Tipping has always been fraught. After all, there are no hard-and-fast rules governing it, and how much and when one tips is up to each individual. But the proliferation of various fees at restaurants – a phenomenon that started during the COVID-19 pandemic but has persisted as the industry encounters higher costs on linens, condiments and more – has added a new level of confusion to dining out.

With these strategies, you can be smarter and more prepared for that post-meal moment.

1. Adjust your expectations

Yes, dining has become more expensive, and yes, it can be a hassle to figure out what the heck to leave with your check, particularly if you’re dining somewhere new to you. Adjusting your expectations to accommodate that is a big key to not feeling bummed about the expense or annoyance in the moment.

Because added fees have made many restaurants pricier, you might wonder how to factor in their cost in addition to the menu prices when determining if a restaurant is the right choice for you. Many restaurants disclose their tipping policies on their websites, so particularly if you’re thinking about visiting a splurge-y place, you might want to check that out ahead of time. If a website doesn’t address fees, feel free to call and inquire ahead of your visit.

Fees and extra percentages, particularly if they are not a substitute for a server’s tip (meaning you’re leaving even more on top of the total), can add significantly to your bill, making some restaurants more of a splurge than they might have been in the past.

Conversely, some (though far fewer) places have eliminated tipping altogether and have factored that into their menu prices. That might make a particular restaurant more of a relative bargain.

2. Decode the fine print

In addition to posting them on their website, restaurants often disclose their policies at the bottom of their menus or on the bill itself. Fees go by lots of different names (on top of “service charges,” we’ve also seen “wellness fees” and “fair wage charges”) and vary widely in terms of percentage, and some restaurants do a better job than others of explaining what the fee is and how it is used.

The biggest question for diners is whether the fee is passed along to their server. Restaurants might use fees to defray the rising costs of labor, cleaning supplies and more, but if it’s called a service fee and it is used to pay servers, than it’s reasonable for diners to consider it a tip, says Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration. “I would probably not leave a tip,” he said of a scenario where there was an added 20 percent service fee. “In that case, it’s the equivalent of a tip.”

3. Consider how your server is paid

Why people tip, Lynn says, is a complicated question having to do with conforming to social norms and creating rapport. But one of the practical reasons is to ensure that servers are compensated. Remember that most servers rely on tips – the federal minimum wage for tipped workers is only $2.13, although some states and localities have adopted higher rates.

Remember that unlike tips, fees are controlled by the restaurant’s managers, who might distribute them among a larger group of employees – but that’s entirely at their discretion. You can certainly tip on top of a fee to ensure that your dollars go directly to your server.

4. Be prepared to ask for clarity

You might have always thought of yourself as a low-maintenance diner, definitely not a may-I-speak-to-the-manager guy. But even the most agreeable guests might still have questions about a restaurant’s tipping arrangements. If you aren’t sure what a fee is for, ask. If you still aren’t sure how much is customary to leave, ask.

It’s better to speak with a manager, rather than a server–- they are a step closer to the people who set the policies, and it’s typically their job to field such inquiries.

5. Remember: Not everything has changed

Some of the old rules still apply. When calculating a percentage to tip, you don’t have to include the tax or whatever fee the restaurant has added in the amount on which you’re tipping. As in the past, many restaurants add an automatic tip for large parties.

The standard percentage for tipping still varies between 15 and 20 percent, Lynn says. It’s generally higher in higher cost-of-living areas (typically in cities) and lower in more rural and suburban areas. People generally tip more in higher-end restaurants than less expensive ones, too, he says.

And while some of these fees might be new, being generous never goes out of style.

6. Offer feedback the right way

If you find a restaurant’s tipping policies annoying or confusing, you can let them know. But do it the right way – communicate your frustration in a friendly manner either when you are there or in a follow-up call or email. Again, bringing issues up with a manager is best.

Being deliberately obtuse and not tipping your server isn’t a protest; it’s stiffing them.

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