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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
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You asked: What’s the best way to thank hospitality workers?

By The Way Concierge addresses how to support the people who make travel possible

(Cynthia Kittler/Illustration for The Washington Post)

Traveling has always come with complications, but the coronavirus pandemic has made it more challenging than ever. Our By The Way Concierge column will take your travel dilemmas to the experts to help you navigate the new normal. Want to see your question answered? Submit it here.

During the pandemic, I became much more conscious of the heroism of our essential workers. What are the best ways to support housekeepers and other hotel workers? How do you know whether a hotel treats its employees well? — MaryAnne G., Chapel Hill, N.C.

On hectic travel days, we become the main character of the story, zeroed in on our needs. We can overlook the people who make travel possible: the gate agents, bus drivers, baristas, pilots, drivers, custodians and concierges.

Your question is an evergreen reminder we all need: These people aren’t cogs in a machine; they’re real people, many of whom rely on tips, making an effort to help you travel. And as you alluded to in your question, “it’s been a challenging couple of years,” says tour guide Rebecca Grawl of DC by Foot. It’s important to slow down and appreciate their efforts.

I went to people who work in the industry to hear how they would like to be recognized.

Curtis Crimmins, once a concierge at five-star hotels and now the founder of a start-up that customizes hotel experiences called Roomza, said the best way to support front-line travel workers is to recognize them, pay them better if you’re in the position to do so and try to stay with operators who appear to be doing those things.

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As for knowing whether a hotel treats its employees well, Crimmins says that can be difficult. Big hotels may outsource parts of the labor, and many are franchised, which “means next to zero hotel workers are actually employed by the brands,” Crimmins says.

If you’re really invested, Crimmins says, you could research the business and employment practices of where you want to stay; check Glassdoor or social media, or find someone who has worked at the brand and ask how the experience went.

You can also try supporting locally owned travel businesses. That may mean staying at a bed-and-breakfast instead of a big-name chain, or spending an afternoon taking a cooking class to learn a regional dish, discovering a city’s history on a walking tour or eating at mom-and-pop restaurants.

As you go to book these local experiences, “if I could give one travel tip, it’s to avoid booking through third-party sites,” Grawl says. Booking direct benefits the businesses financially (companies such as Viator or Airbnb Experiences take a cut of the booking fee), and you’ll also have less red tape to deal with if you need to reschedule or cancel your experience.

Grawl’s other tip: Book as early as possible. Certain areas of travel are still recovering from pandemic effects, and many continue to deal with staffing issues. Booking in advance alleviates stress on the people accommodating your requests by giving them more time to prepare. “We’re spread really thin,” Grawl says. “Last-minute bookings are going to be really hard to accommodate.”

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Also, “I encourage people to be flexible,” Grawl says. With staffing shortages and travel rushes, places may seem more crowded, or it may feel as if you’re getting helped more slowly. Give employees a break from complaining about minor inconveniences and go with the flow.

One of the easiest ways to support the efforts of travel and hospitality workers is to acknowledge them in person.

“I know immediately we think about things that we can buy,” says Atlanta-based travel expert Jewels Rhode, “but on a basic level, you can just show kindness and respect to them [by] … thanking them, making eye contact.”

Carol Whitaker, who has worked as a bartender at San Francisco International Airport since the 1980s, says customers are often distracted by technology and don’t acknowledge workers.

“People usually have their ear buds on. They’re working on their laptops, so they’re not really present,” Whitaker says. “Rather than the whole paying attention to what they’re doing or where they’re going or how they’re treating people, they’re just kind of in their own little bubble.”

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Whitaker’s answer to your question on how to support workers: “They could just be grateful and thankful and leave them a nice tip.”

If you’re confused about how much and when, here’s a refresher. If you aren’t the kind of traveler to have small bills on hand, here’s some advice on tipping without cash.

But even in travel situations where tipping isn’t mandatory, it’s still appreciated. For example, we recently spoke to flight attendants about their thoughts on tipping and gift-giving. Although they don’t expect anyone to give them a gift, receiving a gift card (think Starbucks, Dunkin’, Amazon) or something like candy is a pleasant surprise that can make a flight attendant’s day.

A free alternative is to give a thank-you note. “A handwritten note for the housekeeping staff would be nice,” Rhode says. “Little things go a long way.” If you have a few minutes and an internet connection, share your appreciation with the masses by writing a positive review about the person who helped you on sites such as Yelp or Tripadvisor.

If you still need another nudge to give back: Showing gratitude is good for us, mentally and physically.

“We know that blood pressure and cortisol levels actually go down when you are connecting with other people,” says Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and the host of the new podcast “Baggage Check.” “It helps reduce loneliness, and it also gives you a sense of making a difference.”