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Tipping in America – What's The Deal?

Tipping in America – What's The Deal?

When you tell anyone you’re traveling to America, the first thing they’ll say is ‘don’t forget tax isn’t included!’. The second thing they’ll tell you is ‘take dollar bills for tips!’. 

For non-American visitors to the US, tipping can be confusing. How much do you tip in America? What happens if you don’t tip in America? Where do you have to tip in America? 

I wasn’t too sure of any of these things when we went, but here’s what I’ve surmised over our 5-stop trip, that’ll help you understand what you need to know about tipping in America.

Also, on the tax thing – if you’re not familiar with US pricing, most prices (particularly in restaurants and bars) are exclusive of tax, and the tax varies from place to place. Generally, it’s around 10%. That means by the time you’ve added tax and tip to your check, you’ll owe a lot more than you thought.

Why do Americans tip everywhere?

Tipping in America has been a thing for decades. It’s been around so long that its extended far beyond hospitality staff in bars and restaurants, and far beyond an appreciation of exceptional service. If you’re from the UK or even less so, Australia, you’re probably used to tipping great service and great service only. You probably subscribe to the notion that if there’s any slight hint of attitude from your server, or any mistake however minor, that’s it, no tip for you. 

In most countries, tipping is generally associated with jobs with particularly low wages. When I was a waitress in the UK, tips pretty much allowed me to pay my rent, as my £5.95 an hour wage didn’t even cover my £750 a month living costs. That said, I had to go above and beyond to earn any tips. 

In America, however, the wage for restaurant and bar staff is even lower at around $2.40, which is why tipping has become such an expectation. Businesses can get away with paying so little, because it’s expected that the server will make an extra 10-30% of their sales in tips. When they do, they can take home a very tidy pay check. I learned this from ‘server life’ accounts on Twitter and Instagram when I was a waitress myself. The US accounts often talked about taking home hundreds of dollars in cash at the end of the night. 

So, who am I supposed to tip?

Tipping is often associated with restaurant staff, but nowadays, you’ll see Americans tipping hairdressers, doormen, housekeeping staff, reception staff...basically anyone who provides them a service. That said, I do wonder whether the move towards a cashless economy has affected this, as we were often unable to tip those kinds of workers because we didn’t have cash.

How much am I supposed to tip in America?

We actually went in with the assumption that across the board, anything less than 20% was a complete insult, so we started off tipping quite high.

After some research and a few side-eye sneak peaks of what other people were tipping, I realised that in many cases, 15% is standard, 18% is fine, 20% is good and anything above 20% is great. That’s when we’re talking a restaurant bill in a sit-down, table service environment. I also learned that when tipping by percentage, you calculate it against the pre-tax total, not the post-tax total. 

I must add here that the 15% standard tip is expected regardless of the service quality. I think it’s important for visitors to the US to disconnect the act of tipping with their opinion on the service they received. At the beginning of our trip, I did find myself begrudging leaving tips because the service wasn’t always particularly good. Granted, it wasn’t dreadful, but the standards I was held to as a waitress in the UK were absolutely leaps and bounds ahead of much of the service we received in the US. That said, the tip isn’t for exceptional service. It’s giving the worker a living wage. Looking at it that way made more sense to me.

What about tipping in take-out restaurants and bar staff?

You will see people tipping take-out staff, but it’s not as expected, so if you’re worried about cash, you can save a few bucks on tipping when you’re not dining in. 

When it comes to bar staff, a couple of dollars per drink is fine by all accounts – which was music to my ears when we were paying $50 for a couple of fancy cocktails and I thought we had to tip 20% of that. Nice if you can, but not necessary. 

Housekeeping, doormen and other services where you can’t tip based on percentage, a few dollars per bag or per night is also sufficient. 

How do you tip?

In most cases, you can now tip on card, so you don’t need to worry too much about carrying cash. Every establishment is different, but the most common scenario we found was you’ll ask for the check (the bill), they’ll bring you a bill, you’ll give your card, they authorise it, and then you can sign for an additional tip – or you can leave cash afterwards. It’s your call. Your bill will also often have the pre-calculated percentages at 15%, 18% and 20%, so you don’t have to calculate it in your head. 

What happens if you don’t tip?

Don’t lie, this is the answer you’ve all been waiting for, I know it. Don’t be ashamed, every tourist wonders. What will happen to me if I don’t tip in America?! Will I get chased out by the cavalry? Will they spit in my food? 

Essentially, nothing. If you don’t tip in the US, you won’t be haunted by the ghost of servers past, I promise. If you go back to the same establishment again, yes, you might get a bit of sass. But as I explained before, generally the way you pay your bill in a restaurant means you don’t see the server again after you’ve signed off your tip – or lack thereof. Even if you’re paying and tipping on a point-of-sale machine, they generally turn their back or step aside to leave you in privacy while you calculate your tip, so providing you can hold your poker face long enough to scuttle the hell outta there, you’re free. 

That said, do give some thought to whether you can spare a few dollars at least to thank your server. As I explained, their wages are unbelievably low, and when you’re in a city like New York – or any major city – living is expensive. Consider the fact that they might have a family to feed or bills to pay. 

While ultimately, no, America’s fucked up employee wage system isn’t your fault nor responsibility, but human to human, it’s nice to give a little to your server, especially when you’re on holiday treating yourself.

Did we ever not tip?

Yes, there was one occasion when we didn’t tip when we probably should have. It was at a sky lounge bar in Chicago, and one of the hosts had yelled at me loudly in front of everyone for not realising we had to wait to be sat down (even though there was no sign and nobody else had waited either). I was humiliated and ended up spending the whole time there crying – I know it sounds dramatic but y’know when it just gets you and you think you’re done and you’re not and it all just goes to shit? Yeah that. So no, I didn’t tip that guy who yelled in my face. 

Aside from to-go orders, we tipped everywhere else, usually around 18%, or just by rounding it up to the nearest five or ten that sounded about right. For example, on a $48 inc tax bill we might round it to $55. 

That’s pretty much all I have to share on tipping in America! If I’m mistaken anywhere or you have any further insights into how to tip in the US, slide on into my Instagram DMs! 

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