Blogs | September 13, 2012

While travelling, how do I dine out without feeling a fool when it’s time to tip?

Rob asks: When I travel to the USA from the UK, I am never quite sure how much I am expected to tip – particularly in upmarket restaurants when the bill is high. How do I dine out without feeling a fool when it comes time to tip?

Ian answers: Indeed it can be difficult to know how much to tip, to whom and when. Especially while travelling. Idea number one is to ask around when you are abroad to find out what is expected locally. Research can help us out on other points – including the fascinating revelations that extroverts tend to be more generous and that men tend to leave bigger tips than women.

Expect to pay more at pricey eateries
You mention upmarket restaurants with a big bill in your email as being particularly problematic. Behavioural economist Tim Harford addressed the issue when he wrote that diners could be expected to tip more in higher priced restaurants than in the local trattoria. He argued that the quality of service in a fine dining restaurant is likely to be higher and the number of customers fewer. The waiting staff could therefore expect a larger tip (or the same proportion of a higher bill) to compensate for the extra time they spend serving each diner.
The view might not make you feel any better about shelling out but it may help explain why the gratuity for opening a bottle of wine tends to rise in proportion with the price of the tipple.

Table size counts – and so does how the waiting staff treat you
Bridgewater State University academic Matt Parrett’s research from the United States found tables with more people left smaller tips – and that men tend to leave larger tips than women, partly explained by the pay gap between the sexes. Interestingly, Parrett found paying with cash or card made little difference to the size of tips.
For waiting staff, who could well rely on tips, Farnam Street Blog and the US Center for Hospitality Research detail how small gestures might boost the size of gratuities. Leaving a mint with the bill is one, as are introducing yourself by name, smiling and crouching down to speak when first visiting a table.

Give and you shall receive
Why do we care about tipping anyway? Apart from avoiding offence by not following local customs, Parrett argues that both reciprocity (people wanting to reward kind actions) and guilt (or “letdown aversion” as it is sometimes known) both play a role. Parrett asked whether customers had good or bad service and asked what customers thought was the expected size for tips. He found good service boosted tips, as did the belief that it was normal to tip at least 15%.
The reciprocity idea also explains why leaving a mint on the bill boosts tips – get a little and you feel like giving a little more back.

People behind the tipping
The topic of tipping has been widely researched by Professor Michael Lynn in the United States. Among his many fascinating findings is that countries with populations that are more extroverted, tip more. The paper is here. Lynn writes that tipping acts as display of status and satisfaction and, because it is an incentive for waiting staff to pay more attention to their customers, appeals more to extroverts than introverts.
Rob, considering stereotypes about your homeland of the United Kingdom and your destination (the US), you may well be less extroverted than many of your dining companions across the Atlantic. No wonder you’re getting stressed out about it.

Go easy on the booze
The studies on tipping provide some “food for thought” (excuse the pun). Next time you’re dining out, it might be wise to gauge how extrovert the people are around you and how fancy the restaurant is. Pay attention if you’re in a big group.
One other piece of advice that may be useful.
Research suggests that the amount tipped increases with the amount of alcohol consumed. So if you are on a tight budget, being frugal with the wine list may pay double dividends.


Ian Bright
Ian Bright

Senior economist at ING
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45 blogs

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