Travel Etiquette: Tipping

I listen to the Freakonomics Podcast because I always like how they look through the existing talking points and expose me to new ones for various topics.

Take tipping for example.  They discussed tipping in the podcast released this week.  It wasn’t just the typical (but extremely valid) “You should tip because they are paid $2.13/hr.” (List of tip wages by state)  Instead they focus on tipping behavior, who tips more, and what behaviors lead to more tips.  There is also a link between countries with extensive tipping and overall corruption!

I know a guy who will only tip $2 for a meal.  He doesn’t care if the meal cost $5 or if the meal cost $50.  His belief is that the same amount of work is done by the server for the 2 meals.  I don’t think he has eaten at many $50/person restaurants though since they typically have many layers (water boy, food runner, etc.) that usually get tipped out so the $2 is being split by several people, not just the server.  Even cheaper establishments may need to tip out certain positions.

My restaurant tipping in the US (because I’m bad at mental math) is I tip $1 for every $5 pretax.  I will round up or down depending on how attentive the staff was to keeping my water refilled.  Also, if I feel I am loitering I will tip a bit more based on time since I am occupying a table that would have generated another tip.

If autogratuity is added I still may or may not add more.  I usually don’t, but I also would not punish a server for a policy he/she does not control and autogratuity policies are fairly standard at many chains for parties of x or more.

I’m not against eliminating tipping and it is a very arbitrary and confusing system in the US, but since it is the system we use I follow the norm.  In other countries I read up on their norms (but often guide books written for Americans make me think I need to tip everyone in other countries too) and try to follow them.


  1. Sounds like you’re pretty good at mental math actually.

    I’d say dividing by 5 to figure out what to tip is much harder than dividing by 10 and multiplying by 2. (Both give you the same answer)

    I pretty much do the same thing as you. I round up or down from this value depending on how I felt the overall experience was. But unless it was terrible it won’t shy too far below this 20% value.

    1. I should also add that I could never in good conscience tip below 15%. If I have an issue with the server I address it with the server or with management upon leaving. I didn’t wait tables much myself, but I still just don’t stiff them on a tip.

  2. 15-18% for expected service 18-20% for great service.

    0% for bad service.

    I have tipped 50% on a few occasions, but rare…

    1. I’ve tipped 50% too, even 100% (at my local bar), but that is usually because I had 1 beer for ~$3 and drank water for 5 hours. It felt wrong to me to tip just $1.00 and I go there often and they always treat me well so I gave her $5 on a $3 check.

  3. I personally think the idea of tipping has been abused in the USA. I’d rather have the prices of the food items in a restaurant slightly higher and know the waitstaff are paid at least minimum wage rather than the current system now.
    What really annoys me is when a restaurant automatically includes the tip for X number of people — but they calculate the tip based on the overall total (tax included!) Why would I tip on tax? The automatic tip should be calculated from the pre-tax total.
    As for me personally, I normally double the tax and put that as tip (where I live it’s 8.8% tax at restaurants.)

  4. I happened to listen to that podcast while running this morning…very interesting about how tipping could potentially be banned because it’s discriminatory.

  5. I agree with Joey. We should increase the food prices so that the tip is included. Pay the employees the appropriate wage for their work and stop hiding behind the notion that the employees will “earn” their wages with good service; it is an awful convenient stance taken by business.

    Tippers are too subjective to be dependent on them to make a living. I really feel for anyone in the service industry.

  6. I always tip generously, especially when traveling to poor countries. A simple dollar for delivery of ice to my room is probably equal to half a day’s wages for most of these folks. It brings them great joy and is nothing to me. I always carry a stack of 40 to 60 one dollar bills when traveling to SE Asia to pass out as tips. It’s fun for me and makes the workers’ lives a little better.

    1. I thought the touching part was interesting. I hate being touched like that by random people and I wonder if my rounding up and down has ever been affected by that.

  7. Gene – I love that. I have not done much travel to such regions, but I have thought about the fact that something that is small to us is huge to them.

  8. I live in Europe, where you don’t have to tip. However, I tip depending on service anyway but usually 5%.

    For us, when we travel to the US, it is always very complicated to know what to tip for what service…

    In a hotel in SanJuan, concierge for luggage was meant to be free but as we sounded European, they told us it was 2 Dollars per bag (that’s what we would have tipped them) but as the reception confirmed it was free, they got nothing… Trying to grudge us was not the right idea…

  9. I have often thought that we should tip based on courses vs. dollar amount. A course may imply that a longer length of time is spent occupying the table.

    There of course are pros and cons. In an ideal situation the server will want you to enjoy your meal and have it expedited correctly so they can move on to the next course or party. However on the downside this may lead to feeling rushed or lesser quality of service.

  10. In California it’s very easy. Double the tax and it’s about 16% of pre-tax bill. Move up or down a couple bucks from there depending on the service.

  11. It’s worth noting that a lot of service employees have to “tip-out” to pay the back-of-the-house folks, like busboys, cooks, etc.

    So, they’re expected to pay 5-10% on gross receipts back to the house, for divvying up amongst other staff.

    By stiffing on the tip, you are actually costing the server money.

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