How Road Worrier Tackles The Tricky Topic Of Tipping

How Road Worrier Tackles The Tricky Topic Of Tipping
To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, hacks and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Lifehacker Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a fix.

In some countries, tipping is a fact of life; in others, tips are only offered for truly exceptional service. How can you balance your own feelings on the matter with the need to work with the prevailing culture when you travel?

Picture by Oli Shaw

When we ran a US post last week about tipping habits around the world, many readers understandably took exception to the summary of Australian tipping customs in the linked item. It suggested that tipping 10-15% in restaurants was now standard behaviour — something which doesn’t tally with the experience of anyone who actually lives here. (That said, the US tipping summary on that post was still handy.)

Commenter Rod provided a good summary of the prevailing situation in Australia:

Tipping is generally limited to two situations:
1) Service/waitstaff who provide exceptional service (5-10%).
2) Taxi drivers where it is simpler to round the fare up to a convenient whole $ amount rather than wait for change.

It’s worth noting that tips are considered assessable income in Australia; if you work as a waiter and regularly receive tips, those should be declared as part of your tax return. However, it’s not legal for employers to pay less than the minimum wage on the assumption that this will be made up for in tips — an attitude which echoes the general view that a tip is a reward for unusually good service, not something built into the structure.

It’s very hard to resist carrying that attitude into other countries. I remember being in a restaurant in New Orleans where the service was utterly abysmal. The waitress got our orders wrong, put cutlery on the table that looked like it had been passed through a shire horse first and delivered a bottle of champagne to the table which had an oily lettuce leaf wrapped around it. Under those circumstances, no-one in Australia would get (or expect) a tip.

In the US, however, where tips are presumed and factored into calculation of the (low) hourly wage, it’s a different matter. To make sure she didn’t miss out, our incompetent waitress, who had been anything but available throughout the meal, hovered over our shoulders until the bill was filled out. I don’t think she deserved a tip as such — but I also don’t think that people should get paid in that ridiculous fashion, so we stumped up the bare minimum.

Generally, my strategy in the US is twofold: tipping when it’s a standard party of the culture, but also avoiding situations where I’ll be forced to tip for what I consider unnecessary service. I don’t let the bellhop grab my bag when I arrive at hotels; I often try and book places with a kitchen, so I can do my own cooking and avoid having to tip when I don’t feel it is deserved. If you’ve got your own tip management strategy, share it in the comments.

Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is always happy when someone else has to worry about the size of the tip. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.


  • I received terrible service in the US once: took ages for my food to come out, I had to ask for cutlery, drinks came out after food, the waitress was gossiping with the table next to me as I was waiting to get my plates collected. Tipped 12% and got the “it’s customary to tip here”. I pointed out that she didn’t deserve a tip at all and walked out.

    On the other hand, I tipped 40+% for exceptional service elsewhere. ($50 for a $35 bill).

    I didn’t mind tipping in the US; with a few exceptions, all the wait staff in the US were exceptional. Leaves the Aussie waitstaff in the dust, IMO. And the food was cheaper even after generous 20% tipping.

    Australia is fantastic, but the way we’re getting ripped off for *everything* is so very apparent after spending some time in the US.

    • Yes we may seem to be ripped off as you put it but America is a whole other economy.

      You cannot compare with the sheer amount of differences in our systems of tax, wage levels, social spending, size of market, distance of market etc etc.

      I agree that we are being gouged a bit but I don’t think we should be paying the same as the US.

  • Easy to whinge about tipping in the US I know. One thing that bemuses me totally is airline lounges when travelling domestically in the USA. Even if you’re a top-ranking frequent flyer, once you get into the lounge you still have to pay for any (alcoholic) drinks and any food beyond the nibbles left out. On top of that you get a pretty nasty shock if you don’t tip the barperson once they’ve served up your (un)complimentary beverage.
    Can you imagine that in the Qantas club?

    • Tipping bartenders in the US is one that I’ve never understood at all. They literally get a glass, fill it with beer or wine, and hand it to you. If they get $1 for something that takes 30 seconds they are working at a rate of $120 an hour for that 30 seconds! If it’s bottle beer it’s more like 5 seconds.

    • They don’t need tips. I worked in hospitality at a variety of businesses through uni (I only graduated last year), and I didn’t need tips.

