UPDATE, 2021: This guide was written in 2008, but it's still valid if you adjust any nominal amounts to account for inflation. Simply add roughly a third to the amounts below – $1 in 2008 is worth $1.27 in 2021.
UPDATE, 2022: We have now entered hyperinflation. Just double to triple any nominal dollar amount you come across in this piece and you'll be fine.
Lately it seems like I can’t go anywhere without encountering that awkward tipping moment—a prolonged handshake with a bellhop at a hotel, a lingering stare across the coffee shop counter as the “Tips Please” box looms between me and the barista, or wondering whether the five dollars I tack on to my total at the nail salon is as generous as I intended it to be. (Or too generous?) Throw some less common situations into the mix, like weddings or casinos, and I’ve absolutely no idea whether my tip—or lack thereof—makes me totally rude or ignorantly generous.
So I set out to squash the awkward tipping moment, asking everyone from valets to etiquette experts to talk about what are largely unspoken guidelines. When do we tip? How much? What’s too little, too much, insulting? The good news: they’ve generously provided us with some tangible guidelines. The bad news: now we have no excuse.
From the airport shuttle driver to the late-night taxi ride home, my tips to these folks don’t follow any pattern—they usually consist of whatever I can scrounge out of my pockets between balancing my bags, juggling my keys, and searching for my plane tickets. Do you tip more if they help you with bags? Are taxis tipped on percentages, like restaurants? And what about valets? Bryan Silverman, a former valet at Del Mar Racetrack near San Diego, filled me in.
- Valet: $2 minimum, to be increased depending on service and how classy the location is. “I see none of what you pay to valet your car,” says Silverman. “All I see is your tip—whatever you decide to give me.” He calls $2 a bare minimum, and says everything above that will earn you a little something extra, like help with directions.
- Cab: 15 percent, plus an extra $1 to $2 if he or she helped with bags
- Airport Skycaps: $2 for the first bag and another $1 per additional bag
- Long-term parking shuttle driver: $1 to $2 per bag, if the driver assists you with your bags
You know you have to treat your stylist well. She is, after all, wielding full power of the shape and color of your hair and allows you to leave the salon feeling like those women in the shampoo commercials. But what about the shampooer? Should I be tipping more for things like massages and facials? And am I seriously supposed to tip every person that helps me at one of those fancy spas? Emily Post Etiquette provides some tips:
- Hair stylist: 15 to 20 percent of the bill
- Hair washer: $1 to $2
- Nail technician: 15 to 20 percent of bill
- Spa treatments: 10 to 20 percent per service
- Spa Attendants: At a resort spa, tip the spa attendants about 5 percent of your total at the front desk. If any particular attendant went above and beyond for you, tip that attendant individually. At day spas, it is not customary to tip the attendants. However, if the day spa is one that you frequent regularly and the attendants go the extra mile for you, you may want to tip here, as well.
I feel like every step in a hotel brings me to another situation where somebody expects a tip. My money is far from unlimited, so I want to make sure I’m shelling it out where I should be, and saving it for the mini bar wherever I can. Rose gave me some more insight into the workings and expectations of a hotel:
- Doorman: $1 to $2 for hailing a cab, and $1 to $4 for going beyond your expectations
- Bellhop: $2 for first bag carried to your room, $1 per additional bag
- Housekeeper: It’s nice to leave $5 or so at the end of your stay. “Chances are, the same staff has been cleaning up your mess the whole time you’ve been there,” Rose says.
- Concierge: Post specifies that a concierge should be tipped $5 for tickets or reservations ($10 if they’re especially hard to get), but that there’s no need to tip for answering questions.
- Front desk: Nothing
- Room service: 10 to 15 percent of total. Many hotels add the gratuity to your bill automatically, so be sure to check your bill.
Food and drink
One tipping situation that I am totally confident in is restaurants: I know it’s 15 to 20 percent. But, of course, there are grey areas even when dining out. There are the fancy spots—with extra staff to help you pick out your wine, store your coat, and even wash your hands. Then there are the partial-service spots, where you do most of the work. Michelle James, a former coffee shop and partial-service restaurant employee, chatted with me about it—from takeout to the mysterious tip jar.
