Just take a taxi, they said. It shouldn’t cost that much, they said…
Taxi scams are scattered all over different parts of Asia. Though many are poorly executed that the drivers are just blatantly looking for a way to take more money, some are carried out so well that you may not even realize you’re being victimized. I’ve lived in the Philippines long enough to understand different tactics local drivers do to scam people– from locals to tourists alike.
Now I thought I’ve seen it all, but wait til’ you go to the neighboring countries. Perhaps taxi scams around Southeast Asia are ran pretty similarly, the only difference for me in Manila may just be merely the fact that I speak the language fluently. Personally, I believe some cities are worse than the others when it comes to scamming, but when it comes down it, there are general ways to avoid being a victim. Chances are, you’re reading this because you plan to embark on a journey to this region (you might want to check this out if you want some guidelines on backpacking here), and guess what, you’ve made a great decision doing so, because no matter how much of a sophisticated traveler you may be, the probability of a tourist getting scammed, is still pretty high.
1.) Do your research.
I don’t know how much I need to emphasize the importance of research prior to a trip. Doing a little reading on expected cab fares can go a long way. There are plenty of cab fare calculator designed for different cities that you can find online, and although it may not be entirely accurate, it’s always nice to have a ball park. There are also plenty of experienced travelers willing to answer questions in travel forums such as Lonely Planet and Travelfish, or travel related Facebook groups. You may even contact the hotel that you’re staying with to ask how much you should expect to pay for a taxi from the airport. Then compare if their airport transfer is reasonable enough. Check TripAdvisor reviews on the location to get more subjective insights. It may sound like a lot of work, but better safe than sorry.
2.) Get some local currency at the airport.
It’s not a bad idea to bring smaller bills with you that you can exchange at the airport just so you can have enough money to get you to your hotel. Especially if you land late at night, it’s not worth the trouble to look around for a better money exchanger. Also consider that ATM’s might be out of service once in awhile, especially in smaller provincial airports. It’s also probably a good idea to keep your money exchange process out of your taxi cab driver’s business. So, if you have no choice and have to do this, be wary! When I got scammed in Saigon upon arrival at the backpacker district (I traveled via bus from Cambodia, so I had no dongs ready), the cab driver brought me to a money exchanger and he got out of the car, went inside with me and kept his eye on me and my money. One of the first signs I chose to ignore which happened to be a big mistake.
3.) NEVER go in a cab that approached you.
Do not get me wrong, there are some credible taxi drivers that are genuine about their intentions. However, keeping your guard up usually is the best way to go. Another thing I learned the hard way, the same guy in Saigon that took me to the money exchanger even showed me his ID when he came up to me as I got out of the bus, which was useless because it was all in Vietnamese. I may as well confess that I didn’t even notice that his cab was unmarked and had no taxi company sign. Another big mistake. What moron would get on an unmarked cab? Apparently, me.
I’ve learned throughout my time that you’re better off waving at a taxi in the streets than taking the easy way out. Especially the ones waiting by the tourist spots, those drivers tend to be fishy whatever their motives are. They may not always be scammers, but chances are, they will try to rip you off and charge you twice as much the actual cost. Saigon, Bangkok, Manila…it doesn’t matter. Keep your guard up.
4.) Make agreements.
Language barrier is hard. But what’s more frustrating is when you speak the local language and yet they’re still attempting to rip you off (just one of the reason why I was never a fan of Manila). Although meters are usually preferred, sometimes they can be quite daunting because it’s very common for those to be tampered with. Either way, make an agreement with the taxi driver prior to getting in. Chances are if you’re obviously a foreigner, they will try to convince you to agree on a ridiculous price (that’s why again, research if you can.) Like I’ve said, many drivers are just abysmal when they attempt to rip you off, so having an agreement helps. One time, my friend and I took a short pedicab ride (unmotorized tricycle/tuk-tuk) and we agreed on a certain price. Halfway there, he heard us speaking English and a few seconds later, he interrupted us demanding a higher price. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what he was trying to do so I demanded him to pull over.
5.) Pay attention to the meter.
I know it’s a little hard to recognize what’s normal and what isn’t when traveling. This is why I say research is essential. Being aware of the exchange rate will help you calculate accurately. Simply paying attention to the meter’s changes will also help you determine if you’re about to be ripped off or not. I don’t really know how to approach this matter successfully. I’ve tried bringing it up, and although I’m completely positive that they understand what I’m trying to say, they pretend that they don’t. Maybe next time, I’ll try having them pull over instead if circumstances are appropriate, like, when it’s not 3am in a freeway.
6.) Be wary where they drop you off.
Another mistake in my Saigon scam; he dropped me off away from my hostel. He insisted it was a one way street, which I later learned that it isn’t. I think he did this to guarantee getting more money from me. Though it was only a few hotels away from mine, there was no one there. There was no one I could have approached to ask if I was indeed being scammed. There were no local employees who could easily back me up or to call the cops. I couldn’t just walk away without him taking all the money he wanted because he could simply drive away with my luggage. I was a poor victim of a well executed scam.
So learn from that. Demand to be dropped off in front of your hotel/hostel, and if that seems to be a bust, get off a nearby crowded area. If there are cops or security guards, then even better. That way, you can easily give him the amount you think is appropriate and then walk away. Be mindful when you do this to avoid causing any trouble of course. Again, better safe than sorry.
7.) Trust your instinct.
The initial sign I chose to ignore was my gut feeling. I knew I should have walked– it was literally one block away, and the taxi driver in Saigon just went around. Sometimes, you know better than you think you do. So despite what any guidelines may say, listen to that voice in your head. Learn how to trust your instincts because sometimes it’s all you’ll ever really need.
8.) Accept that sometimes, it will be completely unjust.
In a foreign country where you do not speak their language, do not expect to pay local price. No matter how much of a seasoned traveler you are and no matter how condescendingly you think of me as an amateur, things just happen. You’re bound to get ripped off every now and then, if not most of the time. It sucks, it’s unfair, and it’s ridiculous, but that’s the harsh reality of Southeast Asia…and in many other places for all I know. Sometimes, it’s just luck. It could have been anyone else, and if it wasn’t that day, who knows it could have been the next.
So if you do find yourself getting scammed with no way out of it, instead of handling it with anger, immaturity, and overall negativity, just learn from the experience and do not let it ruin your day. Remember that you’re on a wonderful journey and this is just a part of it. Do not let it ruin the image that you have of the country and its people, because trust me, as unpleasant as it may be, Southeast Asia has so much beauty and even kindness to offer. And if you let it, it’s all worth the extra $20 you just got robbed off.
What’s your worst taxi scam experience and how did you handle it? I’d love to hear it down below! If you’d like more guides and tips on traveling, follow me on FACEBOOK to stay updated! I answer any questions as well! Good luck and happy travels!