Airline Club Lounge Tipping Etiquette

Tipping always seems to be a sore topic on this blog. And that’s understandable, because the more you travel, the more damn confusing it all is.

Sometimes I visit four countries in a week, and trying to figure out the local tipping etiquette proves really challenging. Even from Googling you’ll often get a lot of contradictory information from self proclaimed “experts.”

I’ve written in the past about tipping in hotel club lounges, though one question I often get is about tipping in airline lounges.

So under what circumstances do I tip in airline club lounges?

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers:

It’s not about how tipping “should” be

When it comes time to talk about tipping, a lot of people say “well the whole world should be like Japan, where tipping is offensive.” I don’t necessarily disagree, though to me that’s not relevant when trying to decide whether to tip or not.

A simple question goes through my head when I decide whether or not to tip — does the person serving me rely on tips to make a “fair” living?

So while it’s perfectly understandable to fundamentally oppose the US tipping culture, I don’t think it’s fair to let it out on the front line employees that work in the service industry.

I don’t mind the US tipping culture

I know I’m way in the minority here, but I actually don’t fundamentally oppose the US tipping culture. Why? Because in countries where tipping isn’t expected, service is simply factored into the cost of the product.

In the US we have discretion as consumers, and people in the service industry have a bigger incentive to be attentive. Not that I mind the European service culture, where you have to flag down a server and can sit at a table for hours without them checking on you. But I don’t mind the US culture either, in that regard.

But I think it’s important to clarify that proportionally it’s not that people in the US service industry are necessarily making a lot more than those outside the US, it’s just that the way it’s distributed is different.

I do, however, share frustration/confusion at tipping outside of “traditional” services, like shuttle bus drivers, bellmen hailing cabs for you at hotels, etc.

Which brings me to my thought on tipping in airline lounges…

Are you expected to tip airline lounges?

I recently had a conversation with the manager of a major lounge in the US which is run by a foreign carrier. This lounge provides a la carte dining and bar-style service. I asked if the servers are paid in such a way that they don’t rely on tips to make a living.

Her answer was interesting. She said the servers in the lounge do make more than the base pay of servers working in a traditional restaurant/bar (which often isn’t even minimum wage). Tips aren’t expected, but in practice people do tip, and it does make a difference to the “bottom line” of the people working there.

I asked whether it was mostly Americans or foreigners tipping. I was expecting the answer to be 90% Americans, but to my surprise that wasn’t the case. She said it was about 50/50. Often foreigners tip really well because they have spare US currency left from their trip, and they know the norm is to tip in the US. So it’s not unusual for them to tip generously with leftover cash.

Qantas-First-Lounge-LAX-18
Have a Neil Perry inspired meal at the Qantas First Lounge LAX

How much do I tip in airline lounges?

Obviously it depends on the exact circumstances, how good the service is, etc.

As a general rule of thumb I tip 20% of what I expect I’d expect to pay if I were paying for the service.

So generally:

  • A drink from the bar at a US airline lounge (Admirals Club, Delta SkyClub, etc.): $1-2
  • If it’s a lounge in the US run by a foreign carrier with table service, typically $20 or so, depending on how much I drink/eat
  • For spa treatments, generally $10-20 or so, no matter where in the world it is (with the exception of Japan)

Virgin-Clubhouse-JFK-28
Get your hairs did at the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse JFK

I know a lot will take issue with tipping $20 for a spa treatment in Thailand, the Middle East, etc. For me it’s quite simple – I’m incredibly fortunate to do what I love every day and make a decent living, and I know $20 for them is a lot more than it is for me. And that’s especially true in the Middle East, where people are often separated from their families for years at a time so they can send home money to their family. And ultimately I value the service at more than what I’m paying, so it’s still worth it to me.

In general I find that tips are almost always graciously accepted even in cultures where it’s not ordinarily expected. The one exception is the spa at the Etihad Lounge Abu Dhabi, where they seem to be trained to insist tipping isn’t necessary before accepting tips.

Six-Senses-Spa-Abu-Dhabi
Six Senses Spa at Etihad Lounge Abu Dhabi

Bottom line

I’m not suggesting my system is correct. But I’m often asked if/how much I tip in club lounges, so I figured I’d consolidate it into a post.

