Sun, sea and scams
Nobody enjoys being taken for a ride, but it can happen all too easily when travelling abroad. Nick Trend has 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.
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.
- 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 is helpful. The challenge then is to keep a sense of perspective when someone quotes you a price. Even just double checking with your travelling companion -- "does that sound like a reasonable price for a taxi?" -- may help.
- Don't be pressured into signing
The classic example is the car-hire contract shoved in front of you with a couple of scribbled "xx" 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.
- 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.
- Beware of your guide
I don't want to engender unnecessary paranoia in travellers, but the reality is that as a tourist, most people you deal with see you as a potential source of revenue.
Guides and tour escorts 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 shops.
They may say that they are recommending the best places to you, but they may be recommending the places that pay them the most.
- 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.
- Watch out for big numbers
Being numerate is harder 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 been rationalised or abolished.
But the Indonesian rupiah and the Vietnamese dong, for example, are measured in the tens of thousands. Even working with currency units that are worth 50 to 100 times less than the euro (in Thailand and India) can be confusing.
Watch out for extra noughts being surreptitiously added to bills, including credit-card bills.
- Bring small change
The easiest way to avoid short-changing is to have the right money. It is not always possible when buying foreign currency to insist on 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.
- 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 hospitality or something that comes at extra cost?
- Remember your strengths
Often, you will be at a disadvantage when bargaining; the taxi driver knows you need to get somewhere.
But when you are haggling in a shop or market, the 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.
- Do some research
You are most likely to overpay in countries where services are cheap. The price you are quoted may seem reasonable in Irish terms, but in local terms it is a rip-off.
Doing some research as to what things should cost will minimise the risk of this, especially in classic areas such as taxi fares -- is it a legal requirement to use a meter, for example? Is there more than one setting on the meter?
A hotel concierge is normally a reliable source of advice, though shopping around locally will obviously pay dividends too.