When traveling abroad, a good traveler expects to run into cultural differences. With a little planning, we can prepare for the big ones, like the language or local customs. But it is often the little things we take for granted and couldn’t fathom doing differently, that trip us up. So, to help you prepare, here is a guide to the little quirks of dining abroad, from ordering drinks to interacting with your waiter and everything you need to know about refills, ice, water, and tipping.





Free refills on sodas, coffee, tea, or any other beverage are an American thing. In Europe, you purchase your beverages by the glass. In most places, there are no fountain drinks, so if you order a soda, you’ll get a can. And hopefully, it was refrigerated, which brings me to the next item…




Until recently, Europeans would look at you like you were crazy if you asked for ice with your drink, and then bring you one single cube. It’s not common, it’s not the custom, and it’s only for outsiders. Many restaurants don’t have ice on hand for cooling drinks. Instead, they use it to chill the fish. And you do not want that ice in your drink! The best outcome you can hope for is that the little cubes will lower the drink’s temperature by at least a few degrees before melting away. 
We Americans are obsessed with having ice-cold drinks. I recently saw someone put ice in a glass of wine, and I gasped in horror. I thought to myself, “If the Europeans could see you defiling that wine, they would die!” Let’s face it, that extra-large soft drink from your local fast-food joint is just a cupful of ice with a little bit of soda. But the fact is, ninety percent of the world’s population makes do without ice every day and don’t even know what they are missing. 


A few years ago, I was hiking in the Alps near Interlaken, Switzerland. I was exploring on my own and checking out some new destinations for my tours. I decided to take on a rather challenging day hike high up in the mountains. Early in the morning, I took a train up to my starting point, and off I went through green meadows that seemed to cascade endlessly down the steep hills under a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. It was a perfect day for hiking! 
Three hours into the hike, my water bottle was dry, and I was looking for anything to rehydrate my aching body. I came across a little restaurant at one of the highest points on the trail and went in to buy a liter or two of water to get me through the next five hours of hiking. Well, all they had was water with gas! At the time, I hated water with gas, but weighing the possibility of no water for the next five hours or water with gas, I purchased the water. That’s the day I learned to like the stuff.
Europeans have been purchasing their water for as long as I can remember. Originally this stemmed from the idea that tap water was unsanitary or that the natural minerals which bottled “spring water” contained were good for you. Whatever the reason, whether at a grocery store or in a restaurant, it is customary to purchase “bottled mineral water” when dining out. It is even customary to purchase water at the grocery for consumption at home.
Bottled water comes in two varieties: with and without gas. The gas is simply carbonation, CO2, the same stuff that makes a cola fizzy. But drinking it and enjoying it requires an acquired taste (It’s a lot like when you get a fountain drink and the syrup is running low). In North America, two popular brands of “water with gas,” or sparkling water, are Perrier (from France) and San Pellegrino (from Italy). You can find these at most grocery stores and fine-dining establishments in the USA.
When traveling throughout most of Europe, you should plan on paying for a bottle of water with your meal. Doing so will ensure you get fresh and clean water that is reasonably chilled. It will come with glasses but no ice. Two varieties are readily available: with gas, and without gas. It’s not a problem to request either, and most often the waiter will ask which you prefer.

How to request water:

ITALIAN – acqua natuarale senza gas (no gas); acqua con gas / acqua frizzante / acqua gazzata (with gas)
GERMAN – wasser no gas (no gas); wasser mit gas (with gas)
SPANISH – agua sin gas (no gas); agua con gas (with gas)
FRENCH – de l’eau plate (no gas); de l’eau gazeuse (with gas) 
Good news! In France it is customary to order a pitcher of fresh tap water at no charge. Simply ask for it! In French, it goes something like this: un carafe d’eau s’il vous plaît.

Interacting with your Waiter


Rule #1: Be kind to your waiter. 

This one may seem obvious, but the pressure of interacting with a language barrier tends to make people forget their manners. No one expects tourists to be fluent in a language before they travel, but learning the basics will go a long way. I can’t tell you how many times a simple Buongiorno has prompted Italians to shower me with compliments on my “beautiful Italian.” At the very least, learn how to say helloplease, and thank you, and you will find a lot of friendly people willing to help you struggle through the rest of the conversation.   


Rule #2: Be aware of local dining customs. 

We Americans are always in a rush. So much so that we eat a lot of our meals on the go. In Europe, eating is a social event. And a 30-minute lunch is unheard of. Don’t expect your waiter to come by every five minutes to see if you are done. In Europe, this would be considered extremely rude. If you want something, chances are you’ll have to flag your waiter down. He isn’t being lazy or bad at his job; he’s giving you privacy to enjoy your meal in peace. This is great if you want to spend three hours catching up with your friends but can be frustrating when you are pressed for time. 

If you don’t have much time to eat, consider ordering from the “take away” counter. Many restaurants and cafes near busy tourist sites offer the same menu to go. Just pick up your lunch and take it to a nearby park. This is a great option when the weather is nice. Don’t forget to grab a few napkins!

Rule #3: Reward your waiter for good service. 

Tipping rules vary from country to country, so you’ll want to do some research before you travel. Unlike in the United States, in many countries, waiters must be paid at least the minimum wage. In those countries, a tip is appreciated but not expected, and an excessively large tip can even be seen as an insult. 


Here are a few guidelines for tipping.

In France and Italy, a service charge is usually already included in the bill. If you stop for drinks, it is customary to leave the change, especially if the service was good. For example, if your bill is 3.50, you can leave .50 on the change tray. However, this is not required. If you are paying with a credit card, there probably won’t be a line on the receipt to leave a tip, so just leave some change on the table. For dinner, a tip of 5-10% is sufficient for all but the fanciest restaurants.
In the UK and Ireland, a service charge may be included in your bill. In the UK, the standard is 12.5%. If you can’t tell if it has been included, don’t be embarrassed to ask the waiter. In Ireland, this policy should be listed on the menu. You can still leave an additional tip for particularly good service. If there is no service charge, plan to leave between 10 and 15%. In the pub, people generally do not leave a tip. But here again, if the service was exceptional, the bartender filled several orders, or was very friendly, you can leave a small tip.  Here are some more in-depth hints on tipping in Europe.


Dining abroad doesn’t have to be stressful if you’re aware of a few key differences. There are no free refills on drinks, soda usually comes in a can, no ice for drinks, and you have to purchase water. Remember to specify whether you want still or sparkling water. Being friendly to your waiter will make for an enjoyable experience. Try to learn a few words in the language, because this gesture is much appreciated in non-English-speaking countries. Understand the local customs. Your waiter isn’t ignoring you, he’s giving you privacy to enjoy your meal without interruption. And finally, know the local tipping customs so that you can reward him for good service. With this in mind, you should be all set. Bon appétit!