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While tipping is not mandatory in the United States, it is expected in some circumstances for service. The below is most likely to represent what Americans who work in the industry feel fair. Many visitors feel pressured to tip even when they do not feel it is fair or reasonable to do so. You cannot be forced to tip as a matter of law, but you may be required to pay other clearly marked charges.
(These recommendations are based on ones provided by the Emily Post Institute. For those who are interested in etiquette in the USA, most Americans refer to Emily Post or Amy Vanderbilt for the final word on manners.)
For further insights, discussions, and recommendations on tipping, see below:
Restaurants with table service: Tip 15% of the bill, based on the quality of service. If you receive exceptional service, 15-25% is customary. In major cities of the U.S. however, 20% is considered to be a "good tip". In rural areas, tipping percentages tend to be lower.
Please note that in *some* states, restaurants are allowed to pay their servers as low as $2.13 per hour. This base wage varies among states, for example, Massachusetts pays $2.63, Connecticut $5, and California $8. Service is almost never included in the bill. If it is it will say "Gratuity" with an amount next to it. It is customary, unlike much of the rest of the world, for your service to not be included. This is true of regular restaurants and also buffets.
Unlike many countries, service is usually not included in the bill with the exception of large parties (typically six or more people). If you're with a large party, be sure to check your bill just in case. 15% - 20% is often automatically charged for a large party (six or more). If the tip is included, the breakdown of the bill will read "gratuity", which means that a tip is already included. As always, if you feel you did not receive 15% service, inform the management before paying your bill and have it adjusted to the adequate amount.
A good rule of thumb when calculating a table service restaurant tip is to ignore sales tax, and, for good service, calculate 15% of the entire food, beverage, and wine bill. (This is the amount listed before the sales tax line.) Add 20% if the service was outstanding, especially prompt or friendly, or the server fulfilled many special requests. Note: in most larger restaurants in the USA, the server has to pay back a portion of their tips to the bartender, busser, hostess, and food runners. A good rule of thumb is: if you see people other than your server helping maintain or clean tables, serve wine, or deliver food, those people are being tipped by your server for their work. In resort areas like Disney World, it is usually 3% to 5% of the server's total food, beverage and alcohol sales, so the tip should be adjusted accordingly. At higher end restaurants, there may also be a sommelier or wine steward. You should tip the sommelier separately, at your discretion. However, in some restaurants, the server tips the sommelier based on their individual wine sales, so it is advisable to ask your server first. Individual drinks you are served at a restaurant bar should always earn a $1-2 tip each.
In most states, sales tax is applied to the bill and is clearly indicated as such on the bill. In those states where the tax is 5% (Massachusetts as an example) or 6% it is simple to calculate the tip by rounding the tax up or down to the nearest dollar and then multiplying by three.
It is worth mentioning that New York restaurants have started adding automatic gratuity even though the number of people eating is far less than 6. Even with a group of three, gratuity of 20% may be automatically added both in restaurants and in 'pubs'. The automatic gratuity is also becoming common in areas that are highly tourist-oriented, such as the Grand Canyon. It is important to always check your bill!
For buffet restaurants, a tip of about15% of the bill is still recommended because the servers often take care of many more tables than in standard restaurants. They may not take orders or bring out food, but they do work hard keeping your table clean of the empty plates after multiple trips to the buffet line. In addition to this, they often help to keep the buffet line stocked and clean, and they make coffee, brew tea, etc. Remember that the minimum tip for any server should be $1 per person. Do not leave only 75 cents for a $5.00 buffet! As always, if you feel you have not been well-served, adjust the gratuity down. If a tip has been added to your bill beforehand because your party was 6 or more, but the server was inadequate or rude, inform the manager immediately before you pay your bill that you want the tip adjusted.
For bad or unacceptable service it is customary to tip as low as 10%. If service is bad enough to deserve only 10%, it is a good idea to let the manager know. Also, placing 2 pennies side by side on top of bills neatly placed on the table lets the server know that it is intentionally low because of bad service. If the server in some way offended you so that you do not wish to leave any tip at all, still leave the 2 pennies, so that they understand that you did not just forget to tip.
Counter service/fast food restaurants often have tip jars out, but you are not required to tip. If the service is exemplary or unusual requests are made, then tips are appropriate.
Bartenders:$1 - $2 per drink, or 15-20% of the total bill. If you tip well and consistently at bars and pubs, you are likely to recieve a drink on the house, known sometimes as a "buy back." This typically occurs after the 3rd drink you buy. Some bartenders will still use the "old school" signal of leaving an upside-down shot glass near your spot at the bar, especially if you are engaged in conversation or if the place is very noisy, but it's not that common anymore. Turn the shot glass over when you want the free drink. Even though the drink is free, the labor isn't. Don't forget to tip on the "buy back."
Other optional tipping situations common to travelers include:
The Americano-centric point of view is below on tipping:
Why are you expected to tip in the USA?
In * some* states in the USA, waitstaff and bartenders in restaurants are paid below the minimum wage, because the employees are expected to make up the difference, so to speak, in tips. (However, please note that the employer is required by law to bring the hourly pay of the employee up to the USA Federal Minimum Wage if the server does not earn an adequate amount of tips.) This means that a server could earn far above minimum wage on a good night ($200 a night is not uncommon), or hardly break even on a slow night. Servers are even expected to pay income tax on your tips -- they truly are part of their normal wages for the job they do, not just "extra" money for them.
Always leave tips in cash, handing them directly to the person you are tipping, whenever feasible This makes certain that the right person is rewarded, and that the establishment itself cannot skim a portion of your tip by assessing the employee a percentage of what you tipped on the credit card. Many places are legally able to do this now, so, unless you absolutely need to charge the tip for business reasons, a cash tip is almost always better for the tipee. But the reason that Servers prefer tips in cash is the fact that they can avoid declaring the income on their Tax Returns and avoid paying the Income tax and other payroll taxes on the amount. (Some do declare it, some don't).
All 50 states have different minimum wage laws. Some allow employers to pay less than the state's minimum wage to tipped staff, others do not. Federal employment compensation law requires that if employers pay less than minimum wage, tips must bring compensation up to the minimum wage or the employer must make up the difference. Therefore, no server legally makes below the federal minimum wage in the U.S. regardless of the amount of tips received.
Many staff in Las Vegas are unionized, with benefits and high wages as well as getting tips. These few are at the top of the industry and can make a six figure income. Tips are expected regardless of what state you are in or what wages the staff are paid. For better or for worse, tipping has become a part of most hospitality worker's pay.
Tipping in the USA is something you get the hang of after you do it a while. After a couple of days, you'll be able to gauge when you receive stellar service, or whether someone is "phoning it in." If you are mistreated anywhere, you must inform a manager. Don't tip poor service - let someone know you were unhappy, even if you just leave a note to the server as to why there is no tip added to the bill.