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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Comments

  1. @Gary: “It doesn’t matter whether you pay it or the employer does”.

    You always “pay it”.

    There is no payroll fairy.

  2. Tipping has become a disease in our society. Needs to be stopped. Even keeping it optional is not s good idea.

  3. I had no idea that they ask for tips . I was in a habit of tipping for servers ( I cannot stand up at a bar anyway ) , but I have no idea what my reaction might be if a non-server asked me for a tip ? It seems sort of “Bush League” for airline employees to Ask up front .

  4. I’m fed up with it all. No more tipping.
    I got a haircut Friday and for the first time in my adult life. I did not tip. After $25 for a 5 minute #1 run over my head, I paid enough (not a big city).
    I’m done with it.
    We have to put an end to this madness.
    This has nothing to do with being cheap. Just add it to the price of service so there is transparency. That’s all any of us want. Then we can decide whether or not we want to pay for the service or not or we understand the total price.

  5. @David R Miller – bartending is a real job. Shaking a stick on the internet is not.

  6. I think a situation like that calls for speaking to the manager and/or corporate.

  7. Quickest fix is for the airline(s) to eliminate this lunacy is to ban any form of tip solicitations on the club premises regardless of employer and make it clear if an employee accepts a tip they will be looking for a new job.

    Tipping culture here is getting out of hand IMHO and this minimum wage exemption for certain service industries needs to end.

  8. Yes, tipping has gotten out.of hand when it allows an employer to get away with paying low wages..and I’m not talking about wait staff or bar staff working a restaurant with $120 filet and $75 scotches. And there is, in my opinion, even worse tipping going on..the kind that allows employers to pay wages so low that they give their employees ‘guidance ‘ on how to apply for at get EBT assistance from the start. That employee is, in effect, being tipped by all.of.the taxpayers.

  9. I stopped carrying cash at the beginning of the pandemic. So have lots of others, I assume tips are down for that reason.

  10. It’s very naive to think that the company will increase wages if there is no tipping. Tipping is quite normal, and the right thing to do, regardless of whether the employer is paying them less. I agree that nobody should demand a tip. But articles like this that discourage tips to thousands of hard working lounge employees who provide good service because of the author’s personal preference.is quite shameful.

  11. Oh yes, I have a few thoughts here as I spent 20 years in service hospitality on both the management and non-management sides.

    There are many people who make their livings in life working in the service industry. They have families. They educate their children. And they provide everything their families need. This is the class of service worker who wouldn’t dare even so much as speak about tips. Not unless it is an inquiry from the client him or herself. Professional service workers stay well away from that arena. What a client elects to do is what they do. You win some, you lose few at all really and it all levels out in the end.

    I do not like companies that tell their employees that they cannot receive tips. That’s ridiculous. My tipping someone is my gratitude for someone’s time & service and that should not be impeded by a large company., that is completely within my own choosing. I’m just going to guess that even those who work in the airport lounges are not well compensated and tips pickup the rest making the job worth their while. The suggestion that people stop tipping to “force” companies to raise wages – good luck, not going to happen. It’s no secret that when hourly pay goes up, hours, shifts and workers get cut. There will be fewer to cover shifts, less tine off per worker, frequent closing shifts followed by next day opening shifts which is physically taxing. So, I suggest continuing to tip as you deem appropriate for the service that you receive. If it has to be discreet, so be it. Service workers will never be paid sufficient to live life absent gratuities from clientele.

    It boggles my mind that any service worker would hint or even suggest a client tip him or her. That’s just plain stupid and most of these people will wash out at some point. I couldn’t even imagine the awkwardness of suggesting a client tip me. That’s just phucked up!

    While I have lived in years past as a service worker in 3. 4 and 5-star dining environments as well as corporate management at the restaurant level, I do still amd have always believed that it is upon each person if/when/and how much or what percentage of tip a service worker deserves or is entitled to. It may be $100 or more, it may be nothing. I just hope the nothings are reserved for the truly unacceptable and intolerable experiences as created by the worker.

  12. I agree tipping has gotten ridiculous. HOWEVER, I always tip the bartender in any US airport lounge (don’t internationally since not an accepted practice everywhere). I can easily afford a few dollars tip for a drink. BTW the majority of people I see in the Centurion Lounge also tip bartenders. I don’t tip people that clear the tables or provide other services but bartenders, to me, are in a special class. Now I disagree with them demanding or even requesting a tip and if people decide not to tip that is up to them and your conscious but I find it reasonable and appropriate to do so. BTW, I always carry cash, usually in smaller bills when I travel as you never know when a tip may be appropriate. If you only have larger bills they will make change (have done that many times). People that use the “I don’t carry cash” as an excuse not to tip are frankly just cheap!

  13. Thank you L3 for pointing this out. Considering Gary’s “day job”, it fascinates me he doesn’t have a better grasp of economics.

  14. One thing to keep in mind: price points that the establishment set on their food and drink have no bearing on the service worker aside from increased potential tip based on standard tipping percentages. The worker might be tipped nothing. Or, the worker might be tipped a full $20 on a $100 meal experience based on the typical 20%. So, even if you pay some absolutely retarded, exorbitant amount for your meal, that has no bearing on the worker – no part of that food cost goes to the worker. That is all the house’s income.

