My wife and I are flying to Las Vegas via SWA. What is the customary charge/tip for wheelchair usage in the terminal?
Wheelchair services at all airports in the U.S. are complimentary. The cost is picked up by the public-service provider (in this case, the airport) to ensure that everyone who comes through its doors has equal access and isn't unfairly penalized for it. Equal access is also a guarantee of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The wheelchair attendants are usually employees of contractors to the airport authority and are rarely paid much above minimum wage. Even knowing that, it still boils down to what the wheelchair attendant actually does and what kind of tipper the user of his or her services is.
Some people believe that since this service is required by law, no tip is necessary, no matter what. Others are extremely charitable by nature and tip generously. The typical range is somewhere in between. (This writer falls in the latter group, so the following numbers might seem benevolent or even lavish to some.)
We’d say it depends on time spent and distance covered. If one attendant simply wheels you off the airplane and hands you off to another at the gate, then from nothing to a buck or two is probably appropriate. Same with being wheeled onto the airplane by a gate attendant.
If the attendant wheels you from the gate to the baggage area in a small airport (such as Reno), $5 is probably plenty. But if it's a big airport and a long way to baggage claim (such as McCarran), $10 might be more appropriate. Also, if a wheelchair attendant has to wait for luggage or for a car at passenger pickup, then time should be factored in.
For example, if the attendant spends a half-hour with you, you might think that $10-$15 is appropriate, with $20 an hour as the criterion. Keep in mind that the attendant also spends some time getting to and from his/her duty station, so perhaps add another 10 minutes round trip into your calculations.
This writer’s mother is 95 and right up to the pandemic, took at least one airplane trip per year on her own. Of course, she was wheeled in a chair all the way from the drop-off curb to her airline seat and vice versa.
She reports that one time, the wheelchair attendant (in Atlanta) picked her up at the gate, wheeled her to baggage, waited with her till the luggage showed up, retrieved it from the carousel, and helped her to the curb. She looked in her purse and was horrified to see that she had only a $5 bill. When she handed it to the attendant, he acted like it was the most bounteous tip he'd ever received. On the other hand, another time (at JFK), she had only a $10 bill and the attendant who’d spent two minutes getting her from baggage claim to passenger pickup looked pissed off when she gave it to him.
As always in tipping situations, it depends on the individuals (the tipper and the tipped), the circumstances, the airport, and the service. Whatever you decide, we highly recommend you have plenty of various denomination bills on hand, so you’re prepared for every eventuality.
A subscriber asked readers for suggestions regarding appropriate amounts to tip wheelchair attendants in airports. Responses are shown below.
My wife and I are relentless travelers and, lately, due to arthritic problems, she has to use a wheelchair to cover any real distance. In May 2010 our flights involved multiple legs (mostly due to our using air miles to travel business class and, therefore, being unable to get nonstops, since business-class seats available for mileage passengers on nonstop flights are booked up quickly).
Our flight from New York (La Guardia) to Cairo involved four airports (including Toronto International and London Heathrow), and on the return we passed through Paris and Madrid. This was a lot of wheelchair rides for my wife plus a lot of tips.
For the fairly normal distances I mostly tipped $2 or $3. When it was longer or involved clearing security or Customs, I gave at least $5. In almost all cases, the folks who helped us were extraordinarily friendly and kind.
At CDG Airport in Paris, where we were to pick up a rental car, the gal who pushed my wife was terrific. She got us through Customs quickly, then took us to the rental counter and put us right up to the front, in spite of a line of five or six people ahead of us. When I protested (“Americans don’t feel it’s right to jump a line!”), she assured me that it was okay. The clerks took care of us right away. I gave that wheelchair attendant a 10 — and it was worth every penny!
I think each situation is a little different, with individual decisions needed, but any amount proffered will be accepted with gratitude.
Coming home from Costa Rica in January 2011, my friend Bonnie Myers had ordered a chair for the airport in San José, one for Houston and one for Seattle. She had saved out $6 — in order to tip $2 in each airport.
The problem came in Houston as the first person, after a short ride, turned us over to a second person, who, in turn, took us a little ways and then turned us over to a third person, who took us to our gate. When we arrived at Seattle, she had one person help her all the way from the gate out to the hotels’ pickup stop, which was quite a ways and out in the cold. Needless to say, by then the dollar bills had been used up.
Be prepared to carry several one-dollar bills in case you get handed on and on to others.
You also should be prepared that the wheelchair you ordered will NOT always be available. It can turn into a nightmare.
My wife, Sunnie, gets wheelchair assistance whenever we fly. We usually tip between $5 and $10 and try to base the tip on how much time the person spends with us and how much assistance he or she provides. The attendant helps us speed through security and sometimes spends in excess of 30 minutes with us. We almost always get to our next gate much faster than we could by ourselves.
My biggest problem is when we have two or three individuals help us go from one gate to another. Usually, these people spend less time with us and, so, we reduce our tip to each.
My wife has rheumatoid arthritis, and recently we have been requesting wheelchair assistance. We are in a learning mode regarding how much to tip and whom to tip.
Heading to Croatia in August ’08, at the Munich airport a very professional airline official assisted us to the business-class lounge. I did not know what to do, as, in her position, she seemed a bit higher up for tips and I kind of guessed that it was not expected.
Returning to San Francisco from Hyderabad, India, in January ’10, at the Frankfurt airport a very professional Lufthansa employee came in a motorized cart and zipped us across one terminal to the other. Frankfurt is a difficult airport in which to change planes.
