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American Tipping Protocol, American Gratuities, & American Culture

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American Tipping Customs

Tipping is a widely practised social custom in the United States. Standards vary, but generally, gratuities are given as a reward for services rendered in the restaurant, bar, hotel, and taxi industries.

The amount of a tip is at the discretion of the person receiving the service. For most of the 20th century it was considered inappropriate for the owner of an establishment to accept any tips. Laws in several states (e.g. California, Oregon, Washington, etc.) require servers to be paid over minimum wage; elsewhere, wage laws allow fixed salaries lower than minimum wage for occupations where the majority of compensation is customarily from tips.

Tipping is customary in restaurants having traditional table service. While the amount of a tip is at the discretion of the person receiving the service, the customary tip until the 1980s was from 10 to 15 percent of the total bill before tax, for good to excellent service, and since then has risen to 15 to 20% before tax. The reason for this is unclear, as natural inflation in the price of restaurant food, should also be inflating the tip percentage. Higher tip percentages are often expected by servers at more expensive establishments. Tipping percentages may fall when the economy is poor. Waiters, on average, fail to report at least 40 percent of their tips according to the IRS.

When a server has not adequately addressed issues a customer has with service, the patron sometimes speaks to management to have the problems corrected before considering reducing the tip significantly. In extreme cases of awful service, people sometimes leave no tip. Some people show displeasure by leaving a very small tip, such as one penny, though this may be considered as a personal insult rather than a standard business practice.

For large groups, such as six or more, many restaurants add a standard predetermined service charge (~18%) in lieu of the gratuity. Reputable restaurants usually post their policy on a sign or the menu, or require servers to inform their patrons of such charges before they order. This charge can be verified by the customer on the bill to avoid double tipping. Customers have a right to negotiate, alter, or refuse charges which were hidden until the bill arrived. A service charge is also taxed by the IRS. A customer may choose to include an extra tip for the server over and above the the service charge. If service to a large party is poor, a customer may try to negotiate an alternate service charge with management.

While some advocate increasing tipping for the benefit of employees who lack direct customer contact, such as kitchen, bar, and bus staff, the funds may or may not be used for that purpose. Some service worker advocacy groups point out that some restaurants have agreements among the staff requiring servers to "tip out," i.e. give a portion of their tips to members of the support staff, while anti-tipping groups point out that some establishments allocate a percent of the bill (such as 3%) directly to the support staff from the receipts rather than from tips.

Standard gratuities are not given at buffet-style restaurants. However, if patrons order beverages from the server, then a nominal tip such as $1 each may be considered. Some restaurants add a standard service charge even for buffet service for large parties, though many consider this inappropriate when there is no table service and customers may wish to negotiate an alternate gratuity with management.

Tipping on wine with a meal requires some discretion and judgement, as many restaurants mark up their wine 200 to 400%. Tipping etiquette websites suggest a tip of 15% on the meal before tax, and 5-10% on the wine, especially if the total wine bill is near or exceeds the cost of the meal.

Many traditional restaurants offer carry-out ("pick-up," "take-out", or "curbside") service, and standards for tipping for such services vary. Tipping is not traditionally required for non-table services. Some advocate optional tipping, and others say 5% is appropriate, especially for exceptional service or difficult orders.

Tipping at fast food restaurants and coffeehouses such as Starbucks (where there is no table service), is not necessary, despite the common proliferation of tip jars (a.k.a. guilt cans), which are considered inappropriate by some. Such tips are often divided amongst the on-shift staff (except for salaried management), whether or not they directly contributed to your order.

When purchasing alcoholic beverages at a bar it is customary to tip. One dollar per drink is common, mostly due to complications that come from using/making change and calculating percentages. If a bartender is taking special care to take and fill your drink orders quickly at a busy bar where others may be waiting for service, a tip in the higher range is appropriate. Drinks which are more complex than a draught beer or simple mixed cocktail may also warrant a greater tip.

Bellmen are customarily tipped on a basis of a fixed amount (usually a few dollars) per bag carried, and are often tipped for deliveries (food, boxes, faxes) as well. Room-service personnel at most American hotels expect tips, anywhere between 10% to 15% of the price (before tax) of what was ordered. It should be noted that many hotels automatically add a service fee to room service meals. The customer should verify this in order to avoid double tipping. A small tip for the housekeeping staff is discretionary. Tipping the front desk staff is almost never done unless the service is exceptional.

Most U.S. guides recommend 15% of the fare, more for extra services or heavy luggage.

Delivered Meals
The driver is often tipped 10% to 20%. A greater tip can be given if the driver delivers during inclement weather, to a rough or dangerous area, carries heavy loads, a long distance delivery and/or climbs many stairs. Establishments sometimes charge a delivery fee (such as $15 per order), similar to a service charge, although the driver may receive no part of it. In addition, some companies, as with wait staff, pay their drivers less than minimum wage, with the understanding that tips will bump them above this wage.

Car washes
If a person hand dries the car, he/she is sometimes tipped.

For a haircut or salon service, it is customary to tip the barber or stylist 10% to 20%.

At restaurants or hotels where the customer valets their car, it is customary to tip the valet $25.

Christmas/holiday tips
Many service staff are tipped annually during the Christmas season, such as newspaper carriers, house cleaners and pool cleaners. Some people also tip their local mail carrier in this manner, not knowing that it is illegal to do so (see government employees below).

In some large cities, the staff of apartment buildings, such as building superintendents, porters, concierges and doormen, commonly receive similar annual tips.

Government employees
Under federal law it is considered bribery to tip federal government employees. However, they are permitted to receive non-monetary gifts less than or equal to $20.00.

Many retailers forbid their employees to accept tips, although this is illegal in some states, such as California, where the law states "tips are the property of whom they are given, and employers are not allowed to require employees to refuse, give, or share their tips with anyone." Tips are not generally given to parcel-delivery workers, and acceptance of tips may be forbidden by state laws and/or the employer. No tip is expected for retail clerks who bag one's groceries or carry one's purchases to the car.

Our American Tipping Recommendations

  • Taxis and Limos: Tipping recommended, 10-15%

  • Airport Shuttles: Tipping optional, USD 2-5

  • Hotel Shuttles and Carpark Shuttles: Tipping optional, USD 1-2

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