Travel scams are a fact of life when you are in an unfamiliar environment, especially in a foreign country. But there are ways to protect yourself to at least minimize the chances of falling prey to scam artists.
The first cardinal rule to avoid tourist scams is to always know exactly what something will cost before agreeing to purchase it.
If a price is clearly marked you should be OK but sometimes prices for many services or products are vague or not specified at all. This is a red flag alert for tourist scams. Below are five potential tourist scams or overcharge situations and how to avoid them.
Common Travel Scams
and How to Avoid Them
When Ordering Food
You are in a nice restaurant. The server tells you about the mouth-watering specials not on the menu but doesn’t mention the price. You select the seafood special he describes which is so good you want to stop strangers on the street and induce them to try it. The bill arrives and you are shocked. It takes your budget for the next two days to pay for it. (This actually happened to me in Barcelona).
You could have avoided this by asking the server for the price of the special first and then deciding whether to order it or settle for something else at 1/4 the price. You won’t look cheap or tacky asking for the price beforehand even in an upscale location. In any case, you will never see that server again so don’t worry about it.
When Ordering Wine
Same concept here. The waiter comes to take your order and explains the off-the-wine-list selections available for pairing with your meal. Simply ask to see the wine on the menu or ask the price straight out before you order it. Then decide if you want it or not. Avoiding surprises makes for a more pleasant meal.
Transportation in Unfamiliar Locations
These are prime opportunities for tourist scams. You flag a taxi, tuk-tuk, rickshaw, or any other vehicle. You get in and communicate your destination. When you arrive the driver quotes you some ridiculous price you just know doesn’t sound right. There is little you can do but pay at this point.
You need to agree on the price with the driver beforehand. If language communication is an issue, have the address written down beforehand in the local language and show it to the driver. If a taxi is metered, check and make sure the meter is turned on and if not, don’t be embarrassed to tell the driver to turn it on. Use hand signals if necessary.
You see a very reasonable price for a tour you are interested in. You take the tour and it’s really very nice. At the end of the tour, the guide tells you the price is per person, not per tour. There are five of you.
At this point, you can either pay and chalk it up to experience or engage in an uncomfortable situation with the provider. Again, knowing the specific details of a transaction before agreeing to purchase will help you avoid unpleasant surprises.
Cultural Ceremonies or Shows
Here is a tourist scam that is popular in Beijing. You learn about a tea ceremony, traditional dance or some other cultural event. It sounds like fun and the admission price is not too bad so you go. At the event, you drink some tea or a traditional drink. At the end of the event, you are handed a bill for the advertised admission price plus an inflated price for whatever you had to drink.
Turns out the tea is a rare blend and the traditional drink is specially made just for this event. These scams are especially hard to guard against. Your best defense is to ask upfront if there are any other costs associated with the show or ceremony. If the answer is vague or iffy, stay away.
Foreign travel carries with it the possibility of walking into tourist scams but this should not stop you from enjoying the pleasures of the traveling experience. A little caution and foresight will go a long way to avoid the unpleasant surprises of travel scams. And remember…always confirm the price before you buy.
Tourist scams in Europe are common. Some cities are notorious for specific scams. Here are some European travel scams that have been around forever. Just about everyone that travels has been exposed to some version of these.
Travel Scams in Europe
Rome – Woman Holding an Infant
You see a women holding an infant. Fairly innocuous, right? Not necessarily. Here is one of the most amazing tourist scams I’ve ever seen.
My husband and I were walking down one of the streets leading to the Coliseum. A group of 4 or 5 women, one of which was holding an infant, came toward us. They looked like they could be up to no good so we immediately moved away saying “no, no.”
One of the women showed us a piece of cardboard with something written on it while another shoved the infant at us and made a distracting noise, like a whistle. It is human nature to instinctively react to a baby being shoved in front of you and to look in the direction of an unusual sound. We did both but only for a split second. We moved the women out of our way and rushed in the opposite direction.
After a few minutes, one of the women ran up to us holding my husband’s passport. She handed it to him and walked away. My husband had been wearing a windbreaker over a sweater. His passport was in the sweater pocket which was zippered up.
These women had pick-pocketed him so deftly that he didn’t even feel them reaching under his windbreaker, unzipping his sweater pocket and removing his passport within seconds!
We often speculate as to why she even returned it. It’s almost as if she were saying to us “look how talented I am and what I can do to you!” This was probably one of the most expertly executed tourist scams I’ve encountered in Europe.
Always be wary of unsolicited attention although when thieves are as talented as these women were, it’s a challenge to protect yourself.
