Tipping Around the World

by Caitlin
glass of water on table with one dollar bill laid flat in front of it

As you travel around the world, should you be tipping? I believe the answer to that is no, here’s why.

The History of Tipping

To understand the relationship the world has with tipping today it is important to understand the origin story of the practice.

The Origin of the Word

While the word we most commonly associate with giving money for a service today is tip it’s hard to trace the origin of this word since it has multiple meanings. However, an alternate to tip is gratuity which, without alternate meanings we can be sure what we’re seeing of the usage is pretty closely related to the word today.

A professor recently introduce me to Google’s Ngram tool, and I think it’s fascinating. What the tool does is show you how often any single word was used in all recorded texts as far back as 1500.

Here are the graphs for both tip and gratuity:

Google's Ngram for the word tip - a graph climbing over the centuries
Ngram for Tip
Goggle's Ngram tool for the word gratuity - graph with peaks and dips slowly decreasing
Ngram for Gratuity

I am not sure how much insight these graphs truly provide, but I find them fascinating nonetheless. The rapid increase in the usage of the word tip since about the 1850’s is worth noting.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the first usage of the word tip in the specific context of giving “a small present of money” to approximately 1600. However, it attributes the first usage of tip in the context of gratuity to the year 1706. There is an anecdote as to why the word tip  is used for gratuity – it is said to stand for “To Insure Promptitude.” According to the same dictionary though, this story was first told in 1909 by Frederick W. Hackwood in his book Inns, Ales and Drinking Customs of Old England – this implies that the story was invented later and the word is not, in fact, an acronym.

The same dictionary traces the word gratuity back to the early 15th century and states that the word likely came from French and Latin. The word gratuitus in Latin means “done without pay.”

O.K. so the words have been around for a while, though exactly what they mean has changed slightly over the years. But at least we know the very idea of thanking someone, probably monetarily for either a “free” job, or a job well done, is not new.

The Origin of the Custom

Today, the biggest tippers are people from the U.S.A. It is said that the custom came to The U.S. via England and Europe in the middle of the 19th century when wealthy people traveled overseas for vacation and then returned. According to a 2018 article by Time Magazine, the custom was so unwelcome that it had a great deal of pushback which led to it being more or less completely abandoned in Europe. However, it lived on in The U.S. – much of the reason for which was slavery.

This is around the same time that the official institution of slavery in The U.S. came to an end, but many workers were still not employed nor paid wages, rather they were expected to perform services and then received a small amount of money for a job well done. Oftentimes these were people serving guests of some sort.

There was a huge amount of pushback against the practice of tipping through the 19th and into the 20th centuries. Some of what was said:

  • “The vilest of imported vices” Source
  • Tipping [is] as “un-American” as “slavery.” Source
  • {it is} a willingness to be servile for a consideration Source

And yet, here we are today, still going strong with the practice.

waitress wearing white serving food in dinner
Waitress serving food

Tipping in America Today

At this point, I hope you’re not feeling very good about tips. But don’t worry, things are only going to get worse.

Minimum Wage

It is no secret that the majority of restaurant workers make minimum wage. What many people from outside of The U.S. do not realize though is that restaurant minimum wages are completely different than those of every other job.

As of writing – August, 2020 – the federal minimum wage is The U.S. was $7.25 per hour.

In case you’re wondering, that’s not livable in the vast majority of the country. It is true that some states have higher state minimum wages, which means that within that state employees are required to pay that rate. Today the three highest wages are:

  1. D.C. at $14.00
  2. Washington at $13.50
  3. California at $13.00

27 other states have wages about the minimum, leaving 21 that do not.

map of United States color coded by state minimum wages
State Minimum Wages - 2015

Now, regardless of the fact that the federal minimum wage is already not livable, the restaurant industry has its own minimum wage.

Federally the minimum wage for tipped employees is $2.13 source

If you receive more than $30 monthly in tips your employer is eligible to pay you at that rate. Again, rates change state by state. Some states allow differently sized businesses to pay their employees a different minimum wage. Now, I’m all for small businesses and supporting them to succeed, but why should a waitress at a small local restaurant have a lower allowed minimum wage than the same waitress at a big chain?

