People often tell me that they find tipping one of the most confusing aspects of travel, especially when they go abroad. Too little looks like an insult. Too much can not only mean you’re wasting your money, it can also make staff feel that you’re patronizing them. Getting it right is easy when you know the typical percentages.
Whenever you are staying in an American hotel you have to remember that because of the gridlock in Washington it is now the default that most American workers spend many hours at work for not enough money, many rely on tips just to get by to feed their family and pay for their expensive and not very good healthcare. In general, the average is between 15-20% where more exceptional service is on the high end and can even go slightly over 20%. But also keep in mind, unless otherwise posted, tips are not mandatory. Not leaving a tip will usually only earn sad glances from the wait staff when they calculate they won’t be able to afford little Timmy’s Leukemia treatments anymore.
Tip 15-20% at all sit-down restaurants. Tipping is done less often at buffets and the only a couple bucks or so depending on the service. If there is a tip jar at a coffee shop or other convenience shop then dropping a dollar or two into the jar is appreciated but the majority of people leave nothing.
A dollar or two is also customary for anyone who helps you out at a hotel, either with bags, showing you to your room, valets, or anyone else who is there to serve you. You can also leave $2-5 on your bed after you wake up for housekeeping, but they will clean your room regardless.
For the most part, if you are unsure if you should tip or not you can always ask. Few service industry employees will misguide you with an improper or unusually high tip assumption. If in doubt, you should never be required to go above 20%.