There’s one thing that makes me more anxious than calculating a tip at a restaurant: tipping at a restaurant overseas. In the past year I’ve flown 50,000 miles to seven countries. The last time I bought drinks at a bar in Melbourne, I had to restrain myself from leaving a tip. (It’s just not done down under, mate.) In Paris, I blanked on whether to leave the server 10 percent, some loose change, or nothing at all. I erred on the side of caution. My memory was better on a recent trip to Vancouver: in Canada you tip the same as you would here.
But even in the States the correct amount to tip isn’t always clear. According to a 2009 Zagat survey, tips to waitstaff in the U.S. average 19 percent. Many restaurants now print a guide at the bottom of the check showing amounts based on 15, 18, 20, and even (gulp!) 25 percent. Smartphones now come with tipping apps for the mathematically challenged, such as the Tipulator function for the iPhone.
Some restaurants, including Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, California, and Per Se, in New York City, have introduced a European-style service charge (17 and 20 percent, respectively). Others have considered such a change only to discover that their customers disapproved. According to Paul Bolles-Beaven, president of Union Square Hospitality Group’s Core Restaurant Division (Gramercy Tavern; Union Square Café), in New York City, many diners prefer the current system: “We talked to guests and they were horrified, as if we were taking away the right to show gratitude,” he says.
In much of Europe, Australia, Japan, and other places where leaving a large tip is uncommon, servers are paid a living wage. But base pay for waiters in the U.S. averages $4.81 an hour, so tipping is vital to their livelihood. Besides, as Bolles-Beaven says, servers deserve tips because they’re better at what they do than ever before. “People respond to good service by being more generous.”
So what’s my rule of thumb when I travel? I research tipping customs before leaving home. And if I forget the rules, I tip too much—and kick myself all the way back to the hotel. Here, a cheat sheet for your next trip.