General Tipping Etiquette for Travelers in the US

A group of musicians including fiddlers, banjo players, and more busk on the sidewalk in New Orleans.

Street musicians entertain passersby. Photo © Daniel Martone.

As my colleague Jamie Jensen, author of the latest Road Trip USA guidebook, noted in a recent blog post, Memorial Day weekend has traditionally served as the start of the summertime road trip season. So, with Memorial Day just a couple days away, you’ve no doubt begun to make your seasonal travel plans. Of course, while figuring out the quick getaways and lengthy vacations that you intend to take this summer, it’s inevitable that, besides reflecting on favorite interests and must-see destinations, you’ll also need to consider your budget.

Given the current state of the economy, most travelers are surely eager to save money wherever they can. Visiting budget-friendly U.S. cities like Kansas City, San Antonio, and San Diego is one option, as is choosing destinations during their off-seasons, which, for hot places like New Orleans and Key West, is typically the summer. Fortunately, although many American cities have their share of pricey hotels, restaurants, boutiques, and parking lots, it’s often easy to find deals anywhere you opt to travel. Staying outside the main tourist areas, for instance, can often save you quite a bit of money, especially since public transportation is usually very inexpensive. There are also plenty of affordable eateries, vintage shops, and close-to-free attractions throughout most cities, and at many attractions, children, college students, senior citizens, military personnel, and AAA members will receive substantial discounts.

Other ways to save money include taking sharecations with friends, purchasing state park passes, using discount websites, and considering discount programs like CityPASS. Of course, while making the most of your vacation funds, be sure to remember seemingly mundane details like sales tax and tipping – both of which are critical for tourism-dependent cities.

Though you might have little control over sales tax rates, tipping is another matter altogether. As I indicate in the “Essentials” chapters of Moon Florida Keys, Moon Michigan, and the upcoming Moon New Orleans, the amount of a gratuity obviously depends on the level of service received, though general tipping guidelines do exist throughout the United States. For example, restaurant servers should typically receive 15-20 percent of the entire bill, while pizza delivery drivers should receive at least 10 percent. In addition, taxi and limousine drivers usually deserve at least 15 percent of the entire fare, while valets, porters, and skycaps should expect around $2 per vehicle or piece of luggage. The housekeeping staff of your inn or hotel also deserve a tip; a generally accepted amount is $2 per night.

Remember that tour guides, fishing guides, and other excursion operators should be tipped as well. In fact, no matter how much such experiences cost, the gratuity is never included in the quoted price. Of course, how much you choose to tip is entirely up to you. While the exact amount of a tip will depend on the cost, length, and nature of the trip in question – not to mention your satisfaction with the services received – it’s generally accepted to tip between 10 and 20 percent of the overall cost of the experience. If a guide or operator makes an exceptional effort, such as unexpectedly extending the length of an excursion or venturing off the beaten path, then I highly recommend that you increase the size of your tip accordingly.

Lastly, tourists often overlook the need to tip street performers, such as magicians, dancers, musicians, acrobats, jugglers, caricaturists, fortune tellers, and living statues. On many occasions, I’ve sadly observed spectators watching an entire performance, only to walk away without even dropping a dollar in the performers’ upturned hat, cardboard box, open instrument case, or other tip receptacle. So, if you stay long enough to observe a trick, enjoy a song, or take a photograph, be sure to leave a tip behind. After all, many performers depend upon gratuities for part, if not all, of their livelihood.

So, do you have any additional advice regarding tipping while traveling in the United States?

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