In the ideal valet scenario, you pull up like one of the cool guys in the movies, toss your keys to the driver with a wink and a smirk and ask him to “keep it close.” What happens in reality? Not so smooth.
In what is often a confusing and sometimes hectic situation, many are left guessing when it comes to proper valet protocol. How much to tip valet? Where to stop the car? Do you tip at drop off or pick up? What we should do and what’s right to do is not always clear-cut.
We spoke to lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann, aka “The Etiquette Lady,” for her advice, and asked valets from AAA Diamond Rated restaurant Teller’s Chophouse in Islip, N.Y., for their take.
Although trusting a stranger with the keys of one of your most expensive possessions can be a bit unnerving, valet service is offered at high-end hotels and restaurants to elevate your overall experience at the establishment. As Teller’s General Manager Frank Ferraro puts it, “The valets are working hard to make you happy.”
No doubt it’s a luxury to walk out of a restaurant stuffed to your eyeballs and not even have to move to retrieve your car. And what a treat door-to-door service is on a rainy or freezing night!
If you choose to take advantage of valet service (keyword: service), it is not a question of if you should tip, but how much to tip valet. “It is always a good idea to tip the driver,” said Swann, who suggests leaving the gratuity when you return to pick up your car. Tips are commonly pooled so you don’t usually have to worry about tipping twice if the person who parked your car is different than the one who retrieved it.
“I’m pretty sure that’s how the cool guys in the movies make it look so easy. I don’t know about the wink though. Maybe you shouldn’t do that.”
In general, how much to tip valet depends on the level of help and accommodation provided. “The tip can be anywhere between three to five dollars depending on the service,” says Swann. Sometimes the valet will go above and beyond for you, carrying bags or gifts, going back to your car to get something you forgot, or even helping with directions and information about where you are going. “If they do anything for you other than just parking your car, then definitely give a larger tip.”
Also, consider the circumstances. The valets at Teller’s say they appreciate any tip, but a little extra during times of inclement weather or bitter cold is always nice.
Swann recommends checking in with the hotel or restaurant in advance to see if valet service is included or can be added to your credit card. For example, some hotels will allow you to add the valet tip to your room charge. But most of the time, tips are earned and collected by the valets themselves, so you want to make sure that you have enough cash on hand.
Naturally, common courtesy goes a long way in determining the level of service you will receive. Simply being polite was the top solution from the valet at Teller’s for helping the entire process go smoother, not just for them, but for everyone in the lot. It also cuts the chance that they will take your Lambo out for a test drive while you’re eating. Just kidding.
Swann goes back to the basics, stressing the importance of saying “please” and “thank you” and establishing a friendly relationship with the valet. “If they’re wearing name tags, use their first name, so that way you have a connection with them. It will make them feel better about taking care of your car and taking care of you.”
To make parking as seamless possible, avoid distractions, stay alert, and as Swann suggests, make eye contact with the valet as you’re pulling in for direction. “If you’re looking around, getting distracted on your cellphone or talking to someone, you’re not paying attention. Making eye contact with that valet will help you in terms of getting instructions on where to stop your car.”
And finally, if you know you’re going to valet park, turn down your radio, make sure the seat area is cleared of clutter, remove any valuables, and turn off the GPS and exit the navigation. Even if it’s just taking a minute to throw everything into the trunk, make sure your car is clean. “It makes it easier for the valet to get in and out without them having to worry about your phone charger hanging down…or having to fight with your GPS repeating and rerouting.”