For an outsider travelling to the U.S. for the first time, the country's tipping culture is often a cause for confusion. How much are you supposed to give - 10%? 20%? A dollar? When and where is tipping appropriate? What happens if you don't do it? How did this whole tradition come about in the first place?
To put it simply, the reason why it's so common to tip waiters and waitresses boils down to their low wages. Every state sets its own minimum wage, but for tipped employees the minimum is set at $2.13 an hour according to federal law. This is ridiculously low, so tipping is a way to help these people earn a fair income.
You should tip for service in the United States. 15-20% of the total bill in restaurants and $1 per drink in bars is standard. Don't forget to tip $2 per night for hotel maids and for other services such as taxis (15%), valet ($1) and coat checking ($1).
Tipping isn't enforced by law, but it is a custom that most people adhere to, with a few exceptions. Don't feel obliged to stick to the rules and give more if you want to or less if you received poor service.
When you should tip in the United States
If you come from a country where tipping is less common (which just happens to be most countries outside the United States), it can be difficult to know who, when, where and how much you should tip.
The general rule of thumb is that if you are getting a service from an employee who is probably only getting a tiny fraction of the amount you are paying for the service, you should definitely tip.
If you're eating out in a restaurant, your waiter is likely to be on minimum wage and you should tip.
If somebody is helping you with your bags at a hotel, checking your coat at a theater or driving you back home in a taxi late at night, you should be tipping.
I was born in a country where tipping was rare and it may seem odd that it is almost expected of you when you are in the U.S., but you've got to remember that the laws and way people make ends meet is different here. So arm yourself with a good amount of small dollar bills and tip when you should.
Tipping in U.S. restaurants and bars
Restaurants and bars are the most common place people tip - especially because tipping in restaurants is fairly commonplace across the world.
While there is no hard and fast rule about how much you should tip, and there are definitely regional variations on what is considered the norm, the unwritten rule is that you should tip 15-20% of the total bill.
In some states, 20% is the norm, while in others, you're only going to pay 20% if the service is exceptional. Nobody is going to get offended if you leave 15% on the table as you leave, but I try and go for the 20% mark every time if the service was good.
If you feel that the service you got deserves more reward, feel free to go higher, but be prepared for odd looks if you tip over 30% of your bill.
One last thing to remember, as with many rules, is that there are some exceptions and adjustments.
For example, if you've gone out for a special occasion and ordered that very expensive bottle of wine which tripled your overall bill, you don't have to add 20% to the total at the end - a 15% tip will still be pretty high and is perfectly ok.
When you have to tip more or less in restaurants
There are times when you really do need to tip more or less when you go to a restaurant but getting this right is pretty easy.
If you're going to a fancy restaurant, where the service includes people cooking or preparing your food right in front of you, a wine sommelier pouring your wine into oversized glasses or live performers, expect to tip more than you would otherwise.
Exactly how to tip is where it can get a little complicated so follow the regulars' lead - sometimes performers and sommeliers get tip directly. In other places, the final tip will be shared out between all of the staff members.
Alternatively, if you're going to a fast food restaurant or grabbing a sandwich to go at lunch, you don't need to tip anything unless you want to reward somebody who was particularly helpful.
Remember that if you go to a restaurant in a large group of more than 6 or 8 depending on the place, tips might be added automatically to your bill as service charge. It will usually be set at 20, 21 or 25% and there will typically be a disclaimer in the menu to let you know.
Some tourist spots can sneakily do this to all tables regardless of the number of people to try and get double tips so check to make sure you've not already been charged.
Tip a dollar per drink in bars
A lot less people tip in bars, but the bartenders are usually on the same pay arrangement as the waiters and work just as hard to make your favorite cocktail while juggling bottles.
You should tip $1 per drink every time you order. If you order 5 drinks in a round, that's 5 bucks. If you come back and order two more, you should tip another $2. Simple as that.
If you've ordered something that got the bartender working exceptionally hard, performing a mix of alchemy, magic and circus tricks, you might want to up your tip to $2 for the drink but that's completely up to you.
The $1 rule applies whether you are on a night out at a trendy bar in town or having a few drinks in a lounge bar on Sunday morning and to everything from a martini to a coffee. If you're picking up a latte in Starbucks, tipping is not necessary, but you might want to add your loose change into the tip jar nonetheless.
