Every time we’re on vacation somewhere, our first dinner out is usually an anxiety-inducing meal. The rules are different everywhere — wait to be seated? find your own table? order all at once? What IS that on the menu in a foreign language you probably don’t speak well? Do you pay at the register? Do you tip? Is it normal to be left alone until you summon a waiter?
Tipping is often the most urgent question (well, after “are you sure [this word on the menu] doesn’t mean goat testicles?”). Coming from the US, we tip. We’re used to the norm of 20% or so over and above the meal (although the rules about cash vs credit, on the table vs in the check, etc can be different in different regions). I spent one horrible day as a waitress and as a result I am a very good tipper at home. I was so bad at it, it’s a lot of work!
Read any guidebook or website about Iceland and the message is “don’t tip”. The various books reassure us that servers in Iceland are paid a good wage and don’t expect tips. With Iceland, one website even suggested that Icelanders would be offended if you left a tip, because they are well-paid and offering a tip implies they are not.
Our approach is pretty up-front: we ask our first server what the rules are. Do we tip? How much? How do we do it? Often, they are a bit nonplussed by the question, and we have gotten a few laughs telling them that they are going to impact the treatment of ever waitperson in every restaurant we go to for the next few weeks. We don’t know the rules, so if they told us “45%, in cash”, we’d be making everyone’s night on our whole vacation.
They never do that, by the way. At least, we don’t think they have!
We asked our very nice server about tipping at our first dinner out and she laughed a bit ruefully. “The internet says we will be offended. We won’t be offended! Who is offended by getting extra?” Apparently that little bit of trip wisdom has been taken to heart and a lot of tourists stopped tipping at all. It’s not true, she told us. Any server is more than happy to receive a tip if you think they did really well, but it’s not expected. They aren’t going to chase you down in the street for not leaving a tip.
So what’s normal? There is usually a 15% tip built-in to the check as is customary in many European countries . It may or may not be noted as a “service charge” on the bill. Leaving up to 10% (rarely more) on top of that is common, and since in nearly all restaurants you pay at the hostess counter/register, you can do it there. There is not usually a place to add it to credit card receipts, so we left a tip in cash most times — leaving it with the hostess or manager ‘for servername’ if we couldn’t give it to them directly.
We often ate lunch at little cafes that had soup + bread, and since it was all self-serve we didn’t tip there. When we did have dinner somewhere with table service, we probably overtipped a bit out of habit. But I”d rather be remembered as that ‘American couple who overtipped’ than ‘the jerks who didn’t tip at all’.
A great summary of the general rules around the world is here, from Etiquette 101. A summary chart published by USA Today might also be useful, although take both with a grain of salt and ask someone local.