United Club Shakedown: Tip Demands From Staff Infuriate Passengers – Enough Is Enough

An airport lounge is supposed to be a place to refuge from the terminal. You have a quiet place to wait, some food and a place to for a complimentary drink. It’s not supposed to be a place where you get shaken down but several reports are that this is happening at United Clubs.

I usually tip in the United Club, especially if I am going to be there for a while. Last time I didn’t, I was coming from a celebration of life where Hawaiian shirt / beach vibes had been requested as attire to honor our friend.

I ordered my drink in the United Club and my mind was elsewhere. The bartender points to the tip bucket and says “tips go right there.” I look up probably bewildered looking because I’m bereaved and he scoffs at me.

There’s a bartender at the SFO United Club near the F gates that will demand a tip.

I was in a United Club between flights this week, and overheard an attendant asking another patron for a tip. The attendant said “no tip?” as the individual got up to leave.

United Club Chicago O’Hare

It’s not just United, of course. Here’s a discussion of Delta Sky Club tipping. And goodness, I hope you’re not tipping in the Delta One lounge at JFK. Say you’ve spent $5,000 roundtrip on the ticket, you’re supposed to be nickel and dimed for your pre-boarding drink?

Here are 3 important points to consider about tipping as a practice.

  • Airport employees don’t make a ‘tipped wage’ where the employer can pay less than minimum wage, and you make up the difference with your tips. (Even where tipped wages are paid, the employer has to make up the difference with minimum wage. Tipping literally means the employer pays less for those positions.)

  • Tipping allows employers to pay less. There’s a certain wage needed to attract workers. It doesn’t matter whether you pay it or the employer does. By tipping more, employers don’t have to raise wages.

  • Tipping is crass. It’s awkward. It’s a friction – do you carry cash? Do you have to spend time futzing with a QR code and a credit card? It’s classist. It’s often a bribe that creates bad incentives, think about the “$20 trick” at hotel check-in that’s de rigueur in Las Vegas, though $100 works better at nice properties and the front desk agent is usually ‘kicking up’. You pay the worker wages, and they give away their employer’s product.

United Polaris Lounge Newark

I once had both the American Airlines Senior Vice President and Managing Director for Los Angeles tell me that tipping was not permitted in Flagship First Dining, and that this was standard across the First Dining locations, because they consider it “an extension of the cabin.”

At American Airlines airport customer service employees are allowed to accept “promotional items, complimentary tickets or perishable gifts (candy, fruit, etc)” that’s worth no more than $100. American tells employees to “share[..] with colleagues when practical.” However gifts worth over $100 must be returned.

Employees are not allowed to accept “cash, gift cards, and gift certificates” regardless of amount. So no tips, and no Starbucks gift cards. In the club, reservations agents are airline employees. Food service is generally outsourced to a provider like Sodexo. They shouldn’t solicit tips but can generally accept them. Wages vary by airport but frequently start at $20 per hour in many places.

Stop tipping for airport lounge food and beverage service. If you want to tip the person cleaning up a shower you’ve used, by all means I’m not going to stop you. But part of premium services is that they aren’t supposed to feel transactional. Employers need to cover the full cost of employment so that they stop making customers uncomfortable.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You pay $600 for club access so you don’t have to pay for drinks/tips. The lounge is already not worth the cost.

  2. Tip if you are moved to do so. Don’t tip if you are not so moved. Let’s not be slaves to others’ expectations and completely made-up social “norms,” and compelled to act against our wishes by nonsensical ideas of guilt and/or wanting to be liked.

  3. A tip was to provide an extra couple $$ to say thanks for great service and wasn’t demanded. Since the extra service is never delivered. Who the feck is tipping. Idiots. Youve been owned by corporations. But hey, if you like to be gaslit by corporations to pay their staff….good for you.

  4. Great article! But you forgot the exorbitant annual fee for the credit card. That’s got to be worth something. No tips from me in the lounges.

  5. @Hayden. I pay the wages of the checkout clerk at the grocery. I pay the wages of the pilot on my plane. I do it through the price of the product/service. For servers in the US, I pay through tips. We could eliminate tipping, but then I’d pay the server just the same through menu prices. Whether you like the system or not, tipping is not some company conspiracy. It’s just how things developed. You just sound like you’d like to have the advantage of lower menu prices and just want a reason to scr€w the staff. Stop feigning concern for tipped employees, so you can justify not tipping them. None of this applies to the lounge employees.

