Your Guide to Tipping While on the Road

Your Guide to Tipping While on the Road

Trying to figure out how much to tip in real time can leave you flustered. This guide will help you plan ahead of time.

In the fall, lots of young employees hit the road on business trips for the first time. While today’s millennials often are well-traveled and even world-savvy from their younger years onward, business travel does present the occasional puzzlements. Tipping, for example.

Here are a few of the little uncertainties about tipping on the road that I’ve come across over the years, and my own ways of trying to not feel like a tool. This is a random list, and I’d love to hear from you with any additional tips or comments ( about your experiences of travel-tipping.

In general, says Joe Brancatelli, the proprietor of the business-travel subscription website, “Money talks, more money talks louder and it talks loudest to the underpaid travel-industry workers who can make our lives on the road easier, more comfortable and more productive.”

Some tips:

Valet parking, which you cannot avoid if you arrive by rental car at big-city hotels and restaurants in the U.S. This one stumped me for a long while. You’ll see conflicting advice from various travel experts about whether to tip the valet when your car is taken or when it is brought back. Some say it doesn’t matter because tips are pooled -- but I’m skeptical. Now I simply tip at both ends, and $3 each time will do.

A side issue: You’ll need to think ahead to have good old one-dollar bills on hand, because valet parking is a fast-paced endeavor and it’s embarrassing to, say, ask for change of a twenty as other people wait for their cars, scowling.

Bellhops. How quaint! Uniformed porters, like something out of a 1940s movie, hopping at the bing of a front-desk bell to escort you and your bags to your room, where they wait, palm outstretched, for a tip. There are still about 23,000 uniformed bellhops employed in the U.S. hotel industry, according to the U.S. Labor Department, though the numbers have declined sharply in recent decades as most hotels, even in the top tier, simply hand you your room key at check-in and point out the elevator banks.

One reason for the decline of the bellhop: The invention of easy-to-maneuver roll-aboard travel luggage, which astonishingly did not catch on generally till the late 1980s. (I wrote this column about it for The New York Times in 2010) A roll-aboard reduces any need to have someone actually schlep your bag to your room. Still, if you have a lot of luggage, a bellhop can be awfully handy. How much to tip? I often see travel-etiquette advice suggesting $1 or $2 per bag, which strikes me as stingy. A bellhop pushing a baggage cart with your possessions? I go for $5 to $10, depending on the load.

Concierge. At any good hotel, the concierge can be invaluable in recommending restaurants, coming up with hard-to-get theater or concert tickets, or arranging special requests. At top hotels, the concierge may wear a lapel pin with two crossed gold keys, indicating certification in the exclusive worldwide Les Clefs d’Or concierge organization. There is no need to tip the concierge simple recommendations, but for tasks like arranging tickets or securing a hard-to-get reservation, $5 is appropriate. Triple that for services that require really pulling strings – which a good concierge often can do.

Restaurants. Pretty easy here. You tip the server 15 or 20 percent on your credit card receipt, on the assumption that tips are pooled with the kitchen staff. At sushi restaurants where you have a server and a sushi chef expertly producing your order in plan view, tip the server on the credit card bill, but you can also slip $5 to the chef. I used to be uneasy about that because cash is grubby and a sushi chef ideally should have clean hands, but most everyday sushi restaurants (not the swanky ones, where tips are usually pooled) now have discreet tip jars for the chef.

Maitre d’s -- The only place I’ve ever tipped a maître d’ was at a pushy, crowded, top restaurant in Las Vegas where my $20 bill magically caused a table to appear. But I felt uneasy, like I was in a gangster movie. Speaking of pushy places like Vegas, sometimes you will come across advice on tipping a sommelier who comes to the table to discuss which expensive wine to choose. Even in a high-class restaurant, I prefer not to engage in conversation with a person upselling me on a’99 Domaine Comte Georges de Vogue Musigny with powdery nose and haughty insouciance. I’ll order wine off the menu, thanks -- but if you do choose to commune with a sommelier (hey, it could happen), here are tips from Wine Spectator.

