You’ll have to valet.

Oh what powerful, divisive words these can be. For some, they signal civility and convenience. While for others, they’re a white-knuckled harbinger of highway robbery.

Some time ago, for reasons both practical (money to live) and personal (free pleated trousers!), I assumed the coveted role of valet parker at a downtown Chicago hotel.

I’ve seen all types of situations in my time parking cars … and all types of valets.

And you may wonder: What really goes on after you leave your keys with these perfect strangers?

In the Esurance spirit of making you more informed about your insurance and beyond, it’s time I reveal the valet parking secrets only your dashboard hula dancer was ever meant to know.

1. That knob with all the numbers … we don’t always know what that is

While I myself enjoy driving a stick shift, a shocking number of my fellow valets didn’t. Or to be more precise, despite being paid professionally to drive, they didn’t know how. More alarming still — many waited until after taking the wheel before they’d admit it!

Just imagine getting a frantic call on the walkie that goes something like, “I just stalled that silver Porsche for the ninth time in rush-hour traffic … help!” Now imagine the look on the car owners’ faces as they stood next to me overhearing everything. My memory’s a bit hazy, but here’s a rough idea.

Lesson to learn: You’d like to assume all valets know how to drive your stick shift. Don’t assume that. Ask and make sure.

2. We want to return your car in 5 minutes, but can’t always find it

“About 5 minutes” is what you’ll likely hear as you hand over your ticket. And these aren’t empty words. Valets, from my experience, are well-intentioned. We want to retrieve your car in 5 minutes. Nay, we dream of retrieving your car in 5 minutes. Sorry to say, we may not retrieve your car in 5 minutes.

Now, the reason for delay is less sinister than you think. It’s not like there’s a group of us sitting around the garage on lawn chairs, portable TV hooked to your battery, pot of fondue simmering on your trunk. Rather, we probably just can’t find the dang thing.

Our hotel, for instance, used several huge public garages — we’re talking 10-story, 3-wing behemoths — and the only thing letting us know where to find your needle of a vehicle in these haystacks of concrete was a hand-scribbled, chicken-scratch note on its key tag.

Lesson to learn: Ask for your car 10 minutes sooner than your instincts tell you. And get your kids started on calligraphy early.

3. Things in your car could get touched

In my experience, sadly, there were a select few attendants who didn’t hesitate when it came to familiarizing themselves with guests’ cars. Hair ok? Move the mirror to check. Cool sound system? Jack up the volume and test it. Need a pen? Rifle through the glove box to find one.

The list could go on … but do you really want it to?

Lesson to learn: Don’t leave your toothbrush in your car.

4. Parking’s a nightmare (even for us)

You’d expect most valet mishaps to happen on the street as we whisk your car through traffic. But most of our (very few) accidents actually happened in our parking lots.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, most valets don’t take chances on the street — while, again, they may have trouble getting your stick shift into first gear, they won’t ever push it into fifth either. You probably clicked here hoping for more salacious dirt than that, but the sad, boring truth is that valets aren’t the daredevils you might imagine. (I know, I’m just as unhappy to write that as you are to read it.) Inside a parking lot, however, little mistakes tend to come out. And not just for valets, but all drivers. In the U.S., roughly 1 in 5 accidents occurs in parking lots.

The second hurdle is the madcap nature of valet lots. Our garages, for instance, were shared with several valet companies. This meant a lot of frenzied drivers trying to share space on slick, twisting ramps that weren’t meant to be shared. Furthermore, the style in which our cars were parked (stacked in rows, always backed in) seemed to beg for dents and dings.

Lesson to learn: When shopping for a new car, think twice before turning down the rearview camera option. We’d sure appreciate it.

5. Money can’t buy you love … unless it’s a valet’s love

Those who haven’t worked in the service industry may fail to grasp the power of a well-placed tip. Well here it is, plain and simple: we can be bought!

Nothing too ridiculous (or illegal, of course). Just service that goes the extra mile. Say you want to leave the car for a few minutes, but don’t dare let anyone else handle your baby. Twenty bucks might buy you a space right by the entrance. Need something retrieved from your car? A 5-spot might make the difference between getting it in 3 minutes instead of 30.

Lesson to learn: C’mon, daddy needs a new pair of shoes!


Looking for more inside info? Get the inside scoop from the cops with 4 common ways to get pulled over.

Safe and smart | Car safety | Travel hacks


about Alex

As copywriter for Esurance, Alex had professional experience in everything from film to literature to (thanklessly!) correcting the grammar in friends' emails. As a fervent Minnesota sports fan, he spends most of his non-writing time gently weeping into cereal bowls.