In addition to these low wages, restaurants and other service industry workers very often work on zero-hour contracts which provide little or no benefits. And in a country where health insurance is not provided and is the sort of expensive that it regularly causes bankruptcy, service employees are in precarious positions, tips or not.

Are you starting to see the problem yet?

The Employee

So why would anyone do it? Why would anyone go to work for $2.13 per hour?

Lots of times, waitressing or other similar service work are the only jobs available, especially in rural areas lacking in economic activity and infrastructure.

Sometimes though, waiting tables or bartending is actually lucrative. Put a bunch of rich, white guys in a bar, get them drunk, and see how quickly they start throwing tips at their bartenders to bring them drinks before all the other rich, white guys crowding the bar.

L.A. and NYC bartender and waitress salary estimates are around $25-30k annually

While that’s not a great wage in those cities, stories circulate of industry pros making six figures annually.

The Customer

Name another business where I, as a customer, am expected to pay the employees wages on behalf of the employer.

If I walk into the hardware store and buy a paintbrush am I expected to tack on 20% of the cost of that paintbrush so the cashier can pay her rent?

If I buy a new t-shirt at a clothing store am I expected to tack on 20% of its cost so the sales assistant can feed her kids?

If I go to get gas for my car should I expect it to cost 20% more than the advertised price because the owner of the gas station doesn’t want to pay their employees a decent wage?

The answer to all of these questions is a no. So why do we let the service industry get away with it? Why are we allowing our service workers to work for less and taking on the burden, as customers, of providing them with a minimum wage?

How Much To Tip

It seems like every time I turn around the expected rates go up. Once upon a time a 10% tip on services was fine and 12% was good. Then it climbed to 15 – 18 – 20. I have been out to dinner with my mom and had terrible service, and have had to convince her that she should not tip 20%. But still, for terrible service, you wouldn’t leave a restaurant without tipping at least 15%.

Not tipping is unthinkable.

These days, on those iPads where you sign for your credit card and can punch in a tip at the same time, the preset rates start at 20% and climb from there.

Whatever tip you’re giving should be calculated before taxes but should include alcohol.

Also, you may find times when a specific tip percentage is required – like on large parties.

A Movement to End Tipping

With a history rooted in slavery and racism, and a structure that still today works unfavorably against the rural, poor areas of The United States, and creates wage gaps based on gender and race, tipping is problematic and some in the industry are taking notice and working to make change. Recently, progressive restaurant owners have introduced new structures to their businesses. The have told customers they are not allowed to tip and instead have marginally raised the cost of the food they serve and with that raised the wages of their workers.

The most notable change in this manner was made by Danny Meyer who owns Union Square Hospitality Group. In 2015 he announced he would no longer be allowing tips for his some 1,800 employees. However, as of writing, in a COVID active world, that pioneering decision is being reversed.

Meyer says that, as NYC reopened and the future of restaurants was uncertain, he would be allowing tipping in his restaurants again, but that now those tips would be shared amongst all of his staff.

Pandemic Note

Arguing against tipping is not arguing against service workers. It is in fact doing the opposite. Many workers, due to their contracts, or reported wages, were left vulnerable during the pandemic. Had they been paid living wages they would have had more protection in a time like this.

Who Should You Tip

The short answer: Everyone who is providing you with a service. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

man in red checkered shirt and apron standing at checkout counter of cafe
Tipping culture around the world

Tipping Around the World

America is the main culprit of the inequitable system of tipping, but as Americans spend more and more money traveling the world on vacation, their tipping habits have traveled with them.

What Countries Should You Tip In

While tipping as a customary practice is spreading daily, it is by and large customary to tip in Africa and The Middle East. The same 15-20% tip I discussed in The U.S. is what servers in these regions expect.

You should also note that in certain parts of these regions (my experience comes from Egypt) your bill will come with a line titled ‘service’; this is not gratuity, so yes, you’ll need to pay that extra amount plus a second extra amount at many restaurants.

In Europe, you’ll find that the more touristic the area, the more likely it is that you’ll be expected to tip. In locally frequented restaurants you might leave the equivalent of a dollar or two, basically whatever loose change you have – not more than 10%, and that would be for exceptional service.

In many parts of Asia, though this is constantly changing, tipping is seen as rude. The additional money is seen as a handout and as an implication that the server or vendor is being looked down upon. Do not demand people take your tip if they are refusing it.

