Phoenix Business Journal by Joe Brancatelli, Business Travel Columnist
The best lesson I ever learned about tipping came decades ago, long before I became a business traveler. And it’s all about using a tip as a way to get what you want, not about showing gratitude for a job well done or the social pressure of throwing a little cash the way of under-paid service workers.
I don’t know why my friend James and I decided to go to a sold-out baseball game that particular evening, but we arrived at the stadium and I instinctively made a bee-line for the easy-to-spot scalpers. Not my friend James. He went to the will-call window, slid a $100 bill under the cage and said, “I need two on the third-base side.”
“Sold out,” said the grim-looking fellow in the booth as he turned away and fluffed some papers.
James was as resolute as I was perplexed. A hundred bucks bought a lot of scalper tickets in those days and this seemed like a bizarre and fruitless effort.
“Hey, pal,” I recall James saying as he pushed the $100 bill further into the cage. “I need two.”
The man in the booth eyed us suspiciously and made the hundred disappear. Then he produced two prime tickets, slide them to James’ hand and said loudly: “Sorry, sir, sold out.”
But I’m a slow learner. Years later, now a supposedly savvy business traveler, I found myself deep in the recesses of the Vatican being escorted by a private guide from one sanctum sanctorum to another: the rooms where the jewels and ceremonial chalices were kept; the relic cabinet with bits of the “true cross” and bones of the saints; an area where a dozen or so nuns buzzed around a 600-year-old tapestry; the Pope’s private elevator. I got to wave from the Pope’s balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. I was even taken into the Sistine Chapel via a side door and given 15 minutes alone to wander about.
“How do you get this kind of access?” I dumbfoundedly asked my guide, who, by the way, had parked his black Mercedes right in St. Peter’s Square.
“You make the right contributions to the right people,” he said matter-of-factly.
Get it now? Money talks, even to the guardians of sold-old baseball games and the religious pezzonovante. Needless to say, it’ll do wonders at airports, restaurants, hotels—and anywhere a harried business traveler needs a little extra traction to get what’s needed.
For all the discomfort over the appropriate amounts and the social mores of tipping, the ground rules are well-known and easily found. Susan Breslow Sardone offers a terrific traveler’s tipping tip sheet at About.com—and she even knows how to spiff stevedores. Conde Nast Traveler once compiled an exhaustive guide to the global greasing of palms. And Magellan’s the travel-supplies retailer, boils down the basics of baksheesh to a relatively manageable chart.
But allow me to offer these key additions. I’ve found that tipping—perhaps lavishly over-tipping—these folks is crucial to improving life on the road.
The Secret Master of the Skies
Forget about that dollar-or-two-a-bag tip that some suggest is appropriate for skycaps. I say always seek out a skycap, take out a big bill and put yourself in his amazingly powerful hands.
Checking your bags is the least important thing a skycap can do for you. At most airports, he’s empowered to snag you a seat assignment, issue your boarding pass and shepherd you to an expedited-service position at the check-in counter or the security checkpoint. I even use skycaps when I’m traveling on premium-class tickets or when I don’t have luggage to check. They just seem to be able to get things done faster, better and with less hassle. Don’t skimp with these guys: Put at least a $20 next to your paperwork and photo ID and you’ll be thrilled with how fast your curb-to-gate experience can be. And if you actually have scads of luggage to check, tip more and do it in advance.
The World According to Bootblacks
Shoe-shine guys have a cinematic reputation as sources of inside info (and horse touts) thanks to those cheesy old private-eye movies and film-noir classics. Airports are one of the few places where you can still find a bootblack and guess what? If you want to know about what’s happening at the airport—where to eat, where to hang, what to avoid—the shine guy still seems to be the guy in the know. Tip him at least the posted cost of the shine and you’ll be surprised what you’ll learn. Besides, your shoes probably need the shine.
Naming Names, If Not Titles
As more and more hotels and resorts eliminate traditional check-in procedures, the new king of “customer-facing” lodging interaction is the person who guides you to your room and offers the ongoing litany of products and services available on the premises. They don’t even have a name—hotels variously call them assistant managers, rooms executives, hosts or the ever-popular “associate”—and there is no accepted wisdom on whether these people should be tipped.
I say tip them—and tip them big. Get their name and ask them when they’ll be on-duty. If they say they won’t be around for most of your visit, find out who their replacement might be. Thank them effusively for the help and start with a $20 bill. Then use that person as your point of contact for the rest of your stay. You’ll be stunned at how fast and how good the service is if you’ve tipped “Anthony” or “Jessica” well at the start of your visit and then call down and ask them for something later. And your generosity will not be secret: These people talk amongst themselves and good service goes to guest with the reputation as a good tipper.
If your hotel is still using traditional front desks and check-in clerks, do yourself a favor: Catch their name and address them by name. If you need something later, call down and ask for the person who checked you in. They’ll be jazzed that you remembered them by name and seem to be extra helpful when you ask for something. Just remember to stop by the desk and throw them a few bucks (in an envelope, please) as a thank-you gesture for their help.
Housekeepers are People, Too
The older I get, the more I tip the housekeeping staff. I know the concept is still controversial—a recent survey said only about half of the nation’s business travelers do it—but I can’t imagine not spiffing these people generously.
I will never leave less than a $10 bill—every morning, on the pillow of my bed. And the better the hotel, the higher the amount. Moreover, since I frequently work in my room and don’t want to be bothered during traditional housekeeping hours, I tend to be one of those “special needs” guests. I try to respond in kind. I’ll tip more if I’ve been particularly messy and scattered papers about or if I’ve stretched their working hours to match my schedule.
I’ll go further, too. Whenever I run into a housekeeper in the hallway, I introduce myself and ask about their schedule. This not only means I know the person I’m tipping, it means the housekeeper knows I recognize and appreciate their service. Treating a housekeeper well financially has never gone wrong for me. I get lightning-fast service whenever I need something: extra pillows, towels, robes, or an extra of some particularly nice bath amenity the hotel may be placing in the room.
The Fine Print …
Here’s a service category that business travelers often forget: The postal and courier people who deliver mail and goods to your home and office. If you’re on the road a lot, these people will be extra helpful if you remember them generously during the Christmas and New Year period. Fifty bucks each holiday—come on, folks, that’s just a buck a week—virtually assures that your mail and parcels will find you no matter how frequently you’re not around to take possession of them.