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Should You Tip Your Flight Attendant? The New Rules for Tipping

Feeling frustrated with tipping? You’re not the only one.

“The guilt I’m wracked with when I have to hit that tipping button everywhere I go now is stressful, and I feel like I’m responsible for their livelihood when all I want to do is get a burrito bowl,” says New England Wanderlust writer Samantha Hamilton. Despite having a background working in the service industry, she feels digital tipping has gotten out of control. “I placed an order through the Chipotle app, and one of the suggested tip amounts was $5 on an $8 order.”

Hamilton believes customers are guilted into tipping due to concerns for the welfare of service workers–though this should not be their responsibility. “Because my guilt wins every time, I usually select the 20% tip option, but it’s not reasonable to tip everywhere.”

“Guilt-tipping,” “tipping creep,” “tipping fatigue,” and “tipflation” are part of the fresh verbiage that expresses the frustration patrons feel around giving: “the phenomenon of tipping becoming both increasingly widespread and expensive (in terms of acceptable percentage) in society.”

Automatic tipping requests are showing up in places where gratuities have not traditionally been expected, like drive-thrus, pour-your-own taprooms, and gas stations. Consumers are also being asked to leave tips for self-serve yogurt, botox, automatic car washes, landlords, concert merch, bottles of water, off-premises dining, and stationary purchases. Even the friendly skies are no longer quite so hospitable for anti-tippers, as one airline is encouraging passengers to tip flight attendants for in-flight purchases (more on this later). 

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Digital tipping accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic—data from all-in-one restaurant POS Toast shows that digital tips increased by 11% between Q1 of 2020 and the end of 2022—when consumers showed greater willingness to over-tip workers who put their lives at risk as a form of hazard pay. Hand-held and stationary touchscreen point-of-sale systems also facilitated cashless, contact-free payments with can’t-be-ignored tip-prompt screens that solicit 15, 20, 25, or sometimes 30% tips even in places with limited service/for services that customers carried out with their own bare hands. These monetary requests have outlived the pandemic, and today’s consumer is none the wiser about how much, who, or where to tip.

Orlando-based blogger Maria DiCicco recently faced a conundrum when she and her husband visited a wellness clinic for two different treatments. Upon enquiring about their gratuity policy, she was informed that it was best practice to tip the massage therapist but not the acupuncturist, although they both provided services in the same building and at the same time. “The acupuncturist wears a doctor’s coat and has a title, so I was told it is rude to try and tip her,” DiCicco states.

In San Francisco, travel agency director Bonnie Whitfield was also in moral quicksand when she was chased by a server who deemed her 25% gratuity insufficient, a thoroughly mortifying experience since she was dining with clients. In Las Vegas, a bellhop explicitly demanded she tip him $20 after he assisted her with two small bags. She obliged. Whitfield is the HR Director of Family Destinations Guide and genuinely likes to show her appreciation to hard-working service industry professionals by tipping, but stresses that it should be a way to reward good service, not a mandatory fee tacked onto one’s bill.

“It’s important for businesses to compensate their employees fairly so that tipping remains a voluntary and meaningful gesture,” she comments. For something to be deemed a tip rather than a mandatory service charge, it must be completely voluntary, and the customer should be able to decide the amount given, which was not the case in this instance.

For search engine specialist Jordana Abitbol, leaving a chunky gratuity also feels less and less voluntary these days. “People definitely aren’t shy about demanding tips,” she laments. During one unpalatable dining experience, a server shot her a silent, menacing glare and then stormed off due to a seemingly-meager tip. Sufficiently shamed, she felt compelled to follow him and offer more. A 2020 study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives highlighted that the two main reasons people give for tipping are to avoid feeling guilty or embarrassed.

In December 2021, a bartender in Austin, Texas, attempted to embarrass solo travel expert Chizoba Anyaoha by yelling out, “Learn to tip your bartenders” to an audience of the entire bar (including his date). The TravSolo founder has a laundry list of awkward tipping tales, including a delivery driver holding his food hostage with his foot between the front door as he called his boss to explain why skipping the tip wasn’t acceptable. “While there is this pressure in the U.S. to tip regardless of the quality of the service provided, or lack thereof, I only tip if you go beyond your work description, help me better enjoy my meal at the establishment, or if I’m trying to impress someone on a first date,” Anyaoha asserts.

A Complicated History

Though tipping reportedly originated from 16th-century feudal England, the U.S. has the world’s most prolific tippers doling out larger gratuities to more people than any other nation. Tipping culture is drastically different in Europe, where often a few euros, pounds, or krona will suffice, and employee wages and welfare are worked into prices. In Sweden—a famously collectivist society where parents get 480 days of paid parental leave—rounding up a bill to the next big number is common, and the country’s tourism authority reports that 10% is considered “a nice tip.”

“No one tips like Americans,” according to Jayme H. Simões, who does marketing for Portugal’s Alentejo region in North America. “I monitor social media pages where Americans ask travel questions, and tipping comes up a lot,” he says. “I try to say ’tip a few euros,’ but folks argue saying they tip 20% anywhere they go.”

There is evidence that the U.S. tipping culture proliferates to other countries in the form of a 2016 International Studies Quarterly study which noted that a country’s tipping rates are higher the more people from that country visit the United States. “As Americans go abroad, they overtip people who are paid a living wage in socialist-leaning nations, but should Europeans come to the U.S. and just leave a few dollars?” Simões asks. “Well, the reverse is what Americans do.”