Tipping in taxis and other forms of transport
As a foreigner, this might be an alien concept, but tipping for transport is also important.
If you're getting a taxi, the rule is roughly the same as for restaurants. A 15% to 20% tip is what you should be looking to add and in taxis with card machines, you can usually add it at the point of payment to make it easier.
Don't forget that it is customary to give a tip of $1 to a door man hailing you the taxi or to the valet bringing your car back to you. If your car is particularly annoying to park, you might want to up it to $2.
When you're using public transport, tipping is not necessary. Whether you're on the train, subway or a bus, there's no need to tip any of the people working but you might want to tip the driver of the coach that drove you 3 hours from one city to the next.
Tipping in hotels and for service
Tipping in hotels in the United States is where it can get a little complicated.
First off, don't tip the person doing your check in. This can be misunderstood and is a tactic that used to be popular in Las Vegas and other big cities as an underhand bribe to try and get a room upgrade.
However you are expected to tip for other services straight after checking in - $1 to $2 per bag when they are brought to your hotel room is good and you might want to tip $1 to $5 to the concierge depending on how complicated the task you've asked them to help with is.
Remember that you should leave a tip for the hotel maid. I recommend you go with $2 per day as cleaning your room can take more time than you may think.
Don't do what many tourists do and leave a $20 note at the end of your long stay - maids often work different shifts on different days and in different weeks so you're likely to get different people servicing your room on different days.
Leave the tip somewhere where it is obvious like on top of the pillow or blanket to make sure the maid doesn't think it's just your money lying around.
Sometimes you might come to a situation where you need to tip for service and you're really not sure how much you should tip. One example is when you're having your coats checked at a restaurant or theater.
If you're not sure, here's a rule that works 95% of the time. Tip $1 per thing (whatever it is) and do the tipping when the thing/service is completed. So if you're checking in two coats for a musical on Broadway, get $2 ready when you're picking the coats up.
Why you really should tip in the USA
You might think it's a lot of money to spend on top of everything else you're already paying for your trip to the United States. 20% here and $5 there can add quickly and you are right, but it's a cost you have to bake in to your budget.
Unlike many countries in Europe or others around the world, workers rights in the U.S. are different. The minimum wage is low and there are some states where the wages that waiters, cleaners, drivers and other low paid workers receive are super low.
If these workers didn't get tips, they would not be able to pay their bills for basic necessities.
This situation is not looking likely to change anytime soon. The federal minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped employees assumes that the tips make up the difference to the $7.25 feral minimum wage or the state equivalent if it's higher.
But with nobody monitoring how much the workers actually receive in tips, this is hard to measure.
As you're enjoying yourself in that restaurant, bar, theater or taxi, think of the hardworking people who are there to serve you. The tipping culture is deeply ingrained in the U.S. psyche so when in Rome do as the Romans do.
How to calculate the right amount of tip
Calculating the right amount of tip can be more difficult than it seems. Your bill arrives at the end of the meal and you've decided to leave 20% as tip but what number do you use?
Is it the total food bill only, the total before tax, after tax or something else?
As a rule of thumb (that some will disagree with, but I'll let them make up reasons for paying less), take the total amount including tax at the bottom and use that as your baseline.
As I mentioned above, if you've really gone to town with some very expensive drinks, feel free to drop a bit off, but you should include the food and the drinks when you're working out the tip.
20% is nice and easy to work out and you don't need to get your phone out to do it. Take the last digit off and round the remainder up. If your bill is for $127.14, your rounded number is $13.
Now double the number (to $26 in the above example) and that's the calculation done. I knew my mathematics degree would come in handy!
Do you have to tip if you don't get good service?
If the service wasn't quite up to scratch, you might be thinking whether you should tip at all.
The waiter wasn't trying to please you so why should you bother giving them a tip when the service was distinctly average?
The answer is you should still tip unless the service was especially awful. That waiter gets paid peanuts to work unsociable hours while you're enjoying your food and when they come home and need to figure out how to pay their bills or feed their kids, the tips are what makes the difference.
Sure - if the service wasn't great, drop your tip to 15%, but I'd highly recommend that you do still tip as it's the right thing to do.