When in Rome... or how to live like the locals in Prague
As with most new destinations you can expect to be paying over the odds in your first few days when you first arrive on Czech soil. That might mean tipping more than you should, shopping in the wrong places, going out in tourist areas, buying from expensive local shops, or eating in Western restaurants. While there is nothing completely wrong with this - and we have all I'm sure at some stage in our travels headed for example into a McDees for culture relief and ordered something familiar - it does of course pay in many ways to try and live like a local as soon as you can so that you gain a more authentic local experience and so that your bank balance remains consistently healthy. I often advise people to live like the locals but what does that actually mean for Prague?
Here are some numbered tips for a speedier integration into Czech life:
1. When entering the vast majority of small establishments you should announce yourself with a politely spoken Dobry Den. This literally translates as Good Day and as a local you will 'announce' yourself like this when entering a small grocery store, pharmacy, bar, etc. If you don't then it will automatically be assumed that you are a tourist. Even if your Czech accent isn't that hot as long as you demonstrate that you have a grasp of this rudimentary cultural concept then you will more than often receive a warmer welcome than if you hadn't said anything. When leaving you should announce Na Shledanou (Good bye).
2. Tipping. Czechs don't tip nearly as much as people do in the USA for example. If taking a taxi and the bill comes to 238 CZK then round it up to 250 CZK. If the bill comes to 228 CZK then round it up to 240 CZK. Downtown waiters sometimes play the annoying habit of requesting tips or giving large change from a bill in coins in the hope that you will leave a large tip. For restaurants you should work on giving a 10% tip if the service and food was of a good quality. If the food or service was bad then tip or don't tip accordingly. It is important to watch if the bill includes a service charge because if it does then the tip has already been included in your meal calculation and there is absolutely no need to tip. If the meal was exceptional and the service was divine then tip anywhere up to 20%. In most cases though you will find that the 10% rule applies.
3. Dress down. OK, gone are the days of Czech business people flooding the Western European market with their purple suits but with an average working wage for the country of around just US$1,000 per month per person, there are not a lot of people who can afford to splash out on brand names such as Levis, North Face, etc. Czechs do in general tend to look a bit disheveled. Tourists often stand out from the crowd not because of their camera equipment and maps spread open, but instead because their clothes are usually of a high quality or branded. If you walk into a restaurant with a North Face Jacket on then expect to get the newbie tourist treatment.
4. Transport. Tourists tend to get charged extra for Prague and inter-city transport. Often when ticket machines are illegible for non-Czechs then Prague transport ticket vendors charge tourists a higher rate for a local metro or tram trip - something like selling you a 32 CZK ticket when you really only needed one for 24 CZK. The same rule definitely applies for some national bus and train routes and especially the main tourist ones. Whereas a local might be quoted a Praha-Brno train ticket for under 250 CZK a tourist might be fleeced for almost double. In this case I recommend taking a local with you when buying train tickets and buying bus tickets through the recommended studentagency.cz company. If using the Prague transport system regularly then I strongly advise buying a monthly pass - covering all train, tram, metro and bus travel within the city limits and costing around US$30 only for the month.
5. Grocery shopping. Always try and shop outside of the city center. Tesco, which is a British style Wallmart, has supermarkets bang in the center of town and hypermarkets on the outskirts. The hypermarkets are much more affordable (and less crowded). When shopping at small grocery stores it is important to use the shopping baskets provided as all locals do - if you don't then don't be surprised if you are closely watched or followed. As an additional note always watch your change, even in supermarkets and grocery stores - it definitely isn't unknown to be short changed.
6. Driving. If you have suicidal tendencies and decide that you want to drive in Prague, or if you just fancy getting out of town and decide that it might be economical to rent a car if there are a few of you together then it is absolutely essential to know that in the Czech Republic you must have your car lights on at all times (when driving). In Prague trams have absolute right of way. Pedestrian crossings are optional stops (pls bear in mind when walking around the city). Unless there are specific road signs you must always give way to the right. On the highways it is the right lane which is the main lane and each lane to the left increases in the speed of traffic. If you drive in the fast lane then expect almost bumper-to-bumper hints to move to a slower lane from faster cars coming up behind you.
7. Unique etiquette. It seems at times that Prague is clothed in mysterious layers of unfathomable etiquette. The main areas to watch if you want to fit in as a local are: always walk on the right side of steps/stairs/escalators. It is an unwritten rule that on a 2-person wide escalator for example that the right side of the escalator is for the majority of traffic and the left side is for people in a rush. Standing on the left side and blocking the 'fast Lane' will bring cusses and collective public wrath. On public steps/stairs oncoming traffic comes to your left side and you walk on your right. Equally important is to always give up your seat on a bus/tram/metro if an elderly person, child, handicapped person, or pregnant woman gets on. It is also customary to assist Mum's and Dad's with baby's in push chairs/strollers if they look like they could do with a hand.
8. Restaurants and bars. In bars it is usual to order drinks and hold a tab until it is time to leave and pay. Pls note: always check your bill to make sure that the tab is correct. In restaurants the waiter will come and take your drinks order first so it is advisable to sit down and quickly work out what you are going to have to drink. Of course in top end restaurants it is your decision when you order but in standard restaurants where high turnover of customer might be the key to profit the key is speed. Your waiter will bring your drinks and then take your food order. Desert is always presented as a separate order. During the day when restaurants offer Daily Menu's and when speed of food delivery truly is premium, you will be expected to eat up, pay, and leave promptly - so that the next hurried lunchers can seat and be served. Any hanging around will certainly raise eyebrows and result in a cold approach.
9. What to order. At lunchtime the vast vast vast majority of restaurants offer a Daily Menu or Special, typically consisting of a soup and main - the total of which can be found commonly for around 100 CZK. However, many waiters will not give you the Daily menu if you look foreign and will instead pass you the a la carte (which offers more expensive versions). The Daily menu is usually either a separate piece of paper or piece of paper attached to the standard menu, and it changes every day. Most restaurants list the Daily menu on the outside of their restaurants so you can check beforehand what is on offer. The Daily is always written in Czech but easily understandable with a bilingual dictionary. If you are not offered the Daily Menu then ask for the Denni Menu prosim (Daily menu please). Lunchtime.cz offers a good selection of restaurants listed with their daily menus.
10. Don't look so happy! :-) The one thing almost everyone remarks on when they first come to Prague is that the locals are, well, a little grumpy. True, smiles do tend to bloom more the further the week unravels to Friday afternoon but even at the weekends it ain't exactly smile city. If you follow all of the above points and look as though someone just ate your lunch without your consent then you will fit right in. That isn't to say that Czechs are unfriendly. Quite the opposite. It's just that in public they are just not expressive and would rather keep themselves to themselves.
These are the main etiquette areas which immediately spring to mind and cover the essentials. If you follow these points then you will definitely find yourself experiencing a more authentic and more affordable Czech experience.
Guide section: Generalities
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