Thursday, April 27, 2006

Valet Parking Nightmares

Kenneth, a family friend, has a lot to say about valet parking. He'd rather walk a few blocks to a park-it-yourself meter than hand over his car keys to a valet parking employee. His fear is based on experience; Kenneth has either witnessed or heard tales about valet parkers who scratch, dent or otherwise damage automobiles in their care.

''They abuse the cars,'' he said. ''The more expensive the car, the more open it is for abuse.''

Frankly, I used to politely smile whenever Kenneth offered one of his tirades on parking. And then it happened. Last year, my husband and I attended back-to-back parties on the same night. After the first party, we blissfully drove away in our humble red Dodge Caravan, after tipping the valet parker, who closed our car doors for us.

Our trouble began just minutes later at our next stop, when my husband tried to open his door on the driver's side. The inside door handle, which worked fine before we handed it over to the first valet parker, was jammed. In a hurry to hop from party to party, we had not noticed the damage until it was too late. But Kenneth has a solution:

''When the valet parker gives you your car, do a quick once-over to make sure everything is OK,'' Kenneth said. ''If you do see a scratch or dent that wasn't there before, report it immediately.''

He quickly concedes that not all valet parkers mishandle cars and, in fact, there are many responsible valet parkers out there. Nevertheless, Kenneth prefers to park his own cars at conferences, parties and other large events.

''It's worth walking a few blocks to save time, aggravation and money,'' Kenneth said.

Valet parkers can be a friendly source of inside tips about sightseeing, dining and even parking. My editor, for example, received a valuable tip from a valet parker at one of the oceanfront hotels in Miami Beach, where a community-awards banquet was being held. The valet kindly pointed my editor to a large public lot on Collins Avenue, where parking was significantly cheaper.

Likewise, at a financial investment conference in Boca Raton, a hotel valet parker directed my car-pool driver to a frugal lot nearby.

And don't overlook public lots run by local parking authorities and municipalities. The rates are usually low and there are various discounts, including special debit card programs for parking.

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