Not all taxi rides are created equal. (Photo: Tom Willians/Five Dollar Traveller)
By Tom Williams for Yahoo! Travel
Taxi drivers all over Asia know how to extort both foreigners and locals. Even the most experienced traveler can easily fall prey to some of the lesser-used tricks.
And if you are taking taxis and tuk-tuks every day, the costs can add up. Let’s say you only overpay by two or three dollars per day. For long-term travelers like me and my partner Meg, three dollars per day adds up to over $1,000 per year total. That’s almost an entire month’s budget for us!
Of course, some taxi drivers are honest. I definitely do not mean that all taxi drivers do these scams. But to help you save cash on rides with not-so-honest drivers, we compiled a list of 16 different kinds of taxi scams that we’ve encountered on our travels throughout Asia. Most happened in India, but some happened elsewhere, as well. I’ve used Indian prices as an example, but know that rates vary across Asia.
1. The first-time traveler scam
The situation: This is the most basic scam in all of Asia, and it happens mostly at international airports, where they assume foreigners arriving are new to the country — and, thus, oblivious.
There are two things that may happen in this scenario. First, new travelers often don’t know how cheap Asian taxis are, so drivers will quote a price similar to what they think you’d pay back home. Or, second, the taxi driver will not run the meter. As a result, when you arrive at your destination, you may be hit with a massive overcharge.
The solution: The easiest way to avoid this scam is to do your research online before you go. Look up the average taxi fees for the country you’ll be visiting. Wikitravel usually has taxi guideline fees for international airports, so search for the city in question — and then be sure to barter your way to the fair price.
In India specifically, the prepaid taxi stands are often run by the police. If they are staffed by someone in uniform then they’ll normally charge an honest price. Once the cops clock off however, drivers sometimes just lie about the fair price under the guise of being police licensed.
2. The “taxi mafia” scam
The situation: This is very common all throughout Asia. Basically, it means that all of the taxis at an airport, railway station, or bus station are in on a scam together. They all fix their prices way too high, and bartering will fail, as every driver you try is in on it. And what usually happens is that tourists agree to overpay, as they don’t want to walk around with heavy bags — or they just assume they’ve been offered the right price, and they can’t get any lower quotes.
The solution: The easiest solution is to walk just outside the arrival area to the main road, and hail a non-mafia controlled cab. At Qingdao Airport, China, Meg and I were quoted $15 for a cab ride. We actually had to walk onto the main highway, and five minutes later, we hailed our ride for $2.50.
3. The meter scam
The situation: If you do end up getting a taxi or tuk-tuk that will run the meter, you aren’t safe just yet. There are still two standard tricks drivers may play on you — and both involve tampered meters.
The first is that the meter will jump suddenly. And it will be a big jump. The second is that the meter will increase a lot faster than the legal rate.
The solution: Keep your eye on the meter the whole time. If it does jump, scream at the driver until he lets you out of the cab, or drops the fee. Threaten to report him to the authorities if he doesn’t. Another option: Go to Taxi Fare Finder, and check the meter rate for the country you’ll be visiting. Be aware that this site doesn’t always distinguish between different types of taxis. Or just do a Google search for “taxi rates” + “city name.”
4. The distance scam
The situation: If you know the correct distance you’re going, and tell your driver what it is, he will normally respond by telling you that it is much further. It hasn’t caught on yet with drivers that foreigners can easily check exact distances on their smartphones.
The solution: Tell them the exact distance, and be specific. If they don’t give you a fair price, then walk away and find someone else.
Be sure to tell your driver where you’re going before you get into the taxi. (Photo: Tom Williams/Five Dollar Traveller)
5. The “runaround” scam
The situation: I think everyone will be familiar with this scam, as it happens to tourists in countries worldwide. But specifically in Asia, if you agree to go by meter, some drivers will take the extra scenic route to up the bill. They assume you don’t know the area, and therefore think that you won’t complain if they take the long route because you don’t even know the difference.
The solution: Bartering a set price will save you time, as drivers will go the quickest way because it saves them time, too. It’s best to know the exact distance in advance in order to get a good price. However, in China, we found that the meter is the best option, and same goes for air con cabs in Bangkok.
Another option: If you have maps on your phone, keeping an eye on where you are heading can be a good solution.
6. The late-night surcharge scam
The situation: From about 9 p.m. to midnight, surcharges may apply. These charges are often legitimate, but drivers will often try to overcharge as much as possible anyway. If you agree to pay a surcharge in advance, you shouldn’t pay any higher than 20 to 25 percent.
