Not long after the pandemic, Americans were eager to tip their front-line baristas and servers. But now that tipping fatigue has set in — driven by the proliferation of payment tablets that suggest tipping for everything from a sandwich at a takeout counter to an ultrasound — consumers are often baffled about when and how much to tip.
“This is the hottest topic in etiquette right now,” said Daniel Post Senning, the co-author of “Emily Post Etiquette, The Centennial Edition” and the great-great-grandson of etiquette icon Emily Post. He cites the pressure of inflation, the disruption of the pandemic and the rush to travel back for the inconvenience. “There is a growing fear and public debate around tipping.”
Etiquette experts, academics and travelers offered advice on when and how much to tip when you travel and weighed in with the following advice.
Make 15 to 20 percent your restaurant baseline
Tipping standards in restaurants vary widely around the world. In the United States, the American Hotel & Lodging Association in its “Gratuity Guide” suggests leaving 15 percent of the total bill or up to 20 percent for exceptional service.
“The minimum is 15 percent,” says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and the founder of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California. “From there, it can be increased based on the level of service received.”
Before the pandemic, average restaurant tips had risen to 18 percent nationally, a norm that recently dropped to 15 percent as inflation grew, according to Amanda Belarmino, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas hospitality school. “I don’t think consumers want to be stingy, but everyone’s budget is tight and they’re trying to make tradeoffs,” she said.
Despite expert advice, consumers may not have a choice. In many U.S. cities, tips are increasingly included in the bill, often well above 15 percent. A recent article doing the rounds in New York argues for a standard of 20 to 25 percent.
At a trendy Los Angeles cocktail bar, an $18 drink recently came to $24 after an 18 percent tip and additional staff health care allowance. The bartender said the establishment includes tips in their counts because it serves many guests from overseas where tipping is not standard.
According to the Independent Restaurant Coalition, service charges benefit all employees, including cooks and dishwashers and waiters. “The service charge model ensures that employee compensation is fair and reliable and does not depend on the experience or bias of guests,” said Erika Polmar, executive director of the coalition.
Outside the United States, tip amounts vary, as illustrated in this tip chart. Often they are lower than in the United States and sometimes included as a service charge (see section below on tipping abroad).
Don’t be afraid to say no
Some tip requests should be declined, according to experts.
For example, if you order coffee or a sandwich at a kiosk or counter and you’re presented with a payment screen with suggested tip amounts: “Get past that awkwardness and don’t push a tip,” Ms. Swann said. “Owners offer a perk to employees and they put it on consumers’ backs to absorb.”
Giving in to social pressure or even a frown from the employee is, according to Ms. Swann, “giving in to a level of entitlement that shouldn’t exist.”
The growth of credit card payments over cash has made it more difficult to show appreciation through the tip jar, especially if you don’t carry cash. In the past, if you paid with cash and left the coins, Mr. Senning advised rounding up your credit card and doing the same thing virtually.
Stock up on small bills
In addition to restaurants, travel offers many other opportunities to leave tips for service providers such as taxi drivers, bellboys, and clerks. Before leaving for a trip, Mrs. Swann goes to the bank to collect cash, especially the $1 and $5 bills that are almost impossible to withdraw from ATMs.
Most experts agree that taxi or rideshare drivers earn 15 to 20 percent of the fare, depending on the service and cleanliness of the vehicle. (Mrs. Swann once drove a share car filled with dog hair and made the rare decision not to tip.)
Skycaps at airports and the porters at a hotel should be paid a few dollars per bag, based on service, and perhaps more if the job is heavy, such as handling golf or ski bags. Valet parkers should be charged $2 to $5 on drop off and pick up.
And if you only have larger bills, Ms. Swann added, it’s fine to ask for change.
Think of the hotel housekeeper
Etiquette experts say hotel guests should leave $2 to $5 per night for the housekeeper each morning. The American Hotel & Lodging Association recommends $1 to $5 per night daily, preferably in a marked envelope to make it clear it’s for the housekeeper. In its tipping guide, UNITE HERE, the union of which hotel employees are members, sets a minimum of $5 per day and above for suites.
Not many travelers comply.
Despite having the most physically demanding jobs in hotels with few advancement opportunities, “hotel housekeepers are some of the least frequently tipped service industry workers,” according to UNLV’s Dr. Belarmino. “Unlike servers, who are often paid less than minimum wage which is then supplemented by tips, hotel housekeepers’ salary does not depend on tips. However, it is polite to tip them.”
But in the era of infrequent or optional room cleaning, which has become more common since the pandemic, the guidelines are getting murkier. “If you’re staying one night or opting to skip housekeeping, I’d recommend tipping about $5 at checkout,” said Dr. Belarmino.
If cleaning is on request, most experts recommend tipping every time the room is cleaned. And you can consider increasing the amount.
“If the hotel doesn’t do daily cleaning, be sure to tip extra on service days and at check-out, as rooms that have gone days without cleaning are dirtier and more difficult for housekeepers to clean,” D. Taylor, the international president of UNITE HERE, wrote in an email.
Watch out for foreign tips
Customs regarding tips vary by country. On some trips abroad, guides from luxury travel agency Abercrombie & Kent use orientation sessions to advise guests when to tip in unexpected places — such as bathrooms in Egypt — and give travelers small denominations of local currency to do so.
If you don’t have a guidebook to instruct you, make it part of your travel planning by learning the culture of tipping abroad by checking guidebooks, tourism agency websites, and online resources like Tripadvisor.
“You have to look at two things: is it expected and mandatory as it is here in the US for many service jobs? And how is the social safety net there?” said Pauline Frommer, the editor of Frommer’s, which publishes travel guides covering 48 countries, including advice on how to tip.
In countries like Mexico, where wages are low, she recommended tipping at restaurants as you would at home. In Europe, where waiters are paid better, tipping is less important. During trips to London and Paris last summer, she found bills with service charges included, often listed as “SC” for “service charge.”
“If you didn’t know, you could tip on top of that,” she said, advising travelers to take a close look at their bills and ask if there’s anything unfamiliar.
In Italy, travelers may find a nominal fee called a “coperto” on their bill for bread and water.
“It comes from the days when you went to an inn, and if you wanted a tablecloth and plates, they charged you for it,” says Pam Mercer, the owner of California-based Tuscany Tours, which specializes in small-group tours in Italy and France .
When it comes to restaurant meals in those countries, “There’s no hard and fast rule,” said Ms. Mercer. Her company advises guests to tip 5 to 10 percent at restaurants and to give the tip directly to the waiter.
In cafes and taxis, she rounds up and leaves the change.
“France pays its workers a living wage, unlike the US,” Janice Wang, an American who lives in France and runs a Facebook group for expats there, wrote in an email. “That’s why servants, hairdressers and taxi drivers don’t need tips to live. They appreciate them, but don’t need them. And they never expect a tip.”
Tip your guide
Guide services come in many varieties – from a hiking tour leader to a rock climber who helps you navigate a rock face. Travelers can enlist their services for a half-day trip, a two-week tour, and everything in between and beyond.
Global travel agency Intrepid Travel states on its website that “Tipping is never mandatory, but always appreciated”, while also pointing out that tips make up a large portion of a tour guide’s income, especially in the United States and South East Asia. On a multi-day small-group trip in the United States, the company suggests tipping $7 to $10 per day.
The travel agency Exit Glacier Guides notes that 10 to 20 percent of travel costs for its wilderness outings are standard where it operates in Seward, Alaska. The tip for a group hike led by a naturalist next to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park that costs $59 per person would therefore be about $6 to $12 per person.
CIE Tours, which offers group tours in Iceland, Ireland, Italy and the UK, recommends tipping tour guides and bus drivers the equivalent in local currency of about $7 to $10 per day, depending on location.
But the ToursByLocals platform, where local residents set their own prices for their tours, discourages tipping.
“The guides are essentially entrepreneurs, rather than employees, and we suggest that the best tip a traveler can leave is to return to the site and leave a thoughtful review, which will help that guide improve their business,” Paul Melhus, the co-founder and CEO of ToursByLocals, wrote in an email.
Free tours make it more difficult to calculate tips, even though tour guides only work for tips. Free Tours by Foot, which offers city walking tours around the world, eschews any guidance on tipping, stating on its website, “You name the price.”
In an email, a representative from the company’s New York office wrote that the range is from “a thank you to $100,” with an average of $10 to $20 per person.
On its website and in email communications, Free Chicago Walking Tours is more transparent and recommends $10 to $20 per person for the guided walks that are generally two hours long. Jeff Mikos, owner of the company, estimates that guides pay an average of about $10 per guest for groups that can be as large as 30, but are usually closer to half that.
About a quarter of the group “will be sincere and grateful and not tip, and the mid-group average is just under $10 per person,” said Mr. Mikos. “But there’s always a $50 pair.”
Elaine Glusac writes the Frugal Traveler column. Follow her on Instagram: @eglusac.
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