I hear questions like this all the time. No matter what I say is going to be from a biased point-of-view (and my biased point-of-view is a money-hungry, spiteful one). But you googled this for answers, and I'm the guy with the answers.
Disclaimer: I'm writing this in reference to big hotels and garages in majors cities. Garages and hotels with high-volume. If you're asking about parking your car at an Econo Lodge in rural North Carolina, then I'm sorry, this might not be helpful to you. (They also probably have a complimentary parking lot. Boom. Problem solved.) However, if you're driving your car up to NYC from rural North Carolina and wanted to know what to expect to do with your vehicle, you've come to the right place.
Valet workers, like any other service industry employee, are there for one reason - to make as much money as possible and get the fuck out. They rely on tips, and the majority of them are smart enough to cling onto the customers who are loose with their wallets. I know you're not going to want to hear this, but tipping on the way IN is important.
Here's the thing - the guys who work in parking garages have a very, very small space in which they could put all these cars. The greedy assholes who own said parking garages want them to jam in as many vehicles as possible before they can deem the lot full. Meaning there's seldom "premium" parking spots.
What's a "premium" parking spot, you ask? It's a term I just made up! I'll walk you through how to get a "premium" spot:
Say I pull up in my modest 2008 Honda Civic. And let's say I picked up a date I'm really excited about. Let's also say that I'm going to dinner and a play, and that when the play is over, I want to get in my car as quickly as possible so I can take my date home and, you know, do stuff.
Here's what I do:
I take a five dollar bill and fold it up in my palm. When the valet guy comes over, I nod and I extend my hand. Not all the way, like a handshake. I go halfway there and make sure my palm is facing the ground. It's the international "handshake tip". When the valet guy accepts, I say this:
Doorman - "Hey, pal. That's for you. What time are you here till?"
Valet Guy - "Midnight."
Doorman - "Ok. Keep it close and there's another for you when I come back."
Valet Guy - "Ok, boss."
And done. When the play is over and I come back to the garage, my light blue Honda Civic is sitting pretty on the ground level. No cars to be moved out of it's way, just a clear path to the exit. Even if there are ten people there waiting for their cars, huffing and puffing with their tickets in hand, the valet guy will see me and nod, throw me my keys, and I'll make good on my promise and pass along another five. Then I get the fuck out of there to go home with my date and, you know, do stuff.
Is ten bucks a lot of money to spend when I'm already paying $30 to park my car? Yep. Absolutely. 100%. But guess what? I just saved myself a half hour. I just avoided having my car get whacked around in the "general population" where they park the rest of them. What's the "general population"? It's another term I just made up! It's the three or four levels of cars, jam-packed on top of each other, bumpers and doors within centimeters of other cars and concrete walls. It's where your car goes to get scratched, dented and knocked around.
Why do you spend the extra money to sit in first class on a plane? Or to sit in front row seats at a concert? For a better experience, right? If tipping a working man a few extra dollars helps you skip the line and beat the traffic, why not do it?
But hey, if you don't want to give the guy a few bucks on the way in as a sign of good faith, then give a bare-minimum tip when he returns the car, don't be surprised if he uses his "premium" spots on someone else.
What happens if you tip the guy on the way in, and he's not there when you come back?
That's a good question, my friend. I'm glad you asked. I'll explain.
So say I tipped the guy five and his shift ends twenty minutes after that. That's fine. Here's what'll happen on his end:
The shift will turn over, and the guy I tipped will put the car in a premium spot. When his relief shows up, he'll point to my car, and tell his co-worker "this guy is good." His co-worker will say "cool, thanks." Then, when I come back later, I'll see the new guy, point to my car, and he'll nod and attend to me right away, blowing off the rest of the "general population" car people. I'll put a five in his hand and be on my merry way. That's it.
How does this translate to hotels?
In my hotel and most in New York, we don't have a parking lot for guests. There's no self-parking. Why? Because it's New York and we want to plow you for every last dollar. Ha! No… it's because there's no fucking space. And barely any street parking.
We work with a garage, who provides a discounted 24-hour rate for guests of the hotel. At my spot, it's $35 per day. No ins and outs. People always complain about not being able to take the car in and out. Mark my words- there's not a garage in any of the five fucking boroughs that will allow you to take the car in and out as you please for one daily rate.
$35 per day is, believe it or not, a very fair deal considering your options. Some people will scoff when I tell them the price, inform me they'll find their own parking, then come back an hour later with their tails between their legs, telling me I was right. (That's the stuff of pure bliss for me.)
