taxi drivers are a whole different ball game. In New York some taxis have a display showing you the expected tip, which is often up to 30%. Unless you arrived in a diamond-encrusted limo 30% really isn’t necessary and 15-20% should do it.
If you’re ever unsure how much to tip, 15% is a good default amount.
Where should I tip?
There seem to be a confusing number of unwritten rules as to where to tip: at the airport, in a taxi, at a restaurant or bar, at the hairdresser, to your spa therapist. Don’t forget to tip your tour guide too.
Where shouldn’t I tip?
Tips are not expected when buying takeaway food or coffee, although you might see a tip jar on the counter. There’s no need to tip at the gas station, as most are self-service and tipping at the supermarket or in a shop isn’t necessary either.
What happens if I don’t tip?
If the service was fine and you’re just being tight or have no change, you may find the staff start to ask questions. If the service really was terrible, explain to the manager how it could be improved and why you are withholding your tip. If your only excuse is that you don’t agree with tipping, don’t expect a good response.
Use common sense
If a bill comes to $15 and you pay with a $20, leave the $5 as a tip – asking for a few cents back is just awkward and may result in a fair amount of eye rolling. Then again if the bill is $18 and you pay with a $20 and have no further coins to add, just tell your waiter to keep the change.
How do I tip?
In restaurants it’s best to tell your waiter to keep the change or just leave the cash on the table. If you’re giving a tip to a person directly, thank them with a smile and hand them the money. Be discreet, but there’s really no need for underhand tactics or the ‘tip handshake’ which, if like me you haven’t mastered, just leads to embarrassment all round as the money remains in your hand, or worse still, falls to the floor. If there’s a tip jar you’re in luck – just put the money in the tin.
Other things to bear in mind
• Check that a service charge hasn’t been added to your bill already. If it has, there’s no need to tip more.
• If you really aren’t sure whether a tip is necessary or not, ask your hotel concierge or receptionist if it’s expected and how much might be acceptable.
• Expected tips do vary. In big cities like New York and Los Angeles tips will on average be higher than in rural Wyoming.
• If you are a tip worrier perhaps download the GlobeTipping app to help you. It’s full of useful advice for different countries and works out percentages for you at the touch of a button.
Planning to visit the USA? Check out our USA Journeys.