What travelers need to know about tipping hotel staff
Tipping can be incredibly personal. Some people are willing to hand over cash regardless of the quality of service, while others carefully weigh their experience before deciding what to tip.
In many ways, there is no wrong way to tip. However, in countries like the U.S. where workers depend on tips to supplement salaries, it can be considered rude not to do so.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain tipping rules to take into account, especially when traveling. Particularly in a time where hotels are short-staffed, with fewer workers doing more tasks, tipping for the extra effort is a nice or even essential thing to do.
On the other hand, with travel costs rising, and hotels expanding supplemental charges like resort fees, is it fair to require or even strongly suggest that travelers on a tight budget supplement low hotel worker pay, particularly as hotel CEOs take in record-breaking salaries even in the midst of the pandemic?
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While airports and airlines have one set of tipping guidelines, hotels have an entirely different rule book.
Over the course of a stay —whether it’s two nights or two weeks — you’re bound to solicit the help of numerous staff members, including a bellhop, valet, concierge, housekeeping and room service waiters.
But do you tip them all the same? Are there circumstances that don’t require tipping at all?
Tom Waithe, the vice president of operations for Kimpton Hotels in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain Region, has received notes from guests who express concern about tipping.
“There’s this great fear factor they associate with a very simple gesture,” he told TPG. “But what guests need to recognize is that staff members very infrequently notice or associate you with the amount you tip. Any gesture is appreciated unless it is so small as to be embarrassing: think pocket change made up of many copper coins.”
So a pile of pennies may be seen as a snub. What else should travelers keep in mind when tipping hotel staff? It often comes down to the job they do.
Should I tip hotel housekeeping?
Many hotel and etiquette sources suggest that visitors should leave a tip for housekeepers. After all, they clean up our messes and make our beds.
“These are the hardest-working people in the hotel, and the least recognized,” Kimpton's Waithe said.
Curiously, Hilton CEO Christopher Nassetta said at a conference that he does NOT tip housekeeping at his own hotels, despite his staggering $56 million of compensation in 2020 which suggests he can certainly afford to do so.
“It’s Chris’s view that every Hilton Team Member works hard,” a Hilton spokesperson explained to TPG. “Rather than selectively reward some Team Members, he is focused on providing meaningful economic opportunities for all 400,000 Team Members.”
Nassetta later walked back his comments after an uproar, saying that "going forward, I will tip when traveling for both work and personal travel."
However, his comment highlights the fact that there are many other entry-level hotel employees with equally low-paid and difficult tasks — like facilities maintenance, landscaping and back-office functions — who support the guest experience, but have no opportunity to get tipped.
As a former restaurant server and busser myself, I’m well aware that many jobs are allowed to pay workers below minimum wage with the assumption they will make the rest back on tips.
Federal minimum wage laws are waived for positions that are expected to receive gratuities, including hotel housekeeping. The current federal minimum wage rule for such jobs is an astonishingly low $2.13 per hour (versus $7.50 for non-gratuity jobs).
Many states mandate a higher minimum wage, but at least 15 states do not. If you’re in Alabama, Kentucky or Texas, your housekeeping and restaurant service staff could conceivably be making just a bit over $2 an hour.
Housekeeper pay in the San Francisco area averages about $33,000 a year, according to user-supplied data at the Glassdoor jobs website. (Nassetta's staff at Hilton reports salaries averaging $24,000.)
This base pay is supplemented with about $15,000 in “additional pay” in the form of tips or other bonuses — so about 31% of your housekeeper's pay could be based on tips.
Even with tips, the end pay in this example is not close to reaching the $60,000 a year "living wage" for a single adult for the Bay Area, as calculated by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology study.
So is it up to you as a guest, the hotel corporation, or government regulation to make up this difference in pay?
Workers are voting with their feet by leaving or simply not showing up for such underpaid, difficult jobs. Currently, 97% of hotels are facing staffing shortages, according to a recent survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association.
Housekeeping is “the most crucial staffing need,” with AHLA reporting that 58% of their members rank it as their “biggest challenge” for hiring. To meet the need, 90% of hotels have increased wages, as management slowly realizes otherwise they’ll be cleaning the toilets themselves.
As the supply and demand calculus of hotel staffing and pay works itself out, in the interim, it may be a kind gesture to help out those underpaid housekeepers if you can afford to do so.
How much should I tip housekeeping?
A suggested rate of $3 to $5 a day for housekeeping seems to be standard.
Diane Gottsman — a national etiquette expert, author of "Modern Etiquette for a Better Life" and founder of The Protocol School of Texas — suggests that rate. Waithe agreed that $5 is a good amount, but said it also depends on the type of traveler.
Business travelers who are rarely in the room perhaps could be expected to tip less. Families with messy kids might pay a bit more.
Although you may be tempted to leave something other than cash, don’t.
“We see this frequently, especially when guests have leftover wine or alcohol,” Waithe said. “But it really doesn’t work, as most hotels have strict policies about what can be taken out of a guest room. Guests often think that they are leaving a special treat, like leftover pizza or food, but it’s just thrown out along with any open bottle of liquid since no one knows what went into it."
(Anecdotally, chats I've had with hotel staff members suggest the extra alcohol and other recreational substances left by guests actually are often put to use.)
What other hotel staff should I tip?
This one is relatively simple: a $1 tip per bag will suffice. If you’re traveling with a big group or with enough bags to warrant a luggage cart, feel free to round up to an even number like $5 or $10, depending on the number of bags.
It’s common practice for hotels to tack on a service fee to the room service bill — which makes that extra blank gratuity line even more confusing. Will you be considered cheap if you write a big fat line through it? Not necessarily.
“100% of the included service fee goes to the server, so adding additional amounts is not required,” said Waithe. “Often, the included gratuity is not well identified on the bill, so people add more without knowing it’s already been applied. So look before you add!”