Rome – The Dropped Keys on the Subway
I hate to pick on Rome, a great city. Unfortunately, it has a well-deserved reputation for travel scams.
This is a very common travel scam encountered during European travel.
I was on the subway with my husband. We had our suitcases with us. The train arrived, doors opened, we entered. We noticed a guy drop his keys on the train floor without getting on the train. While the guy was pretending to retrieve his keys he felt my husband’s ankles apparently looking for an ankle-belt with money which my husband did not have.
All the while my husband, suspecting a robbery, kept his hand firmly on his wallet. The doors closed and the potential thief was left on the platform. His efforts were in vain. I guess the keys were just a decoy because he just left them on the train.
Public transportation vehicles are ideal places for pickpockets. The objective here is to pickpocket the victim just before the subway doors close so there is little he can do once the train leaves.
Moscow – The Stolen Shoes
A colleague tells me this is one of the easiest tourist scams he knows of in Europe. He was in his hotel room and heard a knock on the door. He opened it and saw a hotel valet who told him to leave his shoes outside the door for shining overnight. He did.
The next morning, no shoes. He called reception and asked what time his shoes would be delivered. “What shoes?” they asked. Apparently the hotel does not offer any overnight shoe-shining service. He had to wear his running shoes to his meeting until he could purchase a new pair of dress shoes.
Confirm the identity of anyone that comes to your hotel door.
Amsterdam – The Unattended Briefcase
This happened to my husband. Schiphol, Amsterdam’s airport is famous for travel scams. It is the place where if something bad is going to happen on a trip, it is likely to happen here. It just has that reputation. So whenever you land in Schiphol you are on high alert. My husband knew this.
He arrived in Schiphol on a Hong Kong flight exhausted and longing to check in to his hotel. At the reception, he placed his briefcase on the floor for the briefest of instances while he completed the check-in process. When he reached down the briefcase was gone!
The hotel immediately alerted security who ran the security camera tape. The tape showed a short, slim man draping his coat on the briefcase before picking it up and stepping outside the hotel through the revolving doors.
A few days later the Amsterdam police advised my husband that some contents of the briefcase were found in a dumpster and they were returned…no valuables though. The thief was never caught. These types of tourist scams in Europe and elsewhere are very common around hotels.
Keep your eye on your possessions at all times.
Paris – The Lost Motorist
In a very nice part of Paris, a motorist stopped us and asked for directions. We responded as best we could as we did not know the city well. He then started to sing the praises of the leather coats he had in the back seat and asked us to buy them. We declined and he began yelling insults at us in about four languages.
Do these types of travel scams ever work?! Who buys leather coats, on the spot, out of a sleazy guy’s back seat?
Palermo, Italy – The Independent Tour Guide
A minivan with a “City Tour” sign was parked close to our hotel. We approached and asked the cost and what the tour entailed. After a long and detailed explanation the guide told us the cost was €60.00 per person. There were four of us. We knew this was an outrageously high price and we walked away.
He pursued us and said the Hop-On-Hop-Off tour bus was also €60.00 per person plus an additional €2.00 per person for the audio tour. He was very persistent and claimed the bus didn’t show you half of what he could. And because we were so nice he’d give us a discount.
Eventually the price got down to less than half of the original quote. Still, we had grown suspicious and decided against his tour. A few blocks away we found the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus actually only charged €10.00 and no extra for the audio.
In these types of scams the objective is for the scam artist to get you right out of the hotel before you’ve had the chance to explore options.
Try to explore options and prices for what you are looking for beforehand so you know if you are being overcharged.
Prague, The Czech Republic – Wrong Change
We had dinner at a sidewalk café in the beautiful central square in Prague. We paid the bill but the change was wrong. We brought this to the server’s attention and it was corrected.
A day later we had lunch there and the same thing happened. We met friends who told us the same thing happened to them. Apparently this place specialized in giving wrong change to tourists in the hope they won’t notice because they are dealing with unfamiliar currency.
Let’s say they give wrong change to 10 people, and 8 or 9 notice it. That means 10 to 20% don’t notice, and the waiter gets away with it. Not bad odds. Confirm bills and count your change!
Madrid, Spain – The Rambunctious Kids
I had just withdrawn €300 during my lunch hour because I was going away for the weekend. I thought I’d have lunch at a little salad place but would buy a magazine first to read while I ate. At the magazine stand two young guys horse-playing bumped into me.
When I got to the restaurant I realized my wallet had been stolen. My thought is that I was followed from the bank, and the two guys distracted me while a third lifted my wallet. I had to return to the bank for another €300. That was a very expensive weekend.
