I just wandered through a list of how to tip, how much, where in the world, on the blog Political Calculations, which borrows from some previously published travel and food gurus to create a chart. It seems pretty accurate to me, based on my own travels. One thing is often overlooked in discussions about tipping, though, and it confuses visitors to a country. It’s the business of small change.
I wrote an article on tipping in France several years ago, when I lived in Paris, for an American Express magazine. Officially, no one tipped there, because under French law the service is included in the price of the meal. That hasn’t changed. Nevertheless, I invited a group of French people to meet in a cafe at the time and discuss tipping, since every visiting American asked why French people always seemed to leave something. Did they or did they not tip?
The cafe group was happy to discuss it generally, but none of them wanted to openly discuss their own practices. A woman from a well-respected old family took me aside and explained that while tipping was included in the price, and therefore no one tipped, most people would leave some small change, but getting that right was a delicate question. Was the party large? One person treating? Did they stay a long time? Was it a quick cuppa by yourself? Did you need to impress someone at the table, in which case you had to work out an amount that was not too small, not too big.
Switzerland is simpler. If your bill says CHF50, you can pay exactly that and no one will expect more. If, as I did yesterday, you invite someone to lunch and linger because you’re having a business meeting, leaving some small change is considered polite, but not necessary. To be precise: our lunch in a small cafe was CHF53 and I left CHF2 in change. This isn’t a percentage, but a gesture of appreciation because we took up table space for longer than the average customer. Dinner for four in a nice restaurant? I would pay the bill I am handed, no more.
Credit cards are part of the problem, because the international form often leaves a space for service, or tips. Leave it blank when you’re in Switzerland and copy the total. Don’t worry about looking cheap, as this is the correct thing to do.
What happens if you do leave a tip? It depends, again, on the place and the situation. In some restaurants, they will insist you take it back, assuming you aren’t aware that service is included. Swiss guests might do the same. In other retaurants, they will accept it, but be uncomfortable. And if the waiters are foreigners, they might be quite happy with it, but the owner will worry that you’ve left thinking the restaurant is more expensive than is really the case.