So you check into a luxury hotel. The doorman holds open your limo door and brings your luggage to the front desk. You hand him some cash as a thank you. After check-in, the bellboy carries your stuff into your room and out comes the wallet again. You order room service and tip the waiter who brings in the food. Who is missing in this picture? The housekeeping staff, that’s who.

Tip sheet: The size of a tip can depend more on attractiveness than quality of service. AFP

It has long been my personal (if somewhat piddling) crusade. Mostly, this gets taken out on my husband, who spends a lot of time in hotels. When he calls home, we discuss global warming, the credit crisis and whether the bathroom tap is still leaking. I end with loving goodbyes and the entreaty: Don’t forget to tip the housekeeping staff.

Hotel housekeepers are, in my mind, the unsung heroines of the hospitality business. They do a lot of the dirty work — and if you peek into some guest rooms on your way to breakfast, you’ll realize how messy some people are. They are mostly invisible and yet they contribute towards making the centrepiece of your hotel stay — the room — a thing of beauty. If the flamboyant doorman with a turban can be compared to a peacock; the star-chef with his chef’s whites and long cap, the proud, if moody, lion; then the housekeepers are — like Pumbaa in the Lion King — the warthogs and squirrels who clean up the forest and make sure things are running smoothly. They are the glorious underbelly of every luxury hotel.

Tipping a housekeeper is, as my husband bitterly points out, not a trivial exercise. Most working professionals rarely see them. You have to phone the front desk and ask for something — extra shampoo or an ironing board — to sight and tip her (it is usually a her).

For something that we supposedly do of our own volition, tipping is an awkward act. I think women have more trouble with tipping. I for one can rarely hand out cash with the confidence that a man can. For one thing, I am always petrified of being a poor tipper. In my mind, there is nothing worse than having the waiter or parking valet sneer at you for being cheap. So I end up apologizing to them each time I hand the keys of my car to the valet. “Sorry, not enough change," I’ll say as I fork out 40 bucks or whatever.

The problem with tipping is that there are few rules. It is a gratuity that a satisfied customer gives the staff for good service. As numerous studies point out however, the size of the tip may have little to do with the quality of service. A study conducted by Joanne M. May of Loyola University discovered that “such factors as group size, method of payment, and the attractiveness of the waitress have a greater influence on the amount of a tip than the quality of service does".

While attractiveness of the service staff may be a factor, I would argue that for most of us, simple availability of change in our wallets determines how much we tip. If you don’t have small change, what do you do? If you are like me, you will hand over Rs100 to the airport-drop cab driver and mutter, “I’d like Rs40 back if you don’t mind… if that’s okay with you. I would have given you 100 if it was at night but it is 11am, I think 60 should be good enough, don’t you think?" At which point, the man will put me out of my misery by handing over Rs50 along with a supercilious, “Keep the change, madam."

At hotels, the whole tipping equation gets a lot worse because you are constantly encountering service staff. Boutique hotels have solved this problem to some extent. I’ve stayed at several where notices ask guests not to tip individually but leave a common tip during check out. This seems eminently sensible to me for not only are the visible service staff (like doormen, waiters and bellboys) paid but the gardeners, groundskeepers and housekeeping staff are also taken care of. Or so we hope.

One of my favourite chains is the Peninsula group, partly because of their hugely successful advertising campaign. It helped that they got cult photographer Annie Leibovitz to take black and white images of doormen, pageboys and housekeeping staff who stood in as real-life models. The success of this campaign is in stark contrast to Vogue India’s disastrous attempt to use poor people as models for luxury goods in a recent issue. The Peninsula group’s message was that the staff makes the hotel; that this was a hotel chain that took care of its employees. Many customers like me bought the message.

Although good general managers know this instinctively, the staff is what makes a hotel, and this is no cliché. The hallmark of a good hotel and good service staff is when things break down. Tipping may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for good service. I stayed at the Intercontinental Marine Drive recently and on the ride back to Mumbai airport left a rather expensive pair of sunglasses in the car. Turns out that the hotel’s driver returned my sunglasses to the front desk manager who held it for me. I had a friend in Mumbai pick them up but didn’t tip the driver for his honesty. Or maybe he just took pity on me, given my apologetic spiel about the stresses of tipping and the fact that I had no change all the way through Dharavi. I had change, as it turns out; Only someone in Delhi gave me Cadbury’s sweets in lieu of Rs40. But that is another rant altogether.

Also ReadShoba’s previous Lounge columns

Shoba Narayan is going to tip using Cadbury’s Eclairs in Delhi from now on. Write to her at thegoodlife@