Again, as more and more tourists travel to these regions opening their pocketbooks wide, the culture around tips is changing and now they are required – but more often than not that practice is at chain restaurants, which you really ought to avoid!

More Information

Check my country pages for further information on the customs surrounding tipping for the region which you are visiting.

Pricing Locals Out

To save the best for last, here is my biggest problem with tipping abroad. You are pricing locals out.

Isn’t it fun to have a strong dollar? To be able to eat at restaurants on a caliber that you wouldn’t be able to afford at home? Yeah, I feel that. They’re affordable and that’s great, now imagine, as a rule, each and every one of those restaurants was suddenly 20% more expensive. Imagine you weren’t coming with foreign money or weren’t on vacation splurging, imagine eating at one of these restaurants was just a part of your everyday life.

Locals are being priced out with the tips that foreigners bring with them.

And also, what if by bringing our custom of tipping abroad our custom of low wages follows. That would be devastating to many communities.

Please America, leave your tips at home.

And even there, let’s try to change the system.

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Why you shouldn't tip around the world as you travel. Ever wondered about tipping culture? Here are the all the answers to your questions.
Whether or not to tip abroad is a question many travelers have. From the history of the words and the customs, here is everything you need to know about the custom of tipping and whether or not you should participate on your vacation overseas. #tipping #shoulditip #tippingculture

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Sarah Camp | In Search of Sarah August 17, 2020 - 1:47 pm

Interesting take on tipping – I had no idea the wage was just over $2 for those making over $30 a month in tips. How ridiculous and stupid is that????? I notice in Europe it isn’t really expected, and in Canada the standard is around 18-20% now!

Caitlin August 17, 2020 - 2:47 pm

I think lots of people don’t realize the wages tipped staff make. If you think tips are just an extra perk it’s a completely different ball game than what it actually is! Thanks for reading.

lastminutewanders August 17, 2020 - 2:15 pm

This was a very interesting article and I really like the points you’ve made here. I haven’t been to the US (yet), but I had heard that the tipping custom is very different there. Having worked as a waitress and bartender in the UK I can tell you that it is always nice to get a tip, and many people do, but it is not expected.

Caitlin August 17, 2020 - 2:48 pm

Yes! Tips are definitely nice to get…on top of livable wages! I think they are great to have as perks for a job truly well done, not as an expectation from every customer. Thanks so much for reading 🙂

kmfiswriting August 18, 2020 - 12:32 am

Very thought-provoking post. I was so surprised the first time I went to Europe and was told I shouldn’t tip.

Caitlin August 18, 2020 - 11:18 am

Do you think it’s a better system over there?

Kim August 19, 2020 - 11:04 am

tipping is such a weird concept to me, but I’ve gotten use to it! In Canada the wages are higher, but still low so tipping is still a necessity, but maybe not as much as in the US.

Caitlin August 19, 2020 - 11:40 am

See, I think tipping should never be a necessity. I appreciate hard work and it being rewarded, but thats what employers are for, not customers!

Emma August 19, 2020 - 12:25 pm

I still can’t believe that some places can get away with paying $2/hour wage. In a developed country. That is insane, and clearly part of the problem as without that changing the tipping situation will never be resolved. I’m from the UK so tipping was a foreign concept to me when I moved to Canada but there are still times I’m not sure what I’m meant to be tipping for and what I’m not.

Caitlin August 20, 2020 - 2:28 pm

More and more I wonder how the word ‘developed’ applies to The U.S. In so many ways we are far, far behind the rest fo the developed world – this definitely being one of them. Listen, I grew up in The U.S. but still get confused sometimes if I should tip.

Ildiko August 19, 2020 - 3:31 pm

Great article! You make great points. While I am used to tipping in the USA, I do get stressed out over tipping in foreign countries.
Funny how you mention Egypt. I had an entire trip planned for this past March and then Covid hit. But the tipping there seems crazy! I read that people are regularly asking for tips there that are not even providing a service. All very confusing in foreign countries.

Caitlin August 20, 2020 - 2:27 pm

It’s one of those things that people don’t often openly talk about. And of course you can’t go an ask your server! I hope you get to make it to Egypt soon, I had a MUCH better time than I had expected!

