Image: Room service
Peter Dasilva /The New York Time  /  Redux Pictures
Ordering room service? If it's not already included in the bill, a $3-$4 tip is usually sufficient.
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By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/25/2007 11:18:35 PM ET 2007-04-26T03:18:35

William Moss, now a concierge at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle, has been working in the industry for more than a dozen years. He’s gone to great lengths to help make many guests’ stays successful, but says one of the more unusual requests he had involved helping a guest zip up his dinosaur head. “Remember Barney, the purple dinosaur from TV? This guest was dressing up as a purple dinosaur to surprise his wife, who was waiting in the lobby.”

Moss doesn’t remember if he got a cash tip for this extra service, “but the guest’s wife, and especially all the kids in the lobby, got a big kick out of the dinosaur and I was happy to help.”

You may never need to figure out the right tip to give to the concierge who zips up your dinosaur head, but when staying in a hotel it’s a good idea to know the appropriate amount to tip a bellman who totes your luggage to your room, a housekeeper who cleans up the crumbs from last night’s room service meal and the valet who rushes to get your rental car from the parking garage.

Yes, a tip is technically a small amount of money given voluntarily to someone who provides a special service. These days, though, tips are customary and expected by workers in the service industries, including the many hotel workers who must rely on gratuities for a large part of their take-home pay.

But in different cities and in different types of hotels it’s sometimes hard to know whom to tip, how much to tip, when to tip and how to deliver a tip. So I asked some frequent travelers and hotel insiders to share their tips on tipping.

The ride from the airport
We’re accustomed to tipping taxi drivers 10-15 percent of the fare. But many people forget about the airport van driver. Tip $1-$2 per person and add a few dollars more if the driver is quick to load and unload your bags without commenting on how darn heavy they are.

And if the driver goes the “extra mile” to make you feel welcome after a long trip, tip accordingly. I happily handed over a $5 tip recently when a van driver surprised me and a road-weary load of passengers with a warm and funny welcome that included the ranking of the local sports team (low), notes on the weather (bad), and tips on the best restaurants within walking distance of the hotel (passable; not great).

If you’ve arrived at the hotel by car and handed it over for valet parking, it’s customary to tip the valet staff at least $2 each time they bring your car around.  Add $1 if your car is waiting for you when you step off the elevator. One concierge I spoke with suggests tipping “every time the car is moved,” but that would mean digging into your pocket each time you get in or out of your car. With some hotels charging upwards of $30 a day for valet parking, things can get spendy awfully quickly, so plan ahead.

In the hotel lobby
The standard tip used to be $1 a bag for the bellhop who stores your bags until you’re ready to check in (or out), or who totes your luggage from the lobby to the room. These days, many travelers say $2 a bag is more the norm, especially if your bags are set carefully inside the room on a luggage rack and not thrown on the bed.

In the room
It’s easy to forget about tipping the person who cleans your hotel room each day because you usually don’t encounter them directly. Their handiwork is only apparent when you return to your room after a day on the town to find a freshly made bed and a bathroom with restocked toiletries and clean towels. You spend the longest part of your hotel stay in your hotel room, so leave a tip of at least $2-$5 per night; and add more if you or your kids have left behind a big mess.

Some experts suggest tipping the housekeeping staff at the end of your stay, but unless you know for sure that the housekeeping department pools all their tips, you may unintentionally short change the person who cleaned your room during most of your stay.

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Tip each night of your hotel stay, as generously as you can.  Rather than leave cash on a desk or pillow, put the tip in an envelope with “For Housekeeping; thanks!” written on it and place that by the bed.

Room service
If you’ll be ordering room service, make a point of checking the menu for any added fees. Be alert! If the menu states you’ll be charged tax, a “room service delivery fee,” and a separate “service fee,” then your tip may be automatically added to the bill. To be sure, ask (and ask again) what those fees are for when you call to place your order.  If you’re confident the tip is not already on the bill, then tip anywhere from $3-$4 or 10 percent of the bill.

The concierge
The folks who staff a hotel’s concierge or guest services desk can help turn a standard hotel stay into a magical experience. Or at least a productive one. In addition to zipping up the head on your dinosaur costume or arranging for flowers to arrive in the room moments before your sweetheart sweeps in, a good concierge can do everything from pointing guests to the best museums and attractions in town to securing a pair of tickets to a sold out event.

It’s customary to tip a concierge $5 to $10 — or more — for special services such as making hard-to-get dinner reservations, arranging for someone to walk your dog or for getting much sought after theater or concert tickets. “The amount you tip is really up to you,” says the Fairmont’s Moss. He’s received everything from an enthusiastic in-person thank you for drawing up an itinerary to a $100 cash tip for making a dinner reservation. “Sometimes I feel embarrassed when someone gives me more than I think I deserve,” says Moss, “but some people just really like to over tip and that’s part of their experience at the hotel.”

Over-tipping is fine, says Dana Cox, chef concierge at Hotel 1000 in Seattle, but only if that's what you intended to do.

Cox says any concierge or desk clerk should be able to — discreetly, of course — answer questions about what is an appropriate tip range at their hotel and if, for example, the housekeeping or bell staff pools all their tips. “And don’t be shy about asking for change so you can give the tip you want,” says Cox. “The front desk should always have change and staff is used to being tipped. So if you handed me a $20 and said, ‘I’d like to give you $5, would you give me change?’ that would be fine. Anyone who gets tips understands that situation and will want to help make it exactly the tip situation you want.”

Cox adds that, while always welcome, a cash tip isn’t the only way a guest can show appreciation to a hotel staff member for a job especially well done. “I’ve gotten flowers, chocolates and wine — all the standards,” says Cox, “but at a hotel, any tip that comes with a personal note or a comment card that a supervisor or a manager will get to read is doubly appreciated.”

Of course, hotels aren’t the only places where a Well-Mannered Traveler might feel obliged to give gratuities. There are plenty of opportunities to dole out dollars in restaurants, airports, taxi cabs and other places we visit. Next week we’ll tackle some of those scenarios, so please feel free to send along some of your own tips on tipping.

Harriet Baskas, The Well-Mannered Traveler, also writes about airports and air travel for USATODAY.com and is the author of “Stuck at the Airport.”

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