      Hospitality here can pay quite well, and the minimum wage of $14.37 an hour is far and above what pay rates in the States are. At all but one place I worked at, I was getting far above that- a casual rate of around $20-22 an hour for a 6-7 hour shift. That sort of money doesn’t require tips.

      And besides, we already pay through the nose for everything else. I’ve only tipped twice when I was really drunk and the service was exceptional.

      • I’m a student and I bartend thursday through saturday. I can say that while the pay for the nightclub shifts is brilliant (18.50-I’m 19)all of the other bartenders are students as well and we really appriciate any extra cash somebody is willing to give. We all work really hard for our money and a gold coin here and there makes such a difference as rent and food alone are such huge drains, it feels amazing to have spending money at the end of the week.
        I have to wonder how many hours a week you were working to never need tips, and how it affected your grades.

  • If they’re expecting tips from people to support themselves, they’re in the wrong industry. Become a busker.

    If they get a tip because I was supremely impressed with the service, it means they love and are good at their job.

    Two totally different interpretations of what a ‘tip’ is. When I’m overseas, I’m sticking to the Australian version 🙂

  • I am an American waitress and college student. I pay my bills with the generosity of people tipping. I admit it is a strange and often awkward cultural phenomenon but knowing that my pay will depend on how well I do my job is quite motivating. Serving is boringly repetitious and sometimes demeaning but I get a satisfaction out of being rewarded with daily cash pay that is usually above what I would make in an average office job. I work at a resort and occasionally when I encounter a guest with an Australian accent I know that there is a chance I may get “stiffed.” It is a terrible feeling to wait on someone and not be compensated, except for the measly $3 an hour the company pays. If it is an American there is no excuse but you foreigners do get a pass even though im pretty sure youre aware of the expectation. BTW, I traveled to Australia once and I just could not bear to not tip a server even though I was aware it is not expected. It really is something you either are or just are not accustomed to, logic has little to do with it.

    • Mindy – thanks for sharing the US perspective with us. A couple of questions – 1. would you expect a tip in the US if you made a major mistake in service – dropped a plate, or messed up an order for example? 2. do you realise that in Australia most service staff are being paid $15/hour or more regardless of whether you tip them or not?

      One thing I think you have to realise about the ‘foreign’ attitude to tipping in the US is that a refusal to tip for bad service is in part a commentary on your whole society. I find the notion that your boss can pay you $3 an hour and I am expected to pay you regardless of the quality of the service offensive. That might not be your fault, but the only way I have to express that is by “stiffing” you if the service isn’t good!

      • When I lived in the USA, servers still expected a tip even after many disastrous mistakes from server and kitchen alike at a single table, and were often prepared to be very confrontational with the customers.

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen a manager in the US step in to take the responsibility for compensating a server whose evening may have been financially compromised by handling several tables where the problems caused by the establishment as a whole gave the customers a bad experience.

  • I’ve just returned from a month in Canada, I can say that the service there is incredible. Going out to a restaurant there is a much more enjoyable experience than in Australia, and I can assume that the tipping culture is responsible for the difference.

    I can’t remember the last time I was in a restaurant in Australia and was asked if I’d like another drink.

    • Simon – I wonder if you’re going to the wrong restaurants?

      Aussies often comment on service overseas versus service at home. But I wonder how many of them are spending the same amount on a restaurant here that they would on holidays? You can’t expect stellar service if you’re paying $10-15 for mains, but if you are prepared to spring for the $30-40 mains territory the service will be much better.

      I’ve had plenty of great service at Australian restaurants, and plenty of appalling service at American and European restaurants (never been to Canadia though).

      • Ditto.. I’ve also noticed a massive difference in service between states.
        I think as a South Aussie we have superb service and food for the price, I’m sure it’s because we have a world class hospitality school, and therefore an excess of well trained cooks and hospitality workers.
        It was certainly a shock to visit Perth, pay twice the price for half the food, half the quality of food and to inhale armpit from the waiter/waitress who had no training or no care to implement their training and would serve an entire table of six from one spot!

        • Which “world class hospitality school is that”? Is that the only one in Australia? I’m just curious. I guess I am the one getting stiffed by TAFE NSW.

          I think jobs are like anything else in life: you are always going to get a cross section of people working them, and some will be good and some will be bad, some will love what they do and some will hate what they do. And some will be dickheads and some will be diplomats. Me, I am in hospitality, I am very good at what I do, and I love what I do. But I am dickhead. Obviously I missed out on the trifecta. But you will still love your meal that I prepared.

