How to Avoid Travel Scams
Travel scams are pretty common. Tourists get ripped off all the time. Travel long enough and you’ll find yourself the intended victim of at least one of these travel scams that I fell for strictly for the purposes of research to help you out, Dear Travel Buddy, because, I mean, who needs to keep all their money anyway.
The travel scam: In SE Asia, your tuk tuk driver picks you up, but instead of taking you directly to your destination, he stops at a clothing or jewelry store and won’t take you where you’re going until you either make a purchase or spend a sufficient amount of time browsing. The driver gets a commission from the shop for each customer her brings.
My story: In Thailand I was taken by a tuk tuk driver. To a jewelry store. See, it’s common practice around Phuket, Thailand to hire a tuk tuk to take you to your destination, only to have the driver first stop off at a jewelry store or tailor shop so you can look around. Against your will.
Most people don’t mind this if they’ve already come to expect it. I was prepared for this to happen. The driver pulled in front of the store and motioned for me to go in. When I walked in, the salesladies greeted me and asked me if I wanted to buy some earrings. I wanted a necklace, so I looked around the display cases. But I didn’t see anything I wanted, so I turned and bowed a little to the ladies and walked out the door.
The tuk tuk driver and I smiled at each other and we started moving. I thought we were on our way to my hotel, but he stopped at another store. He turned to me and said “You didn’t stay long enough minutes for me to get commission.”
I didn’t know there was a 10 minute minimum. *blank stare*
I wasn’t in a hurry, and I actually did want a necklace. So I went into store #2 and repeated the process, but at a slower pace. I still didn’t buy, but my driver seemed satisfied and took me home.
Do the Right Thing
The travel scam: Merchants will sometimes charge tourists a much higher price than locals. It might not be worth your time to argue over a couple thousand Vietnamese Dong (approx 23,000 VND = 1 USD), and the local Vietnamese people largely live on much less money than the tourists who visit Vietnam.
My story: Saigon, Vietnam is hot. With humidity that makes wiping away the sweat totally pointless. If you tried to re-enact the scene from Do the Right Thing where Mookie rubs ice cubes on Tina, you’d fail. The ice would be completely melted before you left the kitchen.
Now, Vietnam has delicious street food. I stumbled on a street cart selling Bahn Mi sandwiches with a line 6 locals deep. This was the Sal’s of the East, and I was eating here no matter what. I got in line and waited for my turn for deliciousness.
The lady in front of me ordered the exact sandwich I wanted. Pork paté with a fried egg on top. She handed the vendor 10,000 Vietnamese Dong (around 50 cents) and he gave her change back. I couldn’t tell if it was 1000 or 2000, but I figured with the “tourist tax” that’s illegally but commonly charged, my sandwich would be closer to 20,000 dong. I was prepared to pay that price. No problem.
The sandwich man cut open my baguette, fried the pork and an egg, and piled the vegetables onto my sandwich. He wrapped it in paper and sealed it in a plastic bag. Then as I took the sandwich from him, he sad “Ninety.”
I don’t speak Vietnamese. I at first assumed he had made a mistake with his English. I said “Do you mean nine?” as I handed him a 20,000 dong bill. He said “No, ninety thousand.”
I understand that bickering with somebody about the equivalent of 4 dollars seems like a total waste of time to most of you reading this now, but I had nothing but time. And although I was fine with paying a higher price, no way would I pay prime rib prices at a sandwich cart.
I tried to shove the 20k into his hand, but he wouldn’t take it. So I put the sandwich down on his cart. When I started to walk away he started yelling at me. Then I got nervous that other people would assume I was stealing from him or something. So I yelled back in English “You’re cheating me!”
We yelled back and forth at each other for at least a whole minute. Tensions were boiling over like it was late 1980s Bed Stuy. I was hangry. Then I marched back over to his cart, put down 30,000 dong this time and took the sandwich. He smiled.
I said “I hope your paté spoils.” I walked the 2 blocks back to my hotel room squeezing the sandwich in my fist and muttering about integrity. That bahn mi taught me that even as experienced as I was, I could still be a victim. It was delicious.
The Crying Game
The travel scam: Australia is too expensive! That’s it.
My story: Just south of Perth, Australia is the cutest port city of Fremantle. They have a ship museum, antique car shows on the weekends and bars on every block. Outside of these bars, sandwich boards advertise Happy Hour times and food deals.
One would expect discounted drinks as well. But in Australia the beer prices during happy hour will make you cry. When I complained to locals about the $10 (!) pints, they’d just nod their heads like “yep”.
Cheap beer in Australia is called wine. Drink cabernet and save the beer for another continent.
I did stay in Australia all summer (their winter) thanks to my favorite budget travel hacks like volunteering in exchange for free room and board. Check them out here:
Marley and Me
The travel scam: I’m still not sure.
My story: I was scammed by a dog.
I stayed in a cabin on the Kampot River in Cambodia. The grounds had a wonderful restaurant, motorbikes for rent and a really friendly Black Lab-looking dog who came to me for belly rubs every time I left my cabin. Then at night, when I was all tucked into my mosquito net listening to the geckos make that noise that I thought was a bird, I’d hear the dog walk up the steps of my cabin and lie down in front of my door.
I thought he was the sweetest dog. Guarding the solo woman in the camp at night. He never made a sound, and by morning when I’d get up for breakfast, he’d be gone.
Then the time came for me to check out and move to Sihanoukville. I packed up my bag and went to the front porch to get my sneakers. I hadn’t needed them the whole time I was on this resort. That’s when the dog’s true motives came to light.
The dog ate my shoes.
That’s why he would lie down at my door at night. He ate the shoelaces from both of my sneakers. I didn’t see him on that last morning. I’d like to think he was hiding out of shame, but he probably found another sucker who left their shoes on their front porch.
If this story made you go awwww instead of ARGH!, you might like the idea of pet sitting to get free accommodation when you travel. Read about how to get started as a house sitter here:
But the “scams” don’t all turn out bad.
The Da Vinci Code
You know the book. Two scientists have to solve a cryptic message that leads them to re-examine Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting The Last Supper. Here’s our version.
It was a clear Autumn night in Paris. My cousin Marcia and I were outside of the Louvre Museum taking selfies, you know, as you do. We had less than an hour to buy tickets, make our way through the museum to the Mona Lisa, and take more selfies. While we were walking toward the entrance, a handsome young brother walked past us. We never really made eye contact with each other, but made a friendly acknowledgement of each others’ presence. Then he reached a piece of paper into my hand. He said “It’s still good” and kept walking by.
We turned to look at him only to see the back of his jacket as he walked away. The piece of paper was a ticket into the Louvre. Still intact.
Because Marcia and I share the DNA of my grandfather Willie, we had to give the free ticket a try. We split the price of a second admission and walked up to the ticket takers. They barely glanced down at our tickets, one legit, one questionable, and waved us through. We were in!
After twenty minutes of Are We There Yet-ing through the huge museum, we were face to face with Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa — slightly underwhelmed, but shooting selfies nonetheless. Had we just successfully benefitted from a scam? Oui.
I hope you enjoyed these tales as I lived them.
Let them be a lesson to you: scams are funny. Or maybe the lesson is to be more diligent. I don’t know which. I’ll ask the dog if I see him again.
Since you OBVIOUSLY love travel
Check out my list of 50 Cities With Airbnbs for $500/month: