Rant Time: Restaurants and Tips
As we move into the age of phone apps and more conveniences, we have also moved into an age where applications try to do things for you, such as automatically included tip calculators. Some restaurants are even attempting to take tip calculation to the next level as well. Let’s explore.
What is a tip?
What is a tip / gratuity and why is it necessary? When you visit a full service restaurant, those who help you at your table (bring you your plates, clean them up, bring you refills on drings, etc) are spending time and effort to serve you and your guests. For the luxury of being waited on, it is customary to tip the waitstaff additional money for the services rendered. After all, those plates and refills didn’t happen on their own. Full service is the act of bringing plates to the table, offering condiments, bringing drinks and refills, checking in for additional items and fixing any problems or incorrect orders. For full service restaurants, it is commonplace to tip at least 15% for being that full service.
When is full service not full service?
When the food is picked up or delivered. When an order is placed for pickup or delivery, there is no wait person to take your order, bring you your food (except delivery) and clear the table when done. There is no one to refill your drinks or fix problems or even just have a chat. All of these things are lost for pickup and delivery. It is commonplace to leave a tip of 10% when ordering for delivery. It is commonplace to not tip or leave a small amount when the order is picked up (depending on restaurant).
Fast food vs Bistros
When ordering for pickup from a fast food restaurant, it is customary to not tip. In fact, most fast food places don’t really accept tips either on the order or when ordering at the counter. So, it is not required to tip at all when ordering food at McDonald’s, Burger King or any other big fast food chain. That is, chains that offer no full service dining. However, for full service bistros, when ordering takeout and picking up food, you may find a tip jar on the counter. If the restaurant has a tip jar available, it is customary to tip whatever you feel is appropriate. That could be 5% or 10% depending on how much you feel was necessary.
Personally, I rarely tip for takeout no matter what restaurant it is. Tipping is based on the amount of service provided. The only service provided was by the order taker, assuming you called the order in or visited a drive-thru. However, if you ordered by digital means, the order likely went directly to the kitchen avoiding any order staff at all. So, tipping is entirely up to you.
Of course, when dining in at any full service restaurant, you should always expect to tip 15-20% depending on service quality.
Cabs, Skycaps, Bellhops, Valet and Concierges (traveling)
It is customary to tip 15% to a cab driver, especially if they load and unload baggage for you. Though, when paying for cab fare by credit card, you may find there is no 15% option. Instead, you might find 20%, 25% and 30% options. These are suggestions. However, it may not be apparent in the payment software how to modify the tip to 15%, though you might be able to type in a value. I also know that it can be embarrassing to ask the cab driver how to tip less than suggested. For this reason, I always recommend carrying some cash with you for just this occasion. Then, hand the cab driver 15% in cash. Don’t use the suggestions on the payment software. If you feel like tipping the suggested 20%, by all means go for it. The cab driver won’t complain.
Skycaps and other transportation tipping
For any travel situation where an airline skycap or train attendant carries, moves or carts your bags for you, be prepared to tip them $1 or $2 per bag. If your bag is at or nearly at the weight limit, you should offer up $2 per bag. For smaller lighter bags, $1 is fine.
Like the Skycap above, be prepared to tip $1-$2 per bag. $2 for big heavy bags, $1 for smaller lighter bags.
Concierge at a Hotel
Depending on the services you receive, you may or may not need to tip. For directions to a shop or restaurant, no tipping is necessary. However, if they arrange tickets to a show or perform any other service for you beyond directions, then be prepared to tip them $5 or more depending on the level of service provided. For example, if they manage to get you front row tickets to a sold out concert, you should be prepared to tip them $15-20 as thank you. On the other hand, if they obtain a reservation to a restaurant that you could have easily made yourself, $5 is sufficient. However, if they make you a reservation combined with ordering flowers for your date, that’s worthy of more than $5. Use your best judgement on what you feel is appropriate. The better you tip, the more likely it is they will be willing to help make your stay even better.
Tipping a valet is common, but don’t tip until they bring you your car. You should also examine your car inside and out quickly before handing that tip over. You could find a surprise you may not expect (yes, air biscuits count). The customary amount to tip a valet is $2-$5 depending on lots of factors. If it’s super hot outside, rainy or otherwise inclement weather, be prepared to tip a little more.
This one is up to you. While I’ve seen recommendations of $2-$5 per night, tipping housekeeping is at your discretion. If you feel that the housekeeping service has done a particularly fantastic job, then by all means tip them. If the best they’ve done is change the bed linens and straighten up the bathroom, then maybe not. Though, if you’re particularly messy and they clean the entire room for you, you should tip them as a thank you.
If you ride Amtrak a long distance in a sleeper car, there are lots of services train attendants perform for you. Services like making the bed each night and putting the bed away each morning. They can bring you your meals to your room, offer up beverages and they can generally help you for whatever services you need. You don’t need to tip the attendant each day, but be prepared to tip them wherever they depart of the train. Note that they may depart at a stop before yours. You should ask them when they plan to depart so you can tip them prior to that. Keep in mind that some stops are in the middle of the night while sleeping, so you should tip them the night before they depart. The tip is customarily $1-$2 per bag when entering the train and then $20 or more for the entire train stay. The more you ask them to do for you, the more you should expect to tip them. For example, if you have all of your meals in your room, then you should offer up a bigger tip.
