When it comes to planning lodgings for overseas trips, I've had a standard policy for several years: I always try to make the last hotel on my itinerary the best one.
With a long, uncomfortable flight home looming the next day, even the most intrepid, indefatigable traveler is likely to hunger for a gleaming bathroom, a movie on the TV and a room-service dinner. The cultural discovery is over, and the most important thing is gathering strength in the marble-walled womb of an upscale hotel or an airport-handy Hilton or Hyatt or Marriott.
But on a recent trip to Spain, I realized the opposite can be true. Running behind on research and reservations, I booked my first night in a fancy hotel, one that I knew would have a concierge.
The hotel was the Hostal de la Gavina in S'Agaro, about two hours north of Barcelona. Once there, I trotted downstairs with my map, my guidebooks and several hundred pesetas, the Spanish currency. The concierge was a capable 50-ish man with a phone at his fingertips and -- more on this later -- a small pair of crossed gold keys on his lapel.
I told him my situation: I had a rental car and would be wandering around Catalonia for about five days. Leaning over the map, he pointed out the fastest and most scenic routes between my target cities. He proposed a stop at Pals, an immaculately restored medieval town that I wouldn't have found. He called ahead to make a hotel reservation (it took three calls, because the first two hotels were booked solid), and he made a booking for me the next day at the Salvador Dali Museum in Port Lligat, which accepts visitors only by prior appointment. It all took less than 15 minutes, and I tipped him about $10.
Few, if any, U.S. travel agents could offer that kind of detail work for so paltry a price, and this man's knowledge of the area was deeper and more current than I could have gotten from any American agent or guidebook. The next morning, after a long post-flight sleep and a dip in the hotel's lavish pool, I checked out of the fancy $160 room and headed off to a series of lodgings that cost less than half that.
Many travelers shy away from using concierges, even in the United States -- maybe because they're not sure how much to tip, maybe because the whole prospect seems a bit mysterious. Six years ago, in fact, Michael J. Fox starred in a movie about a New York hotel concierge. It was to be called "The Concierge," but the producers decided at the last minute that not enough American moviegoers knew what a concierge was. Instead the film was released as "For Love or Money."
But there's much to be gained in knowing what concierges can do for you. They can obtain theater tickets, book flights, get all manner of items delivered to your room, just about anything legal. At the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, con-cierge Lisa Marie Schenk was once given an hour to locate a female model to wear size 6 shoes. (She found one.) Just a few weeks ago, Schenk says, she fielded another memorable request from a member of the Saudi Arabian royal family: Compile a list of every Pizza Hut and In-N-Out Burger between Coronado and Los Angeles. (She did.)
How much does one tip for such services? Here, drawn from conversations with several veteran concierges, are some guidelines:
For a word of advice, quick directions or a few restaurant suggestions, nothing. For easy restaurant or show reservations, $5. For hard-to-get bookings or detailed itinerary planning, perhaps $10 to $20. Beyond that lies the realm of midnight shopping missions and last-minute helicopter charters.
As travelers get wiser to the advantages they offer, concierges have gotten busier in recent years. Jason Bennett, concierge at the Georgian Hotel in Santa Monica, Calif., suggests that midday is a good time to seek help -- after the tide of morning checkouts and before the parade of afternoon arrivals.
Of course, you can't be certain how adept or willing to help a concierge will be. But there is a way to increase your odds. That's where those crossed gold keys come in. That pin means its wearer is a member of Les Clefs d'Or, a 70-year-old professional organization of concierges around the world.
To join, a concierge must have five years of hotel experience, at least three years of it as a lobby concierge. Clefs d'Or members must also pass a written test, submit letters of recommendation and pass "test calls" by examiners posing as hotel guests.
About 200 hotels across the United States have members of Les Clefs d'Or on staff, a recent survey by the group found. (Hundreds more have concierge desks staffed by less experienced employees.) Their base salaries vary roughly from $20,000 to $50,000, excluding tips and the commissions many receive in exchange for selling tickets or sending customers to tour operators. About 57 percent of the group's U.S. members are female -- a departure from figures in Europe, where men continue to dominate the field.
"People are catching on," says Anne Sullivan, a Clefs d'Or member and a concierge at the Grand Hyatt Union Square Hotel in San Fran-cisco, noting the rising number of guests who seek help at her desk.
What questions do they ask? Sullivan reels off a sampling: "What time is it in China? Where can I get my hair cut? How can I get into Postrio? We have the day free. What should we do?"
Some travelers, of course, make elaborate demands and leave no tip at all. Some guests wait until the last day of their stay to leave one consolidated tip with the concierges, but the more seasoned travelers tip as they go, which most concierges prefer.
Meanwhile, many travelers from nontipping countries, particularly Japan, are still grappling with the whole gratuity concept. Anita Fowler, president of Los Angeles Concierge Association and con-cierge at the Wilshire Grand Hotel downtown Los Angeles, recalls that just recently a man asked her to suggest some nearby restaurants. She handed over a list. He tried to tip her $5. She politely declined.
"I couldn't see taking money from somebody for just handing over paperwork," Fowler said.