The Ultimate Guide to Tipping in America

Woman tipping

In America, tipping is optional in name only. Legally it’s voluntary but if you slink out of a restaurant without leaving a gratuity of between 20 and 25 per cent, you’re likely to be chased by a waiter demanding to know why. To help you avoid tipping anxiety (and disgruntled waitstaff), we explain how to tip in the United States.

Why should I tip?

In Australia, where workers are paid a fair minimum wage, a tip is just that – a bonus for great service. Paying extra on top of the bill at a restaurant may seem unnecessary to us but if you consider the waitstaff (“servers”) in America earn just a few dollars per hour for their services, it starts to make sense. In fact, under American federal law, the minimum wage for employees who also earn tips is just US$2.13 an hour and for those who don’t it’s US$7.25. Think of waitstaff as independent contractors you’re paying to wait your table. Taking a seat at a restaurant in the US means you’re entering a social contract with your waiter – you can’t apply Australian standards here. 

How much should I tip at a restaurant?

A gratuity of 20 to 25 per cent on top of the bill (before sales tax) is standard, with extra given for topnotch service. Servers in America work hard for the money – they’re generally friendly, knowledgeable and willing to go the extra mile for customers.

What if the service was terrible?

Bad service is unusual but it happens. To not tip at all, though, the service would have to be dreadful. Leaving just 10 per cent is a clear indication that the experience was not up to par. If you really don’t think your waitperson deserves to be paid for their service, the best course of action is to explain to the restaurant manager why you’re not leaving a tip. If you depart without tipping or providing an explanation, your server will want to know why.

Do I tip even if the restaurant has already added a gratuity to my bill?

Waiter at an American restaurant

Some restaurants will take it upon themselves to add a gratuity if you’re with a large party or it’s a public holiday. If the bill reads “gratuity included”, you’re not required to pay extra. 

What about at a bar?

The accepted standard is US$1 a beer – if you’re heading out to a bar, ensure you have a pocketful of dollar bills. Order and pay for your drink and leave a dollar bill on the bar for the bartender – it’s not necessary to put it in their hands. If your barkeep slings you a free beer, leave the standard tip even if you’re not paying for the drink. For a complicated cocktail, however, the standard 20% rate is recommended.

Do I have to tip for fast food or takeaway coffee?

At fast food chains such as Dunkin Donuts or In-and-Out, the answer is no. In any other establishment such as specialist deli's, cafes and fast-casual joints from taco trucks to hotdog vendors, 10 per cent is the accepted minimum amount. For takeaway from a restaurant, you should tip the restaurant at least 10 per cent to cover the staff who facilitate and manage your order. If you're simply picking up a coffee to go, a US$1 tip or 20 per cent is customary. 

Who else should I be tipping?

Taxi drivers, hairdressers, beauty therapists, porters and those who deliver food will all expect a fee for their services. New York cabs have back-seat displays that allow you to choose a default tipping amount, up to 30 per cent. Generally, 20 per cent is fine and if you’re paying cash just add a couple of extra dollars – the same applies for Uber drivers. For hairdressers, manicurists and beauty therapists, the standard is 20 per cent, plus a few dollars for the apprentice who washes your hair. If you order food to your accommodation, its recommended that you tip a minimum of US$5 or 20 per cent (or more if they had to schlep up stairs or battle inclement weather)to the delivery person – cash is preferred. Tip porters, or bellhops, US$1 per bag they carry or US$2 for heavy bags.

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