Tips Travel planning

Travel scams and how to avoid them

We love travel, really we do. But things don’t always go to plan on the road. Just as at home you need to be alert to email and phone scams, on the road you need to be alert to all kinds of people trying to help you part with your hard earned dollars – and we don’t just mean the helpful market stall holders and shop owners trying to sell you their wares.

Scams are rife when you’re travelling. There are some that are notorious, and some that are not so obvious, so here’s our quick guide to some of the scams we’ve come across during our travels. Some of them have sucked us in, some of them we’ve seen and some we’ve just heard about.

The Rice scam

We fell for this in Kenya, but we’ve heard about it in Vietnam, Cambodia and a few other developing nations. A man walks up and starts chatting to you. He’s very friendly, interested in finding out more about you and how your trip is going. Eventually he starts chatting to you about his sister/mother/school/ someone he knows that’s in trouble and a bag of rice would really help them out. Will you help? Just a small bag of rice. He’ll accompany you into the grocery store and try and talk you into buying the biggest bag they have. When you leave, he’ll most likely take the rice back and get a refund, pocketing the money.

Travel scams happen everywhere.
This pic has nothing to do with being scammed – we just like the image. It’s in Shanghai, in case you’re wondering….

The taxi scam

On our first trip to Italy we were stuck trying to get back to our accommodation in Rome when a very helpful local offered to share a taxi with us. Our good Samaritan hailed a cab and negotiated with the driver to get us home safely. When we got to our accommodation the taxi driver gave us the price. It was exorbitant. We’re pretty sure our good Samaritan had told the driver we were paying his fare as well. We argued, it fell on deaf ears and in the end we paid. But we also made a mental note – always carry small change so you don’t have to hand over big notes when you sense you’re about to be ripped off.

Crowd scam

Another scam in Italy – most people will tell you when you go to Italy keep your wits about you and watch out for the gypsies. They’ll tell you all kinds of stories from ‘the gypsies will throw a baby at you and when you go to grab it they pinch your wallet’ to they’ll stand very close to you on the train/bus and stealthily go into your bag, pocket, or hidden money wallet.

We haven’t seen the baby trick, but we have seen gypsies crowd around a woman, unsettle her, and while she’s distracted shoved a hand in her bag and walked off with her wallet. It all happened so quickly there was nothing she could do. We’ve also seen a man on a bus put his hand in a woman’s backpack and try to find her wallet. Luckily someone saw the attempted theft and alerted the unsuspecting woman. A good reminder to always keep your valuables in sight and be aware of who’s around you – wherever you are in the world.

Offering a hand scam

There are some places you go that are a real challenge. You know, you want to get to the top of that hill, but it’s just so steep and so far. Enter your good Samaritan. He’s a local, just happens to be here today and will support you as you walk up. Often he’ll call in a mate and they’ll walk one either side to make sure you get to the top. This happened to Ade’s parents at Sigirya in Sri Lanka, when they got to the top the locals asked for the equivalent of about $US300. In the end they paid about $10, a good wage for an hour’s work in Sri Lanka.

Getting scammed at Sigirya, Sri Lanka
There were steps and scams at Sigiriya.

The help was worth the final price they paid, not the amount they tried to charge. Just be clear up front whether you’re good Samaritans are going to expect money. We always assume they will and if they don’t, if they’re doing it out of the goodness of their heart, which also often happens, we’re pleasantly surprised.

The unsolicited guide scam

You’re walking along and suddenly a very friendly local walks up beside you and strikes up a conversation. You think he’s just being nice, he starts pointing things out to you. Offers to show you the major sites. He’s not just being friendly. He’s hoping you’ll pay for him. We always tell people up front we don’t want a guide, if they would like to continue walking with us, we welcome them – it’s always great chatting to the locals and sharing a laugh.

We know of someone else who ended up paying for this in Tanzania and they said it was a great way to see the city through a local’s eyes. They felt confident going into places they probably wouldn’t have gone to on their own. And they helped a local earn some extra money.

It also happened to me in Myanmar when I was travelling with a friend. A young guy travelled with us at Mignon near Mandalay, pointing out the sites and showing us the best place for lunch. He was amusing and knowledgeable so we didn’t mind paying for his time and the entertainment.