I accept the car on the garages behalf. Then, I shuffle it around the loading zone till a valet attendant from the garage comes to pick it up. I help unload the car, if need be, and I prevent you from getting a ticket should the loading zone be full when you arrive and you need to briefly double park. I'll let you know that it takes anywhere from 15-45 minutes to retrieve the car, depending on how busy the garage is at that given time. And, while it's in my possession, I'll be sure that no one leans on it, puts coffee on your trunk, or breaks into it. That's my job.
Does that sound like enough responsibility to earn a tip? To some people it is. To others, I can fuck myself.
When I give them the ticket, I let them know that they have to come to the front desk, in person, and pay their balance before they can come to me with a voucher to call for the car. Technically, I'm not allowed to have the car brought around till the balance has been paid in full. Technically.
Though exceptions can always be made... for the right people. You see, we keep a log book of every car we valet. And (I'm speaking strictly for myself), I make a note of people who tip on the way in - whether it's a dot, or a star, or an exclamation point. I always keep track of people who tip me, and, more importantly, stiff me on the way in. If someone calls me from the room and says "I'd like to have my car brought around", I'll ask for their ticket number.
Allow me to paint two scenarios:
1 - I look in the log book and see a little star, indicating the guest tipped me five on the way in.
Doorman - "Absolutely. I'll call and have the car brought around. When you're all packed up and ready to go swing by the front desk and pay the balance, and I'll have the car waiting for you when you get here."
2 - I look in the log book and see nothing, possibly a note that indicates that I helped with luggage and they stiffed me.
Doorman - "I'm sorry, you'll have to come down to the front desk and pay the balance first, then present me with the voucher and I'll call for the vehicle."
They'll have to pack their shit, exit the room, come downstairs and wait on line, pay the balance, then come to the door and see me. From there, I'll tell them it's going to be another 15-45 minutes to have the car brought around.
In the latter, I'm simply going by the book. I'm actually doing the right thing, in the scope of the hotel's rules. But I won't bend them for you. Now you've added another 45 minutes to your commute home. That's the importance of tipping on the way in.
Before I wrap this up, I'd just like to share a quick story that inspired my writing this post.
Guy pulls up in a brand-new BMW. In my three and a half years of doing this, I've been tipped once by a BMW driver. Once. One time. Seriously, it must be in their contract to never tip people. Like, they have to sign a written agreement, promising to be a belligerent, cheap asshole to any and everyone who handles their cars before they drive off the lot. Also- BMW's handle like fucking garbage. The steering wheel is stiff and clunky. There's nothing special about the inside features and I can't tell the difference between them and a Hyundai Sonata on the outside. Fuck BMW's and the people who drive them. They STINK. Oh, do you drive a BMW and have read this far? Good. Fuck you, twice.
Anyway - this cocksucker pulls up in his BMW. I'm friendly and polite, smiling and explaining the valet rules. He's rude and aloof, as most of them are.
I offer to help with the bags. He's a strapping guy about my age with one carry-on. He responds with a cold "no".
Doorman - "Ok, sir. Have a good night."
Without a thank you, or a smile, or a fucking tip, this is his response:
BMW - "Take care of my baby."
And he walks away.
He didn't have to say anything, and I just would have written it off as another cheap fuck in a BMW. But he had to go and say that shit, in the most condescending manner.
Dude, it's my fucking job to take care of your car. You don't go to a restaurant, order a steak medium-rare with the waiter, then barge into the kitchen and tell the chef, "make sure it's medium rare", do you?
If you really want me to take extra care of your car, and you feel compelled to reiterate it to me, fine. Totally acceptable. But only with $5+ dollars in your hand, shaking it into mine.
So, you can imagine what happened next…
The guy from the garage comes to pick up the car, and I get my revenge in one, simple sentence:
Doorman - "Bury this motherfucker."
Valet Guy - "Ok, boss."
And there his car goes, into the "general population", further and further into the bowels of the garage to reserve room for the "premium" vehicles.
When this BMW fuckhead comes to get his car in the morning, that 15-45 minute wait time just became 60-90. All because you big-leagued the doorman without giving him a tip. You silly, silly man. You could have been home an hour earlier to see your beautiful wife and, you know, do stuff.
You might think we're greedy. But that's the way our world works. You take care of us, we go out of our way to take care of you. You don't? Well, you get what you paid for... Nothing.