This isn’t strictly a driving topic, but if you’re not American, tipping can be confusing and problematic, and if you get it wrong, you can find yourself unwelcome or even in trouble. Remember, in California (and most of the rest of America), virtually everyone who renders you a non-professional or non-salaried service expects a tip. This includes taxi drivers (15%), hair dressers (15-20%), waiters and waitresses (at least 15-20% of the check (bill)), valet parking attendants (a dollar or two per car retrieved, depending on the size of the car and the difficulty and efficiency of retrieval), bar tenders (just leave the loose change on the bar unless it was a large bill, in which case think 10% or more), bell hops ($1 or more per bag depending on bag size and how far they’re lugged), sky caps (the baggage handlers outside airport terminals — tip them rather more than bell hops), hotel room service people (15-20% for room service meals and drinks, maybe $2-$5 per day for room cleaners), etc. You do not usually tip in fast food places, nor do you tip sales assistants, etc. in the normal line of duty.
A handy rule of thumb for tipping in Californian restaurants and cafes: just leave a tip of at least double the amount of the sales tax on the check, which is usually in the 8.5-9.5% range, and is always itemized separately just above the full total. Make sure they haven’t already added a 15% “service charge” on their own, something that is common if you have a party of five or more people. The tip can be left on the table either with or without the rest of the check, or you can add it to your credit card bill, or you can leave it with the full amount at the front desk or cashier. Of course the amount you tip can vary according to how satisfied you were with the service, but don’t expect to be able to go back to a restaurant or cafe if you tipped poorly or not at all. Basic tips are usually regarded as a right, and not (as in Australia, for example), a luxury or something to be earned by extra special service — in many cases it is a crucial part of the person’s income. From personal experience, the IRS (the U.S. tax department) assumes a certain level of tipping, meaning service staff may actually lose money if you don’t tip. This also seems to be true for most of the services mentioned above.
Sales tax is also problematic for visitors, and helps explain why that book listed as for sale for $20 will actually cost you more like $22 (without any warning, and depending on where in California you are). In California sales tax is applied to nearly everything except services and certain items of food, and the amount imposed varies from county to county and from city to city within each county. The important thing for most of us UnAmericans to remember is that sales tax is always applied at the point of sale, and is almost never included in advertised or marked prices (except gas and newspaper prices, which always include the tax). For example, if a road map has an advertised cover price of (say) $4.95, the actual price to you will be $4.95 plus sales tax — i.e. probably something around $5.35. Don’t do what I did when I first came to California and just give the sales clerk a $5 bill, smile sweetly at him, and say “keep the change” as you walk out of the store… (this is a common embarrassment to first-timers in this country).
One of the reasons for not making the sales tax a part of the published final price (as happens in, for example, Australia), is the wide variation in sales tax amounts. The state sets a base amount —currently 7.5% of published retail price in California — and counties and cities are free to add a certain percentage of their own, usually around 0.25 – 1.0%. So an item that might cost (say) $5.21 in Anaheim might cost $5.25 in Berkeley — making it difficult to put state-wide, let alone US-wide, tax-inclusive price tags on the book. Sales tax amounts are always itemized separately on checks and receipts.