TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter April 2009

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A Guide to Tipping in the Modern Age (Part 1)

Turns out I was living in the past. You see, I get my shoes shined pretty often. They charge $3 in Penn Station for a quick shine. For years I thought a buck tip was just right. That was until the day the shoe shine lady looked at me and said, "How do you expect me to feed my kids on this?" Ouch. It happened again at the car wash. The same two-buck tip I gave the towel-off guy for years (without a further thought) was greeted with a scowl instead of a smile. The world changed and I didn't notice. I started to wonder how many other tipping offenses I had inadvertently committed. Then I did some research and interviewed a bunch of people -- tippers as well as tipees -- to determine the "new normal." In this 3-part article series, I'll cover the where, when, who, and how much of tipping in the modern age.

The Why of Gratuities
People tip for a variety of reasons. Most leave gratuities because they're expected in certain situations. Others tip (to an excessive level) so they can feel like a big shot, like the salesman in the shoeshine chair next to me who made his over-the-top $5 tip a bit too obvious. Perhaps he thought that would impress me. It didn't. As an Urbach Letter reader, you are undoubtedly a man or woman of culture and refinement, and a discreet tipper. You'd never say, "Here's a tip for you" and make a big deal about it. No... instead, you've mastered the discreet palm handshake/handoff or will quietly say, "I don't need change."

Who Gets Tipped?
Obviously, there are differences between "service jobs" and regular jobs. Someone in a service job is directly serving YOU in a personal or intimate manner. Unlike someone who works in an office or factory or has a skilled trade, service workers have compensation structures that provide a "bonus" for rendering superior service: the gratuity. (At least that's how it works in theory; in many situations these days, sadly, a tip is expected regardless of how abysmal the service was). Each article of this series will contain a comprehensive listing of whom you should and shouldn't be prepared to tip in three major categories: (1) restaurant and bar, (2) hotel and travel, and (3) personal/home services.

Why Tip Someone?
According to legend, there was a British bartender who placed a box on the bar labeled: "To Insure Promptness." Hence the acronym. True or not, the story illustrates the dual nature of tipping. It can be a reward for a job well done, or… a subtle bribe…

Here are the classic reasons for leaving a gratuity:

  • As a reward for going above and beyond.
  • To show gratitude (hence: "gratuity") and provide tangible thanks to an often unthanked person.
  • To insure good/great service (usually the next time, since tipping is often done after the service has been rendered).
  • Because the tipee's livelihood depends upon it.

Regarding that last point especially, it's important to know that many U.S. service workers don't earn even the regular minimum wage of $6.55/hour. Those whose positions ordinarily receive tips can be paid as little as $2.13/hour by an employer.

Where to Tip:
Please be aware that tipping is largely an American phenomenon. Outside of tourist areas in most other parts of the world, tipping is uncommon (or done at a greatly reduced level). Indeed, many Japanese people view tipping as a sign of disrespect through the flaunting of wealth. Also, within the U.S., be aware that tip amounts for the same service may vary by region. They tend to be higher on the coasts and in the cities. For example, it's customary to tip a cab driver a minimum of 15% of the fare. However, in New York City, the cabbie might even give you a dirty look if you tip less than 20% (especially if you don't round up to at least a dollar).

Tipping Etiquette
Always have plenty of singles and fives on you so that you'll never have to ask the valet or coat check person for change.That's bad form. Say you'll be right back, go break the bill somewhere else, and return promptly. Avoid giving someone a coin as a tip. It's often viewed as cheap and demeaning, as if the person was a street beggar. Never base a tip on a discounted amount. If you use a two-fer coupon at a restaurant, calc your tip on the full price of both entrees, even if you didn't get charged for one. Likewise, when you're comped at an event or venue where services are provided, estimate what it would have cost if you were an ordinary mortal, and tip accordingly.

How Much to Tip?


How Much




15% for less than fully attentive service. 20% for good service. 25% or more for exceptional service

With your check. (For large groups, the gratuity is sometimes included in the check. You may want to add to this but it is not typically expected.)

Fine restaurants have additional breakouts for the captain and sommelier. See below. Some people leave a lesser percentage tip on the wine/liquor portion of the check. Busboys never get tipped separately (waiters "tip out" a share to them).

Bar Tenders

$1 to $2 per drink or 10-15% of the bar tab, whichever is greater

When served unless you’re running a tab.

In a restaurant, settle your bar tab and leave a gratuity before you move to your table. Never ask if you can add the bar tab to your dinner check. That’s bad form.

Cocktail Waitress

$1-$2 per drink but not less than 15%

Same as at the bar, when the money is collected. Per round or at the end.

At a casino, where the drinks are typically gratis, you should still tip the regular amount.

Sommelier (wine steward)

10% to 15% of the wine cost

With the check

If you’ve ordered an especially expensive bottle of wine, it’s OK to cap the tip amount at a fixed number, like $20.

Maitre d' $20-$50 in a single bill Palm it If you're going to tip the maitre d', tip big or don't tip at all.
Captain / Head Waiter 5% With the check. If there is a separate line for the captain on the credit card slip, break it out. If not, don't sweat it. The norm for tipping at a fine restaurant (the kind that'd have a captain in the first place) is closer to 20%-25% rather than 15%-20% anyway Many people aren't clear about the different roles of maitre d', captain, or host/hostess. The maitre d' stays up front (usually), and selects your table. The host/hostess seats you (no separate tip), the captain / head waiter takes your order, and the regular waiters bring your food. Hope this helps...

Valet Park

Minimum of $1

Normally, you only tip the guy who returns your car to you. However, if you’re paranoid about your vehicle or want it parked a particular way, also slip the parker $2 to $5 when you get out of your car.

The dollar tip has been standard for a long time and is now being replaced by the two-dollar tip, particularly in the metro areas. If you drive a very expensive car, consider bumping up your tip. Maximum of $5 unless you’re a real show off.

Coat Check

$1 or $2 per coat or other checked item

When retrieving items

Even if the hostess or owner is doing double-duty checking coats, you should still attempt to tip him or her. (But you might be waved off.)

Buffet Restaurant

Up to 10%

On the table if you’ve prepaid, otherwise same as a regular restaurant

In a buffet-type setting, where somebody comes to the table only to take your drink order, the 10% is appropriate. Otherwise, it could be less or nothing.

Bathroom Attendant

$1 and up

In the basket, on each visit. If you use the countertop products, up your tip.

Some people hate the whole bathroom attendant concept. I am at peace with it.


Fortune CookieRemember, the above table applies when you're out on the town in America or in a touristy overseas location. Other places have different norms. Everything is just a suggestion anyway. Feel free to adjust the numbers up or down as fits the situation and your resources. Some people will never palm a twenty to a maitre d' in their entire lives, others will do it every time they dine out.

Next month, we'll continue with a guide to appropriate gratuities when you're traveling or staying in a hotel.


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(c) Copyright 2002-2010 Victor Urbach
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