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Tipping Advice for International Business Travelers Visiting the USA

December 17th, 2016 /

We finished our wine after a delicious dinner, and I reached into my pocket for my wallet, noticing that my dining companion was anxiously flipping through the receipts in the folder. He counted his bills several times before finally signaling that he was ready to leave. As we waited for our respective rides on the curb, he revealed that this had been his first sit-down meal in the United States. He’d been struggling with the tip, worried about accidentally offending our superb waiter by leaving the wrong amount.

tipping advice USA

In the United States, leaving a tip can be necessary even for small purchases like drinks. Image by Flickr user Monochrome (CC BY 2.0)

It’s a common struggle for foreign business travelers in the US. Coming from countries where less is more—if you tip at all—seeing (and calculating) gratuities in the range of 20% can be daunting. But people who work in service industries here often depend on tips for their income, which means that tipping is necessary to the point of being compulsory.

And as a business traveler, tipping appropriately not only ensures you’ll receive good service, it’s a way to start off on the right foot as you interact with American business colleagues, who may already expect you to be familiar with US etiquette. If you’re traveling to the States for the first time (or if you’ve made one too many servers glare at you as you leave restaurants), it’s smart to learn a bit about how the tipping system works. With a few guidelines, you can survive your business trip without offending anyone.

Why Do You Have to Tip in the United States?

tipping advice in the USA varies depending on the type of service you receive

Tipping at restaurants is crucial, whether you leave cash behind or include it on the credit card receipt. Image by Flickr user Tzuhsun Hsu (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The crux of the issue is that most countries treat the service industry differently than the US. In Europe, for example, serving positions are often competitive openings with long career trajectories and a well-paying salary. In China, service workers might be offended by the implication that their employers do not value them enough to pay well.

In the United States, however, our economic system doesn’t provide quite as well. It is legal for employers to pay servers at sit-down restaurants roughly $2 per hour in some states, with the understanding that tips make up the rest of their income. Needless to say, even with a generous tipping system, serving staff often do not earn a very high yearly wage, and the system is even somewhat controversial even among Americans. It’s also not just food service workers in this situation. Pretty much any service-oriented position related to transportation, hospitality, or personal care relies heavily on tips.

This is why tipping is such a touchy subject. Normal service that is acceptable to you as the customer is deserving of a sizeable tip. Excellent service receives above this amount. And it’s generally considered incredibly rude not to tip at all—your server is likely to assume that you forgot or else found their service horrible. Either outcome brews enough resentment to quickly ruin their day, and service providers in all sectors can get in trouble with management for providing sub-par service. Even for terrible service, US natives tend to just tip less than the customary amount.

Just to Be Safe: A Tipping Chart for Savvy Business Travelers to the United States   

tipping in the US is generally welcome

If you’re not sure whether or not to tip, just ask. Service providers are usually happy to help. Image by Flickr user krytofr (CC BY 2.0)

If you follow the chart below religiously, you can complete a business trip in the USA without offending any of your servers. Feel free to tip less than these amounts if your service was exceptionally awful—but the amounts I’ve listed are the “safe” way to go and will show that you thought service was good

  • Sit-down Restaurant with a Server: 20% of the entire check. Remember that these individuals typically make very little money apart from tips.
  • Taxi Driver: 10% of the entire fare. Taxi drivers usually earn a higher base income than restaurant servers, so 10% is plenty. Just don’t “round up the dollar” like you might back home. An amount that small is considered rude.
  • Bartender: $2 per drink. Bartenders make a higher hourly wage than servers but don’t have the bonus of tips from very large meals.
  • Parking Valet: $3 cash when the car is returned to you. Since these workers are not very well paid and are performing a personal service, a few dollars is generally appropriate.
  • Hotel Cleaning Staff: $4 cash and a “Thank You” note on your pillow daily. Again, you can assume that these workers are making a very low income for a physically demanding job. Being compassionate is the best policy.
  • Massage Therapist or Hair Stylist: 20% of the total price. A higher tip is considered appropriate here because your service provider might spend up to an hour chatting with you and trying to make you feel pampered. This amount of personal service generally calls for a steeper tip.
  • Doormen/ Bellhops: $2 for help with your bags or hailing a taxi. Similar to the parking valet, these workers perform a personal service job that makes your life a little easier.
  • Fast Food Counters with Tip Jars: Spare change. Tipping in these situations is optional (and even then, usually just if you’re paying cash). It’s interpreted as a kind gesture.

If you’re ever unsure, don’t be afraid to ask your server what a customary tip is. Considerate tipping shows that you are savvier than the average tourist, and most people will genuinely appreciate it.

What Good Tipping Gets You as a Business Traveler

Following the guidelines above will keep you in the safe zone—and following them consistently tends to benefit you, as well. For instance, if you always stay in the same hotel on your business trips to LA, you might earn a reputation with staff as a generous tipper and can be assured of a welcome every time you return. Tipping well is also a quick way to earn people’s trust and gain new acquaintances on the road if you feel like striking up a conversation with, say, your bartender.

But arguably the biggest benefit to business travelers, in particular, is that proper tipping ensures you won’t give offense to clients and business partners when you’re meeting in public spaces. Following proper etiquette (especially when money is involved) displays your understanding of social norms and ensures that both you and your hosts feel at ease, letting you focus on the business you’ve come to discuss.

Tipping well in the United States means getting off on the right foot with service workers, but also your potential clients. Image by Flickr user Jing (CC BY 2.0)

The final thing to understand about tipping in the United States is that it is not bribery. Tipping exorbitant amounts is often confusing, and wait staff may not know how to react. But showing consistent and genuine appreciation of good service (including a smile and a thank you) tends to give you a consistently better experience.

And if you’re looking for even more ways to improve your business travel experience in the United States? Consider a membership with JetLux. You’ll gain access to discounted rates on the best hotels in the country, allowing you to stay in luxury—and maybe even tip more generously. Reach out to us today to learn more.

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