A mug of coffee runs around $3+ in a cafe in Iceland. I have no complaints about this price, I pay it, in fact, with a smile on my face — for I know that the cup of coffee that I will receive is bottomless. Yes, free coffee refills are standard in Iceland.
So I sit in the cafes in this country, drinking mug after mug of coffee — writing, reading, talking with people, doing interviews — without fear of being kicked out, hassled, or getting stared down by some proprietor for scumbagging their establishment. In fact, if the barista has the impression that a foreigner does not know of Iceland’s free coffee refill policy they tell them. It is almost like they want us there . . .
“You know that refills are free, right?” I’ve been asked on a couple of occasions by waitresses in new cafes.
Of course I know their free, I’m a vagabond. Do you think I would have dropped 350 krona on a single cup of coffee? You nuts?
Free coffee refills in Iceland are no secret. There is no Mexican table service here.
I have seen many foreigners try to purchase a second cup of coffee in cafes all through Iceland. “Refills are free,” they are told. Some look baffled, some look surprised, some keep trying to shove money over the counter in some sort of banal reaction — We’re not in Kansas anymore. They probably look like I did when I first learned this cultural nuance.
The free coffee refill in Iceland is not a fluke, it is widely spread across the country. Whether you are getting coffee from a cafe, a restaurant, or a gas station, it is generally no problem to keep refilling your cup. In fact, most places just have a pot out in the open so you can do it yourself. Even at Reykjavik international airport there are coffee pots sitting out unguarded so that it is very easy for unscrupulous vagabonds to continuously fill their mugs without even needing to make the initial investment. But if, on the odd change, you go to a cafe in Iceland that does not offer free coffee refills there will be a big sign saying so. These signs are ugly, I’ve only seen one of them. They are truly ugly enough to make you get up out of your seat and walk out the door. What these signs say is “pay up and get out.” Not cool.
I like cool cultures. I don’t mean cool as in trendy, but cool as the antonym of high strung, strict, robotic, over-cultured. I mean cool as in sensible, thoughtful, laid back, dare I say, human. Iceland has one of the coolest cultures I’ve ever experienced. When I was booted out of a hostel in Borgarnes for using the internet for too long I felt surprise long before anger. That stuff usually doesn’t happen in Iceland, a country of free coffee refills.
The logic here is sound: you charge a relatively high price for a cup of coffee with the justification that refills are free. Some people will endlessly keep filling up their cup while others will only drink down a single mug. One method pays for the other. People stay and hang out in your cafe, making it a good place to be, talking, reading, conversing, looking cool, listening to music, maybe they get hungry after their fifth cup of coffee and order a $5 piece of cake or a $10 lunch.
I admire smart cultures. So many places on this planet have dumb economic cultures, unable to get over the hurdle that being a capitalist does not mean that you need to be a dick. Too many businesses on the planet would rather be empty and go out of business than, to put it basely, be cool. The logic that the longer you keep people in your place of business, the happier they feel when there, the more money you stand to make escapes most businesses in the world.
Lure people in and keep them there for as long as possible with free refills of coffee. The longer you have people interacting with your business, the more successful it stands to be. This is the commercial model of this era, but it is something already embedded in Icelandic culture.
On a side note, although bars do not give free refills on beer, it is acceptable to buy one and milk it through the night: bars here know that people are lured to them to be with other people, and they seem to want to have as much bait as possible.
On another side note, in the spirit of free coffee refills the Vagabond Journey travelogue is now available for email delivery. All you need to do is enter your email address in the box below and you will start receiving daily installments of full versions of new travelogue entries delivered directly to your email inbox. Get your daily travel story by signing up below.