When researching common tourist scams, we’ve discovered that there’s one place in which you’re more likely to get ripped off than anywhere else: a taxi.
Dishonest taxi drivers have a number of tricks up their sleeve to separate you from your spending money. A few of the most common taxi scams found around the world are:
Many cities have multiple tariffs according to the time of day, destination, or travel zones—giving dishonest cabbies the opportunity to charge you more at the flick of a switch. Other taximeter scams include failing to zero the meter at the start of your trip or failing to switch it on at all, claiming that it’s broken.
Unlicensed Taxi Drivers
Anyone with a car can claim to be a taxi driver, and appearing official only takes a paint job. Unlicensed drivers might get you from point A to B, but you’ve got no recourse if they choose to overcharge you, or worse, you’re injured in an accident.
Seen around the world, taxi drivers looking to tack a few extra dollars onto your fair will claim anything from phony road or bridge tolls to fees for air conditioning, or even for carrying your luggage.
If you’ve ever been twenty minutes into a taxi ride and wondered if there surely wasn’t a shorter way, your driver may very well be taking advantage of your lack of local knowledge. Long hauling, otherwise known as “taking the scenic route” is when a driver chooses the longest way to your destination, thereby bumping up your fare for the distance traveled.
Many tourist hotspots are home to local businesses that prey on trusting travelers, but lack the means to get you to their front door. In lieu of honest advertising, they’ll pay taxi drivers to take you there. This is commonly seen in Thailand in the form of gem shops, which taxi drivers will stop at mid-route without asking. In other locations, drivers may claim that your hotel has been closed and suggest an alternative—for which they get a kickback.
If you’re traveling somewhere where the local language is different from your native tongue, a taxi driver may take advantage of difficult-to-pronounce street names or numbers. When you arrive at a destination, he or she will insist that it’s where you specified, then charge you extra to get to where you wanted to go.
Rampant in Buenos Aires due to a billion-dollar black market counterfeit note industry, taxi drivers will impart sleight of hand when giving you due change. In Argentina, the dishonest drivers may switch your genuine currency with fake bills. However, in other places around the world, drivers might take the chance to swap larger bills for smaller, then claim that you didn’t hand them enough.
Another trick used to earn a larger tip is when your driver claims not to have change on hand for whichever denomination you choose to pay with, hoping that you’ll just leave them with the rest and be on your way.
How To Avoid Every Taxi Scam In the Book
Unless you live in a dense metropolis, chances are that you use your own transportation for day-to-day driving. And thanks to the popularity of crowd-source transportation apps such as Uber, there’s even less reason for many of us to hail a cab.
Because of this unfamiliarity, it’s easy to believe that every cabbie is out to rip you off—which isn’t the case. Many drivers are honest, and just want to take you to your destination with minimal fuss. However, the scams that do occur are mostly due to opportunity.
Here’s how to minimize the risk of a bad experience before a dishonest driver even has the chance to take you for a ride:
Step 1: Research Fares Before You Arrive
As you take the time to map out your trip, comparing accommodations and sightseeing excursions, go the extra mile to research typical taxi fares.
Most international airports have standardized pricing into the nearby city. This can be found online or on signs posted around the area where taxis line up. Your hotel can also advise you as to average fares from their location to popular hotspots—as well as additional info regarding local taxi scams.
Double check your travel guidebooks and websites such as TaxiFareFinder.com, WorldTaximeter.com or TaxiWiz.com for location-specific information about taxi fares. Then, jot down fares for easy referencing when you talk to a taxi driver.
Pro Tip: Many travelers are put off by the idea of public transportation, especially after a long flight. Why put in the extra effort? Dishonest taxi drivers that prey on tourists are most commonly found at airports and major transit points.
At the same time, many major tourist hotspots, particularly those in Europe, offer public transport that’s cheap, clean, and reliable, allowing you to navigate a city without having to shell out for taxi fare.
Doing so is as simple as grabbing a transit map, available for free at most stations, or asking for assistance at a subway ticket window. Additional discounts are often offered for students, seniors, or anyone traveling with children.
Step 2: Choose Your Taxi Wisely
Almost every weary traveler has followed the first driver to approach them at least once. However, it never hurts to take a moment to collect yourself and survey available cabs.
What should you look for? If you’re at an airport or public transit stop, first check whether there is an official taxi stand nearby. These stands are often located near the arrivals area and are prominently marked.
In the absence of an official taxi stand, or when hailing a cab on the street, don’t be afraid to be choosy.
