Editor's Travel Tips: Advice on Tipping From a Restaurant Reviewer

The best advice on tipping doesn't involve money.
Morgan Murphy

You know you should tip your waiter. You probably also know that tipping 15% of the bill is standard, and 20% would signify that you enjoyed really excellent service. Those are the basic rules for restaurant tipping, but they don't give you the whole picture and can leave you having tipped too little or too much.

In the past year I've eaten at more than 200 restaurants as the restaurant reviewer for this magazine. I've spoken to dozens of servers about their customers, the tips left behind, and what they wish their customers had left behind. But the best advice on tipping doesn't involve money.

Keep in mind that your server is not your servant. Look up from the menu when he or she comes to the table. Don't begin sentences with "Give me the…" or "I'll have the…" Try, "May I please have the prime rib?" or "I see you're busy, but could I have some more water when you have a chance?" Waiters are some of the hardest working people in business; give them the respect, as well as the tip, they deserve. Good luck out there.

When Not To Tip Big
If the waiter said something rude, was unapologetic when you brought a concern to his attention, or ignored your table, a 10% tip is perfectly acceptable. However, always consider the high turnover in the restaurant business: Your server might be new, or he may be stretched thin because another waiter failed to show up. Never tip less because the food was late or was prepared poorly--that's mostly likely the kitchen's fault.

Travel Tip Strip
1. Tip big on small meals: I often leave more than 20% on inexpensive meals--the staff at a diner or lunch spot works just as hard as the black tied guys at dinner. Bottom line: Don't ever leave less than $2 for good service.
2. Tip big where you eat the most: Start leaving 25% to 30% at your favorite restaurants, and watch the dramatic change. At the barbecue stand I visit once a week, that means about $3. What a difference that extra buck makes: My regular booth is always extra clean, the 'cue comes out of the kitchen a little faster, I'm always given a to-go cup of sweet tea, and I swear that I get called "honey" and "sugar" more than the other customers.
3. Double the tax: Can't figure out 15% without a calculator or a little chart? Double the tax--most municipalities tax restaurants between 8% and 10%. Doubling that amount should leave just the right tip.
4. When to tip 20% or more: Do this if you've asked the waiter to split a number of tickets at your table, come into a restaurant 15 minutes before the kitchen closes, camped out in a busy section for more than an hour, or rewrote the menu (i.e., "I'll have the taco salad, but instead of beef, can you make it refried beans and leave off the fried shell? Also, put the sour cream and the guacamole on the side. Oh, and go light on the cheese!").
5. Tip in cash: Perhaps cash seems more like real money than a credit card or check. Maybe it involves less work--no swiping, signing, or duplicate copies. Whatever the reason, many servers have told me that they'd prefer a 15% tip in cash to a 20% tip on a credit card.
6. Tip on wine: Tip the sommelier or wine steward 10% to 20% depending on the price of the wine you chose. If your waiter simply uncorked a bottle and poured a few glasses, add $5 or $10 to the final tip.
7. Tip on what you should have paid: If your food was discounted or you had a gift certificate, don't tip on the final bill. Tip on what the total would have been before the discount.

KNOW A SAVVY TIP?
Send it to Morgan Murphy at Travel Editor, Southern Living, P.O. Box 523, Birmingham, AL 35201, or e-mail travel tips to morgan_murphy@timeinc.com. Be sure to include your name, address, telephone number, and e-mail address.

"Travel Tips: Tips on Tipping" is from the October 2006 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.