As an Australian, the concept of tipping for service is somewhat of a rarity. Obtaining a tip from a customer in Oz requires something above and beyond what would normally be expected. Wrestling a wild boar whilst mixing a cocktail, for example, might constitute a little something extra. Or juggling pints of beer without spilling anything could generate a reward. The fact remains that tipping isn’t something that is generally considered the norm here.
So in preparing to travel to America, figuring out the who, what, when, where and why of tipping was something that was playing on my brain. I asked as many people as possible what the etiquette was hoping to get an answer that didn’t require a PhD to understand. Turns out it was like trying to find water in the desert- it exists but you have to work bloody hard to find it. They could tell me small pieces of information; I have to tip table service, taxi drivers, bar tenders, live bands- basically anyone who was remotely helpful, entertaining or had good manners. This much I already knew, but when it came to determining exactly how much, they became blank. “I think it’s 10 per cent for a restaurant. Or is it 15? It might be 20. Shit, I don’t remember now. Just give them money.” Several conversations later and I was no closer to having any kind of practical information I could use. I had this vision of emptying the contents of my wallet onto restaurant tables, shrugging my shoulders and walking away.
The next step was to ask everyone’s favourite search engine- Google. If Google couldn’t give me answers then the answers weren’t worth knowing. What I discovered though (after being distracted by ‘fail’ videos) was that anyone with web access and a keyboard is willing to provide useless information on internet forums dedicated to answering such dilemmas. I finally stumbled across a Lonely Planet guidebook that gave me a very generic overview of what was expected of me.
Theory and practice are very different things, however.
If you are unsure about tipping, New York is an intimidating beast to confront first up on a trip to the States. I recall the first day we spent there. We went into a little eatery looking for a feed. The place didn’t have a queue coming out the door- no easy feat in New York- so was an easy target. It was too laid back to be a restaurant but food was still delivered to our table after we ordered and payed at a counter. This confused me. My research told me that if we paid at a counter, tipping wasn’t required (like fast food ‘restaurants’), yet staff kept coming to where we were sat, asking if everything was OK, bringing food and clearing plates. What kind of sorcery was this? If the aim was to confuse unsuspecting tourists, consider it successful. This kind of operation wasn’t mentioned in the books; it was like that question on a test at school you swear wasn’t covered in class. I wasn’t sure of the protocol at all. Looking round I couldn’t see others leaving tips but couldn’t be certain. We eventually left and completely forgot to leave anything anyway. Test one- failed.
That night was our chance at redemption. We wandered into the famous Katz’s Deli and sat down at a table. We had table service this time so it was a textbook situation. We ate and our bill was written on one of the tickets you get on arrival. We worked out the tip based on the 15 per cent rule- when in doubt tip at least 15 per cent. It’s not a concrete rule, more like a guidebook directive, but it seemed solid. Not knowing where to put the tip, we reluctantly left it on the table and paid our check at the till on the way out. Whilst paying for dinner, as the cashier was counting our money, I whispered, “We left the tip on the table. Is that right? Should we run back and grab it and give it to you? Have we done the right thing? Help us. For the love of God, help us! We don’t know what we’re doing!”
She slowly looked up at me and whispered back, “You’re fine. You can leave now.”
In truth, tipping is usually explained on most restaurant checks you receive. Below the total will be various dollar amounts, calculated at 15, 18 and 20 per cent respectively, that customers can refer to as a guide, making the process easy and not half as stressful. Even taxis have signs up explaining how much to tip drivers (10-15% of your fare) and how much to tip bar tender depends entirely on your level of intoxication (should be 15-20% per round). Everything is explained for you based on the service you have received. Tour guides like some reward for effort as do hotel maids and porters. It’s all common sense stuff. If they have helped you out, reciprocate financially. The only time you don’t tip is if the service is so bad it makes you angry or sick or both. If you look at it that way you will be fine.
Like anything new, tipping can be a challenge if you aren’t familiar with it- a cheat sheet attached to your entry card to the country could be a nice initiative- but once you get the hang of it, it becomes second nature. You gain such a level of confidence that you’re like a critic at each place you eat, analysing the service you receive, comparing them to each other and then tipping accordingly.
Tipping is non-negotiable and shouldn’t be a problem so long as you remember to do it. Just don’t forget, don’t ever forget.
Wayward Tip: If you are confused ask reception at your hotel. It’s second nature to Americans and they are ridiculously helpful people. Who better to ask than someone who does it every day?