Transportation Traps

Even the most seasoned traveler knows that it’s all too easy to be the mark of a conman when in unfamiliar territory. The IM forum thread devoted to Scams & Precautions [for more information about the IM Network, click here] already has 13 pages of comments from our readers. Today we're focusing on transportation traps - what to watch out for and how to avoid being a victim.

With this post, globalGary kicks off the discussion of cab concerns:

In some countries ... airport taxi drivers will quote a price and then announce at journey's end that it was only one-way and you must pay them the same amount (i.e. double the quoted fare) for their drive back to the airport. Your luggage may be held hostage. Another is to ... pick up a "random" third person on foot (a comely young lass in my case) who gets in the back seat to rifle through your luggage.

As many of you already know, it's best to avoid taxi drivers who are lurking at airports and bus stations and such since they tend to be the most rapacious. If you must use them, having a cell phone that works locally and a native friend to talk to them prior to getting in the cab is a big help. Barring that, you can also write down the license plate number and driver license number and pretend to text it to someone...

Some countries have addressed taxi problems with various solutions. In Panama, for example, all taxis must be painted yellow and clearly identified. In Guatemala City, legitimate taxis have an identifying decal on the windshield. Many cities have maps with fare zones that must be posted inside the taxi. You may have to ask to see it, but, if you do, it will be much harder for the driver to rip you off.

Mind Your Manners in China

Here’s a warning about taxi drivers in China from Bill Drake:

Travelers [in China] should have small bills (RMB 10, 20 and 50 notes) for travel by taxi. Reports of taxi drivers using counterfeit money to make change for large bills are increasingly common, especially in Guangzhou. Arguments with taxi drivers over fares or over choice of route usually are not easily resolved on the scene. That is why it is important to have both the route and the fare settled beforehand, preferably in the presence of a reliable witness like your hotel concierge. In some cases, Americans who instigate such arguments have been detained for questioning and are not usually released until the fare is paid or a settlement is reached and the American offers an apology. That's right - you not only have to pay what the thief asks, but you have to apologize to him or spend at least a while longer in custody.

Local Knowledge

While many advise settling a fare prior to getting into a taxi, that may be easier said than done. It helps to be familiar with what regular fares are in your locale. Ask a friend, associate, or at your hotel, so you know how much you should pay. Then when you arrive at your destination, offer this amount to the driver. Many times it will be accepted without question.

Another tip is to check for a meter in the cab, as most places require them. Even this is not without potential problems, though, as cato writes:

About taxis - in Manila, about half of them don't have a working meter (contrary to law, of course) and many who do will make up excuses (traffic, blah, blah, blah) why the charge will be higher than the meter says. They rip off locals, too, but foreigners are fresh meat. When in Manila, my (Filipina) wife hails the taxi, makes the deal, and then I come out from behind the lamp post. There is a system at the airport, though, where a dispatcher records the cab number and gives you a slip with the number, so you can report if you get ripped off.

Words to Travel By

Of course, we don’t all have a spouse we can rely upon to keep us out of trouble! For those of us who don’t, countzero offers this sage advice:

After reading through this entire thread, I have yet to find THE tried and true solution for problems with airport taxi transportation. Simply pre-order a hotel driver pickup within the terminal itself. These are the people you see standing around holding up signs with names on them. If your hotel doesn't offer such service, you might wish to choose another slightly better class lodging for the first night. I have found over the years that the hotel car service is only about half as much more than an unknown and untrusted local taxi in a strange city. Once at the hotel, almost ALL bell-hops and front office service personnel will have a relative or friend who will be happy to "chauffeur" you around. But getting to the hotel in one piece and at a reasonable price is your first step.

And finally, one of our frequent contributors provides this excellent summary of “dos and don’ts” for every traveler:

  1. Be informed - it helps to spend 2-3 hours reading a message board dedicated to the locale you are about to visit - you will learn a ton from people on the ground and hopefully be better prepared for all the scams that await you
  2. Be vigilant - you are not in Kansas anymore, so expect trouble coming from everywhere (especially in big cities and touristy places)
  3. Do not look like a tourist - I repeat this ad nauseum - never ever look like a Gringo(a), try to look as a local or (if not possible) as a local expat
  4. Do not flash your passport, expensive watch (jewelry) or large sums of money - you are almost certain to be relieved of them in a short notice by the enterprising locals
  5. Do not get drunk or wasted on drugs in unknown to you places and/or with people you've just met
  6. Local police are NOT your friend
  7. However, locals can be your friends and keep you out of trouble - but they have to be honest locals - hence choose wisely
  8. Be aware of consequences of being involved in any criminal activity - your embassy is not there to protect you and you might end up in a local jail for a very long time even for a simple offense
  9. If it's too good to be true it usually is - if in doubt, consider point #2
  10. If you are in the country for an extended period of time or come frequently - assemble a team of locals who can keep you out of trouble and assist you if you are in trouble

Remember that a smart traveler is a safe traveler, and that it pays to heed the advice of your fellow International Man.

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