/ Money

Should the ‘optional’ service charge be barred?

Wallet on bar with drinks

Restaurant service charges are a bone of contention for our community, but what about extra charges at the bar? Have you ever checked your bar receipt to see whether an ‘optional’ service charge has been added?

About a month ago I visited a London hotel with some friends and proceeded to order a couple of cocktails at the bar. The bartender diligently made the drinks and gave me my change along with a receipt that I tucked into my purse.

It wasn’t until a few days later when I was clearing out my purse that I noticed I’d been charged an ‘optional’ 12.5% service charge. Surprised at this, I phoned the bar and spoke to the manager. I told him that my receipt said the charge was ‘optional’, yet it had been taken without my permission. He told me it was customary to add a service charge to all drinks and food served and that it said so on the drinks menu.

I said we must be using a different dictionary definition of the word ‘optional’.

To make a long story short – he refunded me my £1.74. However, the entire experience left me wondering whether others have been caught out in the same way.

‘The barman opened the bottle and charged for service’

Most people will pop their drinks change straight into their pocket or purse without checking the receipt, yet some bars could be making a small fortune from ‘optional’ service charges.

We decided to take this question to Which? members. Although around a third told us that they always check bar receipts, three in 10 said they rarely or never do. Interestingly, women are significantly more likely to check their receipts than men, and the older you get, the more likely you are to do so. We heard some interesting stories as well, such as this one:

‘About seven years ago, I arrived before anyone else for a meal in Leeds, so ordered a drink. The barman opened the bottle, handed it across the bar, and gave me a bill including service charge. I refused to pay this, and gave him the money for the drink only.’

But not everyone is willing to complain:

‘A hotel in London a couple of years ago… we bought a small wine and a single spirit and mixer at the bar. The man serving us added service charge automatically and gave us change based on this being mandatory. We didn’t complain as it was the first time we’d experienced it and thought it was the norm in London.’

So, have you fallen victim to the ‘optional’ bar service charge? Did you complain, or were you happy to pay the added charge?


Unfortunately, we are now ‘Americanized’ with regards to tipping. As a British, I really find it annoying when a tip is added/expected to every drink you order at the bar. So it seems that if you’re short of money, be wary – no drink as you don’t have enough tipping money !!

royston says:
11 August 2013

I always find it amusing when it comes it discussions about Tipping its my surname!

David says:
3 August 2013

I was never given a tip when I worked & sorted out peoples problems, so I don’t give a tip if I can help it.

Sophie Gilbert says:
3 August 2013

I dislike tipping largely because I’m never sure how much to give, though I tend to stick to 10% in restaurants here and abroad, and small change in bars abroad, unless service is outstandingly good or bad, in which case I adjust the amount accordingly, from a good 20% down to zero.

I also dislike tipping because the principle dates back, as I understand it, from when the minimum wage didn’t exist and waiting staff were notoriously paid very poorly. As this isn’t or shouldn’t be the case legally any longer (and how can we guess as customers if it is or isn’t the case in each restaurant or café we visit?), why do we carry on? For myself it’s because I don’t want to buck the trend as I feel I would be one of the very few who do.

As an aside, I bet some waiting staff in some places are better paid than I am…

However, so far I haven’t knowingly been charged for “optional” service at the bar, but I will look out for that, and I am likely to vote with my feet if I come across it. Unless, big maybe, the bar staff haul their ar*es from behind the bar and serve me at my table?

Paul says:
3 August 2013

Personally, I believe a tip should be earned and “optional” charges dilute the effect of a customer providing someone a tip. Out of principal I almost always ask for optional service charges to be removed to make the point that as the customer it should be my choice whether and how much I tip. I will usually tell staff the reason for this as well.

Professionally, wearing my Trading Standards Officer hat, there are arguments that the practice breaches the misleading pricing provisions of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. All mandatory charges must be included in the headline price. A charge which is automatically added to your bill is not exactly optional. The second problem with this practice is that consumers often are not aware of the charge until afterwords as the information is usually in tiny print, which I often find hidden at the back of menus. Plus, OFT research shows that people do not fully take into consideration charges outside of the headline price. Our brains can only cope with so much chunks of information when making decisions between a variety of food/drink and various prices.

I draw your attention to the government Pricing practices guide: guidance for traders – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/31900/10-1312-pricing-practices-guidance-for-traders.pdf – which you will note that most of the service industry ignores:

2.2.14 You should not include suggested optional sums, whether for service or any
other item, in the bill presented to the customer. If your customers in hotels,
restaurants or similar places must pay any non-optional extra charge, for example a
“service charge”:
(a) you should incorporate the charge within fully inclusive prices wherever
practicable; and
(b) you should display the fact clearly on any price list or priced menu, whether
displayed inside or outside (for example by using statements like “all prices include


Very often a bar will not provide a legible price list (let alone one that’s actually correct), and will not issue a receipt unless you really insist, which will make you unpopular with the staff. It’s reasonable to assume that you’re always being unfairly ripped off when at a bar, but this is the first I’ve heard of an optional service charge at such a place! Buying any kind of product or service just gets ever more frustrating when you have to watch out for immoral practices all the time. Why can’t we just be treated properly without having to kick up a fuss first?


There was a campaign some time ago – “Fair Tips” to ensure that the hospitality industry at least paid the minimum wage up front to waiting staff rather than forcing them to top it up through tips. That ended up with a code of practice rather then legislation but most reputable places signed up.

Maybe it’s now time for Which? and others to run a campaign to abolish service charges completely and go over to the system which has operated perfectly well in France for years, and that is that the price on the menu is the price you pay, no service charge or other ‘extras’. I’m sure this would have huge public support though there would be the inevitable squealing from the trade who will lobby their friends in government to keep the status quote. But it’s a battle worth winning.

Anon the Mouse says:
4 August 2013

This opens a whole nest of questions.

Does the charge get split only between those that have provided you with the service? such as waiter, cook, porter, or is it a general pool that is spread further? If the latter then it’s a business subsidy.

If the staff only receive NMW then the company is in breach of NMW as they are paying 12.5% below the law.

If they are paid NMW + 12.5% (regardless of charges “earnt” that night) then the service charge is NOT being passed on and is in effect a business subsidy going to management

If they are paid wages + their own charges “earnt” for the night then it is actually a true tip.