It was interesting to get the perspective of a lounge manager, who has a much better “big picture” understanding of what’s reasonable. So no matter where in the world you are I don’t think tips are expected from anyone in airline lounges.

But there’s no doubt that many people working in airline lounges rely on some people to tip in order to make a living. And it all balances out, because some people apparently tip exceptionally well, while many not at all.

How about you? Do you tip in airline lounges? If so, under what circumstances?

Comments

  1. Wow you’re a generous tipper Lucky. I generally don’t tip in the lounges if what they’re doing is not above and beyond. I did have a wonderful service at the coffee bar at CX’s The Bridge last month that I left $5 for the bartender.

  2. I tip in lounges similar than i would do in a bar/restaurant. $1 or so per beer and or 20% of the value I would expect to pay elsewhere. However, service is the key point, lousy bar tender / server = less tip. This throws up another question if the lounge is self serve do / would you tip staff members cleaning and tidying away?

  3. I give it 20 minutes tops before someone tells you that tipping US $20 in Thailand is “ruining” it for the rest of us (them). 🙂

    Interesting post. I don’t tip at all the places you do, but when I do tip it tends to be at least 30% of the bill at US restaurants. Why? Because I can. And about 20% of the time I’ll tip 50% because the service was really good.

    I don’t mind tipping culture in the US, however that’s because I’m *from* the US and I understand it. Also, being from the US, if I’m confused about whether or not to tip, I do NOT stress out about it, because tipping culture evolves over time (e.g., we didn’t see tip jars at burger joints and hot dog stands until the last ~10-20 years or so).

    I can certainly understand visitors’ frustrations with tipping culture in the USA.

  4. I guess that depends on what kind of lounge you are talking about. I am a member of the AS Board Room. Until last summer, I and a guest go use the DL Skyclub, now I can no longer bring a guest without paying $29.00. Are you kidding me, $29.00 for carrots and nuts? I can get a full meal in the airport terminal for less than $29.00. I will think about tipping the next time I am in a classy lounge. Thanks for sharing.

  5. It really depends. If I have leftover currency or small change, then I’d tip. However, here in the USA, where credit cards are widely used/accepted, I rarely ever bring USD cash with me.

  6. I agree with you on the lounge thing. And tipping in general is super confusing.

    Was just in Thailand and Hong Kong. When a cab across Bangkok costs me 150 Baht, and I tip 50 Baht, does the driver think I’m crazy? It’s less than 2 bucks. I dunno – I never know what the newer is and I always feel weird, if I do or don’t.

  7. Are you supposed to tip valets at your hotel if the parking is not free and not a nominal charge either? I”m thinking of when I was about the Holiday Inn on Honolulu and it was $35 a day.

  8. Lucky I remember reading one of your comments a few months back saying you didn’t tip at lounge restaurants lol 😉

  9. To Neil S- As someone living in Thailand (not an expat), the driver will be very appreciative of that extra 50 baht, and is something a lot of thais do as well. I advise my foreign friends to tip taxi driver when they don’t pull the normal “stop at suit shop to get gas coupons” routine.

    I tip $1 or $2 for alcohol in Sky Club but nothing for sodas or non alc. drinks.

  10. my girlfriend and i had a long talk about this on our last visit to the centurion lounge. she thought it was appalling that i didn’t leave a tip. i noticed no one else was tipping, and i had read either here or on gary’s site that tips weren’t expected there. i normally don’t tip at the admiral’s club or most other lounges because, well, it’s mostly DIY and the most i ever do is sit down, plug in and work. but at the centurion lounge, it’s much more like a restaurant with employees bringing you drinks, bussing tables, etc. at first i was reluctant to tip because it just felt strange doing so in an airport lounge. but on my last visit i left a fiver on the table after eating and having a couple of drinks. i guess my feeling is, when it feels right, leave a tip and even if it’s not expected, it’s a little more good karma. i hope!

  11. In US lounges when I get complimentary drinks I tip as if I were paying for it, so $1 for the Budweiser in the Admiral’s Club, $2-3 for a cocktail in the Centurion Lounge. I don’t have that much experience with foreign lounges, but the ones I’ve been to were self-serve, so I didn’t tip at all.

