Tipping etiquette is ‘very different’ in Portugal compared to the U.S., says American retiree living there—here’s how

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In 2011, I was living in Washington, D.C. with my wife, where we had planned to spend our retirement years.

But a family vacation to Lisbon, Portugal in 2015 changed our trajectory. We loved it so much, we decided to make it our new home.

Portugal has fantastic cuisine and culture, and the cost of living can be up to 46% less than back in the U.S. But one of the most unexpected things about this country is how very different tipping etiquette is.

Generally, tipping isn’t widely practiced in all regions

It would be unusual to tip a gardener, plumber or electrician.

But there are a few situations where tipping is only slowly becoming the norm: restaurants, hair and nail salons, hotels, guided tours, and taxis and ride-shares.

At restaurants and bars, tipping is less common outside of major cities, like Lisbon, Porto and other tourist destinations.

My family and I once visited a vineyard in a remote area of the Minho region in northern Portugal, where we enjoyed some exceptional wines and cured meats. As we were leaving, the waitress alerted us to the euros she thought we had accidentally left behind on the table.

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We explained that it was a tip (“gorjeta” in Portuguese). Based on her surprised reaction, it was clear that it didn’t happen very often.

When you will be asked to leave a tip

There’s an incredible restaurant called Esplanada Furnas in the seaside village of Ericeira. On Sundays for lunch, it’s packed with families enjoying fresh seafood at long communal tables.

But, like many traditional Portuguese businesses, you won’t see an automatic service fee in your bill. You’ll have to be proactive about it, either by leaving cash on the table or by requesting to add a tip to your bill.

A plate of goose barnacles at my favorite restaurant in Ericeira, Esplanada Furnas. It’s not the most attractive dish, but definitely one of the most popular ones.

Photo: Alex Trias

At restaurants in downtown Lisbon or nearby towns like Cascais, when it’s time to pay the bill, you’ll often be presented with handheld credit card readers that are pre-programmed with tips that range from 5% to 20%.

But in our eight years here, a waiter has only prompted us to leave a tip once or twice. And I have never heard anyone complain about not receiving one. 

At cafes and kiosks in Lisbon’s public gardens and lookout points, tip jars are becoming more common, but people tend to leave just small amounts of change.

How much people usually tip

Tipping expectations in Portugal are not the 15% or 20% that we’re used to in the U.S. In my experience, a 5% to 10% tip is considered generous, and it’s what I typically do when I eat out in large groups.

A sunny day in downtown Cascais.

Photo: Alex Trias

Keep in mind that tipping used to be very unusual in this country, and not everyone welcomes the change. Once, a Portuguese parent at our daughter’s school told my wife: “I wish Americans would stop tipping all the time because now everyone expects us to keep up.” 

I rarely go above 20% unless I’m rounding my 65-cent cup of espresso up to 1 euro. 

Pavilião Chines is my favorite spot to grab a drink. I always tip 20% minimum since they are the only bar in Lisbon that knows how to make a proper Manhattan.

Photo: Alex Trias

You won’t regret leaving tips if you’re a regular

I don’t miss the constant pressure to tip in the U.S., but I do still like to express my gratitude for great service.

I always tip at my favorite coffee shops, wine bars and restaurants, and the gesture is appreciated. Sometimes I even get to skip the line at my regular lunch counter and go straight to the cashier — although it probably helps that I always order the same meal. 

My wife and I give Christmas bonuses to the doormen and cleaning staff in our building, usually between 100 and 150 euros per person, based on seniority. The only other tenant in our building who gives bonuses lived in America for over 40 years.

Even though holiday bonuses are unusual here, and it isn’t expected, our home means a lot to us. It makes us feel good to show caretakers how much we value and appreciate them.

Alex Trias is a retired attorney. He and his wife and daughter have been living in Portugal since 2015. He is the author of the “Investment Pancake” series on SeekingAlpha.com and has published nearly 500 articles about tax planning, investing, early retirement, and where to find the best meals in Lisbon.

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