The new rules of tipping in the US and beyond

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Not long into the pandemic, people in the US were eager to tip their front-line-working baristas and servers more (a phenomenon also seen in Australia). But now that tip fatigue has set in — driven by the proliferation of payment tablets that suggest tipping for everything from a sandwich at a grab-and-go counter to an ultrasound — consumers are often bewildered by when and how much to tip.

Etiquette experts say wait staff in US restaurants should be tipped 15-20 per cent as a baseline.Credit: Alamy

“This is the hottest topic in etiquette right now,” said Daniel Post Senning, the co-author of Emily Post Etiquette, The Centennial Edition and the great-great-grandson of etiquette icon Emily Post. He cites the pressure of inflation, the disruption of the pandemic and the rush back to travel for the unease.

“There’s growing anxiety and public discussion around tipping.”

Offering guidance on when and how much to tip when you travel, etiquette experts, academics and travellers weighed in with the following advice.

Make 15-20 per cent your restaurant baseline

Tipping standards at restaurants vary widely around the world. In the United States, the American Hotel & Lodging Association suggests in its “Gratuity Guide” leaving 15 per cent of the total bill or up to 20 per cent for extraordinary service.

“The minimum is 15 per cent,” said Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and the founder of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California. “It can be increased from there based on the level of service received.”

Hotel cleaners are often forgotten when it comes to tipping.Credit: Bloomberg

Before the pandemic, tip averages in restaurants nationally had crept up to 18 per cent, a standard that fell back to 15 per cent more recently as inflation grew, according to Amanda Belarmino, an assistant professor in the hospitality school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“I don’t think consumers want to be stingy, but everybody’s budget is tight, and they’re trying to make trade-off decisions,” she said.

Despite expert advice, consumers may not have a choice. In many US cities, tips are increasingly included in the bill and often are well above 15 per cent. A recent article making the rounds in New York argues for a 20-25 per cent standard.

At a trendy cocktail bar in Los Angeles recently, an $US18 ($27) drink came to $US24 after an 18 per cent gratuity and an additional fee for employee health care. The bartender mentioned that the establishment includes tips in their tallies because it serves many guests from foreign countries where tipping is not standard.

According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, service charges benefit all employees, including cooks and dishwashers as well as servers.

“The service charge model ensures that employee compensation is fair, reliable and not reliant on the diners’ experience or bias,” said Erika Polmar, the executive director of the coalition.

Beyond the United States, tip amounts vary. Often, they are less than in the United States and are sometimes included as a service charge (see below).

Don’t be afraid to say no

Some tip requests should be denied, according to experts.

For example, when you’re ordering coffee or a sandwich from a kiosk or counter and are presented with a payment screen including suggested tip amounts, “push past that awkwardness and push no tip,” Swann said. “Proprietors are offering a perk to employees, and they’re putting it on the backs of consumers to absorb.”

Caving in to social pressure or even a scowl from the employee is, in Swann’s opinion, “giving in to a level of entitlement that should be nonexistent.”

The growth of credit card payments over cash has made it harder to show a token of appreciation via the tip jar, especially if you’re not carrying cash. If in the past, you would pay with cash and leave the coins, Senning advised rounding up on your credit card and doing the same thing virtually.

Stock up on small bills

Beyond restaurants, travel offers many other opportunities to leave tips for service providers such as cab drivers, bellhops and valets. Before she takes a trip, Swann goes to the bank to get cash, especially the $US1 and $US5 bills that are nearly impossible to withdraw from ATMs.

Most experts agree taxi or ride-share drivers deserve 15-20 per cent of the fare, depending on the service and the cleanliness of the vehicle. (Swann once rode in a ride-share car filled with dog hair and made the rare decision not to tip.)

Airport skycaps and the bell people at a hotel should get a few dollars a bag, based on service, and perhaps more if the task is onerous, like handling golf or ski bags. Valet parkers should get $US2 to $US5 at drop-off and pickup.

And if you only have larger bills, Swann added, it’s perfectly fine to ask for change back.

Remember the hotel housekeeper

Etiquette experts say hotel guests should leave $US2 to $US5 a night for the housekeeper each morning. The American Hotel & Lodging Association recommends $US1 to $US5 a night left daily, preferably in a marked envelope making it clear that it is intended for the housekeeper. In its tipping guide, UNITE HERE, the US labour union whose members include hotel workers, suggests a minimum of $US5 a day and more for suites.

Not many travellers comply

Despite having the most physically demanding jobs in hotels with few avenues for advancement, “hotel housekeepers are some of the least-often tipped employees in the service industry,” according to Belarmino of UNLV.