  6. We are moving closer to cashless. I use credit for points everywhere and I typically run out of small bills which I only use for tips. Fortunately, I don’t hit the bar unless it’s for an espresso beverage, so I rarely have to deal with it. I wouldn’t mind giving a tip if I could charge it but that is not an option in the clubs as far as I am aware (charging a tip without a cost for a service). I do agree that airline lounges should not allow tips. And, the lounge tipping policy should be visibly posted. If the airline really wants to allow tips without using a CC to charge them it should put in an ATM machine that dispenses $1 bills.

  7. I realize pretty much has gone digital but a cashless society is not the way to go. I resent sticking the panel in your face that starts with a 10% tip and upwards before you’re even served! I decline it every time. This began with the “no contact” covid nonsense.

  8. I have no problem tipping for good, friendly service at Admirals Club. My money, my choice. If one wishes to not tip, don’t.

  9. If soliciting tips in the lounges is not permitted and there is a bucket marked tips on the counter, photograph both the employee and the bucket when they aren’t seeing you do it, so that when you report the person to the airline, they cannot lie and say that it isn’t true. No excuse for soliciting tips, if it is against company policy, especially if they are demanding that you give them one!

  10. That’s why travelers from around the world despise traveling to the United States of america. The Tipping culture is so obscene. People can’t stand it anymore. Why doesn’t your culture start paying people properly and get rid of the tips and the expectation of tips. What happened in the US and someone shoves a jar in front of my face I usually take and turn it over on the counter and leave it for them to clean up as they scream at me when I leave. I could care less what they think shop your tipping culture up your ass America! Tip this tip that tip last tip that tip that tip ME!!!

  11. Your Platinum or Centurion American Express card is NOT welcome or accepted at American Express Centurion Lounges for tipping bartenders. Has your AMEX Membership lost its privileges?

  12. Something I always appreciated about Alaska’s Lounges. They have a firm “no tipping policy” and even have signs on the counter that say “No Tipping” should there be any confusion on what is expected.

  13. I am tipping far less in general nowadays because the tipping culture in North America has reached a “tipping point” of ridiculousness that has just pissed me off.

    I realized one day that I am never going to see this person again in my life and I frankly don’t care at all what they think of me. I am one of 1000 people they will serve this week and I’ll be forgotten anyway.

  14. Tipping has gotten out of control. Everyone thinks they don’t get paid enough by their employer and their salary should be subsidized by customers. If an employee feels that way, they need to seek other employment. Otherwise, it is only a matter of time before doctors, lawyers, engineers, bank tellers, and so on, demand to be tipped. Stop the madness, stop tipping, and force employers to pay a fair wage.

  15. Yep, out tipping culture has gotten out of control. The final straw for me was the Jiffy Lube guy turning the screen toward me. Sorry, getting my oil changed, air filter replaced, and truck inspected for $180 is not going to qualify for even a 10%, or $18 tip.

  16. @Greg Jones, “That’s why travelers from around the world despise traveling to the United States of america [sic].” Reading your note, I’m guessing America won’t miss you. Feel free to remove us from future itineraries.

  17. I’ve worked in an airport restaurant for 20+ years, we work on tips alone! My pay wage is $3.50 with no raise options. My wage is not enough to pay my taxes on paycheck… What’s a few bucks for the person doing everything for you?

  18. I’ve been a United Club member for years, never have been shaken down for a tip, but I do tip the person making my drink for me, but if what I read about others being asked for a tip- I would fire the offending club workers, or at least give them a stern warning that if it happens again, you’re done here!

  19. Where it gets nuts is when you travel for work for a week and you realize you’re subsidizing both corporate greed and a string of random folks personal bad decisions.
    I can’t claim it and I can’t bill it because it’s discretionary.
    That’s my money I’m handing over and it’s becoming an expected stipend.
    Wish I’d get a 20% tax free bonus on everything billable that I touch. Only wish.

  20. @joanie adams Do the tip screens that get shoved in your face only start at 10%? Lucky you! At general restaurants here in the NorCal Bay Area, in addition to all the random and spurious fees that are tacked onto a restaurant bill, the tablet min tip is usually 18% or 20%. Sometimes higher than 20%. Only once do I remember seeing a refreshing 15% as the min tip. Of course you can always do a custom tip (unless you are at a restaurant who has an automatic 18% ‘service charge’ on parties of 1 or more — yay me, this restaurant is in my hometown in the Bay Area.).

  21. I’m so tired of Tipping culture here in the U.S., ESPECIALLY before anything is done. Like at Ice Cream & Coffee shops or other Food establishments when you pay at ordering and they say “it’s goning to ask you a few questions. Or when doing CarryOut at a Pizza place like Domino’s and the cashier has the nerve to suggest a tip. We tip for SERVICE and above & beyond service at that. It’s not just a given.