  12. What is the normal tip for the person in the UA or AA lounge who helps you find an open square of carpet to sit on while you eat stale trail mix because all of the chairs are taken?

  13. Sorry, I don’t tip lounge attendants. Between the airline nickel and diming me at every turn they should be paying their employees adequately if not then time for the person to find another bar to work at.

  14. @ Ben — What lounges are your referring to when you say “If it’s a lounge in the US run by a foreign carrier with table service.” I’ve been to lots of first class lounges in the US, and I don’t recall any lounges that provide table service, except the Star Alliance F lounge at LAX (even that is simply bring you a sandwich). Perhaps my memory is going…

  15. Like most here — I tip $2 per drink served. I’ve never thought of leaving a tip for the general attendants who bring or replenish food. At the UA lounges I don’t even see a jar or anything for the snacks or free beverages.

  16. @ Gene — Lufthansa First Class Lounge JFK, any of the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouses, Qantas Lounge LAX, Star Alliance Lounge LAX, etc.

  17. @ jon — Since it’s usually open seating I hand it to them directly and thank them for the great service.

  18. @ Ben — My memory IS going since I have been to most of those lounges (although not recently). Anyway, I never even thought of tipping at those places, nor have I ever noticed anyone else tipping. Either I’m too cheap or you’re too generous…don’t answer that.

  19. Love your approach on this topic. In the US, tipping is the “norm”. The idea of tipping to ensure prompt service is no longer applicable. Times change, cultures change, tipping etiquette has changed. People who can’t get that through their heads must be living in another century. I believe that there is an obligation to your fellow man.

    People who insist that a living wage should be paid in place of a tip are likely the same people who rationalize that they don’t deserve it. Everyone wants the best deal possible and polls show that people state one thing, but do another. The claim they are happy to pay higher rates for quality service, food, air flights, etc. Yet, when it comes down to reality, people search for the least expensive option and then complain that the experience should be better.

    Being respectful and appreciative of another is never wrong or in bad taste.

  20. I don’t understand how someone could argue that the fact that the drinks are free means you somehow aren’t obligated to tip. It’s the same as if I get a comped item at a restaurant, you still tip as though you paid for it. Also, I find tipping well in lounges pays off, especially if you have a long layover ; )

  21. How about tipping the attendants to the lounge showers in the US? I almost always leave a few bucks – how do others handle this?

  22. I would never even think about tipping in countries like Australia, north and South East Asia or Europe. Last time I did have about $5 in spare change when I had a massage in the Thai lounge but wouldn’t tip anything more than that.

    What I dislike the most is the feeling that apparently I’m being a cheapskate when I am in a country where tipping has previously been the norm and unnecessary. All because overly generous tourists teach locals to have their hand out for tips.

  23. I would never even think about tipping in countries like Australia, north and South East Asia or Europe. Last time I did have about $5 in spare change when I had a massage in the Thai lounge but wouldn’t tip anything more than that.

    What I dislike the most is the feeling that apparently I’m being a cheapskate when I am in a country where tipping hasnt previously been the norm and was unnecessary. All because overly generous tourists teach locals to have their hand out for tips.

  24. “In the US we have discretion as consumers, and people in the service industry have a bigger incentive to be attentive.”

    I think that your autocorrect made a mistake. That last word should have been “attractive,” as countless studies show that thin white women are tipped more highly than any other group.

  25. 20% of the value of what you’re consuming? Wow. So If I have a sit down meal at a lounge, and 3 drinks, the “value” could easily be $100. I am not leaving $20 on the table. At most $5 or $1-2 per drink at the bar if the bartender is engaging and pleasant. I agree with Chris that this tipping culture is out of hand.

  26. I’ve never understood tipping at bars. Lets say that the server receives all the tips they personally receive. And let’s say they serve one drink a minute (it takes about 6 seconds to grab a bottle of beer from the fridge and take the top off) and each person tips $1.

    That bartender then makes $60 an hour (in cash) for an unskilled job, on top of their base wage. That to me is absolutely ridiculous. For $60+ an hour in cash I would be a bartender. I dont think someone deserves a dollar for doing something for me as part of their job that takes them 30 seconds. I dont get paid at that rate for doing a highly skilled job I studied for years for, so why should they?