As for the delivery charge you often see on the bill, that goes to the hotel and is paid out to cooks, dishwashers and other kitchen workers.
In the rare case when gratuity has not been added, tip 15% to 20% of the bill. Gottsman added that it’s not necessary to leave anything additional for them to retrieve your used trays.
Generally, Gottsman said you should be prepared to tip $2 to $5 every time a valet retrieves your car from the hotel lot. A few inside sources — current and former valets — confirmed that’s standard.
“You can either tip a little at a time or tell the valet you will get [him or her] at the end,” said Eric Matava, a former valet at a Connecticut hotel.
When tipping concierges, think of it as a sliding scale — how much you give depends on what they do for you.
“If it’s a simple dinner reservation, I wouldn’t tip anything,” Jack Ezon, a self-proclaimed over-tipper and the president of travel company Ovation Vacations, told TPG. It’s also not necessary to pay for directions or ideas for things to do in town.
However, if the concierge plans an amazing experience, pulls strings to get you into a sold-out show or arranges an in-room birthday or anniversary surprise for your spouse, that warrants something to say thanks.
How much is really up to you and your budget, but $40 is on the low end and even upwards of $100 is appropriate for more complicated tasks.
As for the things that fall somewhere in the middle (easy theater tickets or arranging a tour guide or driver), something in the $5 to $20 range is fair. In general, just keep in mind the degree of difficulty of what you’ve asked the concierge to do.
Even if your hotel or resort includes gratuities (which most often occurs at all-inclusives and beach resorts), it's still necessary to tip your butler extra. As with concierges, the tip depends on how much you use them — and for what.
“If you have them running around doing things, it’s important to show them some appreciation,” said Lindsey Epperly Sulek, founder of Epperly Travel and a Caribbean travel expert. “But if you don’t use them most of the time, I wouldn’t feel obligated.”
She suggests $10 to $15 per day if they complete mostly basic tasks.
For butlers who “do their jobs 1,000%,” Ezon says he usually tips closer to $100.
When should I tip more?
“If you’re a family and have a garbage can full of diapers or a room that looks like a hurricane hit it, be sensitive to the fact that the housekeeper is going to spend extra time in there, taking [him or her] away from the rest of the rooms,” Waithe said, suggesting that would be a good time to leave an extra tip.
A person who hasn't spent much time in the room might tip less.
When thinking about an extra tip, consider your individual situation, any special requests you might be making of your hotel staff, whether you're making a mess and your empathy for their often thankless job.
When should I leave the tip?
Gottsman suggests putting the money on the desk or another clear surface in your room, along with a note that reads "Thank you."
Some hotels are beginning to include housekeeping tip envelopes in each room. (This, of course, begs the question: If they can afford to print and distribute all those envelopes, couldn't they use the same money to increase staff pay instead?)
Waithe said you can also leave a note with the gratuity with any special requests (such as extra towels or new batteries for the remote) or add comments (say, if you broke a glass).
While it's not an official policy at any hotel, it's logical to think that including a gratuity with an extra service request may increase the likelihood — or at least the enthusiasm — that any current or future request is delivered.
However, don't wait until you’re about to check out to leave the tip.
“It’s important to tip daily, as employees change from one day to another,” Gottsman said.
If you prefer not to leave gratuity per "transaction," it's OK to save it all for the end of your stay — which is what both Epperly and Ezon tend to do when they travel. However, in that case it is best to put a lump sum in an envelope and ask the front desk to distribute it to specific groups (like housekeeping) or to the specific people who helped you.
“I’ve also seen people ask for it to be divided among the entire staff,” Epperly said.
Housekeeping didn't clean my room during my stay — do I still tip?
Housekeeping will still be required to clean your room after your visit. With new and improved cleaning protocols in place in this pandemic era, they will likely have some significant work to do no matter how clean you have left your room.
If you endorse the general policy of leaving a tip for housekeeping, you should still leave something at the end of your stay regardless if you've interacted with them or not, perhaps adjusting your daily tip rate downward to reflect a single service versus multiple cleanings.
I don't have any cash — can I tip on my credit card?
Cash is always king in terms of tipping -- the money goes directly to the employee, and it's a simple transaction.
Depending on the hotel, it might be possible to leave a tip with your credit card as you check out at the end of your stay, with requests for the money to be distributed to specific employees, including housekeeping.
However, this "can be a process" according to a recent call with San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel.
"We can do it. But it's just a lot simpler to leave cash," a front desk staff member said. In fact, there have been multiple class-action suits by employees of different hotel chains who say they only received small percentages — or none — of the credit card-based gratuities left for them.
With that in mind, it may be best to hit the lobby ATM to have some cash on hand for your tipping.
Tipping cheat sheet
Checking out now and need to know what to tip? Don’t sweat the small change.
|Housekeeping||$3.||$5.||Tip daily — and your leftover Champagne doesn’t count.|
|Room service||15%.||20%.||Only when gratuity hasn’t been included, which it usually is.|
|Concierges||$5-$20.||$40-$100.||Consider whether (or not) your request was easy or complicated.|
|Luggage Attendants||$1 per bag.||Round up if you’re using a luggage cart.|
|Valets||$2.||$5.||It’s customary to tip when valets retrieve your car — not when they park it.|
If there’s one big takeaway on how to tip, it’s that it’s more of an art than a science. So much depends on your personal budget, the destination, the type of hotel and what service charges or resort fees are already included in your bill.
In general, if someone touched it — your luggage, extra pillows, the room service tray — they may deserve a little something in return.
There are certainly questions around a hotel's compensation policies for executives versus line workers. In the end, though, the best thing you can do for individual staff is to give what you can and know it will be appreciated.
Illustration by Abbie Winters.