TALKING POINT | Tipping is a way of life in the United States, and while most people understand the need to tip in bars and restaurants, should you also be tipping the staff in airport lounges who do practically the same thing – even if what you’re eating or drinking is provided for ‘free’?
Whether or not to leave a gratuity – as well as how much to give – is always a controversial topic, especially for Australians. We're used to workers being paid a fair wage, unlike the very low hourly rates of the US hospitality industry – which in turn means that tipping simply isn't part of our culture.
But there's something to be said for the "When in Rome" approach, so here’s the approach I take.
Let's start with a drink at walk-up airport lounge bars as found in American Airlines Admirals Clubs, American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs and United Clubs.
For something complimentary like a glass of house wine or a spirit drink, I’ll typically leave a US$1 note (a ‘single’) on the counter after the drink is served – while for a more complicated cocktail such as an appropriately-named Big Apple at the AMEX Centurion Lounge in New York, I’ll leave US$2.
However, if I’m only ordering a soft drink, juice or water, I don’t tip. Most lounges offer these via self-serve facilities anyway, so on the rare occasion I’m in a lounge where these are hidden behind the counter, I don’t feel obligated to open my wallet for something that comes at no cost everywhere else.
When paying for a 'premium' drink or dining at a paid airport lounge restaurant where table service is provided I’ll generally tip 15-20% of the bill amount, just as I would at a normal restaurant in the US, plus $1 for every drink on the bill that was ‘free’ (the same as when ordering directly at the bar).
(I’ll normally make that tip through a credit card instead of cash, as the option to add a tip to the purchase is always offered on the signature slip when it comes time to pay: boosting my points tally even further, while also reducing the need to carry US cash.)
I take a different approach in the Qantas First Lounge at LAX where everything is complimentary: my understanding is that the staff here are better-paid than their colleagues in other US airport lounges, and as such I don’t feel the need to tip on a per-drink basis.
However, if I’ve enjoyed a nice meal where the same waiter served me for the entire visit and the service was excellent, I’ll generally tip them $10-20 when leaving the dining area by way of a subtle handshake to ensure the tip reaches the right person.
The way I see it, a multi-course meal with cocktails, Champagne and matching wines would easily cost US$150 or more in a nice restaurant – on which an absolute minimum 15% tip would be US$22.50 – so giving even a portion of that amount in recognition of great service when the meal itself cost me nothing doesn’t seem unreasonable.
How do you deal with tipping at airport lounges in the United States, and do you ever tip in the Qantas LAX lounges? Share your thoughts in the comment box below!