  27. @Ben – I totally appreciate your point.

    Many years ago, we went to a show at a major Las Vegas casino. When the show finished, nearly the entire audience headed to the front door for a taxi. We all queued between the velvet ropes, and the *insert service title here* summoned each party to the newly-arrived cab (also in queue), opened the cab door, and held out his hand for the tip. The transaction time (and energy/effort) were even less than the beertender you mentioned. He was tipped multiple bills by each party for the multi-second transaction.

    I never forgot the mental picture and my awe at the whole situation.

  28. I do not agree with some of the comments here about, unskilled job or how much they should make. In US and Canada, I tip min 1 or 2 bucks a drink depending where I am, If I am at say PHD at NYC or some place similar I might tip more for the 1st and last drink, to encourage and reward faster service. I will definitely NOT tip in a self service lounge. At a full service place where even my food is ala carte, I MIGHT leave a nominal tip, 5 bucks or something.

    No matter where I am in the world, i always tip room cleaning lady, that is my one constant.

  29. @Ben, I feel like John McCain, telling his audience “You can’t do it my friends!” This idea that bartending is some kind of cushy high-paid job is just ridiculous. It’s better than most “unskilled” jobs is about the most I can say.

    You can, if you work in a busy urban club, make something like $400-500 on a weekend night bartending. You will be on your feet for eight hours or so, working until 3 am. On other nights you won’t make much at all in most places, and you probably have to work at least one of those nights to keep the job. So you can probably make $4000 a month working 25 hours a week at one of these jobs. No benefits, of course. Does that sound like a job you want?

  30. Lucky, my basic objection to tipping culture is that it is almost arbitrary as to who gets tipped and who doesn’t, which makes it unfair to those who don’t.

    Example 1. In a restaurant I would tip the waiter who brought the food to me. Even if he was pleasant and efficient, there are people who actually cooked the meal, chopped the onions, unloaded the deliveries, vacuumed the floors. We do not have a way to tip all of these people; in fact the normal instinct would to be that if you are pleased with their work, you feel good and tip the waiter! OTOH, if workers were being compensated by a fair wage culture, then all workers would benefit.

    Example 2. In the US at least it is acceptable for cashiers at food/beverage related establishments to set a tip jar. However, I always wondered that they are providing the same service as cashiers at Target, Walgreens, grocery stores and myriads other stores. It always seems strange to me that we as society think that someone who sells us an ice0cream cone deserves a tip but someone who sells medicines, books, electronics items etc does not.

    So that’s what bothers me about tips. But yes, when in Rome I do as Romans do. 🙂

  31. @colleen – Agree with you. Tipping in Las Vegas taxi lines is absolutely out of control. Had exactly the same experience as you did. Same with London cabs. You almost get beat up, even if you tip them, if they don’t think it is enough. And the London taxis are really expensive to begin with.

  32. @Ben-Highly doubt you would leave you skilled labor job to become a server. It always amazes me when people think the waitstaff live so well. As a college student, I have friends who work these types of jobs, making minimum wage, part time, no health insurance provided, who rely on tips to be able to afford rent in San Francisco or New York, while going to schools that cost over 60K per year.

  33. “All because [American] tourists teach locals to have their hand out for tips.” True, abeit slightly fixed. OTOH, seems that people who claim that “countless studies have proven” this-that-or-the-other never seem to have a single one available.

  34. It’s a non-US view I know, but I’m with commenter Ben (different from Lucky unless he’s had a change of heart!) from the posting at 21:38 on 8/1/15 – the rate of earning from tips at the rates being mentioned here is massive! It takes it way above the level of a decent living wage in Europe (which is higher than the statutory minimum wage) so the arguments about trying to offset a lower wage just don’t hold water for me.

    dbeach said “You can, if you work in a busy urban club, make something like $400-500 on a weekend night bartending. You will be on your feet for eight hours or so, working until 3 am. On other nights you won’t make much at all in most places, and you probably have to work at least one of those nights to keep the job. So you can probably make $4000 a month working 25 hours a week at one of these jobs. No benefits, of course. Does that sound like a job you want?” So that equates to around £2,500 a month for 25h a week of work – sounds like a pretty good rate of pay to me! By comparison as a doctor if I was doing extra locum shifts (and these receive higher pay than regular work!) I get paid around $40/hour – that’s for working all night for 12 hours on my feet, doing a job that requires five years undergrad and ten years post-grad training…

  35. And I’m an architect….four years undergrad, 2 yrs grad, 2 yrs apprenticeship, 10 yrs practicing and when I divide my pay by the number of hours worked, I wish I were a bartender! I’m one of the lucky ones too…actually working.

