Gratuities 101

By Joe Heim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 11, 2005

Tipping is one of life's great mysteries. Like love and religion, it can be a source of endless befuddlement and deep philosophical pondering. Oh, all right, it's nothing like love or religion. But it can be confusing to know who, when and, most important, how much you should tip. After all, the line between gratuity and gratuitous is a fine one. As no less a figure than Benjamin Franklin once observed, "To overtip is to appear an ass: To undertip is to appear an even greater ass."

Hoping not to appear an ass at all, we usually revert to socially accepted standards -- ranging from 15 to 20 percent for waiters to a dollar or two per drink for bartenders (stiff your bartender and you'll be amazed by how long it takes that second beer to appear). But some tipping situations aren't quite as clear. Should you tip when you order takeout? Leave money for the maid who straightens up your room at your hotel? Slip two bucks to the doorman who hails a taxi for you? Drop your change in the guilt jar at the local Starbucks?

"Most people don't like tipping, and they do it to avoid embarrassment," says Michael Lynn, a professor at Cornell University's hotel school. Having studied tipping habits for years and written numerous scholarly papers on the subject, he says the biggest reason people tip is not for great service, but for social approval. While Lynn has calculated that more than $26 billion a year is spent on gratuities in the United States alone, he also points out that various surveys show approximately one third of respondents in the United States aren't aware of how much they should tip.

"Everyone has an opinion about tipping, and everyone gets emotional about it," says Stacie Krajchir, the co-author of "The Itty Bitty Guide to Tipping," (Chronicle Books, $6.95). "People have a hard time admitting that it is the one thing they just don't understand."

Krajchir's overall approach is to reward "your immediate team first." By that she means the people who help make your life run more smoothly and easily: hair stylists or barbers, house cleaners, lawn care workers, nannies and delivery people. Think of tipping as an insurance policy, she says, and remember that it doesn't always have to take the form of cash. Presumably you know something about the people who work for you, so basketball tickets for a hoops fan or a special vintage for a wine lover will be greatly appreciated.

Stacey Garrett, who works at Murky Coffee on Capitol Hill, says that most customers do tip every time and that it is a "little disheartening" when they don't drop their change in the jar. "We work really hard to give great service and be friendly," she says. "When people don't tip, it feels like a reflection of the service."

But Krajchir isn't a big fan of tipping in coffee shops any more than in fast-food restaurants. "If you tip the guy at McDonald's or Burger King, then tip the guy at Starbucks," she says. "Otherwise, forget it."

Still, Krajchir admits that regular customers might make an exception if the same person remembers, prepares and serves your drink every day -- with a smile, of course. She also says you should tip 5 to 10 percent when you order takeout from a restaurant, because the person at the counter still has to prepare your order and remember to include everything you requested.

Both tippers and tippees agree that friendly service is often the deciding factor in whether extra money changes hands. Lynn even has data showing that smiling, kneeling down next to the customer and generally personalizing the interaction vastly improves tips. One study revealed that female servers were tipped more if they drew a smiley face on the check, while male servers who did the same received a smaller tip.

Washington taxi driver Tadesse Yones, who averages $1.50 to $2 in tips for local fares in the city, says the tip "all depends on how you treat people." He won't soon forget the bonus one customer gave him for a $30 fare. At the end of a ride, during which they discussed Yones's native Ethiopia and the plight of his family that remained there, the passenger handed him a $100 bill and told him to keep the change.

While many in the service industry depend on tips, they can be surprisingly forgiving when they go unrewarded for their efforts.

"Most people are nice, so even if sometimes they don't give a tip, we understand," says Yones. Or as one Dupont hair stylist put it, "It's not like I'm going to stab someone in the neck with my scissors if they don't tip."

Still have tipping questions you need answered? Ask gratuity guide author Stacie Krajchir live online Monday at 2 p.m. at

Tipping Tips

All gratuities are arbitrary, but we've gathered the wisdom of service industry professionals, hospitality experts and even a surly waiter or two to put together this briefest of tipping guides.

A few things to remember: Service workers generally prefer cash, even if the bill is paid with a credit card; large parties in restaurants will often have their tip included in the bill, so be sure to check; tipping varies significantly by country; and, finally, don't reward rudeness with a full gratuity.

Airport baggage handlers: $1 per bag, more for heavier bags.

Bartender: $1 to $2 per drink is customary, or 15 to 20 percent if you run a tab.

Beauty: In a salon, tip 15 to 20 percent for haircuts, nail care, facials, waxing, etc. Shampooers should get $2 to $5.

Cabs: For fares less than $10, $1 to $3. More than $10, 10 percent.

Coffee shops: This one is highly contentious. Some customers won't tip at chains, but will at independent establishments. Others only tip for drinks made by a barista, not just for an ordinary cup of joe. Tips range from change to $1 per beverage.

Delivery people: Varies according to what is being delivered. A few dollars should be enough for a small food order, while movers delivering furniture might earn a $20 to $30 tip.

Dining: A 15- to 20-percent tip is the going rate for meals, and the tip should be on the pre-tax total.

Dry Cleaner: Tipping generally isn't required.

Fast food: No sign of tip jars at McDonald's or Wendy's yet, but who knows: They may soon follow the Starbucks approach.

Hotels: At least $1 or $2 per bag for the bellhop when you arrive and when you leave, and $2 to $3 a night for the hotel maid (just leave the cash daily in your room). If the doorman braves rain and snow to hail a cab for you, a couple of bucks is fair.

Massage therapist: Going rate is 15 percent.

Parking: In daily parking garages, the standard is $1 for someone who retrieves your car. A valet should be tipped $2 to $3.

Reporters: Sadly, tips are limited to the non-monetary variety -- say, juicy gossip items. Have one? Send it to .

Holiday Tipping

As the end of the year approaches, some services are traditionally rewarded with money or a gift. Many people don't consider these tips, but rather tokens of appreciation.

Gratitude doesn't have to be expressed in dollars. In fact, the U.S. Postal Service restricts holiday tips to non-cash gifts up to $20 in value (gift cards are fine). Stacie Krajchir recommends giving baked goods and handwritten cards to everyone from baby sitters to personal trainers to trash collectors. Here are some of the more common holiday tip recipients and suggested amounts, as excerpted and adapted from Krajchir's book, "The Itty Bitty Guide to Tipping":

Baby sitter: The tip should equal an average evening's pay, plus a small gift.

Building superintendent: $30 to $100.

Dog walker: One week's salary.

Doorman: $25 to $100.

Garbage collector: $10 to $20.

Hairdresser: $25 to $100.

Housekeeper/maid service: One to two weeks salary.

Manicurist: $10 to $50.

Nanny: One to two weeks' salary plus a small gift from your child.

Newspaper carrier: $5 to $10.

Parking garage attendant : One-third of your monthly bill.

Personal trainer: Price of one session.

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