Hotel housekeepers – I am astonished when I hear from hotel employees that some travelers do not think it’s important to tip the housekeeper. It is! I always leave a five-dollar bill when going out in the morning. Put it prominently on a pillow so the housekeeper will know it’s a tip, and not cash you inadvertently left behind. Also, ignore travel advice that says you should tip the housekeeper at the end of your stay, which overlooks the reality that the same person is not always making your bed and cleaning your room every day. Tip the hardworking housekeeper every single morning.

When traveling domestically, I hoard dollar or five-dollar bills for confident tipping because you can’t usually swipe a debit card or tap your phone to take care of incidental cash tips. And for expense-account filing purposes, keep a record of all of your cash tips.

How about international travel? There are a lot more complexities on tipping elsewhere in the world, but there is also a lot of good advice available.

The GoCompare website has useful and very general links for tipping protocols abroad. In Asia, incidentally, there is in general less expectation for tips, especially in Japan and China. And here’s another worldwide tip sheet provided by the travel gear supplier Magellan’s.

One more thing: If you’re new to domestic or international business travel, you’re probably working for a company that employs experienced travelers who will be happy to share advice, because travelers like to talk about travel. So just ask the real experts. No need to tip them, either.

MEMO PAD – Down to earth: Discount those coming urgent media stories predicting unusual air-travel chaos during the Thanksgiving holiday season, due to the continuing grounding of the Boeing 737 Max planes at Southwest, American and United, says Michael Boyd, the airline consultant and forecaster at Boyd Group International. Domestic schedules for that November 22-December 2 holiday period show “there will be 5.1 percent more departures and almost 5 percent more seats” over the same holiday period last year, he said, adding: “Actually, the only carrier that will be delivering fewer seats to the gate during this period is Delta, which isn’t affected by the MAX issue.”

… Domestic airfares rose 1.7% in August on a month-to-month comparison, says the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. … But average hotel rates are declining slightly. STR, the hospitality industry data firm, says that domestic average hotel rates declined 1.1 percent during the first week of September. The biggest single-market decline: New York City hotels, down 8.3 percent over the same period a week earlier – but still at an average $252.71 a night.


About the Author: Joe Sharkey
Joe Sharkey’s work appears in major national and international publications. For 19 years, until 2015, he was a columnist for the New York Times — for 16 years doing the weekly “On the Road” column on business travel, and before that the weekly “Jersey” column for three years. He is currently a columnist with Business Jet Traveler magazine, and an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Arizona. A Vietnam veteran, he has written five books, four non-fiction and a novel. One of his nonfiction books, “Above Suspicion,” has been adapted as a major motion picture starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Thora Birch and Johnny Knoxville (and directed by Phillip Noyce), to be released soon. In January 2017, a new, revised edition of his book “Above Suspicion” was published in print and as an e-book by Open Road Media. Penguin Random House also released an audio book version in January. Open Road also published revised editions in e-book format of his true-crime books “Death Sentence” and “Deadly Greed.” In January 2018, the revised edition of “Death Sentence” was published in print by Open Road Media. In his newspaper career before the New York Times, he was an assistant national editor at the Wall Street Journal; the executive city editor of the Albany (N.Y.) Times-Union; and a reporter and columnist with the Philadelphia Inquirer. On Sept. 29, 2006, while on assignment, he was one of seven people on a business jet who survived a mid-air collision with a 737 at 37,000 feet over the Amazon in Brazil. All 154 on the commercial airliner died. His reports on the crash appeared on the front page of the New York Times and later in the Sunday Times of London Magazine. He and his wife Nancy (who is a professor of journalism at the University of Arizona) live in Tucson — where he is also working on a new novel about the exploits of an international travel writer who hates to travel. .