Once bitten, twice shy. Bloody Mary indeed!

A favourite question of travellers everywhere concerns the tipping protocol. Do we tip? If so, how much? And do we tip everyone? What exactly are we tipping anyway – service or service with a smile or service with a smile and a little banter?

I’ve had two posh-bad tipping experiences [in fancy places that you’d expect more of]. Both experiences are quite dated now and I’m sure the wait-staff in question have long since moved on. My anecdotes should not be taken as a reflection of current service, which, as I’ve never been back to either establishment, I can’t vouch for. [Once bitten, twice shy – that’s me!]

Valuing time over money

The first was the illustrious Gerbeaud. I’d dropped by for a pre-lunch cuppa to show the place to a visiting friend who is rather fond of a bit of grandeur.  It took about five minutes to catch someone’s attention – although it was a Sunday about 12.30 and the place wasn’t exactly hopping. I ordered a coffee, my friend a tea. Some ten minutes later, my coffee arrived along with a cup of hot water sans teabag for my friend. By the time the bag appeared, I’d finished, and we had a pressing lunch reservation (elsewhere, thankfully). I tried in vain to catch said someone’s attention to ask for the bill. So I calculated what we owed. Because I hadn’t the exact change, I rounded it up and left a sizeable tip [some indication of how much I value time over money].

As we stepped outside and began our walk across Vorosmarty tér, the missing ‘someone’ appeared running after us shouting ‘a szamla, a szamla’. I turned. I told her that I’d left the money on the table. ‘With the 10%?  she asked.  ‘Yes’, I said, through gritted teeth – ‘but only because I didn’t have the correct change’.

Using my discretion

Can it be that tipping for service is becoming mandatory in Budapest? I’ve been told as much, particularly when I cross out the added 10% and refuse to pay anything more than the actual amount as the service was so bad it couldn’t actually be considered service. Mind you, even if the service charge is added automatically, when the service is so good that it’s added to my enjoyment of the occasion [i.e. service + smile + said bit of banter], I’m happy to add the same again.

Making sure I’m noticed

I was being treated to a cocktail at the New York Café one afternoon. Again, it took an age to get someone’s attention – we were but two, neither bedecked nor bejewelled. We took the initiative and  sat ourselves down at at small table. Someone materialised immediately, completely aghast. We should have waited to be seated. The 10 minutes we’d been holding up the wall obviously didn’t count as waiting.  We decided that given the price and the surrounds, the Bloody Mary would no doubt come with vegetables and be topped with the regulatory spoonful of sherry. So we ordered two. They eventually arrived…in plain water glasses accessorised with a simple plastic straw… and the bill. Not brave enough to make a scene, we supped and upped, leaving our money on the table. My friend was all for not tipping, but I added 50 forints just to be sure that said someone knew we hadn’t simply forgotten!

Reading the fine print

I’ve heard some similar stories this week. One diner had a 12.5% service charge added to the top of the bill. I’ve only ever seen it added to the bottom as a percentage of the total, and I read my bills religiously from top to bottom. Not seeing a service charge at the end, the diner tipped an additional 10% – generous to the extreme, in hindsight. Someone else ordered what they thought was a 2000 ft bottle of Tokaj (on special offer) but it was added to the bill at three times the price. Apparently the 2000 ft was the take-away price.

I am sure that there are hundreds more stories just waiting to be told. Who’s at fault?  Is it too much to expect that bills contain only what’s been ordered and that the service charge is added once the bill has been totalled and not before? Or should we each take responsibility for how we spend our money, check the bill before paying, and only reward good service?

One thing’s for certain – variances in tips and tipping or  bills and billing are not peculiar to Budapest, or indeed to Hungary. They’re part and parcel of the service industry worldwide. Whether we call it pulling a fast one or trying to get one over, man has been at it since the dawn of time…and isn’t looking like he’ll stop any time soon.

First published in the Budapest Times 9 November 2012