I have often had tourists tell me they were ripped off at a restaurant in Spain. "Such-and-such bar added extra items to what we had to pay" or "We knew exactly how much we were supposed to pay, but they charged us way too much". Due to a lack of Spanish skills, most will pay and grumble about it afterwards.
I can assure you that I have never had this happen to me in 15 years of working in Spain. At least, never without a good explanation. No bar will blatantly scam a tourist, though they may have other more subtle ways of getting a little extra from you.
I should stress that the vast majority of bars are entirely honest about how they charge their patrons. The problems highlighted below only happen in very few unscrupulous bars. But it pays to be aware.
01 of 06
Not Offering the Menu del Dia in English
The menu del dia, almost exclusively found at lunch time (and only on weekdays) is a special deal where you get a full meal for a much better price than from the main menu (Note: Spanish for 'menu' is "la carta" - the Spanish word 'menu' means 'set meal').
But as the menu changes every day, few places can write it out in English. So you may find you are not offered it at all.
Is this really a scam? No. It's too much effort for most bars to translate their daily menu into English.
How to avoid The menu del dia will always be on display, but you may miss it. The waiter will usually give you that menu first - but if in doubt, ask: "¿Hay menú? ("EYE men-OO?")
02 of 06
Not Including Bread, Drinks and Dessert in the Menu del Dia
The menu del dia always includes a 'primer plato' and 'segundo planto' (first and second course - broadly similar to a 'starter' and 'main course' but not quite the same). And it will usually include all of these: bread (pan), a drink (bebida) and a dessert (postre). But not always!
Alicante is one place where the trick of charging for bread is becoming a frequent trick (and it's not even nice bread), though this was more a problem with tapas and for food ordered off the main menu than for the menú del dia.
For those of you who insist on tipping in Spain (you really shouldn't - read here: Tipping in Spain), a good punishment when they charge for bread is to consider this charge as their tip.
Is this a scam? Possibly, though it's not aimed exclusively at tourists. It's certainly a sneaky way of making the meal look cheaper. But in these times of economic uncertainty, not being forced to have bread, drinks and dessert (which, of course, you... pay for in the price of the meal) could be seen as a good thing.
How to avoid Check on the menu before you order. If in doubt, ask "¿Esta incluido?" ("Is it included?" "¿Es-TA in-clue-EE-do?").
03 of 06
The IVA Scam
IVA is Spanish for value added tax. Usually it is included in the price, but sometimes it isn't.
Unlike in the US, where it's normal to add tax on at the end, in Spain this only happens in touristy places.
A restaurant that will go to such lengths to squeeze an extra ten per cent out of you won't be using the finest ingredients. You can be sure that such a wanton disregard for the client will not begin and end with cheekily adding a few extra cents to your bill.
If there is one thing Spain is not short of, it's restaurants. So if you're looking for the best restaurant in the area that is within your price range, you can bet that a restaurant that does this little trick won't be it.
I should point out that this trick is a rarity. At the same time, caring less about passing tourist trade than about regular customers is a problem everywhere in the world. Spain is no worse than anywhere else you might visit.
Is this a scam? Depends how clearly they show the 'IVA no... incluido' sign. Usually it is easy to see, which means they are just using the typical business technique of giving the illusion your meal is a better deal than it is. If they write it very small or in a difficult to read place, then it's a scam.
How to avoid Look out for the phrase "IVA no incluido" (be sure the 'NO' is there, many places will actually be informing you that it is included). If you do see IVA is not included, avoid the restaurant altogether.
04 of 06
Charging More for Sitting Outside
Spanish restaurants often have two, sometimes three pricings. There'll be a bar price ("barra"), a price to sit in the main restaurant ("salon") and a third price to sit outside on the "terraza". It's nice to sit outside and the surcharge isn't much, but just don't be surprised if your bill is a little higher as a result.
Other times there'll be a 'suplemento' for sitting outside, written somewhere on the menu.
Is this a scam? No. The Spanish are very used to this idea. The supplement helps pay for the extra staff required to wait the tables.
How to avoid Check the menu. There will either be two or three columns explaining, or some small print that gives the percentage added on.Continue to 5 of 6 below.
05 of 06
Serving Yellow Rice as Paella
Paella is made using short grain rice, a good sofrito and broth, with an assortment of toppings - it can be seafood, but not always (or even traditionally). It is cooked much like a risotto, the main difference being that it is not stirred while the rice absorbs the broth.
What paella isn't is any old boiled rice, dyed with food colouring and with some chopped vegetables and shrimps stirred in.
Is this a scam? Totally! Any restaurant that offers this is trying to cash in on naive foreign tourists looking for paella without knowing what a good one looks or tastes like. The restaurant lacks the culinary ability or facilities to make a good paella, so they'll palm you off with any old yellow rice and hope you won't notice.
How to avoid Only order paella at a restaurant that is known for it. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. Read my page on How to Order Paella in Spain.
06 of 06
Not Offering Tap Water
The Spanish-language blog Madrid Me Mata has brought up the issue of having to pay for tap water in a restaurant on water in a recent post, having been charged for it recently for the first time.
The post raises (and partially answers) one of the most popular questions asked by foreign visitors to Spain - is water from the tap OK to drink? The short answer, as can be seen from the fact that the blogger from Madrid Me Mata ordered it, is 'yes'. On the other hand, your body needs to get used to a country's water and many tourists report that what they drink from Spanish taps, it doesn't always agree with them for the first couple of days. Also, even if the tap water is drinkable, that doesn't mean it's necessarily nice - in Granada the local water tastes as good as mineral water, in Valencia it's not particularly pleasant.
According to the Spanish tourist board:
"Drinking water supply is guaranteed throughout Spain. We have stringent control systems that... guarantee water quality. Nevertheless, in some Mediterranean coastal areas consumption of bottled water is widespread."
Remember that 'widespread' doesn't mean 'essential'.
And how about being charged for it? Is this legal? It seems that it is, though the practice is uncommon. However, the restaurant can only do so if if the charge is clearly indicated on the menu. Look for 'agua del grifo' on the menu, or some other indication that it is not bottled water. Furthermore, according to this article on ADN.es, tap water can constitute part of a "menu del dia". This means that if you order your meal and ask for, say, a Coke and some tap water, they could legitimately include the (cheaper) water in your meal and charge you for the Coke.
Is this a scam? No. Eating out in Spain is cheap, partially because the restaurant expects to make a little profit from selling drinks. I think it is fair for a restaurant to try to make a living, don't you?
How to avoid Difficult if you don't have good Spanish skills.
It should be stressed that this is rare and I (so far) have never been charged for tap water in Spain.
As you can see from these examples, a genuine 'scam' is rare in Spanish restaurants, though some restaurants might try to be a bit 'clever' to make a bit more money out of you. But this probably applies in your home country too. Stay smart and you'll be fine!