Tipping etiquette when traveling can be a complicated and controversial subject. The more you travel, the more confusing it all is. I recently had a reader ask me about tipping etiquette when dining in American Airlines Flagship First Dining, so I figured I’d answer that question more broadly.
Should you tip in airport lounges, and if so, under what circumstances is it appropriate and/or expected?
Tipping in airport lounges is never expected
Let me state upfront that tipping is never expected in an airport lounge anywhere in the world. In other words, it’s not like dining in a restaurant in the United States, where you’re a jerk if you (knowingly) don’t tip, as servers aren’t even being paid minimum wage before tips.
As you might expect, though, the custom of tipping in airport lounges is very different depending on where in the world you are. So while no one tips in airport lounges in Japan, a lot of people do tip in airport lounges in the United States.
While tipping is never expected in airport lounges in the United States:
- It certainly is appreciated for some kinds of services
- People working in airport lounges are at least paid minimum wage (unlike restaurant servers), but of course minimum wage and a livable wage aren’t the same thing
- For many airport lounge employees, tipping does make a significant difference to their bottom line and ability to provide for themselves and their family
- You might think it’s mostly Americans tipping, but that’s not my understanding; based on what I’ve been told, it’s just as much foreigners, partly because they might not be familiar with US customs (other than knowing that you’re supposed to constantly tip), and also since they may have some leftover currency and might be leaving the country
Never feel like you have to tip, but also realize that tipping is appreciated under many circumstances, and it is a common practice.
Under what circumstances should you tip in airport lounges?
Generally speaking, under what circumstances are tips common in airport lounges? I’d say there are a few different situations, so let’s go over those. I’m just sharing my take and observations, though again, I’m not claiming there’s a right or wrong answer.
When you are served a drink
In many airport lounges drinks are served by bartenders, so if you want a glass of wine or a cocktail, they’ll have to serve you. It’s not unusual to see people tip $1-3 per drink, with the lower end being common for pouring a glass of wine, and the higher end being common for a custom cocktail.
I know that some people who choose to sit at the bar in an airport lounge may just tip $20 upfront, and then they get amazing service the entire time. I’m not saying people should do that, but it is a common practice.
I’d say a similar tipping etiquette applies for the custom avocado toast station in the Admirals Club, especially if you don’t want them to be stingy with toppings. 😉
When you have a sit-down meal
In the past several years we’ve seen an increase of airlines offering a la carte dining in lounges, whether we’re talking about American Flagship First Dining or United Polaris Lounges. This is a lovely experience, and in many cases offers restaurant-quality food, drinks, and service.
Assuming service is friendly and attentive, I’ll generally tip $10-20, depending on how much I eat and drink. Usually I try to tip around 20% of what I think a meal like that would cost in a restaurant outside an airport. I consider it to be a small price to pay for a great experience.
While we’re at it, there are many Priority Pass restaurants nowadays, where your Priority Pass membership gets you a certain dollar credit toward a meal. In those situations you absolutely should tip in the United States, since the credit is just another form of payment.
When you get a spa treatment
Admittedly these opportunities are pretty limited nowadays since many airport lounge spas were closed during the pandemic. However, some airport lounges do have spas with complimentary treatments. Tipping is appreciated here, and I’ll usually tip $5-10 for a mini-treatment. I try to think of how much a similar treatment would cost if paying cash, and then use the same 20% tipping rule.
When you get exceptional service
Even without a la carte dining or spa treatments, sometimes you have lounge employees who simply go above and beyond. They’ll constantly check on you, see if you want anything to drink, clear plates constantly, etc. Rumana at the Capital One Lounge DFW is the perfect example of this.
In these situations I think tipping as a sign of gratitude is a nice gesture, though also certainly not expected. Most of the people who are this friendly do so because they genuinely want to make other people happy, and not because they’re hoping to get a tip.
What about lounge tipping outside the United States?
As mentioned above, the above guidelines are mostly for lounges in the United States, since we have a culture of tipping. What about outside the United States? Obviously I wouldn’t tip in a place like Japan for any services, as it would be considered rude.
What about aside from that, though? I typically don’t tip in airport lounges outside the United States, with the exception of when getting spa treatments. I personally feel good about tipping in those situations, though I also think it’s totally reasonable to not tip.
Aside from that, I don’t typically tip for dining and drinks in the same way I would in the United States.
Tipping is never expected in airport lounges. However, depending on where in the world you are, it’s also not necessarily unusual to do so. In the United States it’s common to see people tipping a couple of dollars when a bartender pours a drink, or tipping a bit more than that for a sit-down meal or a spa treatment in an airport lounge.
Airport lounge employees are consistently paid at least minimum wage (unlike most restaurant workers), and many airports even have high minimum wages. However, a high minimum wage still isn’t going to be a livable wage in many places.
I know that in some lounges, guests tipping makes a material difference in how much people make, and helps airport lounges retain some good talent.
And let me say that even though I have my general “system,” I’m also not 100% consistent. Sometimes I don’t have small bills (or any cash), so I won’t tip. But I try to make up for it the next time, in hopes of it all balancing out.
What’s your approach to tipping in airport lounges?