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Few topics cause a British traveller to sweat as much as the question of tipping – when and where to tip, and by how much? Expectations regarding the giving and receiving of tips vary worldwide, so it’s important to brush up on local etiquette before arriving in a new destination. 

One of the biggest causes of confusion for the uninitiated traveller is the tipping customs of the USA. It’s important to note that tipping is never required in the USA (except where a service provider states upfront that mandatory gratuities will be charged – more on that later), and that nobody is legally obligated to leave a tip. However, whilst it may be legally OK to not leave a tip, it is often considered socially and culturally unacceptable to ‘stiff’ a worker who has supplied a service.

Why the Tipping Culture Exists in the USA

why the tipping culture exists USA

The background to this is more complex than one might first imagine. The cultural insistence upon giving and receiving tips is intrinsically connected to the way in which service employees are paid their wages. 

Firstly, jobs connected to the service sector are generally low-paid, insecure roles. Working hours may vary considerably by the season, or even day by day. It’s therefore difficult to maintain a decent standard of living when you’re unsure how much work you’re going to pick up during any given week. Decent tips from generous patrons help to alleviate this problem somewhat.

Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – the way the US employee remuneration system works in many parts of the country is markedly different than in the UK. In the UK, although service jobs may also be considered low-paid and/or insecure forms of work, workers are paid a set minimum wage for their shift, regardless of how many tips they receive. 

Wages for Tipped Employees

Wages for tipped employees

In the US, a large number of states allow employers to pay employees an extremely low minimum wage from their own pockets (as low as $2.13 per hour), on the assumption that patrons’ tips will make up the difference to bring the wage up to full state-wide minimum wage. The kicker is that these two types of wages – actual and assumed – are combined and filed with the IRS, and are used to form the basis on which employees pay taxes, or achieve entitlement to in-work benefits.

When tips are not left by patrons, the employee in question could still end up paying taxes on an assumed portion of their wages, without actually receiving the money – adding to the difficulty of maintaining a decent standard of living. 

Simply put, tipping is an integral part of holidaying in the USA, and should not be overlooked except in the most extreme of cases. Moreover, the custom of tipping extends to all ‘tipped employees’ – not just those working in relation to the serving of food and/or drink.

How Much to Tip in America?

The amount you are expected to tip can vary greatly, depending on where you are, and how many of you there are. We’ve broken it down by category below:

Standard Restaurants Offering Sit Down Food Service

In these types of restaurants you should tip 15%-20% of the pre-tax bill amount. Note that 15% is considered a relatively low tip. It says to the establishment and waitstaff that service and offerings were adequate, but by no means exceptional. When you’ve had a jolly good time and everything was great, a safe tip is 20%. For instances of exceptional service, you could consider leaving more.

Self Service Fast Food / Coffee Shops etc

In this case, no tip is required. Tips can be left on an entirely discretionary basis, or you may want to drop coins/low-value cash bills into the ever-present tip jar.

Drinks at a Bar (Without Food)

Leaving $1-2 per drink received can ensure faster, friendlier service – and even the occasional free drink, at the discretion of the bartender.

Services Brought to You (Taxis/Ubers, Room Service, Home Delivery, etc)

Follow the 15-20% rule. Add more for exceptional service when it’s warranted, but look out for the inclusion of mandatory gratuities, before you accidentally over-tip.

‘Complimentary’ Services (Drinks in Casinos, Bar Snacks, etc)

In this case, tip the person who brings the consumable to you. Workers such as cocktail waitresses in casinos are as bound by the complicated IRS rules as conventional service staff are.

What does Mandatory Gratuity Mean?

You may see some establishments stating that mandatory gratuity will be applied. It will be clear upfront – and on your bill – how much this will be. For services which stipulate that a mandatory gratuity will be charged, then that’s what should be paid.

You are welcome to leave a greater amount if you feel that the service warrants it, but are not obliged to do so. If you do not agree with the inclusion of a mandatory gratuity, then simply do not consume the product or experience – spend your money elsewhere instead. Mandatory gratuities will range from approximately 15% to 25%, and are mostly encountered in the following circumstance:

  • When serving large parties (6-8+ guests) in restaurants
  • In high-traffic tourist centres (such as bars in Times Square, NYC)
  • Bespoke and non-standard ‘luxury’ or ‘extra’ services (such as bottle service in a nightclub)

What if The Service is Terrible, and I Don’t Want to Leave a Tip?

There will of course be rare occasions when things don’t go to plan, for either party involved. In such cases, you may want to downgrade or eliminate your tip entirely. However, before doing so, consider what actually constitutes something going wrong.

Accidents such as a spilled drink should not degrade your tip – service employees are human, and make the same mistakes as everyone else. Simply not liking a meal, drink or other service should not downgrade your tip – and your personal taste should not dictate the level of gratuity offered for the service and labour involved in the transaction.

In rare instances where a product or service was delivered in a patently unacceptable manner, then the best course of action is to speak to the manager on duty. Whilst this may seem dreadfully un-British, it’s common practice in the US for patrons to seek the assistance of a manager when things go wrong.

In cases where the service provided genuinely falls short of standard, you may find that the manager will happily reduce or even waive your bill. In such instances, withholding tips to the staff who actually served you should still only be done in the most extreme of circumstances.

USA Tipping Rates Table

We’ve said a lot, and we wanted to summarise with a quick table to refer back to or to screenshot. Enjoy!

ServiceTip
Sit Down Food Restaurant15%-20% +
Fast Food / Self ServiceNone
Drinks at a Bar$1-$2 per drink
Services15%-20%
‘Complimentary’ Items$1 per item

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