Salt, pepper and background music: some of the unwanted ‘extras’ travellers encounter

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

A cafe in St Mark’s Square in Venice is about as far as you can get from the economic concept of a “perfect market”, in which all consumers have a complete picture of prices and suppliers compete vigorously against one another. As noted in my weekly travel newsletter on Friday, the statutory price list is well concealed to avoid the risk of patrons seeing it before ordering. And if the price of a thimbleful of coffee is not painful enough, my informant Neil Taylor points out that rates rise by an extra €6 if the band happens to strike up whilst you are sitting there – making a €18 (£15) latte commonplace.

Such literally hidden extras attracted plenty of comment. Paul Griffiths raised the stakes on expensive drinks to £38 – the current equivalent of the 1,600 Thai baht required for a cocktail at the Sky Bar of the Le Bua Hotel in Bangkok. “You cannot even have a wander in to have a look before you buy,” he says.

Annoying, I agree. Yet I don’t class this as a “hidden extra”. The menu is available online, beneath the slogan: “Whether you join us for a single drink or many, we want your time at Sky to be a high point of your visit.”

Drinking can prove expensive. In Prague, “Johnny Punkster” highlights a disagreeable policy that does count as a hidden extra: “Being billed for salt, pepper, ketchup, etc on the table in many bars in Prague, even if you are just having a beer and not eating.”

Also in central Europe, Pamela reports: “In one Vienna restaurant, we were charged €3 each for music in the restaurant. This was not live music, just background music.” Picking up the theme of unrequested food items, she also faced a €2 charge for “appetisers which were not ordered”.

I have written at length about tipping in the US, which effectively means you must add a minimum of 18 per cent for service. Eileen Daly was collecting a drink from a coffee shop in Las Vegas. “They asked if I wanted to increase the 18 per cent tip. What service had I received to merit any tip?”

National governments and local authorities are also levying extras, though they should all be notified in advance. Manchester was the first to create an accommodation tax – it has brought in a £1 fee at city centre hotels.

The UK is a late starter: Mark Wilson points out: “It wasn’t hidden, but the €5 per night city tax in Milan is a bit of a shock checking out of the hotel.” The last Rome hotel I stayed in demanded the fee in cash and did not issue a receipt, which a cynic might suggest was an extra hidden from the Italian tax collectors.

What can the long-suffering traveller do? Steve Hearsey has a suggestion: “A restaurant in Frankfurt charged us a tip after we had left – having not given a tip for poor service.”

This surprised me, because in Germany – as elsewhere in Continental Europe – a tip is genuinely option. But as the charge was applied to the credit card, Steve successfully challenged his card issuer and got a refund.

Perhaps, suggests Dan F, we’re just going to the wrong places. “You can find an espresso for €1.50 in most of the cafes in Venice.” And no need to tip. Perfect.

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