- Barista: “As a barista you don’t expect much,” she says. “It’s definitely not considered cheap to toss your change into the tip jar.” But, if you’re a regular who the barista takes special care of, James says you’ve gotta show the love sometimes. “You don’t have to every time, but a little something every once in a while is definitely noticed and appreciated.”
- Restaurant host: Nothing, unless they’ve done you a special favor, like saved you that awesome table by the window, in which case the tip should reflect the trouble they took to perform the favor.
- Busser: Nothing. In most places, waiters are expected to pool their tips with the bussers. Anything you leave on the table will be assumed to be for the waiter, who will then (hopefully) share the wealth at the end of the night.
- Sommelier: 15 to 20 percent of wine expenditure
- Bartender: If we’re talking a few drinks, $1 to $2 per drink will work. If you’ve racked up a whole tab, go with 15 to 20 percent of that pre-tax total.
- Coat check: $1 per coat
- Washroom attendant: $0.50 to $3, depending on service
- Partial service restaurant: “Don’t leave 10 to 15 percent,” says James. “It just goes into a pool, split by everyone working there. Just leave whatever the service is worth to you—anything from a few bucks to 10 percent is good.”
- Home food delivery: 10 to 15 percent, at your discretion
- Take-out: Emily Post says there’s no obligation, unless the person who prepared your meal went above normal service expectations. If so, anywhere up to 10 percent is appropriate.
If I’m already paying a caterer thousands to wow my guests with salmon and garlic mashed potatoes, should I also tip her a percentage of what I’m paying? What about wedding planners and officiators?
Amber Rose, a senior hospitality and tourism major with an emphasis in event planning at San Diego State University, helped enlighten me. “Even though people planning big events, like weddings, are always thinking of that huge total cost, you have to remember that each vendor is providing special service,” she says. “This means they usually expect, and hopefully deserve, a tip.”
- Caterer and wedding planner: “It’s optional, but I’d recommend it,” says Rose. Unless they’re the owner of an event planning firm or hotel, they’re not seeing much, or any, of the fee you’re paying. So 15 to 20 percent is a way to thank him or her for making your day so special.”
- Night-of-the-event service (makeup artist, bartender, DJ, waiters, bartenders): Again, if a service charge isn’t included in the contract—it’s sometimes included with the venue charges—10 to 20 percent of the service provided is appropriate.
- Florist: No tip is expected, but if the employees delivering and setting up your arrangements do a particularly nice job, a few bucks each is appreciated. Same goes for your cake baker.
- Officiator: Depends on the type. “Don’t tip a priest,” laughs Rose. “That would be a situation where tipping is a no-no.” A judge, on the other hand, usually accepts a tip in place of a fee, and a Justice of the Peace is only legally allowed to accept tips after court hours. (So if it’s before five on a Friday, you’re in luck.)
These are the strange situations we sometimes wind up in on vacation (who knew you were supposed to tip your black jack dealer?), at a tattoo shop, or even after getting flowers delivered to your house. Hint: You are supposed to tip in all of these situations. Sarah Gwerder, a former flower delivery girl, says she regularly received tips based on the size of the arrangement: “I think people felt bad for me when I trekked all the way up their stairs with a huge bouquet of flowers for them,” she says. “And it was hard work, so the tips were nice.” As for those other situations:
- Casino drink server: $1 to $2 per drink (c’mon they’re free anyway)
- Dealer: $5 chip per gambling session, and if you win big, tip a little extra
- Flower delivery person: $1 to $10, depending on the size of the arrangement
- Furniture delivery: $5 per item per delivery person
- Dog groomer: $5 to $15, depending on the size of your dog (larger dogs require more work)
- Car wash attendant: $2 per car for a standard wash, $3 to $5 for an SUV, 15 percent for detailing
- Tattoo Artist: 10 to 20 percent, depending on the complexity of the work and whether the artist helped you design it
- Piercing Technician: 10 percent
What it boils down to is that a tip is a way of showing your appreciation for a service—so if you love what you got, show the love with a little extra; and, if not, use a smaller tip as a way to give some constructive feedback. Whenever I’m in doubt, I’ve found that using the 15 to 20 percent rule is usually a safe bet. But if you get an eye roll or an open mouth, you might want to double-check your references before you tip again.