  15. “nickel and dimed?”

    “tipping is crass?”

    Really?

    Don’t be a cheapskate! It’s so simple:

    TIP!!

  16. I don’t normally tip at airport lounges, and since I don’t use the bars there’s generally no place to leave a tip. Today in LAX (Delta) the woman making omelets had a tip box in front of her. She didn’t ask for a tip or give any indication that anybody should give her one. I gave her a tip and it was the first time I ever tipped at an airport lounge, because of the level of service and her attitude.

    As for wages, there’s no such thing as a lower wage for tipped employees in California. I think that the minimum wage is $17.28 for Los Angeles. I don’t think that anybody could live on that, especially alone. Regardless, I don’t object to tip jars, but people should not be asking for tips. The whole point of tipping in such locations is that it’s up to the individual.

  17. The airline should have a display at the lounge counter for passengers that says tipping not allowed and any employee asking for tip is subject to termination . This is why I only order take outs from restaurants

  18. A tip is the amount that one American will pay to get another American to acknowledge their inferiority.

  19. Fair point – I left $5 in the Chelsea lounge after a meal at a dining table.

    The server, who was nice enough to begin with and createed no expectation of a tip, became very attentive when we went to sit elsewhere.

    I probably should avoid creating the expectations

  20. Post covid, there were so many people that got really hurt financially. I kicked in with over tipping to help them get back on their feet. Unfortunately, that has not expanded into everyone that performs a service is posting that opportunity to tip in front of you. I read that tipping has increased 80% just from the guilt and shame factors facing us on those iPad screens that make it easy and public to tip and adding the ease of a simple button, we are being dragged into higher and higher minimum tips.

    Rideshare drivers are being exploited by their companies taking more than 50% of the fares.

    The term tipable employee come from the fact that they are allowed to be paid some minimal hourly rate in the expectation of tips. The IRS imputes an income on these ’employees’ to assume what their taxable income should be. So, if you fail to tip a tipable employee, they will actually pay taxes on money that they didn’t receive.

    Unfortunately, I have to depend upon the goodwill of the lounge bartenders to keep my glass full and there is a bonus if they actually made a craft like drink. I tip the food server in the ord Polaris lounge because I feel that is above and beyond while possibly contradicting the argument I just made. I observed a gentleman that was busting his ass at the CLT AC just because I wanted to do something nice I slipped him a $20.

    I frequently read blogs where people ask how many crew are on a particular flight so they can get them gifts. Seems I just read that they aren’t allowed to accept gifts but apparently someone is.

    Hearing that now they are so bold as to actually solicit a tip further supports my decision to stop supporting the post covid movement. Tipping is straight out of hand. The fact that the FAs are on foodstamps is the fault of having a worthless union, not my problem. Hotel service has been cut at least 50% and yet the expectation of tips didn’t decrease at all.

    Why should part of my travel planning include having enough USD to be able to tip myself out and back into this country? The CEO has the right idea, sadly he can’t fire anyone because they are working so cheaply that his check is way above par. Time for a change.

  21. Anyone that had to ask for a tip, doesn’t serve one.

    It’s the whole reason behind tipping in the first place. If someone goes above and beyond regular service, then you tip to show your gratitude, or to elicit similar above and beyond service for the next interaction. Tipping for doing something that is standard (and what is listed as the advertised price) shouldn’t happen.

  22. I would have immediately complained to the supervisor at THE CLUB And complained also on United’s website. I really hope it happens to me.

  23. As a rule, airline employees should not be tipped. It’s a professional job and they’re paid as such and have good benefits. The employees serving drinks/food in airline lounges do not work for the airline. They are typically contractors. That said, if these lounges are supposed to be exclusive enclaves with included drinks then tipping seems out of place. Demanding a tip is never classy and should not be tolerated.

  24. Have a nice day!
    (I am also underpaid, so please send me a tip for taking the time to serve you with this comment).

  25. Terminal 1 ORD, bartenders making bad faces when clients dont tip, and then if customers come again, they are getting ignored for longer period of time.
    Strange attitude knowing that we paid 60$ to just enter the club…

  26. People should just complain to United and if they get enough complaints, the bartenders may get fired. With the exception of Alaska, the employees in the clubs (past the desks) are outsourced- they are not employees of the airlines, and are not unionized. If they are being so aggressive with tips, they should be terminated. (This is coming from someone who always tips airline club bartenders:.. but also believes it should be discretionary.)

  27. @ DWT — The bartenders at SFO clubs are unionized employees of subcontractors, and they are paid well with Cadillac health insurance and pension.

  28. I have not used United, but never had that issue at AA or Delta lounges. Worried the issue will spread.

  29. Alaska lounges have signs up saying that tipping is expressly forbidden. I’ve seen people try anyway and the bartenders turn it down.