The solution: Don’t prompt your driver about the late-night surcharge, ever. Rather, just understand that if they are quoting 20 percent over and you’ve tried at least a couple of drivers, it may just be that time of night. At that point, you can either keep bartering or take the ride. You can also ask a local or a policeman when you arrive at the bus or train station if there is a late-night fee.
7. The parking fee scam
The situation: Your destination, especially if it is an airport, may have a parking fee. But generally, if a taxi is just dropping you off, you do not pay a fee. Although some airports may impose a fee, an unscrupulous driver might try to charge you one even though they don’t actually have to pay it. Alternatively, they may ask you to pay a fee much higher than the real price.
The solution: Tell your driver that you will pay the parking fee, but you will give it directly to the parking authority, not to him. Wait to see if there is a sign on entry to the airport, and then point it out to the driver, saying you will only pay the required amount. If there isn’t an attendant collecting money, then there probably isn’t a parking fee.
8. The “it’s raining” scam
The situation: Prices do not increase because it is raining, or because it is a public holiday. But demand for taxis does go up on both of those occasions, so drivers can get away with charging more — they even do it with locals.
The solution: In this case, it’s your call how long you want to wait to get a taxi. Most taxis are going to do the rain scam, so unless you want to be soaked by downpours, you may just have to take the hit. Same goes for public holidays. You may just have to take the hit, or take the bus.
9. The traffic scam
The situation: There is a basic “wait fee” for taxis. If you are on a meter, it is automatically calculated. If you’re not on a meter, drivers may ask for more if they’ll be heading into heavy traffic.
The solution: It’s up to you to decide what is fair on this one, and agree in advance. I normally explain to the driver before I get in that if there is no traffic, I’m not paying anything extra at the end. And be sure to communicate with them as you travel, simply to point out there has been no traffic, if that is the case.
Bring the right amount of cash with you so you don’t have to ask for change. (Photo: Tom Williams/Five Dollar Traveller)
10. The toll and exit-fee scam
Just like you do with parking fees, tell your driver that you will pay as you go for any tolls. Because just like they do with parking fees, they will try to scam you and charge you for tolls that you may not have even passed through.
Sometimes they will take toll road routes because it means less traffic for them. The tolls aren’t normally that high, so it is normally a win-win unless you are penny pinching to the max.
11. The additional charge scam
The situation: We’ve seen 10 people loaded into a tuk-tuk plenty of times. Strictly speaking, you shouldn’t be asked for extra money if there are four of you rather than two of you. But here’s the thing: They will probably try anyway.
The solution: If they only ask for a small surcharge, 10 percent or so, it’s okay if you don’t care too much. If they are asking double — and, yes, some will! — walk away.
12. The tips scam
The situation: Most Asian countries do not have a culture for tipping taxi drivers. Many will ask foreigners for a tip, because they know foreigners think it is appropriate to tip.
The solution: Meg and I normally only tip a driver who has also been a guide and has gone above and beyond — and we give five to 10 percent tops.
13. The “no change” scam
The situation: Many taxi drivers will insist that they have no change. They normally do, though.
The solution: First, you actually have to ask for change, no matter how far over the bill you’ve paid. If they say they don’t have change, either, then sit in the car until they give you change. Or, if you have the option, jump out to the nearest store and get change before giving them anything. Then, pay exactly what they ask for. In sum: It’s always better to try to get the correct change before you get the taxi.
14. The “free taxi” scam
The situation: This scam has been popular in Bangkok for years, but it also exists elsewhere. There are two versions. First, there’s the bluff. This is when the drivers take you to some second-rate tourist attraction that you don’t want to go to, instead of where you asked to go — and then they take you to a shop. While you are browsing, they collect a voucher, and then they ditch you as soon as possible, and you have to pay another driver full price to get home.
The second scam is a double bluff: They tell you that they’ll take you where you need to go for free. All you have to do, they say, is go into a shop first, as a favor, so that they can get the free fuel voucher. When you come out, they make up some excuse about a family emergency, and head off to get another tourist — and some more free fuel.
The solution: Neither of these have to cost you money, although the average tourist will probably bow to the hard sell in the shops and buy some overpriced souvenir. That said, they are definitely a complete waste of your time.
So, what’s the conclusion here? Ultimately, taxi drivers in Asia fight tooth and nail for money from tourists, because the basic rate they earn on the meter is pretty low. Foreigners are their cash cow.
We rarely get to pay the lowest price possible. It’s just not worth haggling over 20 cents on a daily basis. We do object to any blatant rip-offs, though — and so should you. And if your driver is lovely, and doesn’t give overcharge you more than 10 or 20 percent, give him a tip!