    • It depends what type of service you are looking for. I find the service in the US is often pushy and intrusive, while others would find the same service fast and responsive. When I eat out, that’s generally my plan for the evening: I don’t want to be hurried through the meal so the server can get a tip and get another table in after me for another tip. Others prefer to eat and run, which makes the US style preferable for them.

  • As a general comment I think Australians need to stand firm against the creep of tipping into our society. We believe in a fair go for people who do their jobs, which we express via (amongst other things) minimum wages. I don’t want us to move to a model where the bosses outsource responsibility for wages to the customers and get free labour themselves.

  • While in Hawaii, we would engage in deep conversation when the bill came over. When the waiter/waitress got sick of waiting and left the table, we’d pay the bill, sans tip and slink out…

    But that was only for the crap places. Most restaurants we tried were really good, and we were happy to tip them.

    As for Australian tipping…. We usually eat in Newtown. Most staff in Newtown cafes get paid at least $20 an hour under the table, and collect the dole. They don’t need to rely on tips, like the Yanks.

  • Some of the best service I have had in my life, actually no THE best service I have had in my life is in Japan where you literally can’t tip.

    We tried to leave a small tip at a restaurant in Kyoto as we had such a lovely experience, but they would not take it at all, saying it would mess up the tills.

    I even remember one time a lady running after me in the street after I had left a couple of yen in the change jar at a bakery without thinking.

    In many ways if felt wrong not to when you got great service. But you think of the other professions in society which serve you. Why shouldn’t we tip at Maccas in that case?

  • Being a server in America can be a massively thankless job; I was in an Olive Garden in St Louis (the equivalent of say a Sizzler or a Hogs’ Breath type place) and tipped our server an extra 5% over what I added to the bill because he put up with SO much crap from people in that restaurant.

    A guy I’m fairly certain deliberately knocked over his red wine into the guy’s apron when he was clearing their plates and then laughed at his outfit being saturated and ruined, made no effort to move, withheld the tip saying the guy was a “klutz” (yeah, because while standing still he clearly “fell” on the wine glass) and kept putting their feet out to try and trip him while he was walking past with other people’s orders.

    Not ONCE did that man huff, glare or shout at them – he kept on doing his job and doing it well. I know I wouldn’t have the patience not to have a go at someone putting me through that kind of garbage at my place of work.

    • This. I always sling them a couple of bucks. Generally it’s the $5 increment higher than 10%.

      But if it’s particularly awful weather, and they’ve allowed me to stay inside by driving around in that (even though it’s their job), I always make it at least 30%.

      What I have is money. What I don’t have is a desire to leave my warm house.

  • I’m ready to pay tips where I understand the local tipping culture, but I do get anxious about it. If I pay by credit card, will the waiter get a tip I add when paying, or do I need to carry around cash to pay the tip separately? If I pay at the counter, do I leave the tip on the table, or at the counter? If I leave the tip on the table, do I put it there as I leave, or do I hand it over to the waiter in person?

    In countries where I’m expected to tip in hotels, how do I leave the tip? Do I add it to my bill as I leave, or leave cash in the room each day, or both? If I leave cash in my room, how do I signal that it’s a tip and not just something I’ve left lying around?

    If someone grabs my bags and takes them to my hotel counter while I’m sorting out the taxi driver’s tip, do I have to tip that person as well? When and how much, and how?

    Am I supposed to tip the hotel concierge if I ask a question or get them to book something for me? When and how?

    Am I supposed to tip bar-tenders? Hair-dressers? I understand I’m not expected to tip fast food workers: but what is the cut-off between fast food and other food? Is a greasy-spoon diner fast food? Does it matter whether or not it has table service?

    Should I tip cleaners I encounter in toilets?

    I find it an endless source of anxiety.

  • Tipping within Australia for me is typically a mix of selfish and selfless reasoning on most situations – obviously where there is service above and beyond what is expected I will gladly provide a tip.

    For whatever reason I find myself more willing to tip friends and acquaintances behind the bar if I happen to be out where they are working, regardless of whether they are ‘looking after’ me.

    However, I fully admit that I tip for personal gain as well because most times I will get served more quickly anywhere I go if I tip the first time I go to the bar.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!