The Truth About Tipping (Trinkgeld) in Germany

Much of the online English-language tipping advice for Europe – and Germany in particular – is wrong. This is understandable when you realize that even most native Germans get restaurant tipping all wrong.

The Myth That Won’t Die
If you ask the typical German about how tipping should work in a German restaurant, the standard answer is to just round off the amount of the bill to the nearest euro. If the Rechnung comes to 33.40 euros, they’ll tell you to round that off to 34 or 35 euros, but never more than two or three euros Trinkgeld. Some Germans are even more stingy with tips than that! They will tell you that wait staff in Germany are well paid and the Bedienung (service charge) is included in the bill. But this is a stubborn myth (and lame excuse) that somehow never dies. Only if the menu clearly states that the service charge is included in the prices (Preise inklusive Bedienung) is that true, and that is almost never the case. But there is also an important distinction between Bedienungsgeld and Trinkgeld, which we will explain below.

restaurant menu

A doorside restaurant menu in Germany. Is a service charge included in the prices? Usually not. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

The Truth
Germans who are better informed will tell you the truth: The wages earned by a Kellner/Kellnerin in Germany are among the lowest of any profession in the country. Food servers in Germany start out at a minimum-wage level of just under nine euros per hour brutto (gross, before deductions). Experienced waiters/waitresses can earn from 10 to 12 euros per hour, depending on the location and the type of dining establishment. A new waiter in Bremen earns on average about 950 euros a month before deductions and tips. The German average is 1,646 euros a month. More experienced Kellner/Kellnerinnen can earn up to 2,400 euros monthly. The average annual wage for a food server in Germany is 18,000-21,000 euros, not including tips. (Wait-staff wages in Austria are lower; those in Switzerland are higher.) Whether experienced or not, a food server working in a German restaurant depends very much on tips from customers to bring their income up to a more reasonable level. If you consider 10 euros an hour, or 18,000 euros per annum “well paid,” then you have rather low expectations.

Brutto Gehalt

One online source lists the average monthly (€1,570) and annual income (€18,841) of a waiter in Germany, before tips. The amount can vary widely, depending on the city and/or Bundesland, but food servers rarely earn more than 20K euros annually before tips. IMAGE:

Trinkgeld vs Bedienungsgeld
When Germans claim that the pay for German wait staff includes a service charge, that is rarely true. Even when it is true (and clearly stated on the menu), it is only valid in a very limited sense. In some German states (Bundesländer), the contract wage agreement may include a certain amount for “Bedienungsgeld,” money included in the menu prices that is intended to pay a restaurant worker for their table-waiting services. But you, the paying customer, need to understand a key legal and financial difference between Bedienungsgeld and Trinkgeld.

Under German tax law, Bedienungsgeld (“service money”) is a mandatory service fee that restaurant customers must pay, since it is included in the menu prices. That means it is subject to income tax, and that tax is deducted/withheld from the food server’s pay. It is not “tip money”! On the other hand, Trinkgeld (tip money) is a voluntary “gift,” an extra amount of money willingly given to the food server as a reward for his good work, and is therefore not taxable! Which one of these two forms of remuneration do you think a German food server prefers?

Oddly, Germans who travel abroad (most of them!) seem to understand that the poor underpaid waiters and waitresses in the United States depend on tips. German tourists in North America know they need to tip 15 to 20 percent, because the wait staff in US restaurants get so little basic pay that they can only survive if they are well tipped. German tourists then return home and resume their miserly tipping habits, not realizing that German food servers really don’t earn much more (before tips) than their American counterparts. In both countries, most wait staff earn only minimum wage or a bit more before tips.

Cafe Tomaselli, Salzburg

A restaurant in Salzburg, Austria. Wait staff in Austria generally earn even less than the German average before tips. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

TIP: The etymology of the English word “tip,” in the sense of a gratuity, is uncertain. Etymologists cast doubt on the most common origin story: In 1688 Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house in London. A collection tin on the counter bore the words “To Insure Promptness” (TIP), which later led to the term “tip” (or not). Later (1771) the coffee house became the center for the Society of Lloyd’s of London, which used the term “insure” for its insurance business. Other “tip” explanations are also doubtful. The first written use of the noun “tip” for a gratuity appeared in 1755.
TRINKGELD: The origin of the German word is much clearer. The literal meaning of “drink money” for gratuity is also found in other European languages: pourboire in French, drikkepenge in Danish, and napiwek in Polish. The practice of “drink money” can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Trinckgelt (in Old German, later also Trankgeld, Trunkgeld) first appeared in 1372 as the Latin term bibalia in Prague in the weekly construction records for the cathedral there. The workers were given “drink money” as part of their pay. Nobles would also give drink money to peasant workers and field hands as a small reward, with the intention of providing money for drinks. A synonym also used at that time was Biergeld (beer money).

