Euros – by Karlis Dambrans (creative commons)
There are cultural norms we are so accustomed to that we bring them with us even when we’re in what we logically know is a different culture.
Take, for instance, tipping. Having been raised in the U.S., I’ve come to assume leaving a 15% tip is essentially mandatory, and I often leave more. Tipping culture is extremely different in Italy, however, and understanding the differences can save you quite a bit of cash.
The short version is that you don’t have to tip in Italy. Period.
Yes, there’s a longer version, but it’s not really that complicated. The thing to realize is that most Italians aren’t leaving tips, so there’s absolutely no reason you need to. Not convinced? Here are a few more reasons why you shouldn’t get out the tip calculator after a meal in Italy.
- You might be paying extra already. Some restaurants include a “service” charge or a “cover” charge just because you’re occupying a seat, and it’s included no matter what you order. If the menu says servizio incluso or coperto, then it’s already going to be included on your bill. Leave nothing else and think no more about it.
- Italian waiters aren’t depending on tips to survive. Unlike in the United States, where waiters are paid (often) much less than the regular minimum wage with the expectation that they’ll work hard to earn tips that will make up the difference, in Italy there is no historic expectation that waiters will earn tips to supplement their income. No, waiters don’t pull in huge wages in Italy. But they also aren’t counting on your tip to make up the difference in an intentionally low paycheck.
- It sets a bad precedent. Italians in the tourist service industry are already starting to expect tips when they wait on foreign visitors, which means they’re more likely to get upset at Italian patrons who don’t leave tips now. Italians, understandably, aren’t happy with us over this trend. In this, as in many other things, it’s best to follow the local lead.
- It sends the wrong message. This is mostly for American visitors to Italy, since we’re so used to tipping a percentage all the time, but it may apply to other cultures, too. My friend Katie Parla notes that leaving percentage-based tips in Italy like you would at home can give Italians the impression that we’re “wasteful spenders who flash money to show status.”
You really are off the hook when it comes to tipping in Italy. I mean it. I also know you may feel guilty about not tipping, even if you have permission. Besides, what if you’ve just had the meal of your life? Or the waiter has made you feel like you’re a long lost cousin? The way most of us are taught to say thanks in those situations is with a tip. So here’s how to tip like the Italians do.
- Round up the total of your bill and don’t ask for change. If your meal comes to €19, leave a €20 and you’re done.
- Give a few coins to the waiter directly. If you’re paying with a credit card, there may not be a line for a tip on the receipt, and there’s no guarantee the tip would get to your specific waiter, anyway. Handing a few coins to your waiter directly is appreciated. (And by “a few coins,” I mean something that totals €2-3.)
- Leave some spare change on the bar. If you’ve just had your shot of espresso at the bar, and the whole thing cost you €2, you’re not going to leave €1 as a tip. This is the ideal place to dump a few of those tiny coins we seem to have a hard time spending otherwise. Leave 10-20¢ next to your empty cup before you head out the door.
I’ve been using words like “waiters” and “waitstaff” here, but the same applies for taxis – rounding up to give a taxi driver a tip of a couple euro is fine, but as my friend Sara Rosso says “it’s a choice of convenience rather than rewarding service.” If you’re staying in a high-end hotel and someone hefts your bags around for you, sure – hand that person a euro or two. And I still leave about a euro per day for housekeeping if I’m staying in a hotel where the room gets cleaned daily. (Non-Italy-Specific Sidebar: Some travel writer friends of mine say they leave their housekeeping tips at the start of their stay, not the end, to ensure better service.)
Tipping expectations are changing slightly in Italy, especially in more touristy cities where people have started to expect (and, in some cases, demand) tips no matter what, but the reality is that the Italian culture around tipping is such that they have no cause to demand or expect anything. You can do your part to keep from contaminating Italy with foreign tipping customs (while at the same time avoiding any confrontations with taxi drivers or waiters in a huff that you’re not giving them anything extra) by following the lead of the locals and offering a small tip of a few coins – not 15%.