  30. Due to overcrowding, when there is about an hour wait to enter the American Express Centurion Lounge in Dallas and other locations using your platinum American Express card (annual fee $695), is it better to tip the “line bouncer,” who monitors foot traffic in and out of the lounge and handles the waitlist, twenty to fifty dollars cash to receive priority for immediate entry?
    Or, would you accept an invitation for the higher annual fee American Express Centurion card, which includes the exceptional card member benefit of immediate and priority entry to all AMEX Centurion lounges worldwide without feeling obligated to tip?

  31. I will never tip in a club lounge. We already pay a high price and have our conditions constrained on a yearly basis. Service, especially in the United States, is lackluster and sometimes ghetto. Americans have a poor notion of what good customer service is. The food is so-so in US club lounges. I pay hundreds of dollars for entry just for some semblance of peace and quiet. I don’t require some street-hire hustling me for a tip just for a sip of vino.

  32. If I get good service.. I always tip.at least $1-$5 per drink regardless of service. Just for the bartender.

    I know some of you think that “tipping is crass” or you’re being “nickel and dimed”

    Totally agree with PM don’t be a cheapskate.

    Regardless of the principle of tipping is good or bad (it takes some getting used to on our trips abroad since it’s mostly no tipping.) I always tip since I’m well aware that these people make fairly low wages… Unionized or not… It just my way of showing our appreciation for their service.

    If you can afford a lounge membership.. Either through a credit card or not… You can spare $1-5.

    Don’t be cheap!

  33. A sign in the Alaska lounge I was in last week at SEA unambiguously told guests not to
    tip. What’s gotten out of hands are suggested tip amounts on checks. When the lowest number is 20 percent, you know we’ve gone off the deep end.

  34. This is ridiculous. I call on United and other airlines to ban tipping in their clubs. Club membership should cover tips. Pay the employees more and strictly ban tipping and tip jars. It’s tacky! These clubs are supposed to be a step above the outside world in the terminal and they cost a lot.

  35. This is something I really appreciate about Alaska – they’re not allowed to accept tips at all in their lounges. I wish more of their US competitors would follow suit.

  36. I felt pressured to tip at the guacamole stand at CLT Admirals Club last week as did a lot of other people. The lady even paused making guacamole so she could take out the big bills 20s) from the tip bowl which she probably planted there or naive European tourists probably paid.

  37. @Steve G–I completely agree. In restaurants, I have always tipped 15 percent on the total tab, including tax,–and then rounded up by a couple dollars.
    Since I am no spring chicken, there has been tremendous inflation over the years of my adulthood, both in terms of prices AND sales tax rates (sales rax in Seattle is currently 10.25%). So, applying a consistent tip percentage has also kept up with inflation. Demanding 18 or 20% is ridiculous. Demanding a tip at all tends to make me go out of my way not to give one, particularly for counter take out self service.

    All of that said, my guess is that those who read this forum don’t work for minimum wage. It’s easy to disparage those who do from this lofty perspective. I don’t normally get drinks from the bar at airport clubs but when I do, I provide a small tip most of the time.

  38. Aah America. You started this obnoxious practice because you don’t have decent wages and no transparency. You then inflicted this across the world. Why complain now? It’s a mad child begotten by you

  39. Some of the situations mentioned are not tipping, dear bribing, which should be illegal. It’s just like because you call it campaign finance does not make it stop being a bribe.

    So stop bribing the hotel clerk to get you a better room or don’t bribe the guy at the lounge to get you in sooner than everyone else in the line. That really is bribing you’re not being generous, you’re being selfish. Period:

  40. Just a quick note Alaska airline lounges do not accept any tips at all . There is signage stating this, and when I asked the bartender, he said that it comes down from corporate. They’re not allowed to accept any tips or they’ll get in trouble. .

  41. @Suhas…I have no idea where the practice of tipping began. However, even if it did start here in the USA, I have only had anyone refuse a tip once in my international travels. That was a cabbie in Adelaide, South Australia. He did me a lot of favors, including turning off the meter while he waited for me at an intermediate stop. He refused a tip, even after I tried to explain why I wanted to give him one. That has never happened to me anywhere else worldwide.

  42. Tipping is indeed crass and tacky. Requesting, demanding or even quietly expecting one, is even worse.

    To those saying “you’re cheap if you don’t tip” – to you I say, you’re no different to the beggar on the street corner. You might as well hold up a cardboard sign, extend your hand, get on your knees and beg me outright, because you’re that pathetic. You work to earn your money, same as the rest of us, so why should we give you extra free money? As an expectation? Absurd.

  43. I always leave $1 per drink as I would at any bar, though I’m told “20%” is standard now due to price hikes. But maybe I should stop now as airport employees are indeed well paid, especially at SFO.

  44. I could have sworn I’ve seen a “tips not necessary” or similar sign at a United club or Polaris lounge. This would have been years ago

  45. People like @AC are a big part of the problem.
    Stop virtue signaling and let the employer take care of the employees like they are supposed to.

    And why do you tip in small bills?
    If you can afford $5, you can afford $50. Come on, don’t be a cheap **le now.

    Pay up. See where that gets you.

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