  36. I don’t know how it works in the US – but here in Australia, as an employer, I have to pay tax on the wages I pay my staff (crap system I know, the staff have to pay tax on them too!). The tipping culture in the US sounds great for employers who it would seem can pay less than the award (minimum) wage, and expect the customer to make up the shortfall! I agree with the previous comments – who tips the chef? Who tips the subway driver? Who tips the sales staff at a Department Store?

    Anyone ever thought about tipping the baggage handlers to get you bag off the plane first?

  37. $1000 a week for working 25 hours a week unskilled sounds pretty good to me.

    I’ve seen bartenders at busy NYC clubs serve many more than 1 drink per minute- much more like 5 drinks per minute (like grabbing 3 beers or making 3 vodkas at once) and getting at least a dollar per drink, so well over $100 an hour.

    Where are these tips going?

  38. Instead of perpetrating the culture of slave labor by giving $20 tips to people in emerging economies (that’s equivalent to over $4,000 in the US using % of average monthly salary), put all of those $20 bill in a jar and at the end of the year make a donation to one of many charities that MAKE A DIFFERENCE to poor people’s lives.

    By giving employees tips, you’re just subsidizing their employers.

    Yes, you’re fortunate. Donate where you make a POSITIVE difference, not by giving tips and making a NEGATIVE difference. You’ve traveled so much you should know better … if only you got out of your 5-star hotel bubble, maybe.

  39. I always wondered how the margin works in the tipping culture. When you go to the US restaurants, let’s say you tip 15% whereas in Japan you pay nothing but get better service and comparably good quality of food. Actually, after living in both countries, I felt the nominal menu price is quite similar in those two countries but for the same price you will get a better quality of food in Japan. Businesses in both countries exist (i.e owners make money), yet owners in Japan pay the full wage whereas in the US staff get paid less because they are expected to earn the full from their tips. Who is pocketing the extra profit in the US?

  40. thought i would jump back in to give a realistic perspective re: bartending (in regular bars as opposed to airport lounges), as i was a bartender in nyc for about 5 years in my early 20s.

    yes, you can make a decent living bartending but no, you are not raking in the cash just for opening a bottle of beer and handing it over to someone. as mentioned earlier, you’re standing on your feet and moving around for at least 8 hours (8 hours would be an exceptionally light shift, actually). you’re doing prep work, you’re bussing, you’re dishwashing — even with a good bar back behind you you’re still doing a ton of side work. you’re dealing with shitheads, psychos, DYKWIAs, the whole run. you’re listening to people’s problems, you’re counseling, you’re making inane small talk, you’re helping people flirt. you’re often faced with being the only security inside the place. you’re making cocktails, mixers, highballs, all sorts of crazy concoctions you’ve never really considered. you’re running back and forth between the basement and the bar to refill ice, restock glasses, re-plug kegs, etc. get the idea?

    also, no night is the same. sure, on a friday or saturday, the place is packed. but on monday, tuesday, wednesday, the place is dead and you’re lucky if you make 20 bucks on top of your below minimum wage. now, if you work at a high-end place like death and company or a high-end restaurant, you’re probably going to make more on average but slow nights are slow nights regardless of the place.

    as mentioned, you have no insurance or benefits and no job security unless your boss is a friend.

    is it a shitty job? no way, it’s one of the most fun jobs i’ve ever had and there’s a reason why some people do it for life. is it shangri-la? hell no. if it was, there’d be a lot more competition and everyone would want to be a bartender.

  41. Actually, Pavel makes a good point. People who have to deal with whomever comes in the door have one of the hardest jobs there is. Imagine doing that day in, day out…

  42. “$1000 a week for working 25 hours a week unskilled sounds pretty good to me.”