Louis Karno & Company marketer Simões points to the problematic nature of tipping in the U.S. as a form of outsourcing payroll—at least partially—to customers and due to its systemic racism and classist roots. “The American practice of tipping rose after the Civil War as companies found ways to circumvent paying formerly enslaved people,” Simões cites. Newly freed African American men were hired as porters by The Pullman Company, which offered them paltry wages that forced them “to ask for tips from their 100% white clientele,” he contends. 

There is corroboration that from the late 1800s, Pullman Rail was the largest employer of African Americans who were grossly underpaid. Many lived in the south side of Chicago and worked 400 hours a month for the equivalent of $7,500 a year in today’s economy. Today a handful of Chicago restaurants like Honey Butter Fried Chicken have rejected tipping, citing this racialized history.

Lula Café has also eschewed tipping in favor of a 20% service fee, believing that a service worker’s livelihood should not be up to the whims of famished diners hungry for buttermilk pancakes and chickpea frites. They are opposed to “the reliance on tips as compensation in our industry and the impact this system has then on the lives of workers,” the restaurant’s website explains. Checks at Lula still have a gratuity line for patrons that feel so inclined.

“Restaurateurs have been plagued with the tipping dilemma since before the pandemic, and these complex policies usually come from a good place,” says Carly Fisher, a James Beard Award-nominated writer and former restaurant trade editor. She suggests that satisfying everyone—the gratuity givers and the tip-fatigued—is near impossible, but whichever approach an establishment takes, checks should not be a complicated burden that discourages people from wanting to go back. “Your final impression should be the delicious dessert you just had, not the mental gymnastics required to pay the tab,” says Fisher.

Should You Get on Board With On-Board Tipping?

Support for on-board tipping recently came from Hollywood actress Kaley Cuoco after her starring role in the comedy-drama series The Flight Attendant. She urged travelers to offer gratuities to cabin crew in the belief that they are remunerated insufficiently despite the glamorous element of the job. “They deserve tips,” she told TMZ at LAX airport.

Before you reach for your wallet after receiving your blankets and Biscoffs, however, take note of advice from Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA (AFA), which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines. Though flight attendants are Jacks-of-all-trades professionals, Nelson explains that they are primarily aviation’s first responders and that tipping undermines their role. “We’re safety professionals. Our job is to keep you safe and secure. Tipping has no place in our work,” she says. “Should we act with more urgency to get the medical kit, oxygen, or a defibrillator in a medical emergency because a patient or their loved one gives us a wad of cash?”

Many U.S. airlines (like United and Allegiant) also categorically prohibit their crew from accepting tips, while others state that gratuities and gifts can only be accepted if a customer persists and insists. On the other hand, food and drinks served on planes seemingly merit tips, too, at least according to Frontier Airlines, where payment screens propose a 15, 20, 25%, or custom tip along with the reminder that “gratuities are appreciated.” A spokesperson from the low-cost carrier stated that “many flight attendants see the inflight tip program as a way to supplement their income.”

Flyers needn’t engage in guilt tipping in the sky. Sara Nelson suggests other ways to show appreciation for the hard work that flight attendants do, including wearing a smile, gifting chocolate, or simply paying attention to the safety instructions.

Tempering Tip Anxiety

So how can consumers handle their guilt, confusion, and tiredness of tipping? Certified etiquette professional and author of A Traveler’s Passport to Etiquette Lisa Mirza Grotts has one reminder: “Tipping is not an obligation; no laws in the USA define this act of generosity.”

Dr. Amanda Belarmino from the William F. Harrah School of Hospitality at UNLV echoes this, stating that tipping is always optional. “If you didn’t feel obligated to tip before, then you shouldn’t feel that way now,” the professor emphasizes.

For optimum comfort when drinking, dining, and traveling, factor tipping protocols into your decision-making. You are at liberty to seek out hotels like Sandals and Beaches Resorts, which have a strict no-tipping policy across the board, or opt for restaurants with a service-included model where there will never be a tip-prompt screen swung in your face so you can eat your pancakes, fries, and burrito bowls in peace—without the side of guilt.

15 Comments
R
renni June 13, 2023

What's wrong is that you even repeated this story.  One should NOT feel obligated to tip ANYONE unless that person does something special, something above what they are getting paid to do.  And, no one should be made to feel guilty because they feel that way.  Service folks provide "service" and their employers should be paying them a living wage.  And, if they aren't getting a living wage - then they, the servers, should do something about it.  

Avatar for Rasputin1
Rasputin1 May 27, 2023

US poor pay practices have gone out the door.  Now everyone expects a tip.  The Americans have also brought their disgusting habit to Europe and around the world.  Shame

K
krw95462 May 27, 2023

The quick answer is "No!" The implied "tip" is flying with a given airline which allows the attendent to have a job. 

F
fouDor May 26, 2023

Just about the worst examples of "tipping is expected such and such per day per individual"  is the cruise industry... All prices for all services should be included in the cruise fare. Period.
It is a total brainwash that you pay for the package and then you must pay personnel on board before leaving.  Again it is the cruise operators/employers who do not value neither their clientele whom they trained over the years to keep paying repeatedly for what supposedly is almost all inclusive holiday and they do not value own workforce either as most are hired for room and board only...
They hire people from the poorest countries so they feel if the workers do not like it they can be easily replaced... These employers treat people below standards of decency... I will not be cruising anytime soon unless policies are adjusted and costs are truly inclusive!

S
Subsrosa May 26, 2023

I was seated in business class on Air France from ATL to Rome last November. The flight attendant brought me a mimosa and I tipped him, 5 or 10 dollars. I never saw him again.