What You Need to Know About Tipping

Be generous with people who provide you with good service all year long. But don’t fall for the tip jar.

1. ‘Tis the Season. Just about anyone who serves you during the year should get a token of appreciation. The norm for your nanny and house cleaner is a week’s pay. Your mail carrier is not allowed to accept cash, but you can give him or her a gift valued at $20 or less. Your newspaper carrier, trash collector and UPS driver should get 20 to 25 bucks. Appropriate gifts for hair stylists (whether they own the shop or not) include the cash equivalent of one appointment or a nice bottle of bubbly. If you have kids in school, don’t give the teacher cash-it could be construed as a bribe. Suggest to the room parent that all the parents chip in for a gift certificate.

2. Stay Tip-Top All Year. The standard restaurant tip is still 15% to 20% of your pretax bill (if you’re dissatisfied with your server, leave 15% anyway and tell the manager why you weren’t happy). But other service providers should get a little extra, too. For taxi drivers, figure 10% to 15%, depending on whether they help you with your bags. Valet-parking attendants should get a buck or two once they return your car-unscathed. Hair stylists and massage therapists should pick up an extra 15% to 20% per visit-with the exception of the owner, whose pride would be offended, says etiquette maven Judith Martin (also known as Miss Manners).

3. Don’t Let a Tip Jar Send You on a Guilt Trip. You see a tip jar at your local coffeehouse or sandwich joint and you suddenly feel like Hamlet: To tip or not to tip? Unless you get great service, there is no need to tip the barista at Starbucks. If there’s a jar at the carwash and the crew gives your ride a little extra TLC, consider leaving something. But don’t feel obligated. “It’s up to you whether you want to throw some change in the jar,” says Lizzie Post, great-great-granddaughter of Emily Post (www.emilypost.com). “If you’re a regular customer, tip on occasion.”

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4. It Gets Tricky When Your Travel. Skycaps at U.S. airports get $1 per bag. Cabin stewards on a cruise ship leaving from a U.S. port usually get $3 a day (but look online to see whether service is included). Once you arrive overseas, check your guidebook to see what the local custom is. In Western Europe, you generally don’t need to tip more than 10% at a restaurant. But check your bill: The tip (or service charge) may be included. Making matters even more confusing, in some situations you don’t tip at all. At a pub in the U.K., instead of tipping the bartender, you might offer to buy him a drink. In Denmark, you’re not expected to tip servers or taxi drivers, says fashion designer Kate Spade in her book Manners (Simon & Schuster). And if you ever make it to Iceland, Spade writes, don’t even think about tipping a waiter. It’s considered rude.

5. Maybe Give a Little More this Year. Yes, tipping is discretionary. But the recession has changed the rules. Consider opening your wallet a little wider now, especially if you experience superior service. Why? The workers you tip are at the low end of the pay scale. “Everyone’s watching his or her pennies, but these people need tips even more,” says Lydia Ramsey, business-etiquette expert and author of Manners That Sell: Adding the Polish That Builds Profits.

Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance