Should you tip the staff in US airport lounges?

Should you tip the staff in US airport lounges?

TALKING POINT | Tipping is a way of life in the United States, and while most people understand the need to tip in bars and restaurants, should you also be tipping the staff in airport lounges who do practically the same thing – even if what you’re eating or drinking is provided for ‘free’?

Whether or not to leave a gratuity – as well as how much to give – is always a controversial topic, especially for Australians. We're used to workers being paid a fair wage, unlike the very low hourly rates of the US hospitality industry – which in turn means that tipping simply isn't part of our culture.

But there's something to be said for the "When in Rome" approach, so here’s the approach I take.

Let's start with a drink at walk-up airport lounge bars as found in American Airlines Admirals Clubs, American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs and United Clubs.

For something complimentary like a glass of house wine or a spirit drink, I’ll typically leave a US$1 note (a ‘single’) on the counter after the drink is served – while for a more complicated cocktail such as an appropriately-named Big Apple at the AMEX Centurion Lounge in New York, I’ll leave US$2.

However, if I’m only ordering a soft drink, juice or water, I don’t tip. Most lounges offer these via self-serve facilities anyway, so on the rare occasion I’m in a lounge where these are hidden behind the counter, I don’t feel obligated to open my wallet for something that comes at no cost everywhere else.

When paying for a 'premium' drink or dining at a paid airport lounge restaurant where table service is provided I’ll generally tip 15-20% of the bill amount, just as I would at a normal restaurant in the US, plus $1 for every drink on the bill that was ‘free’ (the same as when ordering directly at the bar).

(I’ll normally make that tip through a credit card instead of cash, as the option to add a tip to the purchase is always offered on the signature slip when it comes time to pay: boosting my points tally even further, while also reducing the need to carry US cash.)

I take a different approach in the Qantas First Lounge at LAX where everything is complimentary: my understanding is that the staff here are better-paid than their colleagues in other US airport lounges, and as such I don’t feel the need to tip on a per-drink basis.

However, if I’ve enjoyed a nice meal where the same waiter served me for the entire visit and the service was excellent, I’ll generally tip them $10-20 when leaving the dining area by way of a subtle handshake to ensure the tip reaches the right person.

The way I see it, a multi-course meal with cocktails, Champagne and matching wines would easily cost US$150 or more in a nice restaurant – on which an absolute minimum 15% tip would be US$22.50 – so giving even a portion of that amount in recognition of great service when the meal itself cost me nothing doesn’t seem unreasonable.

How do you deal with tipping at airport lounges in the United States, and do you ever tip in the Qantas LAX lounges? Share your thoughts in the comment box below!

Chris Chamberlin

Chris Chamberlin (ChrisCh)

[email protected] / @ChamberlinChris

Chris Chamberlin is a senior journalist with Australian Business Traveller and lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, a theatre ticket and a glass of wine!
 

62 Comments

  • smit0847

    smit0847

    10 Jan, 2018 12:13 am

    The tipping culture symbolises everything that is broken in the USA.
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  • David Flynn

    David

    10 Jan, 2018 12:21 am

    So I take it that you don’t tip staff at airport lounges..? (Let’s try to keep these comments on-topic rather than make this a social or cultural judgement on the USA.)
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  • Nathan Jordan

    nathanjordan

    10 Jan, 2018 04:19 am

    Oh seriously David, come on; @smit0847's comment ultimately derives from the topic that you instigated in this article! You write a piece entitled, "Should you tip the staff in US airport lounges" and then get all narky when someone follows through by making (what you feel is a judgmental) comment about the fact that the gap between rich and poor in the US is gargantuan, and wait staff are simply not paid appropriately compared to here? If you can't handle somebody making a perfectly valid comment that doesn't personally insult any individual in the slightest, regardless of whether you agree or not, then don't write articles that incite them in the first place.
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  • David Flynn

    David

    10 Jan, 2018 08:55 am

    Nathan, all we're asking is that people comment on how they deal with tipping in US airport lounges (which is, after all, the subject here) rather than risk seeing the thread hijacked with back-and-forth on "what's wrong with the USA".
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  • Robin Ryan

    RobJ

    10 Jan, 2018 04:53 pm

    Last time I was in the Admiral's Club at JFK (some years ago) I ended up with a large quantity of NY subway tokens so I asked the barman if he'd be happy to be tipped in tokens (he was).
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  • Daniel Barreca

    DanielB

    10 Jan, 2018 07:04 pm

    Are they that desperate?
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  • kiwiwings

    kiwiwings

    10 Jan, 2018 01:05 am

    Completely forgot about it at LAX NZ/*A lounge! Cocktail and wine ordered at the bar. (Was confused at hotel lounge so tipped to avoid embarrassment) Airports are an environment where I forget these things due to other airport experiences.

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  • henrus

    henrus

    10 Jan, 2018 07:27 am

    This has been a talking point on Australian Frequent Flyer for many years....

    Qantas have actually confirmed that tipping is not required in any of their lounges. They've also said that staff are not allowed to request tips and are not supposed to accept them as well. Hence there some reports of several $1 bills being scattered across the bar but no one collecting them.
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  • TheBigM

    TheBigM

    10 Jan, 2018 11:07 am

    If that's the case shouldn't they put signage up to that effect? e.g. "Tipping is not required in this establishment" or similar.
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  • sdtravel

    sdtravel

    10 Jan, 2018 11:16 am

    Who do you think is responsible for putting up said signs?

    Perhaps a solution would be to put out a UNICEF jar for Tips to be deposited into. So that they can go towards a good cause.
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  • timster

    timster

    10 Jan, 2018 03:04 pm

    When an independent, employee representative confirms that Qantas pays their lounge staff sufficiently to avoid the need for tipping (that is present everywhere else in the USA), then I will believe that tipping is not necessary in the LAX lounge.
    I wouldn't accept an employer as the sole arbiter of 'fair pay' in this country. Doing so in another country, where I am a visitor, and the customer, would only be self-serving.
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  • Daniel Barreca

    DanielB

    10 Jan, 2018 04:47 pm

    Yes. I remember Qantas mentioning this on their website some time back. They said do not tip as staff were paid at higher rates. If you are asked for a tip then you need to report it. I don't tip in Qantas US Lounges.
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  • sdtravel

    sdtravel

    10 Jan, 2018 07:35 am

    Then there was the whole tipping in the showers scam that happened in LAX.
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  • Jason Hamilton

    JKH

    10 Jan, 2018 08:02 am

    Whilst there are economic system differences bewteeen the US and here (Perhaps broken or otherwise), Chris’ pretext, “When in Rome...” is a valid one.
    If tipping is not permitted in a particular lounge then fair enough, but elsewhere, do it their way.
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  • Daniel Barreca

    DanielB

    10 Jan, 2018 06:08 pm

    We are talking about the lounge not the country. To be in the lounge costs a lot anyway with airfares types - business etc,. So why should you pay extra for something that is a privilege anyway.
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  • Robert Eden

    reno

    10 Jan, 2018 08:17 am

    Yes or stay away
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  • Trogdor

    Trogdor

    10 Jan, 2018 08:35 am

    If the average bartender is pouring 30 drinks per hour for a 6 hour shift, that $180/day or around $40k per year on top of base salary assuming a fairly standard number of days worked per year.

    There's a reason many people in the US don't want the "tipping culture" to change.
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  • TheBigM

    TheBigM

    10 Jan, 2018 11:11 am

    I doubt they'd be consistently running at that rate, i.e. there'd be quiet periods in that shift. Further, the 'base salary' is likely negligible with that amount of tips, since any base is mostly deducted by expected tips.


    Hence that 30-40k is their likely income for the year, which isn't a lucrative income, even in the US.

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  • doug_999

    doug_999

    10 Jan, 2018 03:38 pm

    Trogdor, in the US, most waiters and service staff are required to shared their tips with the rest of their crew (those cleaning tables, etc). So a 15-20% tip almost never goes to the person collecting it. Worse, the US allows employers to pay UNDER minimum wage - $2.13 per hour IF they receive at least $30 per month in tips. At the end of the day, most servers make about $11 per hour, or $22,000 per year. So no, it is not about them not wanting the tipping culture to change - it is about them relying on it to survive. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tipped_wage_in_the_United_States

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  • Himeno

    Himeno

    10 Jan, 2018 08:02 pm

    The IRS has a list of defined "tipped positions" and only those jobs are allowed to be paid the lower "tipped employee" rate.

    Additionally, if tips to not increase that lower paid amount to at least normal min wage, the employer is required to pay the difference.

    Also, the IRS expects tipped employees to make 8% tips and will tax based on that 8%. Thus, there is no reason at all to tip more then 8%.
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  • AJW

    AJW

    11 Jan, 2018 06:31 am

    Except as someone mentioned above often tips get pooled so need 16% if that tip is shared with say the kitchen hand.
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  • Bob Burgess

    Bob Burgess

    10 Jan, 2018 08:58 am

    I can't abide tipping, so even "When in Rome" or rather "When in the USA" I tip only for those "must do" times such as a meal at a decent restaurant, but not at an airport lounge! No way am I going to start handing out $1 for every drink or $10-$20 for a meal at an airport lounge.
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  • Dean

    deanr

    10 Jan, 2018 09:57 am

    When you consider that these staff usually make minimum wage which can be in the region of $2-5 an hour with the rest being made up by tips (and some even less than minimum wage on the expectation that they'll receive tips), refusing to part with $1 for a drink you're sipping for free is a bit sad, IMO!
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  • anonymous

    anonymous

    10 Jan, 2018 10:40 am

    Using that logic you would then have to tip at all worldwide lounges where the wages are low. I am sure there are plenty of lounges out in the world where the staff get paid less than $2-$5 per hour.
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  • Dean

    deanr

    10 Jan, 2018 02:44 pm

    The difference being that in those countries, the cost of living is proportionately lower (such as in Vietnam) which reflects the salary paid (which is low by Western standards but normal by local standards), unlike in the USA where the base wage of most servers buys very little.
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  • Doubleplatinum

    Doubleplatinum

    10 Jan, 2018 04:15 pm

    Well said spot on
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  • flyingdr

    flyingdr

    10 Jan, 2018 09:10 am

    As an Australian who grew up in the US, and worked in the service industry there, I take a mixed approach. I don't tip for the first drink (unless it's a cocktail) but do tip for subsequent drinks.

    Certainly all Americans leave at least $1 per drink but I don't feel that's as expected of foreigners in an airport setting.
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  • Purpledecker

    Purpledecker

    10 Jan, 2018 10:05 am

    I know in most restaurants the staff my earn around $6-8 an hour, as they are expected to earn tips by providing great service, it's simply their system, so if no one tips they earn very little. Also it's not unusual for them to share with the kitchen staff, and they also are supposed to declare and pay tax on their tips. I'm sure a lot don't. But it does tend to ensure a better service... Sometimes..... I actually love it from that point of view, there's a few industries in Australia that could benefit from a customer satisfaction driven payroll.
    But still, it would be good to know if lounge staff are compensated due to the free food and drinks.
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  • Himeno

    Himeno

    10 Jan, 2018 08:05 pm

    I find their idea of "better service" to be annoying and intrusive and makes me less likely to tip.
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  • Steve987

    Steve987

    10 Jan, 2018 10:15 am

    I’m glad it isn’t our system, but it is theirs and so while there I feel like we should participate.

    Re QF, hopefully they do pay above minimum wages to compensate staff for lost tip earning opportunities.
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  • JackMiles

    JackMiles

    10 Jan, 2018 10:18 am

    I think this would be a more interesting article if it included some hard research on what the employees in question are being paid (I note the author says they "understand" QF staff are paid differently to other lounges but otherwise it seems assumed or ignored). If we knew for certain that staff were paid the same as regular hospo staff in the same city, then the When In Rome principle, it seems to me, has a stronger basis. If they're paid a normal living wage, akin to an AUS server, then I'd feel no need to tip.
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  • Chris Chamberlin

    ChrisCh

    10 Jan, 2018 10:28 am

    The word "understand" is used when a media outlet receives information from a reliable source, but isn't in a position to quote that source for one reason or another (such as when the information was provided 'off the record').