    You should go for it then, those jobs aren’t that hard to get! I’m sure you’ll love it! You’ll probably have to put in some time as a bar-back first, of course, but I bet you can handle it. Service industry jobs are easy.

  43. Is the alcohol at lounge bars normally complimentary? I’ve been to several domestic lounges and I’ve always wondered if I had to pay for drinks at the bar when there’s no self-serve alcohol area. Like you, I was thinking $1 per drink.

  44. @ Ken — For foreign airline lounges, almost always. For US lounges, the “house” beer/wine and well liquor is usually free, while they charge for the premium drinks.

  45. On a side note, FWIW, I use a tipping app. I routinely rip all over Europe, South America and Asia and my memory is too feeble to recall how much to tip for whom. So I pull up the “Tip” app on my iPhone for guidance. It’s not very detailed and certainly doesn’t provide guidance on how much to tip the assistant maid who stocks the housekeeper’s cart :-), it is pretty helpful. There may be better apps and I’d like to hear others thoughts on these…

  46. Having just listened to an Austrian hotel concierge go on a mini-rant about tipping, I can say I’m on the smaller-to-none tipping scale outside the US and I wish the US followed the same practices. As he so eloquently put it, I do my job and don’t expect a tip, and I’m paid decently, so why should I tip someone else for doing their job? But then again, the US doesn’t make it illegal to not pay a living wage, so we’re all subsidizing corporations for not paying their employees appropriately, and they’ve successfully made us all feel guilty if we don’t subsidize their employees’ salaries. I’m very anti-tip and pro-living wage. I’d love to see $15 minimum everywhere.

  47. The cost of labor in US is extremely expensive and this is not true in many other countries. So you are paying the commodity & service in US. In a lot of cases, service is even more expensive than the commodity, such as body shop. It is totally different in places, like Asia, where the cost of labor is minimum. The argument is that, you have to be highly skillful to do some service, such as body shop. However, you may not need to be trained for years to do a job in the hospitality industry. Personally, I think the hospitality industry in US sucks.

  48. I was intrigued by your comment Lucky about differences in service standards between US and European locations:
    “In the US we have discretion as consumers, and people in the service industry have a bigger incentive to be attentive. Not that I mind the European service culture, where you have to flag down a server and can sit at a table for hours without them checking on you. But I don’t mind the US culture either, in that regard.”

    I can’t say I’ve noted that there is any significant difference – bad service can be easily found in both localities, great service can be found in both localities. Tipping culture seems to have little effect on genuine service levels, from my experience.

  49. Totally agree, Kieran – I’ve had superb service recently in Australasia where generally tipping isn’t expected. By comparison I’ve had some poor service in LA where they were also really insulted that I didn’t tip the 20% despite shockingly poor sevice!!

  50. Thanks for this! Coincidentally, I was also in the Etihad Lounge in Abu Dhabi and, hoping for the best, tipped $5 USD for what was basically an (excellent) appetizer and some mineral water. Have been in anguish ever since wondering if it was the right thing to do. Ha.

  51. I’m sitting in the Virin JFK lounge and pulled this up because I noticed a tip jar behind the counter. As I was reading a server said came up very excited that someone left her a $20 tip (maybe the blogger himself). I don’t think they expect it but are pleased when it happens. If you are a register in the lounge I can understand it but I don’t see it as necessary and I’m normally a generous tipper. If my flight is costing $7k they should pay he wait staff in their lounge a reasonable amount.

  52. Interesting reading…
    As a man who grew up working in a variety of service industries, I often find myself debating whether to tip or not to tip in any number of situations.
    Here are some of the thoughts that run through my head:
    -First I often tip generously because I consider myself lucky compared to most people and quite frankly I feel like I can.
    – I feel like the dollars I spend “rounding up” or being extra generous might really help the server more than it hurts me.
    (ESPECIALLY in some of the vacation resorts outside of the US)
    -In the world of karma…..it can’t hurt
    -I remember when I was growing up hustling ridiculous hours and sweating away how much it would have helped me if SOME people were a bit more generous.

    And finally, at my age l ask myself, “if it was a member of my family” doing this job, how would I feel about whether they deserved, needed, or appreciated a tip.

    Just a few random thoughts from a guy that’s trying to look at a glass half full

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