It’s a standard scene in television and film that’s designed to show what a smooth, cool dude the protagonist is. He cruises up to a club in his sleek sports car, hands the vehicle over to the parking valet with a wink, and then confidently strides inside with a beautiful dame on his arm.
That, unfortunately, is not at all how my first time using valet parking went. My friend was getting married at a swanky hotel, and when I pulled up to the drop-off zone, I realized I had no idea what to do. Should I wait for the valet to come over or get right out of the car? Do I leave the car running or give him the keys? Who do I tip? The guy parking the car or the one who will bring it back to me later? I was flustered. I was awkward. I was driving a Honda Element.
How to use a parking valet service is something nobody teaches you, and I know I’m not the only guy who felt like a complete doofus the first time he tried it, as I’ve had a bunch of AoM readers request that I write up a tutorial on the subject.
To find out the proper protocol for using a valet service, we talked to former valet Drew Klein. Drew valeted cars all throughout college at a Marriott Hotel. Below we share his tips for how to use a parking service without feeling like an idiot.
Tidy up your car. If you know you’re going to be using valet service for your evening out, clean up your car a little bit. It doesn’t need the full wax service, but a wash is a good idea if it’s super dirty and cleaning out the McDonald’s bag in the backseat will make sure you aren’t embarrassed to hand over the keys.
Have some cash on hand. You don’t want to pull up to the valet only to realize you forgot to get cash for the tip. You either have to drive away and park on your own, or be the ungrateful cad who uses the service and stiffs the valet. Even if you can tip with your card, a cash tip is always the better way to go.
Dropping Off Your Car
Pay attention. Things move fast at the vehicle drop-off zone. The valets have an efficient system in place so that guests can drop off or pick up their cars quickly and easily. You don’t want to be the schmo who throws a wrench in the gears. Be alert for valets directing traffic and follow their lead. Drive into the loading zone safely, slowly, and in the right direction.
Tuck away all your valuables. If you have any valuable items in your car, tuck them away out of sight or put them in the trunk before you arrive at the valet stand. While the vast majority of valets are honest and trustworthy, you never know when you’ll encounter a bad apple.
Grab what you need for the night. Before you get out of the car, make sure you have everything you’re going to need for the evening — cellphone, wallet, tickets, etc. Sure, the valet can run to your car to get these things if you forget them, but if you have him do so, it’s good form to tip an extra few dollars for his trouble. Save your money and double-check before you get out of the car.
Leave the car running. Don’t take your keys out of the ignition. Just park the car and leave it running. Remember, things move quickly at the drop-off zone. Taking your keys out for the valet just mucks up the intricate ballet they have going on.
Wait until the valet opens the door for you (or not). Drew says that whether you wait for the valet to open the door for you depends on a few things. If the valet service is being offered at a high-end hotel or restaurant, expect to have the valet come open the door for you. If it’s a less formal event, like an art festival, you might not get that sort of service, so just get out of the car as soon as you pull up.
Even if you can expect the white glove treatment from the valet, if you have a female passenger, the valet will open the door and help her out of the car first. You can sit in the car and wait for him or another valet to open your door for you – but if that makes you feel a little silly (I know it would me) feel free to get out of your car yourself while your female passenger is being helped.
If you get out of the car before the valet opens the door for you, stay with your vehicle until you’ve been greeted and given a claim ticket.
Inform the valet of your vehicle’s quirks, if it’s relevant. If your car has a tricky door or a touchy alarm system, let the valet know. They will appreciate this information.
Get your ticket. Make sure to get your claim ticket from the head valet and put it in a safe place.
Consider tipping the valet who takes your car from you. More on tipping protocol below.
Enjoy your event. Just don’t lose that claim ticket!
Picking Up Your Car
Consider calling ahead. If you’re staying somewhere like a hotel where the valets may park your car some distance from the establishment, it can take 10-20 minutes for them to retrieve your vehicle. So if you have somewhere to be at certain time, or you just don’t want to wait around in the lobby, call the valet service ahead of time so that when you’re ready to go, your car is too.
Give your ticket to the head valet and pay. When you’re ready to leave, walk over to the head valet. He’s typically at a stand by the drop-off zone. If you’re staying at a hotel, the valet service is typically added to your room’s bill, so you don’t need to worry about paying for the price of parking and valet service. If you’re not staying overnight in a hotel but are using the valet service, you typically pay for the parking and valet service when you’re leaving the event.