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  • JackMiles

    JackMiles

    10 Jan, 2018 11:03 am

    Fair enough. The thrust of my comment still stands.
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  • drgmarshall

    drgmarshall

    10 Jan, 2018 10:36 am

    I never tip anyone in America. If they want high wages, they should move to North Dakota, Ohio or Texas and get a job Fracking for oil where the wages are huge for people with basic secondary education. Life is all about choices. It's not my fault people decide to get a cushy warm job in an airport bar rather than work 12 hour days in -20F on a rig in ND for $150,000 per year.
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  • Dean

    deanr

    10 Jan, 2018 02:46 pm

    You'll find that in a country of 323 million people, people need to live and work across the land, not just for one employer in one or a handful of locations. If everybody did that, there'd be nobody around to fly your plane, serve as cabin crew or staff the airport lounges.
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  • Skippybear

    Skippybear

    10 Jan, 2018 10:43 am

    "Then there was the whole tipping in the showers scam that happened in LAX."

    What happens in the shower stays in the shower :P
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  • Vas Srinivasan

    mspcooper

    10 Jan, 2018 11:57 am

    I make sure i get $1 bills (and plenty of them) before i enter US. Accessing AA lounges, get me 3 drink passes if i'm not wrong. Even if i use them, i give them a $1 tip for every drink i get (usually GT or any spirit). the last time, i was the one of the very few tipping the bartender, so he was happy for me to keep the "vouchers" so i got few more drinks than normal.
    I think it is important to tip the service staff. I use 10% for normal service, 15% for high quality service.
    It is important to be generous, especially when that $1 won't make a big impact in your life.

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  • anonymous

    anonymous

    10 Jan, 2018 12:42 pm

    I think it's sad that a wealthier person (who can afford to tip) gets preferential treatment over a non wealthy person when receiving the exact same service. I get that it's a fact of life but still sad.
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  • Dean

    deanr

    10 Jan, 2018 12:48 pm

    Well, when you think about it, a non wealthy person isn't as likely to be in the lounge in the first place, because they probably wouldn't be flying in business/first class (on routes that provide lounge access in the US), wouldn't have a platinum credit card (as also sometimes gives lounge access over there) or wouldn't likely be able to afford the cost of a lounge membership, in the context of a $1 tip being unaffordable.
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  • kimshep

    kimshep

    10 Jan, 2018 02:34 pm

    Assumptions can sometimes be a little dangerous.

    I'm sure that there are more than a few pensioner Nans / Aunties / Uncles or parents who have ended up gracing the dubious luxury of a few airline lounges simply because they or their family have gifted / redeemed award flights in J for the odd trip.

    It's also wise to consider that the majority of lounge lizards (not all) tend to be flying J class at the behest of their employer-paid fare. It can sometimes be a bit disingenuous to assume that someone is 'wealthy' based on flying J or being present in a lounge. That individual's personal circumstances might be the entire opposite of what you presume - due to mortgages, car loans or leases, dud investments etc. In reality, lounge life can be interesting and certainly variable. Seen it quite a few times ..

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  • Rhys Smith

    smithrhy

    10 Jan, 2018 07:06 pm

    It's wrong to suggest that the wealthier person is more likely to tip than the "non-wealthy person". Just because someone can afford to tip, doesn't mean they do! And on the same note, many of those that can barely afford to do tip, will do so generously.
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  • gardermoen

    gardermoen

    10 Jan, 2018 12:57 pm

    Well, if tipping does not occur in the airport lounges of say, Manila, Kolkata, Bangkok, Jakarta, (or anywhere else in the developing world where tips are expected), then why should you tip in the confines of an airport lounge in the USA? I think airport lounges by nature are somewhat of an exception when it comes to the rules of tipping in the USA.
    I don't think for one moment anyone would tip a bartender at , say, the Cloud Nine Lounge at Addis Ababa airport.
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  • timster

    timster

    10 Jan, 2018 03:12 pm

    Why do you thinking tipping is expected in those countries ? It's not part of their culture at all. The locals certainly don't tip in those countries (unlike in the USA),. The main people who do are Americans, who think the whole world is like the USA. ;)
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  • aggie57

    aggie57

    10 Jan, 2018 02:44 pm

    Minimum wage varies considerably state to state. In California it's $11/hr, increasing to $15/hr by 2022. But in states without their own minimum wage the federal numbers apply. Which is....drum roll..... $2.13/hr plus a minimum tip of $5.12/hr. Giving a true minimum of $7.25/hr. Now I don't know what the average income is on this site but I bet it's more than that. And I bet the person who serves you in your local cafe is getting much more as well.

