Do you need to tip servers in airport lounges?
Reader Questions are answered twice a week by TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Ethan Steinberg.
The proliferation of Priority Pass memberships among premium credit cards have given more and more travelers access to airport lounges. However, in our quest to get as much luxury travel as possible for "free," it can be easy to overlook social norms and forget that the people serving us are still working for a living. TPG reader Avi wants to know if he needs to tip the servers in a lounge restaurant ...
[pullquote source="TPG READER AVI"]Do you have to tip the servers at the Polaris lounge restaurant?[/pullquote]
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While Avi asked specifically about United Polaris lounges, the same guidelines apply at other lounges including Amex Centurion lounges and regular Priority Pass lounges. Remember that you're never under any obligation to tip, and tipping culture varies heavily by country so make sure to do your research before you travel. It's also important to note that some employees are not allowed to accept tips, so if you try to offer one and they politely refuse, take the hint. In that case, you can always ask them if they have a comment card or a customer service email/survey that you can use to acknowledge excellent service and get them the recognition they deserve.
One of the reasons that tipping culture is so entrenched in the U.S. is that servers are paid lower wages with the expectation that tips will supplement their income. When you're dealing with a dining area inside an airline lounge though it's different. The person serving you today might be working a different job within the lounge tomorrow, and their employment contract isn't based off the assumption that they'll be receiving tips. In this case you're welcome to tip if you receive truly exceptional service, but in most cases it isn't necessary.
The next situation is bars inside an airport lounge. While some lounges have self-serve drink stations, others have full scale bar setups with a dedicated bartender. Here you can easily take a cue from other travelers around you and see if they're leaving tips, or if there's a tip jar anywhere. It's harder to tip discreetly since there isn't a bill for you to sign, but if you spend a decent amount of time at the bar chatting with the bartender, work your way through a couple of drinks or ask for any creative (read: difficult) drink orders, you might consider leaving a small tip.
The one scenario where you should strongly consider tipping is if you're dining at one of the many restaurants that participate in the Priority Pass program. Most Priority Pass Select members should be able to receive a dining credit at these restaurants in lieu of lounge access, though if your Priority Pass membership was issued by American Express you won't be able to.
Even though you may be enjoying a free meal at these restaurants courtesy of your Priority Pass membership, like Bobby Van's Steakhouse in Terminal 8 at New York-JFK or American Tap Room in the C terminal as Washington National (DCA), you should absolutely still tip your servers the same amount you normally would when dining out.
Note that Priority Pass doesn't let you use your dining credit towards gratuity; that will have to come out of your own pocket. Still, leaving a ~$5 tip (or about 18%) on a "free" $28 meal is still a good deal.
This point is especially important, because Priority Pass has completely changed the dining demographics at many of these restaurants. The last time I was passing through JFK, I was surprised to see Bobby Van's so packed at around 9 a.m. (seriously, who wants steak that early?). During the course of my meal I noticed that at least 90% of the guests in the restaurant were paying with a Priority Pass card. If enough customers do that and then stiff their servers when it comes to a tip, restaurants might reconsider participating in Priority Pass, which negatively affects us all.
There's no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to tipping in an airport lounge. You'll need to be cognizant of local culture and company policies that might make a tip seem out of place (or prevent employees from accepting them), but other than that it's really up to you to decide if and when you want to recognize excellent service with a tip.
Whether or not you choose to tip, a comment card or a positive review in a customer-experience survey that mentions your servers by name is another great way to give credit where it's due. The only exception to this is Priority Pass restaurants. Even though they're "free" to us, the servers don't care if you pay with cash, credit or a Priority Pass card. Many of them depend on tips to supplement their income, and here you should tip the same as you would if you were dining out on your own dime.