While tipping is not mandatory in most of the United States, it is customary in many circumstances for service, especially at almost all sit-down restaurants which offer table service and many food servers depend on tips as an essential part of their wage.  Generally, the average tip is 15% to 20% of the total meal cost.   

Tipping practices can vary depending upon the location in the U.S., and even published guidance can vary greatly depending upon the source.  Cheapskates have carved out several exceptions.  For example, some Americans don't tip at a buffet restaurant, but it's generally good form to tip $1-2/person for wait staff just clearing several rounds of plates, to as much as 10 percent if the wait staff is refilling drinks and providing other services.  The general rule is to tip in proportion to the service, and the quality of service being delivered.

Tip jars at carry-out restaurants are a recent innovation, and one resisted by many Americans.  While one guide below advises to tip 10 percent at carry-out restaurants, many Americans do not tip for carry-out, even when a tip jar is present, and tipping at most chain restaurants, such as McDonald's, is not common.  Some who do contribute to tip jars, put in change or only $1, depending upon the size of the order.

Keep in mind that those who provide service are often dependent on tip income and generally are grateful for any tips received, especially when prompt and exceptional service has been provided.  Tipping is the means by which to acknolwedge good service.

The tipping guides that follow are listed in alphabetical order.  None is more authoritative than the other:

AARP Guide to Tipping

Emily Post Guide to Tipping

Tipping Etiquette

U.S. News & World Report Tipping Guide

Here's one tipping app for smartphones and tablets:  Globe Tipping.  Here's a guide to tipping apps.

Many visitors to the U.S. feel pressured to tip even when they do not feel it is fair or reasonable to do so. Customers are REQUIRED to pay 'mandatory gratuities (tips)' if these are disclosed (on the menu or elsewhere) prior to being served.  Mandatory gratuities are charged by many restaurants when large groups (6 or more; sometimes, 8 or more) are being served.  Mandatory gratuities also are used by some restaurants with large numbers of foreign customers who may not be familiar with American tipping customs, often in tourist centers such as New York City.

When 'mandatory tipping' is practiced. you may add more to the 'mandatory tip' if there is a desire to additionally reward some exceptional service.  Always examine your bill carefully to see if there is a mandatory gratuity included in the bill so that you don't accidentally add an additional gratuity to your payment.  If you feel your service was deficient, you can request a manager in order to have the mandatory gratuity adjusted downward.

Fast food restaurants do not have tipping as there is no 'table service' (when a server brings your food to your table). 

Some coffee shops, bakeries and other establishments have tip jars on their check-out counters.  These have become more prevalent in recent decades and there is some confusion, even controversy about them.  Generally, those who feel a desire to reward good service will make a contribution to a tip jar.  Others do not.  Both are fine.

Tips are often a major source of compensation for wait staff and other U.S. service providers.  Employers often pay these employees lower wages in anticipation that tip income will provide a significant portion of the employees' income.  Customers should realize that they are not auotmatically paying 'more' (due to tipping).  In non-tipping countries, the tips are simply built into the price of the food.  An advantage to tipping, therefore, is the ability to tip whatever is appropriate: if the service is poor, a small tip should be left, signaling to the server that their service was subpar.

Many hotel guests who tip housekeeping staff leave tips daily before leaving the hotel, both to reward the person immediately servicing the room and in expectation of good service.  

Suggested tips:

  • $1-2/bag for skycaps, bellhops, doormen, and parking valets if they handle bags, $1 per coat for coatroom attendants, $1 per diner to 10 percent of the pre-tax bill at buffets, $2-5 per night for housekeeper, $5-10 for concierge (only if they arranged tickets or reservations), $1-3 per bag for grocery loaders (not in all areas of the US).  Doormen who merely open doors are not tipped, unless they call a cab or provide another service.  Parking valets are paid upon pick-up $3-5, depending upon much effort is required to retrieve a vehicle.
  • For waiters at sit-down restaurants, bartenders, barbers/hairdressers/attendants at beauty salons, taxi drivers, tour guides, and food delivery folks, the tip should be calculated as a percentage of your total bill as follows: 10% usually means you aren't totally happy, 15% usually means all was acceptable, 20% for excellent, over 20% for outstanding.  15-20 percent is considered standard in most communities.  
  • For ski instructors, tipping 15 percent for adult groups and 10 percent for private clients is pretty standard. 
  • These percentages are highly subjective! 
  • Note that tipping percentages will vary in different parts of the country, and even in different parts of a state. Reportedly, tips of 25 percent may be expected at higher-quality restaurants in New York City.  In Colorado a tip of 20% is considered normal.
  • Ignore sales tax when calculating tips or not, it's not set in stone.
  • Note that if you have more than one person serving you at these establishments, the percentage represents the total tip and your server will split it between the group.
  • Tips should only go to people who are helpful. If they don't help you, don't tip them.  If you receive bad service, you should speak to management, not just ignore the tip as the server is unaware of the situation.  Perhaps they think you overlooked the tip or another person picked up the tip and pocketed it themselves.
  • In some places a clearly displayed "Service Charge" or "Gratuity" might be automatically added to a bill, especially for party sizes of 8 or more. Check your bill for these charges before tipping.  If the word "Gratuity" is used and you're not happy, check with the manager.  A gratuity by definition is an amount you don't have to pay but choose to. 

(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% or more of the bill, based on the quality of service. If you receive exceptional service, 20-25% is customary.  In major cities of the U.S. however, 20% is considered to be a "good tip." 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. Even if you do not see additional "support staff, it is vary likely that the server is paying a portion of their tips to other staff.

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" or "Service Charge" with an amount next to it. If an amount is included as a "Gratuity" or "Service Charge," tipping is not required.

Unlike in most of the rest of the world, the total cost of table service almost always is NOT included in the bill, necessitating the need for tips.

The exception to this general rule occurs at some restaurants for 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" or "service charge," 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, tipping servers who clear multiple dishes and provide drink refills is recommended.  Some persons may tip buffet servers $1 per diner, others as much as 5 to 10 percent of the total pre-tax bill, depending upon the level of service provided.  Buffet servers 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% or even less for very egregious behavior by a server.  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 per drink, or 15-20% of the total bill. If you tip well and consistently at bars and pubs, you *might* receive a drink on the house, known sometimes as a "buyback" or "comp". This typically occurs after the 3rd drink you buy, however, is usually reserved for regular customers. 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 "buyback." Note that some bars do not allow this.

Other optional tipping situations common to travelers include:

  • Hotel housekeeping/maid service: $2-3 per night up to $5, more in high-end hotels.  Also more if there are more than 3 people in a room or suite. Leave the tip on your pillow or in a similar obvious place with a note that says thank you.  Leave the tip each day when you leave the room, rather than at the end of your stay, because your room might get cleaned by different people each day, depending on staff schedules. If you have additional items delivered to your room, such as extra pillows, hangers, luggage racks, tip the person who brings them $2 or $3.
  • Concierge: Tipping is never expected, but always appreciated.  The more difficult the request