Before I talk about the appropriate tip in Panama, I should mention that in most restaurants you will need to ASK for your bill. You may need to raise your hand to get the waiters attention. To ask for your bill say “La cuenta por favor” (the check please). If you don’t ask for your bill, the waiter will not bring it to you. You can put la cuenta por favor in to google translate then click on the sound icon to hear the correct way to say the words. Pretending to write on the palm of your hand works as a way to ask for your bill too.
Previously, it was customary for a 10% tip to be added on to your bill. But the laws changed several years ago to prevent restaurants and other establishments from added a tip automatically. Too many people did not know a 10% tip was already added to their bill then they paid an additional 10% or more tip on top of that.
Now, when you get your check, you get to decide how much tip (or PROPINA) you want to pay. A 10% tip is customary but if your service was excellent and/or the food was great, you can certainly tip more. But regardless of the service or quality of the food, a 10% tip is always expected.
Keep in mind that many restaurants only accept CASH for payment. They will not take credit cards. Be sure to ask if they accept credit cards before you order. If you see a sign at the door that says Efectivo, it means they take cash only. But sometimes they only take cash and there is no sign so it is always a good idea to carry cash with you to pay for your meal.
Some other words you need to know to understand your bills:
ITBMS is tax. The tax rate in Panama is 7%.
Efectivo is cash. This is how much cash you gave to pay for your bill.
Cambio is your change – how much change you get back.
You can qualify for a 25% discount off your entree (not appetizers, desserts or drinks) if you have a Pensionado visa. If you have a Friendly Nations Visa or other Visa, you can still get the discounts but you will also need to meet the age requirements.. a woman over 55 or a man over 60. This discount is for Panamanians too. To get the discounts, you will need to show your Cedula (national ID card) or Visa card when you order so the waiter can prepare your bill with the discount already added in.
You can get a 15% discount at fast food restaurants. No tip is expected for fast food restaurants, taxi drivers, Uber, but of course they always appreciate a little tip too.
Even though you are entitled to these discounts, be very selective about when you ask for it. If you go to a Panamanian restaurant where it is only $5 a meal, I would not recommend asking for a discount. That comes right off their already very thin bottom line. Businesses do not get reimbursed by the government for the discounts they give.
A 10% tip is customary for barbers, massage therapists, manicures, hair salons. Other services do not expect to get a tip.
I bought two bags of fruit at one of the local vegetable and fruit stands last week. The young man helping customers with their bags carried my bags to my car. I’d usually give him a 25 cent tip for each bag. But this time, I did not have any quarters so I gave him a $1 bill. You should have his smile from ear to ear. The $1 may not seem like much to you but to some Panamanians that’s a huge tip.
It is also customary to tip the person who bags your groceries at the grocery store. I usually give them 25 cents per bag.