Tips on Travel Tips

Seasoned traveler Nick Topitzes of PC/Nametag compares Madison to the cities he visits - and reports back on his findings.

It’s not a stock tip or advice on which horse will win the third race. It is about the tips you leave when you travel for doormen, wait staff, taxi drivers, housekeeping staff, concierges, bell staff, etc.

When I travel, I always try to remember how I felt when I was a student waiter in the InnWisconsin, a fine dining restaurant back at the Memorial Union. It was a table cloth restaurant with very fine service, open for lunch and dinner. Tipping was not encouraged (it was optional) but when someone left a tip, you felt great. I still remember providing great service to a large group and the host leaving a nice tip. As he was walking away, a professor at his table told him that it wasn’t necessary to tip the wait staff at the Union. The man picked up the tip and I was crushed. I even possibly put a Greek curse on the professor.

Most people who have waited table tend to be “a big tipper,” not because we are trying to show off, but because we remember how it makes or ruins your day. Most people don’t realize that wait staff usually don’t get paid the normal minimum wage, they get a smaller minimum wage because their earnings are supplemented with tips. Because the server probably worked an hour or two before the meal, folding napkins, filling salt shakers, wiping down menus, arranging silver, etc.,the tips have to cover many hours of work that are paid at the lower minimum wage.

In the tipping world, there are the have’s and the have nots. I remember years ago being in Green Bay, and tipping a bellman/doorman $1 per box for bringing in some things from my car. It was a full cart so it was about $15. This was the mid ’80s. I had to practically call the vice squad, he was so happy. I don’t think he got many tips over $1 or $2 in Green Bay. About that same time, my business colleague was at the New York Hilton and had a bellman bring seven boxes from a ballroom to her room. She gave him $7 and he promptly told her it was $2 per bag — or $14 for about 10 minutes of work.

Remember, this is mid ’80s. So living in Wisconsin has its perks.

I also remember in the late ’80s, Newsweek did an article on how colleges exploit athletes. On the cover of the issue was the doorman of a major hotel in Washington D.C. He had been a teammate of Charles Ewing at Georgetown University. They had been national champs and a powerful team. This man was also named Charles, but he never made it into the pros, working instead in the hospitality industry. The article pointed out how this man (sadly) ended up being a doorman. What it didn’t say or discover is that he was making around $60,000 a year, according to an insider at the hotel — in the late ’80s. In fact, the Director of Sales said the biggest problem they had was that so many of the professional staff — the suits — wanted to be a doorman so they could make “the big money.”

However, it occurs to me that if those same envious people had to haul bags that weighed 50 to 60 pounds all day, stand in the rain, freeze in the cold, and slow roast in the sun, they might have second thoughts.

Most people who are working those jobs for tips work damn hard. They know that tips are part of the pay. Their employers know that they won’t have to pay them as much because tips are part of the compensation and it is a price they don’t have to pass along.

The fluctuations in pay are enormous. Some wait staff in a hotel or restaurant can make just a couple of dollars per hour. Somebody working at a high end hotel can make $100,000 a year. Yes, that is the correct figure. But they may have started out swabbing floors and vacuuming, moving tables and chairs, working every weekend, and doing a banquet that ran until midnight while still having to serve breakfast at 6 a.m.

You don’t just step into those jobs, you earn your way in. After AIG collapsed in 2008, government made meetings “bad” and business dropped off dramatically. Those same waiters didn’t have any banquets or luncheons. No meetings, no tips.

I always try and tip well. In the course of a four-day trip, the cost of tipping well compared to tipping minimally might cost you $20 or $30 more, but you can make or break someone’s day. I always tell my staff that you must leave at least $2-5 per day for the maid in your room for just normal service. Maids must do between 16-24 rooms per day — stripping beds, picking up dirty towels, wiping toilets, vacuuming, restocking coffee machines, dusting, arranging the closet, etc. They are at the bottom of the totem pole in the hotel. Low wages with only the promise of tips.

When someone doesn’t leave one, it stings.

How much should you leave? I found a link for you that gives suggestions for most services. It is Everything from the concierge to the maid. Browse it and maybe print out a copy for your travel bag. It seems pretty reasonable for U.S. travel. For international, a whole new set of rules apply. The rules overseas are from no tips, to pocket change, to what we might consider bribery. Do some research about the country you are going to be visiting. If you are short on time, at least find out what you should give the skycap and the taxi! The concierge at the hotel can give you more tips once you arrive.

And please don’t forget to tip the concierge.

Sign up for the free IB Update — your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices and the names you need to know. Click here.