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Understanding Tipping Culture in the United States

This guide to understanding how much and when to tip in the United States will help demystify the bizarre and antiquated tipping culture, help you calculate the appropriate gratuity amounts, and make sense of why the amount on your bill is different from listed prices in spas, hotels, restaurants, salons, cafés, cruise ships, and more. Whether you’re a US citizen trying to wrap your head around tipping, or you’re visiting for the first time and don’t want to offend anyone, this guide will go through practically every scenario where tipping is involved or isn’t involved and will help you ensure you’re giving the correct amount.

The History of Tipping Culture in the United States

Tipping culture in the United States of America is a bizarre yet unfortunately inescapable antiquity that neither locals nor visitors can avoid without appearing stingy and receiving angry looks from waitstaff. The practice originated in Europe and then was adopted around 200 years ago as a cruel way to employ groups of people who were routinely discriminated against, like former slaves, single or widowed women, and immigrants, without having to pay them much or sometimes anything at all.

Employers in certain sectors, particularly in the food and drink industries, still cling to this archaic and frankly abusive system of “compensation”, and it’s understandably confusing and disappointing to visitors. By placing the burden of paying the employees almost solely on those who patronize their businesses, restaurant and café owners in the United States increase their profit margins and decrease the amount of responsibility they take on when it comes to paying their employees.

It would be so much simpler if the amounts on menus stated exactly what each person would have to pay, as is customary in many other countries. However, in the United States, many purchases must also include mandatory taxes, which vary by location, tips, and sometimes other fees, which makes it confusing to try to figure out exactly how much certain foods or services will end up costing.

Why Do We Tip?

Some people in the service industry don’t make more than $2-$3/hr, which is well below federal minimum wage (which is generally around $10), so if they aren’t tipped, they still have to pay taxes and their living expenses, which might mean they end up paying to go to work. Isn’t that just disgusting and wildly unfair? Unfortunately, this ridiculous practice of forcing many workers to rely solely on the tips of those patronizing their employers likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon unless all of the employees in the service industries up and quit or went on strike together, which isn’t likely to happen.

I hope that this guide will help you make sense of the bizarre, unspoken tipping expectations when visiting the United States. In general, many people like to say, “If you can’t afford to tip, you can’t afford to go out”, so keep in mind that the workers rely on these wages to make ends meet, and they aren’t optional. However, if you wish to recognize exceptional service by tipping above and beyond the expected amounts listed below, you’ll help the employees make up for the cheapskates who shortchange them by not tipping the correct amounts.

When to Tip

Hotels & Resorts

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If someone helps to unload your car or bring your bags to your room, tip $1 per bag. If a member of housekeeping brings you extra linens, an extra dollar or two is an appropriate tip. If the hotel concierge helps you get hard-to-come-by reservations, tickets, or services, be sure to tip $5-$10, or more if they helped you secure something you wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get, like sold out ballet tickets.

Each evening that you have housekeeping clean your room, be sure to tip $10 or more, along with a note addressed to them letting them know that the cash is for them, otherwise they aren’t allowed to take it. If you’re staying for a week or longer, consider tipping at the end of your stay by also leaving a $25-$100 Amazon or Macy’s gift card (or something similar) to show your appreciation for helping to make your vacation delightful.

Rarely some luxury hotels, like Grand Hotel on Mackianc Island, MI won’t allow tipping at all, although this is uncommon, and signs will be displayed that say, “No Tipping” if this is the case.

Sometimes resorts factor tips into the cost of staying, along with other taxes and fees. This is typically called a resort fee, so check your bill to see if it’s something you’ve already paid for.

If a doorman opens the door for you, there’s no need to tip them, but they should be tipped if they hail a taxi for you or help you with your bags.


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As in a hotel or resort, tip the waitstaff as directed below, tip the housekeeping staff each night you have your room cleaned, and tip bartenders as indicated below. Site seeing tours and other excursions vary, so ask a cruise attendant about the best practices for their particular cruise line.

Restaurants & Drinks

During our recent stay at Mayflower Inn & Spa, we sampled their incredible culinary experience, A Taste of the Country. This experience explores the terroir, the essence of a place that imparts a particular flavor upon the food and introduces guests to the unique and unmistakably decadent flavors of Litchfield County. Wine, beer, and cocktail pairings, locally sourced fruit, cheese, berries, and honey, plus numerous other accompaniments, made this a truly unforgettable meal. Read on to discover this decadent experience and why we loved it.

A 15% tip is standard, and 20% or more is given for excellent service. When it comes to takeaway, leave $1-2, give 10% for buffets or self-serve cafés, and $1 per drink at a bar or coffee shop unless you start a tab, then tip as you would a regular meal. Delivery drivers should get at least $5 or 20% of the total bill, whichever is more, and you should give them more if the weather is bad and they endanger themselves delivering your food to you.

If the restaurant you’re at has a bathroom attendant, give them at least a dollar for taking the time to hand you a towel and hand lotion. Generally, there will be a small dish on the counter near the attendant with some amount of change or cash, which is the expect minimum amount for a tip.