Never leave your money in a place where it can be easily retrieved like a bag, backpack or …heaven forbid…a back pocket. Instead, use a money belt or secret compartment and make sure to divide your money into separate locations so if it is stolen or lost, you have other stashes.
Europe does not have a monopoly on scams. Travel scams in Asia and Africa range from the ridiculous to the sophisticated. Here are some of my favorites.
Travel Scams in Asia and Africa
New Delhi – The Worthless Silk Print
A guide in India that we had been sightseeing with for two days offered to take us to a store specializing in Indian art on silk prints. We arrived at a very swanky store and were taken to a private room where the clerk showed us lovely prints displayed in fine leather-bound folders. We settled on two prints; $90 each.
Leaving New Delhi at the airport we saw the same prints for about $2.00 each. Ouch!, that hurt. When I got home I framed the fake prints and they are hanging in my hallway. What the hell.
Be wary of guides that take you shopping and get a commission.
New Delhi – The Wrong Carpet Shipped
I bought two small carpets in New Delhi. The store agreed to ship them to me in the U.S. When they arrived, one was what I had purchased but the other was a vastly inferior product probably worth a tenth of what I had paid. This could have been an honest mistake. What do you think?
Insist on seeing your purchase packed if possible, although even that is no guarantee.
Beijing, China – The Ancient Tea Ceremony
This is one of the classic travel scams to watch out for. My friend, Amy, fell for this travel scam. She was in front of the Forbidden City in Beijing looking at a map. A guy comes up to her and asks “Where are you from?”
Amy is a pretty savvy traveler wary of strangers asking this classic come-on question so she just smiled and walked away. The guy was persistent. “I’m from Shanghai here on business,” he said. Amy ignored him.
The guy continued making conversation until Amy asked him to please leave her alone. Rather than complying, the guy appeared insulted and said he was a just businessman with a stopover in Beijing trying to make conversation with a fellow tourist and not wanting to bother anyone.
Sometimes it’s tough to distinguish a genuinely friendly person from a scam artist. The way Amy tells it she felt bad for the guy and thought how many times she was in the same situation in a strange city wishing she could share the sights with someone.
She agreed to go to a traditional tea-house with the guy. Once there they were taken to a private room and given an explanation of the traditional tea ceremony. The guy selected a special blend of tea for his “sick grandfather” but when he went to pay realized he had no money and showed Amy his empty wallet. Amy ignored this.
By now she knew this was a con but, foolishly, she wanted to see how far this guy would go. The attendant began ceremoniously pouring teas even though Amy said she didn’t want any while the guy encouraged her to drink. She refused.
After about 20 minutes of this, the exasperated guy suggested they leave. He walked away as soon as they got to the street. I told Amy she was lucky. She said her consolation is that she wasted the guy’s time.
The tea ceremony is a common travel scam in many parts of Asia. Tourists are lured to a traditional show where they observe an “ancient tea ceremony” and are then charged exorbitant prices for what they consume.
P.S. There was no “Amy.” I made her up because I was too embarrassed to admit this really happened to me. Obviously, I’ve gotten over it.
Lagos, Nigeria – The Exit Stamp
As in all countries, Nigeria stamps your passport at passport control once you leave the country.
I had struck up a conversation with a nice guy at the airport and we went through passport control together. When his turn came the passport control clerk declared that my companion, who spoke no English, needed to get an additional stamp before he could leave.
The stamp could only be obtained in Kaduna State, several hundred miles from where we were. I explained to my companion that the clerk was obviously trying to rip him off and suggested he offer the clerk the equivalent of about $20.00 to resolve the issue. He did and was quickly on his way. You may not be able to avoid this one, but it is still one of the travel scams to watch out for.
Hong Kong – Worthless Currency
This one is truly a bizarre travel scam. We arrived in Hong Kong, took a train into the city and a taxi to our hotel. In the taxi, the driver asked us if we had the “new” currency. New currency? What new currency?
The driver explained that the national currency had just changed and the old one was now worthless. As a favor, he would accept the old currency for the taxi ride. But if we gave him the equivalent of about US$100 he would exchange it for us into the new currency.
I still have no clue what that was about but obviously didn’t give him anything above the taxi fee. I later verified that, indeed, there was no new currency.
It’s a shame these travel scams mar an otherwise idyllic trip. Be aware and vigilant and you can at least minimize the damage. What you cannot do is not travel for fear of being scammed overseas. The joys of travel far outweigh any possible scamming misadventure.
Here are a couple of theft prevention travel accessories from companies that specialize in theft prevention products.
Share your travel scam stories to help other travelers avoid them. What’s the most sophisticated travel scam you’ve ever heard of?
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