  22. The Alaska Lounge doesn’t allow tips. I tipped the bartender and was told thanks but they aren’t allowed to accept tips. That’s how it should be in my opinion

  23. If you have the money for a Club membership don’t be a cheap person. Likely these people are making minimum wage and rely on tips. A dollar per drink won’t kill you and if it will you shouldn’t be spending money on the membership. They are providing a service.

  24. SFO F lounge bartender slowly moving and doing maintenance tasks with a line 6 people deep. No Tip ( To Insure Promptness)

  25. How about this complete tipping nonsense is refused by all guests everywhere? Employers would need to raise the wages to no minimum and would recoup it with official declared prices upfront including tax…..oh wait this is how europe and japan roll

  26. Yikes! Tipping isn’t “crass” and you’re not going to teach corporations a ‘lesson’ by not tipping workers — doesn’t matter that they don’t make a tipped wage. Tip for service roles where tips are customary (baggage porter, bartender, restaurant server…), otherwise, don’t use those services. Simple!

  27. Most job have some form of tipping in, even if it isnt described as tips.

    At the same time, when they shove the screen in your face with precalculated tips, realise that it has most probably been set up to include the percentage on the whole bill, tax included.
    So always tip a percentage below unless you like tipping your server on the moeny going to Uncle Sam.

  28. The Invited Club, formerly known as Club Corp, automatically ads a 20% “service charge” to any food or drink item (plus tax, consequently a mediocre $8.00 hot dog is $9.76.) And they do this while stating that the “service charge” is shared by all employees (evidently instead of paying a living wage.) Invited adds to the insult by providing a line on the charge slip for the member to write in a TIP! Tipping in America really has gotten out of control and it also reflects the corporate greed of companies and an international holding company that will not pay a living wage to it’s service employees.

  29. I use United Club at Heathrow about 4-5 times per year. I TIP once on first drink to ensure good service for the next drinks (to be fair the staff are good and deserve it anyway). At Bangkok with Thai or Krisflyer lounges I always TIP on departing the lounge and always tell the staff how I liked their service. The money and comments are always appreciated. If any staff anywhere ever demanded a TIP then I’d tell them where to get off. Not acceptable. What next? Cabin crew expecting a TIP?

  30. Interesting that this has never happened in my travels throughout the US. With this article being posted, I hope that it gets noticed by the powers that be. Many people pay a lot in credit card and ticket prices to gain access to these lounges. Bartenders should be tipped, at a bar!

  31. I recently heard about the strike of airport workers at LAX. The reporter mentioned that they also work in airline VIP lounges and I was surprised. I always thought that the lounger workers, bartenders etc were employees of the airline but apparently they are not. And they are paid low wages.

    So if I don’t tip the bartender in the Polaris lounge…chances are he’s going to provide bad service to the next passenger who in turn will say the United Lounge has bad service. So ultimately this reflects on the airline. So what to do ? DO the airlines pay more to the outsourced company or do we tip ?

  32. I tip in those lounges but not when the bartender points it out to me. Then no tip.

  33. Along a similar note, I purchased an uncooked/frozen local farm steak from a nearby burger restaurant that has a small “pantry” shop for things like this. The clerk caught me off guard flipping the tip selection over to me – for the bag of items I picked and bagged myself. A little annoyed and confused I did end up adding a tip. I will never go back. The place is nice and has a community feel but that completely ruined it for me.

  34. I will tip unless I’m waiting too long or get wrong or incomplete order. But watching airline profits rise and less drinks included, I draw the line on the premium drinks. If I am already paying for premium travel experience or have it included due to corporate loyalty, I do not feel it is fair. I remember enjoying Baileys with coffee often at Delta Crown Rooms and top shelf liquor. I did not abuse it, but I do not feel the premium drink upcharge is fair.

  35. Having been a bartender many moons ago when I worked for tips, I still can’t imagine any moment in time back then when I would have suggested – much less passive-aggressively demanded – I be given a tip. I have been swindled by the big spenders who gave no tip or a 1% percent and received a $100 tip from someone who had one drink. That’s part of the risk calculus when reliant on tipping. But if workers are earning a fair wage, then it’s not as necessary and in those cases I do look at tips as a true gratuity. That said, I’ve tipped many a person in the club. You know who never gets one from me in the club? The person who expects it and indicates as such as well as the bartenders who couldn’t give me the time of day even during slow times. I look upon that as poor service that should not be rewarded.

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