Tipping in the United States

Today’s topic is about tipping.  This post is specifically for two groups of people:  those from other countries who visit here, and those who already live here but for one reason or another never learned how to properly tip.  Unlike many places in the world, tipping is a common part of everyday American life and is a foreign concept for many not from here.

I have my own memorable tipping experience when I visited the other side of the earth several years ago.  The day I arrived in Darwin on my month long Australia tour, I went to the hotel bar after dropping my bag off and ate a delicious hamburger with a couple of beers.  When I paid out my check at the end of the meal, there was no blank space for writing in a tip.  I asked my server how I was supposed to leave a tip, and she looked at me like I had sprouted a third eyeball.  Apparently that wasn’t a common thing to do around those parts.  I felt bad leaving nothing so I still left a little bit of cash before I left, but in hindsight that probably wasn’t necessary.

Restaurant workers in most countries make a decent living wage.  That is not the case in most of the United States.  There are a few rare exceptions, but for the most part, servers heavily rely on tips for their primary income.  In many states, the base wage of a server is $2.13 per hour, though if it’s a slow day and no tips are made, the employer is supposed to make up the difference so the server meets minimum wage.  Here is an informative chart that breaks it down by state.

Here’s how I typically tip when I’m in my hometown or traveling around the US:

Restaurants (normal dining experience).  20% standard.  If the server did a legitimately piss poor job, I’ll leave 15%.  Honestly though, I can’t remember the last time that ever happened.  20% is my usual tip.  If I get excellent service, I’ve leave more.  I also leave bigger tips at places we go to regularly, since we see the same employees repeatedly.  Anything under 15% is considered insulting and should be avoided unless there was something seriously wrong.  The only time I would ever leave nothing is if the server was outright rude or racist.  That hasn’t happened yet.

Restaurants (cheap meal).  $3 or 20%, whichever is higher.  I’ve occasionally eaten at a Waffle House where my entire bill was less than 5 bucks.  A 20% tip on $5 is a dollar, which isn’t remotely enough to bother with anyone’s time.  So in a situation like that I’ll leave $3, which can be close to a 100% tip.

Restaurants (free meal).  Sometimes the establishment repeatedly screws up your food or accidentally skips over your group on the list, leaving you waiting for over an hour.  This has happened to us a few times, and the restaurant comped us a free meal.  Does this mean you get to leave without leaving a tip?  Hell no.  Read that again:  Hell.  No.  All the times this has happened to us, it has never been the server’s fault, so it makes no sense to punish him for a situation out of his control.  Whenever this happens, I ask for a copy of the original check to see how much the total would have been.  Then I leave a 20% minimum cash tip on that amount.  If the server was great, I’ll leave more.

Restaurants (coupons & discounts).  There’s one restaurant Mrs. Lite and I frequent that always has coupons available.  I tip 20% on the original amount before the coupon was applied.  Same idea as the free meal example above; just because my cheap ass scoured the internet for a buy-one-get-one coupon does not give me a free pass to shaft the server out of half of his normal tip.

Bars.  $1 per drink.

Hotels.  Around $3 per day, sometimes more depending on the cost of the room and whether or not they change the sheets daily (many hotels don’t).  I always leave this each morning since it may not be the same housekeeper that visits every day.

Taxis.  I actually haven’t taken a taxi in years, so I don’t recall.  I’ll tip my Uber driver a few bucks depending on the length of the ride.

Tour guides.  I haven’t done any organized tours inside the United States, but whenever I go overseas, the information packet sent by the tour company has tipping guidelines.  I just go by that.

If you’re visiting the US from elsewhere, please be aware of the tipping culture here.  It isn’t ideal and I wish our restaurant workers got paid a respectable wage like almost everywhere else in the world, but this is just how it is.  The current practice will only change with broad political action, which isn’t happening anytime soon.

So please, every time you eat at a sit-down restaurant in the United States, factor in an extra 15 to 20% on the menu prices and leave a proper tip so your server can pay his rent.




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