If you’re riding Amtrak in coach, the only tip rules that apply are baggage carrying, if applicable.
Coat Check / Temporary Baggage Check
When traveling by train, you may find yourself at a layover train station that offers a baggage check service. This will allow you to wander the station without the need to cart your bags around during your layover. Be prepared to tip the baggage check service $1-$2 per bag. Same for coat check services… $1-$2 per coat / bag checked.
This one can be a little confusing because sometimes the doorman may also be the bellhop. So, use your best judgement. If the doorman helps you with your bags and is also bellhop, only one tip is required. However, if the doorman hails you a cab, you should tip for that service. Though, with apps on phones these days, hailing a cab or Uber is easy to do using a phone app.
Room service is effectively a restaurant in your room. So, all of the dine-in restaurant tipping rules apply. Tipping is then 15-20% of the subtotal on the room service bill for that meal (not the entire stay at the hotel).
If the hotel has a shuttle that takes you from and to the airport (or other select city locations), like a taxi you should tip them $1-$2 per bag (if they help you load and unload baggage). If they don’t handle any bags, then $2 is customary.
How to calculate a tip
Many dine-in restaurants now include suggested tip amounts on the subtotal receipt brought to the table. Be careful with blindly using these suggested tip amounts. Many restaurants and phone apps calculate tips based order total. That is, the cost of the order after taxes, service fees and other incidentals have been totaled up.
You should never tip on the total that includes tax. Let’s understand why. Taxes are monies collected by the state, county and local governments. Neither the restaurant nor the server did anything to earn that money. It is a given that taxes must be collected and every restaurant knows that. These monies received by the restaurant are given up to the government.
Instead, you should always calculate tip amount based on order subtotal. This subtotal includes all services rendered by the restaurant. Any line items added after the subtotal have nothing to do with services rendered by the restaurant and, therefore, not worthy of a tip.
Small orders vs Large orders
If you’re ordering food for a single person or a small number of people, the order total can be small. Accidentally tipping 18% on full total on a small order is not that costly. It might be only a dollar or two extra. However, when at a fine dining restaurant and the order total may reach into the hundreds of dollars, tip amounts can be $50-100 in tips alone. Calculating on subtotal vs total can save you money. Granted, if you’re at a 5 star restaurant that already costs $100-200 per person, you may not be worried about paying that $50 tip. But still, it’s the principal of the matter. The restaurant never earns the money collected for taxes and, thusly, the waiter didn’t do anything for that extra money you have just left them. Which leads to…
3 Michelin Star Restaurants
If you’re dining at Michelin rated restaurant (i.e., 3 Michelin stars), you should expect to tip higher than normal. Why? Typically, Michelin rated full service restaurants go out of their way to ensure your dining experience is exceptional from the beginning to the very end. The level of service received at this type of high end restaurant should be much more exceptional than any bistro style restaurant. If you receive bistro level experience at a Michelin rated restaurant, you should contact the Michelin guide and let them know. For these restaurants, it is customary to start at 18%. Though, you might tip as high as 25% depending on quality of food, quality of service and wine list pairing suggestions. Only you can judge exactly how exceptional the service was. Though, critical mistakes at this type of restaurant have much more dire influences on tips. So, if the server spills your meal, brings you the wrong food or in any other way makes a mistake, your tip amount should suffer dramatically and could be reduced down to as little as 5-10% (or nothing if the mistakes were egregious).
When you visit a Michelin rated restaurant, the expectation is to have a perfect experience. If you receive anything other than the most stellar service experience, you should tip very little and talk to the manager of the restaurant.
Restaurants sometimes now include tips
Some restaurants today are even attempting to take tipping to the next level for parties of less than 6. By automatically including tips as part of the final check line items, it assumes that the patron would like to leave a tip. Restaurants justify this addition by claiming that wait persons and other restaurant staff work on a living wage. This justification is weak at best. When you find a restaurant that is automatically including tip in your bill, you should ask if it’s voluntary. Chances are, they say it is and will remove it from your bill. However, you should also state that you will never again return to this restaurant unless this silly custom is removed from the bills. For parties of 6 or more, it has been customary to automatically include tip. It is only recently that some restaurants have started including tips for singles or parties of 2. Restaurants don’t seem to understand that tipping is voluntary, which leads to…
To tip or not to tip is based on many factors and how well they performed the service. How much you leave is entirely up to you. It is voluntary to leave a tip, so you can leave nothing if you choose. But, if you visit that establishment again having tipped nothing, you’re likely to be remembered as that guy/gal who doesn’t tip. On the other hand, can choose to tip 20%, 30% or even 100% if you like. It is entirely up to you how much tip you leave for any service rendered. The customary amounts are what most people leave. Though, you are free to leave whatever you feel is appropriate for the given situation. There are lots of factors to take into consideration when tipping including, restaurant cleanliness, waitstaff appearance and attitude, service quality, frequency of checking in, order correctness, food flavor and many other factors. Be sure to scrutinize your experiences appropriately and tip what you feel is fair for those services. If you really dislike leaving tips, then I suggest you visit restaurants and other places that don’t require leaving tips. Though, that pretty much excludes you from 5 star experiences.