It can be nerve-wracking handing your car keys to a total stranger at a valet station. You don't know if they're responsible drivers, what their definition of "gentle" is, or often where your car is headed. If all parking valets were trustworthy, there wouldn't be a need for the "valet key" that prevents one from opening the trunk and glovebox.
When we decided to delve into the secret life of valet parking attendants, we expected some stories about concealed door dings, petty theft or occasional hijinks behind the wheel. But we had no idea the extent to which some valets routinely take liberties with their customers' property.
Our "confessor" (let's call him Mark) has worked both at upscale hotels and small valet parking companies and has seen (and done) his share of mischief. He shares his experience with us, no holds barred. Learning how valets think and how some of them treat your property might make you reconsider self-parking.
Who's Parking Your Car?
According to Mark, most parking valets fall into three general categories. The first is student types seeking flexible hours and a job that doesn't require much training. The second group is often working nights after another job, and are often the most dedicated employees. The third and smallest group are folks often unable to hold down any other work, and they're the most prone to hitting poles in parking lots, losing keys and disrespecting customers.
"There's a big difference between valet parking companies in terms of the quality of people they hire to park cars," Mark explains. "One company I worked for tested applicants' reading and basic math, required a copy of your seven-year driving record and demanded a background and credit check. I guess they figure the ones with really bad credit would be more apt to steal from customers. Another company wanted a high school diploma — that's it. They didn't even read my application before offering me a shift."
Our confessor pointed out that few driving skills are required, and some companies employ people who don't have a driver license. "Valet companies might ask if you drive a stick when they hire you, but if you don't, you can just let other valets handle those cars. Some valets aren't as friendly to stick-shift cars as they should be, especially high-end cars like Porsches and BMWs. They might drop the clutch or drive at 50 miles per hour in 2nd gear. Nothing that's going to destroy the car, but it's unnecessary abuse. Most valets don't understand the intricacies of driving performance cars either. They don't realize how low to the ground they are and sometimes run over the concrete parking stops, scraping up the car."
It's All About the Tips
Valet parking is a service job, much like being a server at a restaurant. Pay is based largely on tips and most valets will usually do their best to earn a good one. "Valets always find out about a good tipper and make sure to take good care of that customer. My company pools all the tips, so there's no competition for the 'best' customers. But in smaller operations, if you're given a tip, you just pocket it."
Many assume that the people with the nicest cars will leave the biggest tips, but that's not always the case. "I drive all sorts of luxury cars for people who tip very little or not at all. The customers who have experience working crappy jobs are the ones who have more empathy and tend to tip better. A lot of people who are 'forced' to valet by the hotel assume they don't have to tip. Maybe they think the hotel is paying the valets better than they are, but we're making minimum wage plus tips."
How much to tip? A survey of so-called "tipping guides" indicates a wide range, anything from $1 to $10 depending on the situation. An informal poll of Edmunds editors elicited a similarly wide array of answers — anywhere from "nothing" to $10 or more at a hotel, but averaged $2-$3, paid when retrieving the vehicle.
"There are the usual mistakes like dings or scrapes that are just accidents," Mark explains. "Park enough cars and it's bound to happen, especially on really busy days." The most common valet mishap is misplacing keys, which has various origins. "If a lazy valet doesn't put a ticket on the customer's keychain, or the key is incorrectly placed on the valet board, or the ticket gets ripped off or the parking location is written down incorrectly, or you, the customer, lose your valet ticket, then we have no idea which car is yours."
A valet's favorite scenario? "Let's say you've given us a valet key to a car and it doesn't have a remote door unlock on the fob. But the valet didn't mark down the right parking stall on the valet ticket. So when you come to pick up your car, we don't know where it is. We don't have a remote that can sound the horn either, so we have to run up and down all the rows, trying the key in every car of that brand."
The oddest mix-up? "The exact same rental cars got swapped between two customers. No one noticed until one of them tried to return it to Hertz. In that case, it took us two days to sort it out."
What Annoys Valets Most
It would seem like common sense to avoid angering someone with the keys to your car. If you really want to annoy a valet (at your own risk), keep asking for your car to be brought around over and over again to get something out of it. "If you tell us everything you want from the car the first time, we'll bring it all back for you. It saves everyone time that way."
Another gripe is forgetting to explain a car's quirks, such as complex security systems or aftermarket modifications — including vertically opening gullwing doors. "When one of the valets pulled the door open [on a 2005 Mustang convertible], we heard a horrible crunching noise and the door wouldn't move. What the owner had neglected to tell anyone was that he had a 'Lambo' door conversion kit on the car, and that the door didn't open as normal."
