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Food and Drink For Members

12 tricks some bars and restaurants in Spain use to overcharge you (and how to avoid them)

The Local Spain
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12 tricks some bars and restaurants in Spain use to overcharge you (and how to avoid them)
Don't let certain restaurant and bar owners take you for a ride with some of these crafty tricks to overcharge you. (Photo by MIGUEL RIOPA / AFP)

Spain is a relatively well-priced country to enjoy a meal out, but there are numerous sneaky tricks some establishments use to squeeze extra money out of customers, sometimes illegally. 

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Eating out shouldn’t be about having to keep a close eye on everything that you may be charged for, in fact it’s often impossible to predict if there are any extra charges coming. 

However, some Spanish bar and restaurant owners do try their luck with different crafty ways to beef up the bill, some of them legal and others illicit.

The latest scandal has seen some Barcelona restaurants refuse to serve solo diners, favouring instead bigger-spending groups of tourists. In 2022, Spaniards were equally appalled by the news that some bars were placing time limits on customers

Spanish consumer rights organisation Facua has for years been warning the public of the multiple ways Spanish establishments try to trick their customers into spending more money than they intended, popularising the hashtag #BaresParaNoVolver (#BarsNotToReturnTo).

It’s important to stress that the majority of Spanish bars and restaurants are known for being fair, welcoming and well-priced places, but a few are pushing their luck.

Here are some of the cons to look out for and when you’re within your right to not pay. 

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Food that’s not on the menu 

When the waiter arrives to take your order, it’s common for them to ‘sing’ all the dishes that aren’t on the menu. 

According to Facua, these should be at least listed on the menu with a price or price per weight for the bar or restaurant to have the right to charge whatever they see fit. 

"If the price is exorbitant compared to everything else we find in the establishment's menu, we shouldn’t have to pay it," Rubén Sánchez, Facua spokesperson and author of the book Timocracía ('Scamocracy') argues. 

“You'll have to decide whether you ask for a complaint form, or whether to leave without paying.

“If you decide to take it one step further and report the situation to a consumer body, the more explicit the evidence you provide, the better (copy or photo of the bill and menu). 

Alternatively, ask for a price indication for the unlisted dishes that you are thinking of ordering. 

Drinks that aren’t on the menu 

We’ve made this a separate category as you don’t necessarily ask for the menu if you’re only sitting down for some drinks with friends and family. 

If you are charged an amount that is far higher than you expected, you may choose to cough up what they’re asking for and never return, but if you do want to double check that you’re not being taken for a ride, the same law applies to drinks as to food: drink prices have to be listed on the menu or they don’t have the right to charge what they claim is the price. 

Always check the menu before ordering. Photo: OSCAR DEL POZO/AFP

 

Price according to market value

Often concealed under the acronym SM (Según Mercado) or PSM (Precio Según Mercado), the idea is that customers get charged for the catch of the day or other fresh produce based on market value variations at the source. 

Once again, it’s illegal to not include the price or price based on weight on the menu, so if they wanted to charge the new price based on the market value, restaurants have to reprint their menus. 

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Extra VAT 

Some establishments add a 10 percent charge to the bill claiming that it’s VAT (IVA in Spanish). 

This practice is actually illegal in Spain, even if menus include the phrase “VAT not included”.

Spanish law states that menus must show the full price of the product, so you have the right to refuse to pay if this happens to you. 

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You get charged for the tapas or the shots you didn’t ask for

Many restaurants in Spain offer customers a small digestif shot of mild alcohol (often Orujo cream or herbs digestif) at the end of their meals. Many bars also offer customers some nuts or olives with beer, in some cities like Granada this takes the form of full tapas. 

In the vast majority of cases it’s a gesture of good will and completely free, but Facua have received complaints from disgruntled customers who were charged for these products that they didn’t request.

Unfortunately, if you agreed to it and it’s on the menu, they do have the right to charge you for it.  

READ ALSO: Why do Spaniards find it embarrassing to eat the last bite?

 

Bread

The same often applies to el pan (the bread). You dig into the bread basket then realise the cost was added to your bill at the end.

Usually the price is not that high or worth worrying about.

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Higher prices during peak times

This is a trend which is in its early beginnings in Spain, born from the need for cafés, bars and restaurants to make back losses incurred during the pandemic. 

It’s referred to as dynamic prices, whereby the price of a coffee, beer or paella goes up during peak season, similar to what happens with flight prices or accommodation during the summer season.

The price change system is supported by several Spanish hospitality associations and some restaurant chains, such as Madrid’s Arzábal restaurant, which tested the system in 2020 to see if it had an “adverse reaction” from the public. 

They were able to increase profits by 30 percent and not just by hiking prices, also by prioritising easy to prepare meals during busy times, and lowering the price of products they had in abundance. 

It's unclear at this point whether this goes against Spanish law, but the rule of thumb is that if the price is listed, it’s legal.  

READ ALSO: Are Spain's traditional bars in danger?

 

Charging extra depending on where you sit

Some bars and restaurants apply an extra charge for those sat at a proper dining table rather than at the bar. However, as with other examples listed in this article, this is only legal if they mention it on the menu and they have to specify exactly how much this fee is.

Being charged extra to sit at a restaurant terrace or inside has to be stated clearly on the menu. Photo: Life of Pix/Pixabay

 

The hidden menú del día

Many bars and restaurants in Spain have a menú del día (menu of the day) - the cheap three-course lunch beloved of Spaniards - but neglect to publicise the fact that they have one. 

Some try to hide their menus because of the belief that a law from 1965 – which stipulated that all bars should offer a menú del día consisting of a starter, main course, bread, wine and dessert – still exists. 

The truth is that it’s not been obligatory to offer a menú del día since 2010, but there’s nothing stopping you from asking if they have one. 

READ ALSO: Huge debate in Spain over vague hint that 'menús del día' should drop beer and wine

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Service charge 

A €4,100 restaurant bill handed to customers at a glitzy Marbella restaurant went viral in 2021, not only because of the €1,000 bottle of champagne they ordered but also given the €372 service charge added at the bottom. 

The furore spurred the restaurant owner to go on national television and explain that this service is optional and that if customers ask why this charge is added they are informed they don’t have to pay. It was meant to be a replacement for tips, but the waiter who took the order reportedly chased after the customers to ask where his cut was. 

Service charges such as these are illegal according to Facua, which during the pandemic also warned cafés and bars that were adding an extra euro or two to the bill as “servicio Covid” that they were not within their rights to do so. 

 

 

Charging for cutlery, ice or tap water

Similarly to the example listed above, another Spanish restaurant went viral after charging customers €1.50 per knife and fork. 

This is just as illegal as charging patrons for cleaning the table or the table cloth. Under Spanish law it is illegal for restaurants to charge customers for anything that is considered necessary for the provision of service.

Some bars actually charge customers for tap water, a practice that is not actually illegal, as long as they include the price on the menu, which most conveniently forget to do.

As if that weren’t enough, a nice refreshing soft drink might be soured by the fact that some bars charge their customers for ice cubes, some even putting a price on each cube.

 

Supplement for well-done meat

This may seem ridiculous, but a handful of Spanish restaurants actually charge customers more if they want their meat well done. This place charged 30 cents extra – was it the extra use of electricity or maybe the extra time the chef spent over the grill? Who knows…

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