First, try your best to identify an official cab. In some areas, such as Cancun, Mexico, all official cabs are white with an aqua pinstripe.
Image via Taxi Maya
Cabs will be a variety of makes, models, and years. However, official cabs should have a uniform appearance, including paint jobs and number placement on the exterior. These drivers are regulated by a union and can be held accountable, should the attempt to overcharge.
However, some unofficial drivers looking to make money will try to pick you up in a plain white car, or something that resembles official-looking cabs. You can usually spot these with a wary eye—avoid any roadworn beaters with makeshift lights.
To research what official taxis should look like at your next destination, check out Wikipedia’s list of taxis worldwide.
Finally, when you lean in to discuss fares, take a quick glance at the car’s dashboard to check that the driver’s license is on display—and that the picture matches his or her appearance. While less common, it’s not unheard of in developing destinations for off-duty drivers to lend their official ride to a friend for some extra income.
Step 3: Establish The Cost Upfront
Usually, you’re better off ensuring that a driver uses the taximeter. Even so, you can ask for an estimated fare before hopping in. This also gives your cabbie a chance to disclose any tolls or extra charges and means they can’t claim that the meter was broken when you arrive.
In some areas, again with Cancun, Mexico as an example, the taxistas don’t use meters. Instead, there’s a rate sheet that already specifies the cost of travel between different zones. However, the availability of rate sheets doesn’t always prevent taxi drivers from attempting to rip off tourists—particularly when it’s evident that a prospective passenger’s Spanish isn’t up to par.
This has led to two different schools of thought: Some long-term residents still stand firm that it’s best to confirm the rate before hopping in, reducing the chance of any surprises when they arrive.
Others believe that the best course of action is to act like a local; hopping in without negotiating and assuming the air of a pro. Their reasoning? When rates are already set, even the act of asking can open you up to be scammed. Additionally, even if you bargain well, you’ll probably not get as good a rate as the locals. The driver knows you can afford more, so his lowest acceptable rate is likely to be higher.
In my opinion, this is only advisable if you’re staying somewhere for a prolonged period of time and traveling a familiar route.
Step 4: Sit Directly Behind Your Driver
If you’re a female traveling solo, the back of a cab can feel like a sanctuary—especially after walking through a particularly hectic area or exiting a nightclub. However, there are reports of drivers sexually assaulting their female passengers both stateside and worldwide.
Reducing your risk of assault seems obvious: don’t ride alone. However, sometimes the buddy system isn’t an option.
What to do if you find yourself hailing a taxi without company? First, be diligent about checking that you’re choosing an official taxi and that your driver has his or her credentials on display.
While taxi etiquette differs from location to location, it’s most commonly accepted that passengers sit in the rear seat opposite the driver. This is also the easiest to enter and exit, assuming you’re being picked up curbside.
Instead, position yourself to sit directly behind the driver. Doing so both makes you more difficult to observe and difficult to reach.
Step 5: Have Small Bills On Hand
Using small bills minimizes your chances of getting ripped off, both in that the driver is more less likely to switch them for counterfeits and more likely to have change.
However, acquiring small bills and coins is a different matter. Often, those who’ve just landed depend on ATMs and currency exchange booths for local currency—neither of which leave you with smaller denominations.
The solution? Pop into a convenience store to make a small purchase, that way you don’t have to depend on your cabbie to break large bills.
Pro Tip: As you pay your driver, hand over the bills one by one, stating the denomination out loud for each. This lessens your chances of a driver with sticky fingers swapping out one of your big bills for something smaller, then claiming that you haven’t paid enough.
A Little Research and Awareness Pay Off
Taxi fares and rules vary widely from place to place. For example, drivers in New York City aren’t allowed to charge for luggage, while doing so is the norm in Hong Kong. It’s differences like these that can make hailing and taking a taxi for the first time intimidating, especially in another country.
Just remember that not all taxi drivers are out to make a quick buck off of unsuspecting tourists. Additionally, it’s every passenger’s responsibility to research fares or ask about extra fees upfront.
That being said, you shouldn’t ever be surprised with an outrageous sum. If you feel like you’ve been scammed, save your receipt and write down the driver’s information so that you can file a claim. And, if things get really hectic, don’t be afraid to hand over a reasonable sum and exit the cab. In a worst-case scenario when a cabbie won’t back down, offer to settle the matter by seeking help from the local police, as the last thing a dishonest driver wants is to involve law enforcement.