A favorite pet peeve of many valets is cars that reflect poor personal hygiene — they may smell, have trash everywhere or look like they've never seen the inside of a car wash. "When you're afraid of contracting a disease by sitting in the seat, it's generally a bad sign."
The worst is forgetting to leave the keys with the valet on a busy day, far easier to do these days with so many "keyless" ignitions. "We can't move the car, and it clogs the driveway while we have to track you down somewhere."
Revenge of the Valet...or Just for Fun
If you're particularly rude, aggravating or have stiffed on a tip in the past, there are a number of things the valet staff might do in response. Notably, most valets won't show annoyance or anger the customer. "First and easiest, we'll take a long time to bring your car up, and we're not going to take the time to put your seat and mirrors back the way they were. But I have known valets who lower tire pressures, change climate and radio settings, or intentionally ding the door or scrape paint in a place where it's not easily noticed. There's nothing better than getting your revenge and getting them to tip you, too."
When you're not around to see it, there's a lot valets do:
- Blast the stereo and change the radio stations: "Any time that I have a car with a good stereo in it, I take an extra minute to check out the sound quality. I also change the satellite radio station, but I almost always change it back."
- Speed in a parking structure or on the street while driving to a lot: "We once had a running contest going to see who could get the fastest top speed inside the hotel parking structure. I set the record with a 55-mph run in a Porsche 996 GT2."
- Rev the engines of performance cars: "I can't help revving up the engines of the cool cars I get to park. My favorite was a Lamborghini Gallardo. I drove it straight to the top floor and called all of my friends in my phonebook. I said, 'Guess what I'm driving!' then stuck the phone out the window and revved the engine. Heck, I even called my parents and did that."
- Drift: "After our parking garage is cleaned, we have to re-park all of the cars back in the structure. Of course, having an empty, wet parking structure just begs for a little hoonage. I take every rear-wheel-drive rental car and find out how well they drift going up the structure. Surprisingly, the Chrysler Crossfire does a great job. Gotta love rental cars; they take the most abuse."
- Go through the customer's property: "Though I personally never rifled through anyone's belongings, I hear plenty of, 'You should have seen what I found in this person's car' while we're standing around waiting for cars to pull in."
With all these shenanigans happening with your car, is the management aware? "Our manager doesn't know about most of this stuff," Mark admits, "but he helps cover up our mistakes sometimes. He always keeps a container of rubbing compound and wax in the office in case there's a scrape. We'll clean and buff the affected areas and pray the customers don't notice. Most of the time, they don't. I have seen managers rub out many small scrapes and never report the incident."
Advice for Customers
Remember, you are giving one of the most expensive things you own to a complete stranger. You would be surprised how far a smile, a good attitude and even a little pleasant small talk will get you. If you're pleasant and tip, most valets will go way beyond the call of duty. Here's what to keep in mind, according to Mark:
- Realize that it's not all about you: "We're dealing with many, sometimes hundreds, of customers a day. Time is money for us, too."
- Don't leave valuables or anything illegal in your car: "Not if you want them to be there when you get back. We've found drugs, adult-only items, even guns." Smaller items are more likely to be taken.
- Clean the interior as well as the exterior once in awhile: "And for God's sake, use a trash bag."
- If your car is damaged or anything is missing, tell the valet manager and get a copy of the incident report and the contact information of their insurance company. Don't accept it if he asserts that the "release of liability" language on your ticket absolves them — it won't stand up in court.
- Valets at a hotel usually work for a contracted company, so if you have any problems with their service, notify hotel management. They can help resolve disputes in your favor.
- Be wary in major cities where valets must park cars on the street. If a valet parks illegally or forgets to feed the meter, the customer can get stuck with the ticket.
- Tip a little when you drop off the car, especially at a hotel, and your car will get better treatment: "The valets will be more likely to 'keep it close' in the hope that you're a good tipper and that you'll reward them for bringing up your car quickly."
- Evening shifts are the roughest for hotel valets: "We work our butts off to park all the cars of the people checking in and barely make any tips. The morning shift makes big tips the next day when people get their cars to go places or check out of the hotel."
- Reward a valet for working hard. "If it's raining and he appears with an umbrella, or he towels down your seat to keep you dry, he deserves a bigger tip. But don't worry about not giving a tip if you don't like the service."
- You get what you give: "Your car will usually get the same treatment that you give us, for better or for worse."
There are plenty of honest, hard-working parking valets out there who want nothing more than to serve their customers and earn a living. So when you drop your car off, it's a good idea to look your valet in the eye and acknowledge that he's a person, too. If not for that reason, then at least to improve the odds of getting your car back exactly as you left it.
Read more articles in the Edmunds Confessions Series.