The incoming flight had been delayed, and we would never have made it without this transfer help. They were ready to close the doors when the Lufthansa official dropped us off and rushed us into the plane.
We were busy taking our hand-carry luggage off the trolley, and the employee was also in a rush and took off, but, even if we had had time, I didn’t know if it was advisable to tip such an employee of the airline. He did not expect a tip, so it seemed that one was not required.
By the way, not even an able-bodied individual walking on his own would have made that connection, so this is certainly one advantage of having wheelchair assistance.
After we arrived at San Francisco airport on an international flight in January ’10, a wheelchair worker (an airport employee) wheeled my wife the long distance to Immigration and zipped us through Customs. She seemed to know all the procedures and waited at Arrivals till our transport was ready. It took a little less than an hour. We tipped $20 and she was very happy.
Boarding a cruise ship in Los Angeles in October ’10, there were two or three wheelchair individuals and I tipped two of them a couple of dollars each. These trips were sort of short, from the bus to the check-in counter to the elevator and onto the ship.
When we disembarked at the Orlando airport, the wheelchair person was with us from the ship through Immigration and onto the bus for the airport transfer. It must have taken more than an hour. We tipped him $20.
I think one must tip more when the attendant has no other person to help for that specific time slot. That is, I am mindful that by the time the attendant is through helping only one party (us) of a specific plane arrival, all the other passengers from the plane and/or ship have gone, so now the wheelchair person has to wait for the next plane or ship to earn more money. In such a case (as with our arrival in Orlando), I tip well.
My wife had hip-replacement surgery recently, is doing fine and, we hope, soon may not need a wheelchair.
San Jose, CA
I’m only 79, and I have been using wheelchairs for all segments of my travel for about five years. Indeed, without this assistance provided in airports, I would have had to stop traveling.
Five years ago I was tipping $2-$3, but I soon realized that that was not enough. I now tip $5, sometimes adding another dollar or two if the assistance has taken particularly long.
The people pushing my chairs have been uniformly pleasant and helpful, even to the extent of pushing me out to the taxi line and negotiating with the starter to get me at the front of the line.
From the reactions to my tips, I have the feeling that many people either tip much less or not at all. To not tip is wrong.
I have a spouse who needs wheelchair assistance at airports. Heading to Athens in May ’10, we flew into Philadelphia from San Francisco on US Air. An employee of US Air was very helpful and spent a long time with us, as we had to transfer to a different terminal. When I tried to give him a tip, he said he was not allowed to accept a tip; it was company policy.
Upon arriving in Athens from Philadelphia, I tipped the attendant about $20 in euros. Too much? Not enough?
Arriving in London from San Francisco on a British Air flight in December ’10, I tipped about $10 in British pounds. On the return from that trip, we were met at the plane in San Francisco by an employee of a service company. She was very helpful as we went through Immigration, picked up our luggage, went through Customs and then were taken by her to our shuttle pickup spot. It took about 40 minutes and I gave her a 40-dollar tip.
British Air was excellent in filling my prearranged request for a wheelchair at all four of our flights. US Air screwed up at each of our four flights and it took a lot of time to get things corrected.
I notice that I’ve only discussed tips regarding arrivals from overseas. As opposed to domestic flights, overseas flights usually tie up the attendant with one person for 40 minutes to an hour, so I feel a larger tip is called for.
Being taken only from the check-in counter to the boarding gate, I would tip $10.
Walnut Creek, CA
I want nice people to be pushing the wheelchair, so the nicer they are, the better I tip. Minimum, $5, but a lot depends on how long the distance is.
Help them by marking your luggage so it can be spotted at a distance. On all sides I put ¾-inch DayGlo stick-on dots. Put one of the dots on something you can pocket to show them what to look for.
New York, NY
Now that I have new knees, I don’t need wheelchairs in airports, but in the past, and soon after each surgery, I could not travel without one, so each wheelchair attendant’s help was invaluable to me.
The service usually expedites the security lines, and just picking my bag off the luggage carousel was a huge help. I also think that when I am paying anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 for a trip, then $5 or $10 is inconsequential and just a part of the cost to travel.
I always gave $5, even if it was for “cursory” service, i.e., just through security and to a nearby gate.
If the attendant made extra effort — putting all of my things on the scanner belt, then collecting them and waiting by my side until scanning was finished (with two knee implants, I always have to be thoroughly scanned), or if he/she asked if I needed to use the restroom or asked if I needed him/her to wait to get me onto the plane — then I added a few more dollars.
If the attendant did all of the above plus chatted amicably (in other words, didn’t treat me like a piece of meat but acknowledged that I was a person), then I might have added a few more dollars.
In some foreign countries, bags have to go through scanners before going through Customs. If the attendant hefted these bags and made sure I was met by my ride, then I gave an extra $5 or maybe $10.
In some foreign countries they are not supposed to take tips, but I believe that exceptional (and kind) service warrants recognition. The tip can be slipped discreetly by rolling the bills up in your hand and slipping it to the attendant when giving a good-bye ‘Thank you’ and handshake.
If I don’t have currency of that country, then I use US dollars. The attendant can change them at the airport (but has to pay a large commission fee). I ALWAYS prefer to tip in the currency of the country where I am traveling.
My philosophy on tipping is to be most generous — but not in an “ugly American” sort of way — to those on the bottom of the chain. I am not rich and I count every travel dollar, but those people who are there to push and help are the ones who have helped me do what I wanted to do when I was incapacitated.
In closing, I would suggest that you base the tip on the quality of the service — $5, minimum, and anything more than that for service as you receive it.
Carolyn D. Taylor