Ah, we've all been there: to tip or not to tip? And trust us when we say that there are few social customs in the USA more confusing than tipping. I once was in a bar in San Francisco clutching confused onto my five-dollar bill much to the annoyance of a bartender who had merely got a bottle of beer out of a fridge for me. After walking away disgruntled, it wouldn't be until the next round of drinks that he told me that tips were expected, even if the only effort involved was him cracking a bottle open.
I soon learnt that for many Americans, tipping is a normal custom, like adding VAT at the till. It was actually once so hated that it was illegal in six states, but it seems that Americans now love it more than ever. So to help you out a bit, here is a handy guide to why you should tip, where to do it, and how much.
Why so much tipping?
In various job sectors across the USA, employers are actually legally allowed to pay wages much lower than the federal minimum wage. In fact, some bar tenders are only paid in tips. So, bosses may not be bothered if you don't fork out for a tip, but you may get a frosty reception from waiters and bartenders. This means you need to learn the tipping rules if you don't want to end up in some awkward panic-inducing conversation.
Tipping practices can vary depending on the state you are in, which only confuses things even more. As a general rule, it's suggested that you tip in proportion to the level and quality of service you get. So for example, when at a buffet restaurant, you may tip a dollar or two for waiting staff who clear your plates, but 17 per cent is standard if they are refilling your drinks and providing other services.
All in all, you're going to be tipping a fair bit on your trip, so make sure you always have a wad of one-dollar bills handy.
Technically, tips should be given to people who are helpful, so give a dollar to an airport porter who may help you with your bags. When taking taxis, look out for a display in the back that suggests a recommended default tipping amount – in places like New York, this can be as high as 20 per cent.
Eating and drinking...
No one will force you to tip in a restaurant, but it is expected. Look carefully, as it may have automatically been added to your final food bill. If this isn't the case, you may want to leave some money on the table, but how much this is depends on where you are eating:
● At fast food outlets, no tip is needed
● At normal to upmarket restaurants, 15 to 20 per cent is standard – if you have bad service you might just leave 10 per cent
● Some coffee shops may have a 'tip jar' on the side, but there is no need to tip if you don't want to
● At bars and clubs, always tip a bartender a dollar for every drink – you'll find that the bigger tips will mean stronger cocktails later that night!
How much you tip for other services depends on what they are:
● $1 per item for coat room attendants
● 15 per cent for local tour guides
What happens if you don't tip?
This can depend on your situation. If you're in a restaurant, you can explain to the manager why you haven't tipped, and as long as your reason is poor service, their response should generally be agreeable. If you do head off without explaining anything, be prepared for waiting staff to run after you and ask for an explanation. Moral reasons don't tend to go down too well.
Are there any differences to tipping in Canada?
It's pretty much the same as the USA, but the minimum amount is a bit lower, with many restaurants accepting 10 per cent. In the US, tipping rates are slightly higher due to the lower service sector wages there – so in Canada you'll be paying more for your services but tipping less. All in all, the difference is very marginal.
Some final tips...
● Generally, 15 per cent is a good default to remember, whether it be for restaurants, taxis or guides – this number is usually associated with the service being 'acceptable'
● Ignore sales tax (VAT) when figuring out how much to tip
● Automatic tips tend to be added onto restaurant bills if there are more than 8 of you
● When in doubt, you are allowed to ask if you need to tip and how much would be appropriate
Our TrekAmerica tour leaders...
Your tour leader works long and hard for you and although he or she may well become your close friend during the trek, they also need to pay their bills! If the leader's performance meets or exceeds your expectations we recommend a tip of US$5-7 per person, per day.
If you're saving for your dream trip to the States, it's definitely worth taking their tipping culture into consideration when working out how much spending money you'll need.