What if I lost my ticket? If you’re staying overnight at a hotel, it’s no big deal if you’ve lost your claim ticket. Your ticket number is typically connected with your room number. Just tell the valet your room number and you’re good to go.
If you’re using a valet service that’s not connected to a hotel, losing your claim ticket puts a wrinkle in things. Inform the managing valet that you’ve lost your claim ticket. You’ll likely be asked for your photo ID and to fill out a form with details about the car: make, model, color, license plate number, and identifying objects inside the vehicle. You may have to wait a bit longer than usual for your car to be retrieved. Make sure to give the valet who found your car an extra “la boost” for his trouble.
Check your vehicle for damage/stolen items. Before you leave, give the car a quick look over to check for any dings or nicks that weren’t there when you dropped your car off. Also, check to make sure your valuables are still safely stowed away. If you notice any damage/missing items, inform the managing valet right away; it’s hard to prove negligence/wrongdoing on the valet service’s part if you don’t notice the damage until you get home. Most reputable valet companies have insurance policies to cover these sorts of situations.
Tip the valet who retrieved your vehicle. More on tipping in the next section.
Tipping a Valet
Tipping is probably the most intimidating part of the valet process for first-timers. How much do you tip? Do you tip when you drop off your car or when you pick it up?
First, offer a tip even if the valet service is complimentary. Even if the hotel or restaurant you’re staying at offers “complimentary” or free valet service, make sure to still tip your valets. Drew says that the hourly pay for most valets is similar to that of waiters, i.e., they get paid below minimum wage (usually $4 an hour), and make most of their income from tips.
Who to Tip?
This was probably the most confusing part for me when I used a valet for the first time. Which valet are you supposed to tip?
According to Drew, most people will just tip the valet that retrieves their vehicle when they’re leaving the hotel/event. But he recommends that you also tip the valet who takes your car when you drop it off. First of all, you’re a gentleman. Take care of the person you are entrusting with what is likely your most valuable possession (besides your home). Even if it’s not intentional, as humans we tend to take better care of items in our care if we’ve been treated well and appreciated.
Another reason, especially if you’re using valet for overnight parking, is that the person you gave your car to likely won’t be working in the morning when you retrieve your car. The morning valet will reap the entire reward for handling your car, even though he only did half of the service. For a one-time event, it’s also no guarantee that you’ll have the same person handling your car both times. Tip all the folks who had a hand in your valet service.
Also, as Drew will explain below, generously tipping the valet who takes your car when you drop it off can buy you preferential treatment — like a parking spot in a “full” garage or a spot in the shade at an outdoor event so it stays nice and cool.
How Much to Tip?
There are a lot of different opinions on what an adequate tip is for valet service. Drew said $5 was about average at the Marriott he worked at. One former valet recommended you pay $1 for every $10,000 your car is worth . I’m not so sure about that bit of advice, however. If you’re driving a 2000 Honda Accord, you’d only be tipping the valet $.30 when you drop off the car and $.30 when you pick it up. “Here is your quarter and nickel, dear sir. Thank you kindly.”
According to our research $2-$5 is pretty standard — that’s $2-$5 to the valet when you drop off your car and $2-$5 to the valet when you pick it up. All in all, look to tip between $4-$10 total for valet parking service.
If you want better service, tip more than the standard when you drop off your car. Drew recounts an experience where a larger tip bought preferential treatment for a customer:
“You can usually buy preferred service through tipping…If we run out of space, especially for events, we’d say, ‘Hey we’re out of space,’ but we’d typically still have a few spots in the garage that we had to reserve for overnight guests. I negotiated a larger tip with a guy who said, ‘Well surely you can find a spot for my vehicle somewhere in the garage.’ He pulled out a $5 bill and said, ‘Don’t you think you can find a spot?’ And I said, ‘Not for 5 bucks I can’t.’ So I got a $20 tip from that guy and I found a spot for his car.”
If the valet that retrieved your vehicle went above and beyond — like having your car waiting by the curb with a bottle of water in your cup holder — reward him with a nice, fat tip.
Have any other suggestions for first-timers using valet parking service? Share them with us in the comments!