Just be aware upfront whether or not you’ll be expected to pay.

Free gift scam

You’re walking along a river, through a city or near a temple – a tourist hotspot. Someone will come up and hold out an offering. It could be a piece of wool tied around your wrist as a blessing, a ‘free’ massage, a rose because you’re so beautiful. Once they’ve got it in your hand, on your wrist they’ll ask you for money, something to cover the cost. We’ve seen this in various places from India to Italy.

Travel scams in India.
We may or may not have fallen victim to a couple of travel scams in Varanasi, India.

They’ll pressure you until you pay up. But know that, often, you can just hand the gift back.

Dropped wallet scam

We’ve seen this scam in our home town, Melbourne. Someone drops their wallet; you pick it up and call out to them, telling them they’ve just dropped their wallet. They’re so appreciative but then they check inside. There’s money missing – you must have stolen it. They’ll argue with you, bully you into giving them back the money you ‘obviously’ stole from them.

Closed hotel, tourist attraction scam

You’ve scoped out where you want to stay, got the address and are in the cab or tuk tuk, with your trusty guidebook, and are on your way. Or so you think. Suddenly the driver will tell you the hotel is closed and you need to stay somewhere else. It closed last year, they’ll tell you. They might even drive you past a hotel in a state of disrepair and tell you this is where it was. Luckily they have another option for you, somewhere they can recommend. They’ll get a kickback, of course, for delivering you to their preferred hotel. We’ve had this happen to us in India and Turkey. In Istanbul we persisted and found the hotel we were originally looking for. In India we relented and went with their option, the hotel was fine (though very noisy!).

Be aware that we have also heard of this happening at some tourist destinations – drivers may say it’s closed on this particular day and try and take you somewhere else instead.

India travel scams
It’s ok, we don’t think we were scammed here…

Local knowledge scam

We fell for this in Bangkok, though we didn’t actually have to outlay any money, we just lost time. Our very helpful tuk tuk driver stopped at a temple. Inside we met a man, a local now living in the US. He told us about Thailand, gave us some ‘inside’ tips, such as you really should go home with new suits and gems, and then told us of course the best places to go for both. When he finished his spiel, we went back to our tuk tuk driver who just happened to suggest he could take us to these places. Fortunately we wanted to get suits made anyway, and his tailor seemed as good as any. We didn’t buy any gems.

Free fuel scam

You hop in a tuk tuk and negotiate a price. It’s pretty low, you feel satisfied that you’ve learnt the art of local negotiations. Then your driver suggests you stop to check out the local silks, just a quick stop and he’ll get free petrol stamps. This will happen a few more times. And it can take hours to get to your actual destination.

This happened to us in Bangkok (we were quite new to travelling when we visited Bangkok!), after three hours driving around we said we’d had enough and just wanted to go to the markets. He pulled over a few metres from where he’d originally picked us up, pointed to the light rail and said it’s three stops from here. (I know, I know, we’re not always the smartest travellers!)

Scams can happen anywhere, and you’ll probably get caught at some point. Our advice is to always be alert but don’t let the fear of a travel scam stop you enjoying your holiday. Also, not everyone is out to scam you. We’ve met some really lovely people who have helped us immensely while travelling and who have expected nothing in return.

We’ve had people drive us home from restaurants, airports, strangers have lent us money, people have invited us to parties.

India travel scams
Chaotic but amazing streets of India.

Generally people who are trying to ‘scam’ you or who have some ‘business scheme’ for helping separate you from your money earn a lot less money than you do. Often they’re asking for less than you would spend on your morning coffee at home.

Some of these stories have become amusing anecdotes for us, every story just another thread in our tapestry of travel.

We always try to have a good laugh and stay polite and friendly with people when we travel, even if we suspect a travel scam. But always keep your valuables close, especially in a crowd and make sure you know where your wallet and passport are at all times.

Tell us it’s not just us? Share your own travel scam experiences with us and help us feel better about ourselves…

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The author Diane, and sister Julie, in the cycle rickshaw on tour in Hutong Village.
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Watching the lights across the river at Hutong in Hong Kong.
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A sign for Vung Tau, 2018 on the road side in Vung Tau, Vietnam.
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