    Yes, tips are a thing in the US but you don't have to go there.
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  • andyhui01

    andyhui01

    10 Jan, 2018 02:46 pm

    Never tipped at any airline lounges (inc the Delta ones), never will. I am fairly certain the staff working at airline lounges are not being paid $2 per hour.
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  • THOMAS MITCHELL

    tom m

    10 Jan, 2018 03:37 pm

    I loathe the tipping culture in the USA. I would not tip in an airport lounge.

    In restaurants I go with the flow in the USA, but loathe it. You are tipping for service. I have had americans say after the food is mediocre you still need a tip for the waiters. Next time I experience that, maybe I write on the receipt the tip is for the waiter not the kitchen staff. The tip does not create better service, In general its what we expect as normal here.

    For the USA I dont think it helps them have a healthy cost structure. In good places people make enormous amounts from tipping. One person in a blog in Washington state said his neice earnt $700 tips for 2 nights work at an upmarket restuarant. Thats about $40/hr for tips.

    I reckon there are some baggage handlers where you check-in the bag where the bus drops you off at a major SE USA airport, making a fortune from tips, to let a few pounds go by.

    This would not only be happening at that airport.

    The tipping cutlure opens many places up for rorts.
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  • EdS

    EdS

    10 Jan, 2018 03:37 pm

    When you go to an airport lounge, whether because you paid to join, have accumulated enough staus to have it free, or it comes with the ticket, then you expect everything to be free. Giving a tip is a payment, which you would not expect. Nevetheless it may be prudent, espetially with some airline which can be parsimonious wityh their drink voucher. A $1 tip seems reasonable for sa drink, especially if the barkeep forgets to pickup the voucher. I was in LAX QF first class after spending a month in Texas where tipping seemed mandatory, but it never occured to me to leave a tip.

    PS Do they give receipts!

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  • Chris Chamberlin

    ChrisCh

    10 Jan, 2018 03:57 pm

    "Do they give receipts?"

    Never for cash tips of course, but if you tip via credit card when paying for something else, you're normally given a duplicate receipt on which you can write your tip amount, which you can keep. (That also helps with credit card reconciliation, as the amount you've written on the receipt will match the total amount charged to your credit card.)
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  • EdS

    EdS

    11 Jan, 2018 06:52 am

    Sorry, the receipt comment was a but cheeky on my part.
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  • crosscourt

    crosscourt

    10 Jan, 2018 03:38 pm

    No! Bloody nonsense to be tipping in an airline lounge.
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  • Joe

    Joe

    10 Jan, 2018 03:45 pm

    The whole tipping phenomenon is a scam. It’s a scam by employers who laugh all the way to the bank witu the customer paying for goods and services AND their empoyees salary. I never tip never will. I detest the fact it’s added on to bills in the USA. Airlines lounges are a definite no tip zone. Why should you you have paid for that premium level of service already...if the employer is not passing that premium you have paid on and picketing it him/herself well I’m not foolish enough to fall for that scam.
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  • andrew84

    andrew84

    10 Jan, 2018 03:45 pm

    lol didn't take long to blow up.

    drinks fine - tipping for food in QF lounge? ahh no way.

    imo this no doubt encourages servers/waiters to start expecting it, discussions had in the break room, and potentially, tips in the shower scenarios!
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  • V Champion

    Vulch

    10 Jan, 2018 04:18 pm

    Not in a million years would I have even thought of tipping in that lounge. And considering I actively try and arrive at the airport with no local currency left on me, it is not likely to ever happen.
    So short anser is, no.
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  • justin.thomas7

    justin.thomas7

    10 Jan, 2018 04:44 pm

    If it’s a US airline lounge (eg AA) - yes. I don’t tip in QF or BA lounges.