“Unlike servers, who are often paid less than minimum wage that is then made up by tips, hotel housekeepers’ pay is not contingent upon tips. However, it is a courtesy to tip them.”

But in the age of infrequent or optional room cleaning, which has become more common since the pandemic, the guidelines get murkier.

“If you stay one night or if you choose to skip housekeeping, I would recommend tipping about $US5 at checkout,” Belarmino said.

If housekeeping is available on demand, most experts recommend tipping each time the room is serviced. And you may want to consider raising the amount.

“If the hotel won’t do daily housekeeping, make sure to tip extra on the days that you do get service and at checkout because rooms that have gone days without housekeeping are dirtier and harder for housekeepers to clean,” D. Taylor, the international president of UNITE HERE, wrote in an email.

Beyond the US

Customs regarding gratuities vary by country. On some trips abroad, guides with the high-end tour company Abercrombie & Kent use orientation sessions to advise guests on when to tip in unexpected places — like bathrooms in Egypt — and provide travellers with small denominations in the local currency to do so.

If you don’t have a guide to instruct you, make learning the culture of tipping abroad part of your trip planning by consulting guidebooks, tourism board websites and online sources like Tripadvisor.

Tour guides should be tipped between $10 and $15 a day, according to one tour operator.Credit: Bloomberg

“You have to look at two things: Is it expected and mandatory as it is in the US for many service jobs? And what is the social safety net like in that place?” said Pauline Frommer, the editorial director of Frommer’s, which publishes travel guidebooks covering 48 countries, including advice on how to tip.

In countries like Mexico, where wages are low, she advised tipping in restaurants as you might at home. In Europe, where servers are paid better, tipping is less important. On trips to London and Paris last summer, she found bills with service fees included, often listed as “SC” for “service charge.”

“If you didn’t know, you might tip on top of that,” she said, recommending that travellers scrutinise their bills and ask if something is unfamiliar.

In Italy, travellers might find a nominal charge called a “coperto” on their bill covering bread and water.

“It comes from the days when you would go to an inn, and if you wanted to have a tablecloth and plates, they charged you for it,” said Pam Mercer, the owner of California-based Tuscany Tours, which specialises in small-group travel in Italy and France.

When it comes to restaurant meals in those countries, “there’s not a hard and fast rule,” Mercer said. Her company advises guests to tip 5-10 per cent at restaurants and give the tip directly to the server.

In cafés and cabs, she rounds up and leaves the change.

“France pays its employees a living wage, unlike the US,” wrote Janice Wang, an American living in France who runs a Facebook group for expatriates there, in an email.

“Hence, servers, hairdressers and cab drivers don’t need tips to live. They appreciate them, but don’t need them. And they never expect a tip.”

Tip your guide

Guide services come in many varieties — from a walking tour leader to a mountaineer who helps you navigate a rock face. Travellers might engage their services for a half-day trip, a two-week tour, and everything in between and beyond.

Melbourne-based global tour company Intrepid Travel states on its website that “tipping is never compulsory, but always appreciated,” while also making the point that tips are a big part of a guide’s income, especially in the United States and South-East Asia. On a multi-day small-group trip in the United States, the company suggests tipping $US7 to $US10 a day.

The tour company Exit Glacier Guides notes that 10-20 per cent of the trip cost for its wilderness outings is standard where it operates in Seward, Alaska. The tip for a group walk led by a naturalist beside the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park that costs $US59 a person would therefore be about $US6 to $US12 a person.

CIE Tours, which offers group trips in Iceland, Ireland, Italy and Britain, recommends tipping tour leaders and bus drivers the equivalent in local currency of roughly $10 to $15 each a day, depending on the location.

But the platform ToursByLocals, where local residents set prices for their own tours, discourages tips.

“The guides are in essence entrepreneurs, rather than employees, and we suggest that the best tip a traveller can leave is to return to the site and leave a thoughtful review, which will help that guide to grow their business,” said Paul Melhus, the co-founder and CEO of ToursByLocals.

Free tours make it trickier to calculate tips, even though guides work solely for gratuities. Free Tours by Foot, which offers city walking tours around the world, shies away from any guidance on tipping, noting on its website, “You name the price.”

A representative in the New York office of the company wrote via email that the range runs “anywhere from just a thank you to $US100,” with the average at $US10 to $US20 a person.

On its website and in email communications, Free Chicago Walking Tours is more transparent, recommending $US10 to $US20 a person for the guided walks that generally last two hours. Jeff Mikos, who owns the company, estimates guides average about $US10 a guest on groups that can be as big as 30 but are usually closer to half of that.

About one-quarter of the group “will be genuine and thankful and won’t tip, and the middle-of-the-pack average is slightly under $US10 a person,” Mikos said. “But there’s always one couple with $US50.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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