10 Ways to Avoid Taxi Scams When You Travel

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A Guide to Taxis in Foreign Lands


As tourists in foreign lands, we are sitting ducks for the schemers. In the eyes of the devious, we are unassuming and easy prey. Throughout my world travels, I have encountered a broad spectrum of manipulation, trickery, and theft. Of all of the forces of scheming evil, I have encountered none more unpleasant than the chicanery of unscrupulous taxi drivers. Unfortunately for us travelers, they are literally everywhere.

Years of foreign travel have rendered me wiser, and I like to believe I that am no longer the easy prey I once was. Today, I am here to share my insight with you, my fellow globe-trotters, in hopes that you will never fall victim to the forces of the conniving taxi driver.
 

Here are some universal principals for dealing with taxis in foreign countries:

1. Do. Your. Research.

The best way to avoid any type of taxi-manipulation is to know as much as possible about the situation prior to entering it. Before you go to a new place, it is crucial that you do your research. Look up the standard prices for taxi services. Investigate which taxi companies are reputable and, as a general rule of thumb, avoid black or unmarked taxis and taxis that stand apart from the group. Explore a forum like Lonely Planet to see what kind of schemes may exist. It may also behoove you to check out the country status on taxis so you can be in the know. Vietnam, for example, does not regulate its taxis, so unscrupulous drivers can jack up the meter and legally charge you whatever they want. 

If you don’t have time to look up taxi information beforehand, you can always ask around. Go into a shop and ask the keeper how much he/she would guess a taxi from here to there should cost. Police are also usually a good resource. In Shanghai I accidentally went to the wrong train station so I asked an officer how much it should cost to get to the right station. He told me not to pay more than 50 Yuan so when the driver tried to charge me 400 Yuan, I called his bluff. 

2. Know where you are going

A common maneuver of dishonest taxi drivers is to drive up the meter by purposefully getting lost or taking the long route. Keep in mind that such a situation can and will happen anywhere in the world. Not only will having a general idea of your destination protect you against those who want to drive you in circles, but it is also important for your safety. In extreme cases, corrupt or illegitimate taxis have been known to take people to the middle of nowhere, rob them and leave them stranded. If you are ever remotely suspicious, it is a really good idea to call the local authorities, or, at the very least, fake a phone call to someone you are “meeting up with” (if I don’t have a phone I just use a phone shaped object, like an iPod, to fake a call). 

If you are caught in a pickle and you have no idea where you are going, don’t panic, but make sure you are extra alert. It is important to give the illusion that you at least have a general idea of the area and where you are headed. Pay attention to big buildings and any landmarks that will help indicate where you are, that way it will be much easier to spot if you are being driven in circles. One last piece of advice: get a map.
 

3. Beware of agendas

Free advice is great. In a perfect world, taxi drivers would be an incredible resource. It is very important, however, to keep in mind that many taxi companies get kick-backs for bringing their customers to certain clubs, bars, hotels, restaurants, etc. If you have to ask, that is one thing, but be especially wary of drivers that try to give you recommendations without having been asked, especially if they seem pushy or over-zealous to any degree. Remember, taxi drivers can’t be trusted for advice the way Mary Poppins can.

4. Have change

Avoid solely carrying large bills. You may encounter a situation where a taxi driver is unable—or refusing—to make change. Never assume a taxi accepts a credit or debit card unless explicitly stated. 

5. You are NEVER alone (or so they should think)

Never expose yourself as being alone, or as being a newcomer. Corrupt taxi drivers will often make small talk by asking seemingly innocuous questions like, “How long have you been in Brazil?” or “Why did you come to Poland?” I am an honest person, but listen to me closely when I say that this is a situation where you lie through your teeth. It is a good idea to give the allusion that you are meeting up with a group program or, better yet, with local friends. Make up a new identity—go crazy! I have conjured some rather amusing stories in the past and had fun doing it. What is crucial is that you never expose yourself as a novice or as ridin’-solo. The taxi driver is not your friend, and you are never going to see him/her again. I don’t care how friendly the driver may come off (in fact, the ones who are trying to scam you are the friendliest!), always assume he/she could be trying to manipulate you and remember, as a foreigner, you are a prime target. There is no greater way to heighten your status of vulnerability than to give the impression of being ignorant or alone. 

6. Take down the plates

If ever I am skeptical about a taxi company or the way a driver is acting, especially if the city is notorious for scheming taxi drivers, or if I will be taking a long or special journey, I take down the license plate number or—better yet—snap a picture of it. You never know how this extra precaution may help. Maybe you left your iPhone in the car, or maybe the driver ripped you off and you need to report him. While in Vietnam, I had a driver who drove me around in circles, charged me an obscene amount, and then threatened me when I refused to pay. I snapped his plates and, with the help of a wonderful hostel staff, he was reported to the company and forced to return the money. The best part is I got to look him in the eye and shake my head as he handed over the bills. I drank from the cup of sweet justice that day. 

7. Use the meter

Whenever riding in a cab, unless specifically advised otherwise by a reliable source, always insist on using the meter. Do not let a taxi driver sweet talk you out of using the meter (some taxi services have standard airport transfer fees, this is the only exception) or pretend that it is broken (as some often do). Believe me, the meter is NOT broken. If he/she refuses to use the meter, don’t be afraid to get out and find another cab. If faced with a situation where there exists no other choice but to accept a flat rate, make sure the price clearly agreed upon before you drive off. And remember, when accepting a fixed rate, you can almost always bargain for a better price.

8. Know the common schemes

This goes back to the ever-important, aforementioned do your research aspect of traveling. You can read about some common scams by clicking here, or here, however, your best bet is to do a more specific search once you know where you are going. You can google taxi scams in Rome, for example. 

9. If you are ripped off or scammed, report it

As travelers, it is our duty to look out for our fellow globe-trotting brothers and sisters. If you run into an unpleasant situation, do your fellow travelers a solid and let them know who can’t be trusted. You can report the situation to the taxi company, hostel, tour company, etc. so they may be aware in the future. Online forums like Lonely Planet and tripadvisor are also great ways spread the word. If the situation is severe enough, do not hesitate to report it to the police. By reporting bad taxi agencies, they will be held accountable and you will rest easy knowing you helped protect the brotherhood of travelers.

10. Take public transportation when possible

We all get into situations where we have no other choice but to take a cab. However, generally speaking (and explicitly excluding Los Angeles), most big/touristy cities—the ones where you are most likely to be ripped off by cab drivers—offer an array of user-friendly public transportation. Pick up a metro map, train and bus schedule, and use them whenever you can. Save your wallet, save the environment, save the whales. 
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