    It wasn’t that long ago you had to pay for drinks in the Admirals Lounge. I treat it like any other bar in the US (ie - tip).

    I think a lot of Aussies are missing the point - give a nice generous tip on your first drink and you’ll never have to wait for a drink for the rest of your visit. I’m sure I’ll be served before all of those on here who say they refuse to tip.

    Whether or not you agree with the tipping culture, the point is it is the system in the US - if you don’t like it, don’t go there. I view not tipping as a form of theft - you pay for your products and service separately in the US, if you don’t tip you haven’t paid for your service.
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  • -- --

    Bollen

    10 Jan, 2018 04:45 pm

    "When in Rome" is exactly the course of action here. It gets very busy in Admirals Clubs as you will no doubt be aware. I always do the $1 tip per drink as many above have also indicated. No matter how busy the bar is, I am always served within seconds of returning for my next drink :)
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  • rrysp

    rrysp

    10 Jan, 2018 05:45 pm

    I find tipping shows just how different Aus culture differs from the US. I really hate doing the maths to work out what the bill really costs after every single social outing. If your own employer wont respect you enough to pay you a fair wage then why should the customer? (Other than a fake smile)... Rant over.

    To answer the question I'd probably leave a couple of dollars out of guilt after every drink only if I saw others doing so.

    I view the lounge as part of the soft product of the flight and as tipping of flight crew isn't standard I see neither is the lounge.

    If a US airline were to add an inflight bar such as Virgin Aus to their aircraft where would others stand in respect to tipping the crew here?
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  • cloud-9

    cloud-9

    10 Jan, 2018 09:53 pm

    The easiest thing when tippong in US restaurants etc is to double 8ke the tax. That equates (I am assured) to the correct tip.

    I picked up this on another ff forum! Very easy
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  • peteshep

    peteshep

    11 Jan, 2018 08:58 am

    Unfortunately that doesn't really work - tax rates vary significantly between different states in the US. Anywhere from zero in Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Delaware up to 9.98% in Louisiana. If you double the Louisiana tax, then you're pretty much at a 20% tip, but in say Hawaii you'd have to multiply by 4 as the tax rate is just over 4%. There are also local taxes that apply, and so depending where you are, applying a simple formula may still not work.

    To be honest, even Americans don't really know exactly what the rules are. We've asked numerous friends there and they all have different views - some say you only tip on the pre-tax amount (eg. 15% of the bill before the tax is added), some say it's the whole bill including tax, and others have even said you only tip on the food part plus a $1 per drink equivalent (so a bottle of wine would be 5-ish drinks so $5, irrespective of the price). There is the thought that why should a $100 bottle of wine get a bigger tip than a $20 bottle of wine - the effort required by the waiter is exactly the same.
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  • Robert Eden

    reno

    10 Jan, 2018 06:57 pm

    Do you really think any one working the Australian lounges is getting living wage.give me a break and them a tip to.
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  • John Ruming

    jcr737

    10 Jan, 2018 08:47 pm

    Happy to do so. In the Delta Sky Lounge T2 at LAX in October. People sitting at the bar & walking up to the bar were all tipping the staff. Felt more embarrassed not to tip. Cannot believe people here on ausbt crowing about flying J & F & yet are miserly when it comes to shelling out a few bucks. Each to their own I guess.
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  • RUmsey

    RUmsey

    11 Jan, 2018 06:26 pm

    Generally, tipping airline staff in the US is not required. However in lounge bars Americans usually tip the bar servers like they do in any other bar so what can you do but follow their lead? I don't know if the bar servers are airline employees, contractors or whatever. You also have to tip the baggage porters and again I don't know if they are airline employees or whatever.

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  • cloud-9

    cloud-9

    11 Jan, 2018 07:31 pm

    Tippong porters is pretty much world-wide. Tipping lounge staff? Not so. I hadn't even thought about it until reading this thread yesterday.

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24 Jun, 2018 12:06 am

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