Part 1: The Smart Way To Use Valet Parking Services

It's smart to get educated on this topic, because...

...damage happens. Keys get lost. Things go missing from inside the car.

I know because I have seen all of this firsthand. I worked as a valet for nearly 2 years.

Valet parking services can be wonderfully convenient. They can add an element of safety to a night out on the town. And usually everything goes perfectly, as you would expect.

But bad things do happen. I'd like to help you out with information that can substantially reduce your chances of being the victim of sloppy valet work.

Let's pop the hood and see what today's valet parking industry is all about...

This business is highly competitive. It's an all-out knife fight for new accounts. Strong competition reduces margins. When there isn't much fat, the people doing the actual valet work can't be paid much. So wages are low. In 19 states valets can be paid as little as $2.13 an hour (the tipped minimum wage). I worked at a fancy hotel and was still only paid $3.83 an hour. (Among my benefits was time-and-a-half on certain holidays and the possibility of MAYBE a $15 or $16 bonus IF the entire valet team went 60 days without an accident. In my experience, employers in this industry are quite stingy.)

Low wages do not foster the professional career valet worker.

It's typical that the people doing valet work are college kids or those in transition, waiting for something better to come along. 

Cheap wages hurt this business, because the most experienced valets leave.

When they quit, fresh rookies with no experience are brought in. And this is the source of a lot of problems. Rookies make mistakes! There is a learning curve. 

People say "What's so hard about parking cars?!"

You can only understand by doing the actual work at a particular location. Believe me, there is more to it than you can imagine.

Each valet operation is UNIQUE. No two are alike. They each have their own unique operational complexities. And they each have their own danger spots. 

It is impossible for you to know the risks.

You have no idea whether a valet parking operation is high-risk or not. They could be stacking cars in a very tight garage with a lot of difficult corners to negotiate, increasing your chances of damage. Or they might be parking your car in an area known to have a bum problem, where windows get smashed from time to time for the loose coins in a cup-holder.

And you don't know whether the valet is "high-level," somebody who has flawlessly moved thousands of cars, or a complete rookie — somebody who was hired yesterday and doesn't know what they are doing.

You also don't know if a valet worker has just taken a few puffs on a marijuana blunt.

One of the problems with rookies is what I call "new guy syndrome." Once a young rookie gets a little bit of experience, the reckless urge to get a taste of a car's performance capabilities sets in. Inexperience, youth, reckless urges, and an unfamiliar car are a problematic combination.

Mr. Bae Watch (above) implies in these Twitter posts that he takes excessive liberties with valet customers' cars. For experienced valets, hopping into sporty cars is no big deal, because they have already driven large numbers of them.

I will review in a later post why else you don't want rookies moving your car.

Another issue in the valet business is the hazard of weak management. Weak managers stay behind a desk too often when they should be in the garage or parking lot, verifying that their workers are driving responsibly and parking cars the right way, with no monkey business taking place.

What it all adds up to is valet parking roulette, where you don't know the odds of receiving flawless service or becoming the victim of a valet parking fiasco. It's a complete gamble.

But there are ways to put up a defense and better manage your valet parking transaction. I call it:

"Real Valet Control"

Step 1:  

Remove items of value from the car before arriving.

The smart thing to do is to simply remove your items of value, ALONG WITH YOUR GARAGE DOOR OPENER... because it is REMOTELY POSSIBLE that garage door opener could be used by a burglary ring that your valet is tied into. Better to be safe than sorry.

(They can get your home address from your insurance or auto registration papers in your glove compartment. And unfortunately they can also get it from your GPS device.)

If you were to check every door on every valet parked car at a medium-sized valet operation, I'd bet you would find an unlocked door. That's opportunity for street bums, junkies, and the low-life criminals who are practicing the craft of petty theft.

One of the most common complaints consumers have about valet parking services is that things disappear from inside the car.

I can tell you from just monitoring Twitter that valets will steal anything. They will take your sunglasses, your can of Red Bull, your phone charger, certainly your spare change, and definitely your pot. If you left a gun in there, they'll take that. They'll take your iPad, your camera equipment, your jewelry. They will go through your purse and take your cash. They'll take your music CDs. Your perfume. Your bag of potato chips. And definitely your chewing gum. 

You cannot depend on them to be honest, or to make sure that your car is secure after they park it. Nor can you depend on any valet service to willingly compensate you for these losses. It is quite difficult to get them to pay-up. 

Message: Take the valuables out!

Step 2:  

Leave a preemptive tip on the dash when you arrive.

Make sure the valet who is parking your car gets it. What this does is influence the level of care your car is about to receive. Tipping only at the end cannot undo any lack of care your car might have received. But tipping upfront is savvy use of the power of the tip.

I recommend deploying the bulk of the tip when you arrive. Leave it on top of the dash in front of the steering wheel. If you sense it's appropriate, say "That tip on the dash is for whoever parks this." 

(Advice on how much to tip is coming in a later post.)

Be sure it is going into the pocket of the one who drives it. If a doorman takes it, then that tip does nothing to influence the manner in which your car is driven and parked.

Where I worked "preemptive tipping" was not very common, but when people did tip up-front, I usually gave them value for it by parking their car in a better, safer spot with more space around it. In fact, I often saved the primo spaces just for those customers.

Step 3:  

Give the valet ONLY THE ONE KEY NECESSARY to operate your car.

It's a bad practice to hand valet services the keys to your life. Why? Because valets lose keys. (It's not unusual or rare.) Why open yourself up to the massive headache of suddenly having all your keys disappearing?

So many people hand valet services their entire ring of keys. It's dumb! Don't do it.

It is a wise decision to carry 2 car keys with you — in case the valet service loses the key you gave them. 

How does this happen? How could they possibly lose the keys?

First, remember how I mentioned the pay for this work can be quite low and long-term career valets are not cultivated. The turnover can be high. This causes the workforce to be in a constant state of mediocrity.

When you valet park your car, it is more likely that a rookie will be the one who is moving your car, not a seasoned super pro.

If a rookie is parking a car, let's call it "Car A," and then immediately bringing a car out (Car B), the valet might accidentally leave the keys to "Car A" in the DEPARTING car (Car B). 

So the departing guest in "Car B" drives away and 2 hours later the keys to "Car A" are 100 miles away. 

Perhaps hours pass and then finally it is time to bring "Car A" out of the garage, except there is confusion about where the keys might be. Nobody knows where the keys are!

And the person in "Car B" may not discover those keys for a long time, and may have no idea how those keys got in there.

Don't give the keys of your life to a valet service! Big mistake!

This is a mistake more commonly made by a rookie, but experienced valets do this too. It definitely happens. I recommend you always have a spare key with you (and not attached to the other key).

My most popular blog post is about what to do when a valet services loses your keys. It is quite detailed. You can check it out here: