MIAMI BEACH: No tipping necessary (it's included!)

If you're traveling to Miami Beach, Florida, you may find it helpful to know that most of the bars and restaurants in the area add an automatic gratuity (tip) to their checks. The establishment's tip policy is usually noted somewhere on the menu and, if an automatic gratuity is included, it will be indicated on the bill by the word "gratuity," "service," "service charge" or something similar.

To avoid over-tipping or under-tipping, read the menu carefully or look for a line-item on the bill before filling out the credit card slip or laying down cash and then leaving before your change can be returned.

An automatic gratuity makes some sense in Miami. That area of the United States attracts a relatively large number of European tourists and in Europe, service staff receive a substantially higher base wage than their counterparts receive here, so tipping is far less a part of the culture than in the U.S.

Many of those European tourists failed to inform themselves about the local culture and local practices (which is always a good idea when traveling to another country) while others simply refused to leave much of a tip under the short-sighted rationale of, "I don't do it at home, so why should I do it here?"

The short answer is, "You're not at home." Remeber the adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

As a result, food service workers were bearing the combined brunt of low base wages AND low tips. In self-defense some years ago, food and beverage establishments started adding an automatic gratuity of between 15 - 18 percent, though restaurant management will remove the automatic gratuity if requested.

Even though I have worked in the service industry and been on the receiving end of tips, I am not at all sure I support instituting the practice of automatic gratuities as standard practice for all diners.

Over the course of a few days spent visiting the Miami Beach area, I patronized a number establishments that served food and beverage and all but two added an automatic gratuity.

Although I could have asked that the automatic gratuity be removed, service would have to be truly abysmal for me to make such a request. But the counterpoint is also true: service would have to be absolutely stellar for me to add much of an additional tip.

I believe the practice of adding an automatic gratuity leads to mediocre service, which is what I experienced in all cases except one. I have also experienced my share of mediocre service in European countries, where tips make up a much smaller portion of the server's income.

The reason to expect mediocrity is simple, really. If a waitperson is virtually guaranteed 15 - 18 percent, what's their incentive to go above and beyond simply taking your order and bringing your food? Of course, if they can convince you to have another drink or dessert, that will increase the bill and therefore increase their tip, but checking back periodically to ensure that a guest is happy with their meal, has everything they need, or to keep the water glasses and coffee cups full won't add anything to their tip.

On the other side of the transaction, if the customer is automatically assessed a 15 - 18 percent service charge, what's their incentive to leave anything in excess of that?

True, an automatic service charge would prevent instances like the time I poured $75 worth of drinks for two couples who then left me a $2 tip. But it might also preclude other, more positive instances, including the fellow who felt I'd taken particularly good care of him and left a $20 tip with his $26 check.

Maybe I'd have made a bit more money if a gratuity was automatic, or perhaps I wouldn't. And while I might be spared the frustration that goes along with being under-tipped, I might also be deprived of the satisfaction and validation (shown through a generous gratuity) that I truly had taken excellent care of my guests.

UPDATE: Some Miami Beach restaurant personnel misrepresent this policy, either intentionally or because they don't fully understand it. Read my article about this, and how the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association, as well as state authorities, are responding.

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Photo by Carl Dombek
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