Tipping do’s and don’ts: When and how much to tip in every situation

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Tipping someone who does you a service, whether it’s lawn care, a haircut or grocery delivery, is a customary way of honoring that person for making your life easier. It’s a show of gratitude. It’s also a practice that confuses a lot of people.

Many people don’t know when to leave a gratuity, or how much. Michael Lynn, a professor at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, says he has done national surveys on how much to tip in restaurants and the results surprised him.

“Only about two-thirds of people give an answer of 15 to 20 percent,” he says. “A third of the country don’t know you’re supposed to tip that much in restaurants.”

Knowing a few guidelines can take the awkwardness and uncertainty out of tipping. And it’s a good time to learn, given how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected service-industry workers.

“The pandemic has completely upended tipping etiquette,” says Jodi RR Smith, owner and president of Mannersmith Etiquette & Consulting, outside Boston.

“In a regular year, end-of-year tipping is a ‘thank you’ for services provided over the last year. In a pandemic year, it becomes critically important,” Smith says, “because most jobs we tip for are at the lower end of income production. It can really affect their ability to pay their bills.”

Cardinal rules for tipping

Use common sense when tipping. The more difficult the task, the bigger the gratuity should be. “Tipping should be scaled to the service,” Smith says. “If it is cold, rainy, snowy, if it is something hard to procure, if it is heavy, bulky, difficult … then I am going to tip more.”

Here are a few more hard and fast rules for giving gratuities:

  • Default on the side of generosity: If you can’t afford to tip, acknowledge your appreciation some other way — a handwritten card or a small gift — until your finances improve, then give a tip.
  • Don’t regard tipping as optional: “If I can’t tip these people, I should stop using their services,” Smith says, noting that many people who work for tips rely on them to earn a living.
  • Tip according to the service provided: You wouldn’t tip a restaurant worker who delivers a meal to your car more than you would someone who loaded heavy building materials into the back of your SUV — during a downpour.
  • Cash isn’t necessarily king: During the pandemic, many places discourage, or even forbid, paying by cash. Lynn of Cornell University says that people tend to leave bigger tips when they use credit cards. “If people pay with a credit card, (workers) will be tipped more,” he says. You can also ask the person if they prefer to be tipped via a peer-to-peer payment platform, such as Venmo or Zelle. If you do tip with cash, you can avoid handing it to the person by putting it in an envelope and leaving it for them.

The pandemic has completely upended tipping etiquette.

— Jodi RR SmithOwner and president, Mannersmith Etiquette & Consulting

Tipping delivery drivers

Many people started having groceries and goods delivered to their homes during the pandemic. Smith thinks those workers should be tipped more than usual because of the risk they are undertaking.

“If you’re in a red zone, you’re literally tipping for combat pay,” she says, referring to areas where COVID-19 deaths and diagnoses are spiking. “They are literally putting their lives on the line.”

  • Instacart, Shipt or other delivery service: Tip 10-15% per delivery in a normal year, but 20-30% or more during the pandemic, says Smith, adding that something extra at year’s end is appropriate if you have the same driver.
  • Takeout food delivered to your car: $2-$4, or at least 10%.

Tipping at restaurants

The size of a restaurant gratuity depends on how well you are served, including whether your order is correct and your server checks on you after you receive your food.

Even if the service is bad, it is recommended you leave something. Check your tab carefully, as some places add a gratuity to the bill. You may or may not want to supplement that.

  • Wait staff at sit-down restaurant: 20% of the pretax bill. “Anything less than 15 percent and I’m talking to the management because something was very wrong,” Smith says.
  • Takeout: No tip is necessary when you pick up your own food.
  • Tip jars at fast-food counters: Nothing required; it’s your call. “If someone is dipping ice cream, $1. I’m not tipping at McDonald’s or Wendy’s, but if they went above and beyond, then I might tip them,” Smith says.

Tipping at hotels

Expect to pay a variety of tips at hotels, especially if the hotel is a five-star property, where service expectations are greater.

“You’re going to tip differently at the Red Roof Inn versus the Four Seasons,” Smith says.

  • Hotel porter toting your bags: $2-$3 per bag at a basic hotel/motel; $5 per bag at a posh hotel.
  • Room service with gratuity included on the bill: 10 percent on top of the gratuity added to the bill.
  • Room service without gratuity included: 20 percent of the meal price.
  • Toiletry/towel delivery: $3-$5 at a basic hotel; $5-$10 at a fancy hotel.
  • Doorman, if he hails your cab: $5 to $10. “If it’s pouring or snowing, I’m going to give them more,” Smith says.
  • Concierge who fulfills guest request: $5 or more, depending on the difficulty of the request. Snagging hard-to-get tickets to a popular show or sporting event merits a bigger tip than suggesting a great place to eat.
  • Housekeeping: $3-$5 per day for 1-3 people in the room; $10 per day if 6 people in the room; $10 per day at a luxe hotel. Leave money every day for the housekeeping staff because they rotate. And don’t leave the tip on the nightstand, as that has sexual connotations. Put it on a desk or counter.

Tipping while traveling

When you’re on a trip, knowing how much to tip can be perplexing. If you’re traveling outside the country, do a little research on tipping customs before you go. Tips are expected in Canada, for example, but not in Japan. And always tip in cash and in the currency of the country you’re visiting.

  • Cruise ships: Tipping policies vary among cruise lines, but each one tells you when you board what is appropriate.
  • Airport curbside check-in: $5 per bag, a little more for gigantic suitcases.
  • Airport shuttle bus driver: $3-$5, more if the driver helps you with your bags.
  • Limousine driver: 10-20% of the fare.
  • Taxi driver: 15-20% of the fare.
  • Ride-sharing service, such as Uber or Lyft: 10-20% of the fare. Even if apps for ride-hailing services don’t give you an option to leave a gratuity, tip the driver anyway.

Tipping for weddings

Read the contract for the wedding and reception venues before deciding on gratuities, as they might be included in the price. Also, consider the size and scope of the wedding.

You don’t want your guests to have to leave tips, so make sure that the bartender, for example, does not leave out a tip jar.

  • Wait staff: $20-$50 per server for sit-down meal, even more for the captain, depending on how lavish it is.
  • Bartender: About $20 per hour.
  • Coat room attendant: $2-$3 per guest
  • Bathroom attendant: $2 per guest.
  • DJ: $50 to $150. Read the contract.
  • Minister or other presiding official: $50-$100, but some prefer a donation to their house of worship and others have a suggested honorarium.
  • Altar boys: Smith advises checking with the house of worship, as sometimes they are tipped, sometimes not. A gift card or other small gift might be appropriate.
  • Wedding planner: Up to 20 percent. “The best thing you can do is refer new clients to them,” Smith says.”If they work at the (wedding venue) hotel, ask whether or not they are allowed to accept tips.”

Tipping for funerals

  • Presiding official: $50 to $250 if an honorarium is not preset. Check with the religious institution. Some find gratuities insulting.

Tips for funeral home staff are handled by the funeral home. Sometimes those fees are itemized on the bill as a gratuity, or they may be included in the total price paid by the family.

Tipping for salons

  • Manicurist: 20-25%
  • Hairstylist or barber: 20-25%
  • Spa services: 20-25%

As 2020 draws to a close, consider all the people who have helped you, whether it’s the baby sitter, the dog walker, a doorman or parking attendant.

“I’m looking at all year-round, the people who make my life easier,” Smith says. “If I want them to be around more in 2021, I’m going to be sure I tip them more than I usually do.”

Written by
Libby Wells
Contributing writer
Libby Wells is a contributor covering banking and deposit products. She has more than 30 years’ experience as a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines and online publications.