At sushi bars, you should leave a few extra dollars for the sushi chefs on top of what you tip on your regular bill, as a thank you for their expertise and care in expertly and safely crafting your rolls.

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Whenever someone performs a service on your body, touches your hair, or nails, you should tip at least 15%. When you get a massage, pedicure, manicure, haircut, facial, or other bodily service tip 15%, or higher for excellent or extended services. Longer massages, long cuts and colors, or entire spa days should be tipped 20% or more. It’s also customary to give the owner of the spa or salon 10% – 20% as well, however this isn’t required.

Taxis, Ubers & Valet

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Valets should get a few singles each time they bring your vehicle around. Taxi drivers and Uber drivers should be given at least 10%, plus $1-$2 per bag they have to carry or help you with. If your driver gives you site seeing recommendations, or other advice on traversing a new city, be sure to tip more for the great leads.

Tour Guides & Site Seeing Experiences

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Bus drivers on site-seeing tours will always appreciate a few dollars from each passenger, particularly if they are giving information about the area, helping with bags, or helping guests enter and exit the bus.

Chauffeurs or other hired private drivers should be tipped 20%.

Coat check or bag check attendants should be given $1-$2 per item they check for you upon picking up your items.

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Nightclubs often have their own rules or may prohibit tipping. Ask at the door what you should do. If an entertainer has a tip jar set out at a restaurant or other venue, feel free to give them a few dollars. If you are seeing a live musical performance, do not tip them, as they are working professionals who are fairly compensated for their time.

If you stop at a gas station that employs a gas station attendant, which is becoming increasingly uncommon, there is no need to tip them unless they do something extra for you, like check your oil or give you directions, in which case it is customary to give them an additional $1-$3.

In the Home

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Babysitters can be tipped if they helped at short notice, provided extra care for your child,  if your child(ren) gave them a hard time, did a particularly good job, or you’d like to have them watch your children again soon. Even a few dollars is appreciated, but if they did something exceptional during their time watching your child, then it’s a good idea to tip them more to ensure they’ll want to work for you again.

When a delivery company delivers furniture or other items to your home, they are usually prohibited from accepting tips, however you can offer $5 or more per person, or more if they helped move your entire home. They will let you know if they are not allowed to accept a tip.

Federal mail people are not allowed to accept tips or gifts valued at more than $20, in general.

When Not to Tip

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As a general rule of thumb, if you’ve already paid for a service, like at the dry cleaners,  or if your insurance is covering the procedure, like at the dentist or doctor’s office or a mechanic shop, you should not tip them.

Do not tip airline attendants, firemen or ambulance drivers (I do hope you never encounter any during your time in the USA), healthcare workers, or hostesses who seat you at a restaurant (unless they helped you plan some sort of elaborate celebration or function in their place of work). You do not need to tip desk staff at hotels, at car rental dealerships, or when purchasing tickets somewhere like a museum, garden, or aquarium.

In the United States, people generally do not tip anyone at delis, butchers, farmers markets, or grocery stores unless they offer to help you carry your groceries to your car, which is not a common service provided by grocery store employees.

If you stop to ask a random person on the street for directions, it might be seen as rude to offer them a tip, so simply thank them and be on your way.

If you see a tip jar it’s up to you whether or not you want to leave a tip. In places where the food is pre-made, like when you’re grabbing a pre-made sandwich or bottler drinks, it’s not required to leave a tip because they usually make minimum wage as retail employees, but of course, tips are always appreciated.

When to Give a Gift in Lieu of a Tip

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If someone routinely performs a useful service to you that does not require tipping, like mailmen, the staff at shops you regularly visit, or if you visit the same delicatessen each week, keep them in mind around popular United States holidays like Christmas time, when gift-giving is common and encouraged. Giving them a thoughtful gift, card, or a gift card will show your appreciation for them and brighten their day. This will also ensure that you continue to receive excellent service.

If someone does something extraordinary for you, like firemen who put out a fire at your home, or a good samaritan who saved your life, one would never tip them as that would be insulting, but giving them a gift when you’re in a better position in life would be a wonderful way to thank them, and would serve to show how deeply you appreciate their help.

To Review

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If someone performs an extra service for you, like bringing your meal to your table, pouring or making your drink, interacting with your body for aesthetic reasons at a salon or spa, or saving you trouble by bringing you an extra pillow, pulling your car around, or carrying something for you, they need to be tipped.

If you offer someone a tip and they refuse it or say they can’t accept it, thank them again and put your money away. People who accept tips as part of their professional will readily accept them, but it is rude to insist on tipping a person who has refused a tip the first time.

I hope this helps you understand the tipping culture in the United States. If you have any questions about whether or not to tip in certain situations, please let me know, and I will help answer them.

x Annie Fairfax
Follow Me for More: @AnnieFairfax

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One Comment

  1. Jenny Whitby says:

    As a stylist, I so appreciate this ❤ I always go above and beyond for gratuities!

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