Nobody enjoys being taken for a ride, but it can happen all too easily when travelling abroad. Nick Trend suggests some simple strategies to avoid being scammed.
It was just before the euro was introduced and we were travelling by taxi from Ciampino airport into the centre of Rome. The driver was charming. He pointed out the sites as we drove into the city, he joked with the children, he even took the trouble to reverse up a one-way street so that we could be dropped off right by the hotel door.
We’d agreed the fare at the airport – 100,000 lire. I gave him the note and turned to take the bags into the hotel. But he called me back and showed me a 10,000 lire note, making out that this was what I had given him. “Signor, you still owe me another 90,000 lire,” he said with a smile.
He wasn’t banking on the fact that I knew perfectly well that I only had 100,000 lire notes on me, and that a police car would happen to pull up a little farther down the road. He lost his nerve, pretended he had made a mistake and drove off.
This is not a new phenomenon. Travellers have been the victims of scams for centuries. Of course there are plenty of legal rip-offs – such as prices at airports around the world – which it is hard to do much about. But there are things you can guard against.
I’ve come up with 10 strategies, some based on simple common sense, others requiring a little preparation, to help limit the damage.
1. Be aware when you are most vulnerable
Tired from a flight, trying to adjust to a new environment, anxious about finding your way, unsure what things should cost, or even just delighted to have arrived and in carefree holiday mood – few of us are as alert as we might be when arriving in a foreign city.
Just realising this and remembering that your brain is in a different gear to usual is helpful. The challenge then is to keep a sense of perspective when someone quotes you a price. Even just consciously double-checking with your travelling companion – “does that sound like a reasonable price for a taxi?” – may help.
2. Don’t be pressured into signing
The classic example of being pressurised into signing something is the car hire contract shoved in front of you with a couple of scribbled “x’s” where you are asked to sign.
Take your time, and double-check what you are putting your name to – there may be a long queue behind you, but you are about to give the desk clerk carte blanche to charge your credit card.
3. Beware the smiling villain
As was the case with my Roman taxi driver, the nicest, friendliest of welcomes does not guarantee integrity. It’s a shame to be suspicious of a friendly face, but it’s a greater shame to be taken in by one.
4. Beware of your guide
I don’t want to be accused of engendering unnecessary paranoia in travellers but the reality is that as a tourist, most people you deal with will see you as a potential source of revenue.
Guides and tour escorts may not be out-and-out villains. They are there to look after you. You may even feel that they are becoming your friend.
But it’s easy to forget that they may not have your interests at heart. An important part of their income may be the commission they make from carpet factories and souvenir shops.
They may say that they are recommending the best places to you but they may simply be recommending the places that pay them the most.
5. Be numerate
If you can’t do the maths in your head, you are a sitting duck. Double checking a price or a currency conversion will minimise your chances of being taken for a ride. Most mobile phones now have a calculator function or price converter – it might be worth checking yours.
6. Watch out for big numbers
Being numerate is harder (at least in my experience) when you are dealing with bigger numbers. Most of the currencies that used to be based on very small units and required lots of zeros (such as the Turkish or Italian lire) have thankfully either been rationalised or abolished in recent years.
But a few survive: the Indonesian rupiah and the Vietnamese dong, for example, are measured in the tens of thousands. But even working with currency units that are worth tens or thousands of times less than the dollar (such as in Thailand and India) can be confusing.
Watch out especially for extra noughts being surreptitiously added to bills; including credit card bills.
7. Bring small change
Short-changing is a classic way to defraud a tourist, and the easiest way to avoid it is to have the right money. It is not always possible when buying foreign currency to insist on getting plenty of low-value notes. But it’s worth trying, and the more chance you have to pay with the right money, the less chance you have of being given too little change.
8. Pin down prices
When negotiating, be sure to set out what is included in the price. Perhaps the hotel receptionist will quote a “final” price, but once the deal is done, you may find that a service charge, tax or breakfast has been added. Likewise, when the reception desk asks if you want a newspaper and a cup of tea in the morning, is this a generous offer of hospitality, or something that comes at extra cost, and therefore a sales pitch?
9. Remember your strengths
Often as a tourist, you will be at a disadvantage when bargaining or settling a bill. The taxi driver knows that you need to get somewhere. But when you are haggling for a price in a shop or market, the shop owner knows that if they don’t make a sale, you probably won’t come back. As long as you play hard to get, and don’t give away how much you want something, it is in their interest to reduce their price.
10. Do some research
Ironically, you are probably most likely to overpay in countries where services are cheap, rather than expensive. The price you are quoted may seem reasonable in your terms, but in local terms it is a rip-off.
Doing some research before you go as to what things ought to cost will minimise the risks of this. Especially in classic areas like taxi fares – is it a legal requirement to use a meter? Is there more than one setting on the meter? If so, which should be used and when? A hotel concierge is normally a reliable source of advice on this kind of thing. Generally, though, the classic consumer advice of shopping around locally will obviously pay dividends too.