Note: This first draft is a bit long-winded and I do plan to simplify and condense it in future edits.
It’s a confusing but necessary custom. One of the more controversial topics we have to deal with (in regards to pub crawl attendees) is tipping. It’s important for all to be educated on tipping and why it matters in the USA. It’s crucial to having a good night out because if you are uncomfortable with tipping or simply refuse to tip it will have a huge impact on the amount of fun you have. When it comes to food and beverage service in general, adequate or merely average service always gets an average tip. This amount can then be adjusted according to how good or bad the service may have been. You have to train yourself to automatically think of it as part of the cost.
All bartenders (even those that originally hail from foreign countries) cringe as soon as they here the foreign accent of travelers in their establishment. They cringe at the on-coming likelihood of unpaid service, or what many consider worse: an insulting tip. Bartenders would rather you not tip them at all instead of leaving them a whole 25 cents. They find it infuriating. And please don’t do the whole playing stupid like you don’t know you’re supposed to tip. That’s worse yet.
Many visitors to the states are quite dutiful when it comes to tipping and do make every effort to do it correctly, however many of times when I have frequented many of bars (which I admittedly do more often than I probably should), I have witnessed the dreaded bad tippers and the upset and angry bartenders/servers who’s better than average service went completely unpaid. UNDERSTAND: Bartenders and servers in the USA make a very (very!) tiny hourly wage only for book-keeping purposes, and are otherwise only paid based on their quality of service via customer tips.
“So what is proper tipping?”
First, make certain that tip isn’t already automatically added. Generally this only happens in the highest of high-traffic tourist areas. At the normal everyday bar or pub (in major US cities) the best general rule is $1 per drink. In smaller less expensive cities such as New Orleans or Nashville one can get away with tipping slightly less. With food involved it’s 20%. Don’t wait to tip the bartender for all your drinks at the end unless you already have a pre-established relationship with that bartender. If you’re paying with a credit card instead of cash the bartender will still serve you in good faith that you will leave a proper tip at the end, but be warned that he or she will always be suspicious of you until then. It would be a good idea at the beginning to ask your server if tip is included so that they are aware that you are tip-conscious.
The best advice I can give to get on the bartenders good side right away. When I am at an unfamiliar bar I always make a point to over-tip on the first drink, and then you can usually expect excellent service and well poured drinks to follow. Depending on how much that tip is determines how many drinks you go without tipping again. Which brings me to the next point: if you don’t tip your service will begin to suffer accordingly, and so will your night.
I have heard some people say “$1 per drink? That’s a lot.” To me it’s all the same though. When I’ve traveled to Europe and Australia, for example, most of the time with tip factored in the cost of the beer is pretty much the same (unless you’re in a country with notoriously inexpensive drinks).
So if you’re already accustomed to paying 6-10 Euro for a beer, a $1 tip per drink in America should not be a big deal.
Now when you start to factor in food, or very expensive cocktails, or very large bills over say $50, it’s better to stop trying to count $1 per drink and go for the 20% rule. 20% is the (unwritten) rule here. So if I order a $10 plate of food and also had 3 beers, I immediately know I should tip $3 for the beers and $2 for the food and therefore a $5 tip is fine. If the service is exceptionally good, or the bartender buys a round for you, tip more. After all the free beer alone saved you $5.
All of this assumes of course that you received adequate service. There are always exceptions in which there are rude and lazy bar tenders and servers who probably deserve less of a tip and therefore a bit of motivation. But also keep in mind that if something bad happens that is beyond the control of the server or bartender, is bad karma to penalize them for it.
“When is it ok to not tip?”
Any type of counter service in general. No need to feel obligated to tip at Starbucks, and definitely not at McDonald’s, Subway, ect. As a traveler, why would you be in any of those places in the first place?
DO tip your taxi driver, and food delivery person.
“How do I tip, physically???”
In countless pub crawl adventures I was surprised to learn that many travelers are intimidated/confused by the mere physical act of tipping. Generally speaking only tip at the time of payment. When ordering drinks at the bar just leave the dollar(s) at the far edge of the bar where you were served. “But won’t somebody steal it?” “How will the bartender know it was from me?” No. They won’t. And trust me, they will.