I first wrote about restaurant tipping in Germany a few years ago for our Dining Out in Germany guide. In the first version of that guide I unintentionally perpetuated the falsehood of the well-paid food server in Germany, but also the truth about cheapskate German tippers. After all, it was what Germans had told me about tipping. They should know, right? Wrong.

Not long after the German Way dining guide appeared online, I received an email from a German restaurant owner. He pointed out that although most Germans think their waiters are well paid and don’t need tips, that is not true. The wait staff do not receive any service-charge money from their employer that is separate from their wages. The round-up-to-the-nearest-euro tip is ridiculous. Food servers in Germany indeed do depend on tips. Would I please correct the tipping guide to reflect reality?

Wow. I didn’t expect that! So I did some research. I soon realized that the restaurant owner was right. Germans have no clue when it comes to wait-staff wages and tipping. But why? Why are so many Germans ignorant about the pay their Kellner and Kellnerinnen receive? Why doesn’t the German restaurant industry have a campaign to better inform Germans about the reality of staff pay? Is it because owners/managers just don’t want to publicize the fact that they pay their workers so little? Why doesn’t the DEHOGA Bundesverband (Deutscher Hotel- und Gaststättenverband), the German association that represents the hospitality industry, reach out to educate Germans on tipping and wages? (Well, for one thing, DEHOGA isn’t even sure it likes Germany’s relatively new minimum wage law.) The fact remains that too many Germans mistakenly believe that tips don’t matter that much to German food servers. Hence, the cheapskate German tipper.

I find myself constantly arguing with Germans about tipping. They insist that Kellner/Kellnerinnen are well paid in Germany, and don’t expect more than a few euros tip. When I tip 10 or 15 percent in Germany, they insist that I’m being way too generous. But they really don’t know the facts. A one or two-euro tip is fine if you’re only ordering a cup of coffee or tea. Otherwise you’re just being as miserly as the typical German restaurant diner.

Why You Should Tip Your Food Server in Germany
Regardless of the reasons outlined above, a tip is an indication of respect and good manners. Do you really want to be the jerk who is too cheap to leave a token of appreciation for the service you received? If you have ever waited tables, you know it is a demanding job requiring certain skills that not everyone has. True, there may be a food server now and then who doesn’t deserve a tip, but that is the exception, not the rule. Anyone who has dined in a restaurant (and paid attention) knows that good waiters or waitresses earn every cent of their pay. Don’t imitate the skinflint Germans who don’t seem to know that.

How to Tip in Germany
Among other cultural differences, the German way of tipping in a restaurant is different from the American (or French) way. You do not leave a tip on the table in Germany. You have to settle your bill with your food server, and you include the Trinkgeld amount during that process. Yet another reason to be proficient with your numbers in German!

For more about how to tip in a restaurant, see our Dining Out in Germany guide.

Other Kinds of Tipping in Germany
As always, your tip should reflect your satisfaction with the service provided. It’s not mandatory. Some suggested tip amounts for other situations:

  • Hair salon (barber/hairdresser): 10 percent
  • Hotel maid: 2 to 4 euros per night
  • Hotel porter: 2 to 3 euros per bag; more if you have a lot of luggage
  • Restroom cleaning lady: Pay the posted fee (50 euro cents and up); keep change on hand for Germany’s “pay to pee” system.
  • Taxi driver: 5 to 10 percent, depending on the level of service
  • Tour guides: 5 to 10 percent

I have worked for tips in the past. Ever since then I have had a different attitude about tipping, no matter where I am in the world. If you are into insulting people and denigrating their work, be a stingy tipper. But if you appreciate the hard work of a person providing service to you, show your respect by offering an appropriate tip – especially if you plan on returning or becoming a regular customer (Stammkunde)!