A Guide to Tipping in the United States

Jun 29, 2019

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If you live in the UK, you may be familiar with the ‘optional 12.5% discretionary service charge’ added to your bill at some restaurants. You may choose to pay this (i.e. not ask to take it off the bill) because you enjoyed the meal and service, or realise the staff may be paid a fairly low wage especially if they are living in a big and expensive city. If you didn’t enjoy the meal or service, you may ask for the service charge to be removed from the bill — after all, it is discretionary.

You might tip small amounts otherwise for things like drinks, taxis or Uber, but tipping might not otherwise be part of your everyday life in the UK.

But if you are visiting the United States, it’s a very different environment, despite the fact that tipping is not legally required. Tipping is not only expected in many situations, but you risk some seriously awkward situations if you don’t tip correctly.

Why Does Tipping Exist?

The history of tipping in the United States dates back hundreds of years. Since the culture of tipping is so engrained culturally in America, in the 1960s US Congress agreed that workers could receive a lower minimum wage where a portion of their salary came from tips. This minimum wage is a low as $2.13 per hour where workers receive at least $30 per month in tips in states like Utah and Texas.

Our dinner at the ETA Restaurant in the Loews Chicago Hotel.
Our dinner at the ETA Restaurant in the Loews Chicago Hotel.

When and How Much to Tip?

You are expected to leave a tip in the US in the following situations with the following amounts on the pre-tax total:

  • Restaurants where you are seated, orders are taken from you and food is brought to you — 15%-20% in most restaurants, with up to 25% in fine dining restaurants or for an outstanding experience. Anything lower generally indicate you were unhappy with the meal or service.
  • Bars where a bartender makes/opens your drink — $1 per simple drink like a beer or glass of wine, perhaps $2 for a fancy cocktail. This includes airport lounges, even if your drink is complimentary.
  • Taxis, car service or ride sharing — 15%-20%
  • Hairdressers — 10%-20%
  • Tour guides — 10%-20%
  • Masseuse or other beauty treatment — 10%-20%
  • Bellhops/porters who carry your bags to your hotel room — $1 per bag
  • Hotel housekeeping — A few dollars per day

You are not expected to leave a tip for takeaway food like a coffee or McDonalds, though they may have a tip jar should you wish to drop some spare change. If a doorman opens a hotel front door for you, similarly, you don’t need to give them a tip.

If in doubt for other situations where you think you should leave a tip, 15%-20% is a good rough guide. It’s handy to carry several spare $1 bills with you while travelling through the US, as these can be handy for small tips like drinks.

If you had an awful experience that you do not think warrants a tip, you should consider speaking to the management of the establishment rather than just refusing to leave a tip.

Close up couple with credit card paying bill calculating tip with smart phone in brewery restaurant. (Photo Hero Images/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images)

The Rationale for Tipping Amounts

There isn’t really one. Restaurants may print different suggested tipping amounts on the bill when they bring it to you ‘for your convenience’ so you know how much to add — this may be 20%, 25% and even 30%. Keep in mind that establishments sometimes calculate the suggested tip on the post-tax amount.

What I have found particularly frustrating about the tipping system in the US is that the tip I am required to provide usually has little reference to the amount of time the staff member has spent with me. Ordering three bottles of beer at a busy bar takes a bartender a maximum 30 seconds to provide to me and I am expected to leave (at least) $3 a tip. At this rate, that bartender would make more than $300 an hour.

Similarly, if you order a $20 bottle of wine in a casual restaurant as part of a meal, you might add $4 to that part of the bill. But if the bottle cost $200, you are expected to leave $40 as a tip. It took the same work for someone to pour either bottle.

There’s really no way around this while travelling — it is a part of life in the US. Try and remember the amounts above and don’t feel you need to exceed them unless it was a spectacularly good experience no matter how many different tip calculations the business ‘suggests’ on your bill.

Tip for the housekeeping staff. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/The Points Guy)

The Upside of Tipping

Where staff you encounter are working on tips, it’s likely you will receive extremely good service. You may be shocked at how attentive, engaging and genuine service staff are in the US, especially compared with the UK. They do tend work hard for their tips, as they’re motivated financially to give the best service they possibly can, unlike the UK where the ‘discretionary service charge’ is fixed at the one amount.

Featured image by Abbie Winters / The Points Guy

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