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From cutting a sandwich in half to background music, these are the hidden charges to watch out for on holiday

Enjoying a coffee in Venice’s St Mark’s Square when the band strikes up? Expect an extra fiver to be added to the bill, writes Simon Calder

Friday 11 August 2023 11:08 BST
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Added value: a reputable caffeè in Como, northern Italy
Added value: a reputable caffeè in Como, northern Italy (Simon Calder )

Next time you order a toasted sandwich in Italy, be wary of asking it to be cut in half. A British tourist at a bar on Lake Como in northern Italy was charged €2 extra for a diviso da meta (or “cutting in half” charge) for his toasted sandwich.

The proprietor of the Bar Pace in Gera Lario, at the northern end of the beautiful Italian water, told an Italian newspaper the fee was to cover the extra cost of washing an additional plate and the extra place mat.

How common is this – and what other pitfalls await the unwary diner in Italy and elsewhere?

The Independent’s Travel Correspondent has fallen foul of many of them.

Is this ‘cutting-in-half’ charge unusual?

I would be surprised to find an extra fee for a trivial service like this. But businesses around Lake Como are, like many parts of Europe, heavily dependent on tourism. With a limited season in which to prosper, some businesses may see visitors who are clearly only passing through as people they don’t mind cheesing off.

It is fairly standard to charge slightly more than half the price for a half-sized portion. In the US this is formalised in a number of restaurants as a “split plate charge” of $5 (£4) or so. But conversely if you order a dessert to share, you would probably expect an extra spoon to be offered without any additional charge.

Is Italy particularly imaginative when it comes to hidden extras?

A “per-person” charge known as a coperto is common practice at restaurants in Italy and elsewhere. It is usually a couple of euros, and notionally covers olives and bread. That is the case at my local Italian restaurant in south London, where the £2.50 per person charge is clearly marked on the menu.

In Venice, though, you may need superhuman sight to spot the extras. A coffee in St Mark’s Square costs anything from €12 to €18 (£10-£15), with an extra €6 (£5) to pay if the band happens to strike up while you are sitting there.

“The price list is usually at the back of the cafe to avoid the risk of potential clients seeing it before ordering,” reports travel writer and guide Neil Taylor.

The highly experienced Italian travel guide, James Hill, warns of other soaring charges that tourists should know about.

“Prices, especially at the beaches, have gone ’nuclear’,” he says. “You may have heard about €500 (£433) being charged for a day on a Puglian beach with an umbrella and four loungers.”

Taxi drivers may add a 25 per cent surcharge after 10pm, which may not always concur with the official tariff.

Having said all of that, most enterprises in Italy are entirely scrupulous with great service at reasonable prices.

Where else should travellers be careful about hidden extras?

Italians – as well as many other nationalities – are shocked by the UK’s charges of up to £7 that motorists must pay for dropping off passengers outside airport terminals.

Drinking can prove unexpectedly expensive. Some tourist bars in Prague have a disagreeable policy where people who are having a couple of beers might be billed for salt, pepper and ketchup.

In Vienna, one reader reports a €3 per person charge for background music.

What about hotels?

Italy’s imposta di soggiorno, or accommodation tax, is common and expensive. In Venice it is designed “to finance tourism, the maintenance of cultural heritage sites and the environment as well as public services”.

The tax is generally about €1 per star per person per night. So for a week in a five-star hotel a couple would typically pay an extra €70 (£60) or so. Rome, Milan and Florence have similar scales. The imposta may be lower in low season but that may only be the month of January.

Amsterdam has a similar fee which typically adds £10 per night to a room.

This year Manchester became the first UK city to introduce a charge for an overnight stay – though only £1 per room per night.

Nothing, though, compares with the resort fees at some US hotels, which can add $50 (£40) to the nightly room charge. President Biden has vowed to outlaw fees that “confuse or deceive consumers”.

When have you been fleeced at a restaurant?

Several times for wandering “off menu” or for ordering something for which you can’t see a price quoted. Usually it’s the fish of the day – I have paid an astronomical amount for a tiny fillet on the Greek island of Santorini, and in the Portuguese city of Porto.

If you’re enjoying the sunset and a glass of wine, you can overlook the wisdom of asking, before you order a freshly caught fish, “How much will that cost me”?

When the waiter says, “That all depends on how much it weighs,” press the point to check how much your particular seafood dish will set you back.

The “gelato four” – holidaymakers from Birmingham in Rome – ordered an ice cream each in a cafe beside the Trevi fountain and were astonished to face a bill of around £50. The mayor of the Italian capital later invited them back for a free holiday (and ice cream).

If in doubt, always ask the price before you order.

Then there’s the thorny question of tipping?

Yes, in tourist areas of Italy and elsewhere, if there is a service charge, that must be mentioned – but may not be obvious.

Such charges are thankfully rare and I tip anything between zero and perhaps €5 – though that would be for a fabulous meal and a bill of perhaps €100.

Never a fixed percentage, and that applies throughout Continental Europe. Service compris, as they say in France – and if you want to leave without tipping, that’s just fine. In many parts of the world, including much of Asia and Australia, there’s no tradition of tipping.

What about in North America?

If it moves, it probably expects a tip. Taxi (and Uber) drivers, of course. Bellhops who take your bags to the room. Guides and bus drivers on excursions. And, when eating and drinking, waiting staff (a minimum of 18 per cent) and bartenders ($1 per drink).

This also extends to dining cars on trains, and drinks at airport lounges, though there is no expectation (yet) of tipping airline staff for a safe and punctual flight.

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