Your guide to handling any tipping situation like a native
Tipping can be one of the trickiest problems to solve when you're traveling in a foreign country - coming from the U.S., we know that most other countries don't have the same expectations for tips in restaurants, hotels, and elsewhere that we have, but it's not always clear what they do expect.
In the U.S., leaving a tip of at least 18-20% is good practice for any restaurant check, because in most states, the minimum wage for restaurant workers is even lower than the standard minimum wage (this practice is called the "tipped minimum"). Plus, your tips are shared among restaurant employees besides just your server, including bussers, bartenders, and sometimes even cooks. If you have a bad service experience, it's much more effective to talk to a manager than drastically reduce or eliminate your tip!
In Italy, however, wages are set without factoring tips in, meaning waiters and the like are not dependent on your tips to pay their bills. What that means for you: You should never feel obligated in any way to leave a tip, and can consider it as a true service bonus when someone does a fantastic job. Did your waiter recommend a special dish you'll be dreaming of for months to come? Tour guide make an extra effort to keep the kids entertained? Say "Thank you" with a tip.
In areas that are very popular with tourists, some workers have come to expect that foreigners will hand out big tips, and might make you feel like they are required. But handing over your usual 20% in these situations can actually cause problems for locals who do not tip that way. This is the time to remember: "When in Rome (or Venice, Milan, Florence), do as the Romans do"! If you pride yourself on being a conscientious tipper at home, you may feel uncomfortable at first! Just remind yourself that as a traveler, you want to experience the local culture as much as possible - and that includes tipping.
Here's where and when Italians do tip, and how to do it the way the locals do.
Many restaurants in Italy charge a standard service fee, which you might see in a couple of places: on the menu, there may be a line that reads "servizio incluso" - that notes that all prices have this service charge built into them and you do not need to add anything else. If you don't see it on the menu, check your check; there may be a small charge added for "servizio."
If your bill does not include a service fee and you're paying with cash, feel free to round up by a few Euro. (Say, if your bill is 37 Euro, put down 40 and walk away.) Don't try to calculate a percentage-based tip the way you would at home - leaving even 10% of a restaurant bill is considered extravagant. If you're paying by credit card, it's likely you will not be given the option to add a tip amount at all! If you want to acknowledge your server, you can hand them a few Euro in cash - think 1 Euro per person in your party.
In a cafe, "keep the change" is about as much as you should ever tip. Leave a small coin or two for your hardworking barista, but never more than a Euro for your average coffee and a pastry.
Round up by a Euro or two only if you want to avoid the hassle of making change - if you're being honked at on a narrow Roman street as you try to unload your suitcases, for example! Giving a bonus-style tip is absolutely not the Italian way. Taxi drivers are essentially independent business owners, not employees, and it is considered an insult to tip a business owner simply for doing their job.
This one's easy: Tip a bellhop or door person as you would at home! Think 1-2 Euro per bag for carrying heavy luggage, a few Euro for hailing you a taxi in the rain, or anything else that goes above and beyond. Leave up to 1 Euro per day you stayed in your room for housekeeping staff when you check out.