It is a mystifying custom for travelers, business or leisure. What, when and how much, to tip.
First there’s the valet—awaiting your arrival with a welcoming smile, a claim ticket and a tacit understanding that you’ll know how to properly reciprocate ($5) when it’s time to retrieve your car.
Followed by the bellman ($2 first bag, $1 each additional).
And the concierge ($5 to $20, depending on the task), who can recommend several good bistros in the area and help with hard-won reservations.
Later, the taxi driver whisks you to your restaurant (10-20 percent) where the maitre d’ has gone the extra distance ($10 plus) to secure the perfect window-side table with the sort of grace and palm-nourished professionalism rivaled only by your sommelier (discretionary), waiter (15-20 percent) and restroom attendant (a buck if you take the towel and mint; more for emergency supplies and quick marital advice).
Back at the hotel, your suite has been carefully prepared by an invisible but very much existent and equally deserving housekeeper ($2 to $5 per day).
Is there anyone you needn’t tip on your next trip aside from the guy at customs (not recommended)?
“Servers work in the U.S. with the expectation to be tipped—it’s a social contract,” says Cornell professor Michael Lynn, a specialist in consumer psychology and the socioeconomic impacts of tipping on cnn.com. “To accept the service of these people, visitors are implicitly accepting those terms.”
Americans don’t need laws to dutifully dole out more than $40 billion annually in restaurant tips alone according to economist Ofer Azar. Or to espouse a once-reviled, centuries-old institution imported (and more or less deported) from Europe where service charges and loose change have largely taken over.
Tipping was once so hated in America that six U.S. states officially outlawed it in the early 20th century. And, yet, tipping has survived all that. Today, Americans love tipping more than ever.
A recent Cornell study shows that 44 percent of Americans would prefer restaurant staff be paid higher wages instead of relying almost entirely on tips for income.
On the other hand, 95 percent of Americans still prefer tipping over an automatic Euro-style service charge added to the bill—an increasingly popular move in domestic tourism industries such as cruise lines (and hub cities like Miami) that attract foreign clientele who either don’t comply with U.S. tipping norms or begrudgingly do but wish they didn’t have to.
“Oh, how I hate the American tipping custom,” laments a New Zealand businessman on traveller.com. “I just hope Americans can be understanding of foreigners who either don’t know or understand the system.”
All grumbling aside, what is the expected amount to tip in the U.S.?
“There is no definitive guide to tipping,” says Lynn. “There have been a number of studies done on tipping guidelines and it’s actually kind of complicated—not at all straight forward.”
Here are some helpful tipping points to store with all those small bills.
Food and drink
Tipping 15-20 percent of the bill before tax (“some would say 15-30 percent now,” says Lynn) is the average range for waitstaff, skewing higher for great service. Leaving 10 percent reflects substandard service. The old “two pennies on the table” statement just fans flames. If need be, speak to a manager instead.
Bartender: $1 to $2 per drink or the same percentage on your tab as you’d tip a waiter.
Although the practice astonishes some international visitors, it’s standard practice, once your bill is settled, to simply leave the tip on the table or bar top and leave. No one will steal it.
“Give one handout ($1 to $2 per bag) when you’ve reached your room,” says budgettravel.com.
Tipping the hotel maid daily ($2 to $5)—directly, under the pillow or with a little note marked housekeeping—ensures the right person receives it and that your room looks the part during your stay.
Room service: tip at least $5 unless gratuity is included in the check, says businessinsider.com.
Valet: $2 to $5, generally when the car is returned to you.
Courtesy shuttle: $1 to $2 per bag if your driver helps you with them.
Taxis, limos, vans and paid shuttles: 15 percent of the total fare and up to 20 percent for above-and-beyond service, advises tipguide.org.
Last few tips
Before tipping, check that a service charge hasn’t already been added.
Tip discreetly, respectfully and from the full amount if you use a coupon or gift certificate to offset the bill.
When in doubt, you’re allowed to ask (preferably the receptionist or concierge, and not the person you’d actually be tipping) if tipping is customary and generally how much is appropriate.