Lina August 19, 2020 - 4:29 pm

This was seriously so interesting to read! I always wonder what’s appropriate to give as tip in each country 🙂 Also it’s cool to learn more about its origin!

Caitlin August 19, 2020 - 6:54 pm

I never knew about its origins either. Thanks for reading!

Melissa August 20, 2020 - 2:35 am

This is a really interesting post with a lot of great information. I wouldn’t have really considered that tipping in some places was considered rude. Great research on the minimum wage in the US, also didn’t know how much it varied state to state!

Caitlin August 20, 2020 - 2:20 pm

Thanks for reading! Yeah, it’s definitely important to have a good understanding of these nuanced issues before traveling.

Katie August 22, 2020 - 11:28 am

Tipping is such a weird thing to me but something I had to get used to when I moved to the US. In New Zealand and Australia tipping is not customary because wait staff are paid a living wage.

Caitlin August 22, 2020 - 11:42 am

Exactly! As they should be. I’m happy to give a little thanks for good service, but I’m not willing to pay someone else’s employees wages.

GrowingGlobalCitizens August 22, 2020 - 11:43 am

This article just underscores why we need to increase the federal minimum wage! I didn’t realized states could have a lower rate than the federal rate!

Caitlin August 22, 2020 - 12:54 pm

Neither did I!! Isn’t that crazy!?

Nicola Lavin August 22, 2020 - 11:50 am

This is such an interesting read. I certainly appreciated my tips as a waitress.

Caitlin August 22, 2020 - 12:54 pm

Same here! But a consistent good wage and benefits would have ultimately been more beneficial.

josypheen August 22, 2020 - 1:21 pm

OMG the Federal minium wage is pretty disgusting! $2.13 sounds crazily low!

Canada and the UK seem pretty similar to me. We tip, but not quite as much as you do in the USA…but people get paid a normal amount to work, so its a bonus, rather than helping people to live.

When I lived in Japan we never tipped. It’s not that it was rude, it just wasn’t a thing. I would confuse people and they’d try to bring you your change…

Caitlin August 23, 2020 - 2:09 pm

Yes, isn’t it amazing? A bad kind of amazing for sure. I don’t know how we call ourselves developed and federal law allows things like that.

Tips should be bonuses!!

josypheen August 23, 2020 - 5:18 pm

I keep hoping the US will get more normal/like the rest of the developed world one day. 🙁

Caitlin August 26, 2020 - 12:43 pm

Hah, you and me both! We can keep dreaming XD

Farrah August 22, 2020 - 2:00 pm

A wage of pretty much just $2 is absolutely ridiculous! I’d heard something to that effect a while ago so I always try to tip well when I can, but there really needs to be reform for this

Caitlin August 23, 2020 - 2:10 pm

It is completely ridiculous and unbelievable. Honestly so many people struggle because of it. I tip well too, but don’t think it should be on us!

shanyyizhaki August 22, 2020 - 3:10 pm

Great article! It’s always confuses me, especially while traveling. Some services will only require 10% or even allow you to choose rather or not to give tip and some such as restaurants will require 15-20% minimum. Thanks for sharing

Caitlin August 23, 2020 - 2:15 pm

Thanks for reading! You’re right, it is confusing – even for me having grown up with it I’m still not always sure. Plus, as I mentioned, it’s always changing.

Krista August 22, 2020 - 6:06 pm

This was a really helpful post to read! Thanks for sharing all of the info!

Caitlin August 23, 2020 - 2:15 pm

Thanks for reading Krista!

kwarren29 August 22, 2020 - 9:52 pm

This is a very interesting post. I especially liked learning about the history behind tipping. A living wage would make this all less complicated.

Caitlin August 23, 2020 - 2:11 pm

Isn’t the history fascinating? I never knew any of it before I did the research for this.

Shelley August 22, 2020 - 10:14 pm

This is such great info! Tipping is one of those things travelers should work into their budget, but not all do… I know for people traveling to the USA, it’s often such a shock. I pinned this blog so I can send it to anyone I know who’s visiting the US.

Caitlin August 23, 2020 - 2:11 pm

Thank you Shelley! Yeah it’s definitely something that slips people’s minds, epically if they come from a county where tipping isn’t a thing.


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