12 Travel Scams to Avoid

Travel scams are the worst.  I honestly think there’s a special place in hell for these people and I just hate seeing them take advantage of tourists when I travel. Now I’m not going to say I haven’t fallen victim to a few of these myself, but I’ve certainly gotten better to more I travel.  

Here are 12 common scams I’ve seen over the years and how to avoid them. 

  • Wrong change
  • No change from taxi driver
  • Free tea, now you owe me a sale
  • Help the cause
  • 3 card monte
  • Free taxi
  • Hotel is overbooked
  • Attraction is closed
  • You’re under dressed
  • ATM help
  • Extra ticket for the metro
  • Begging kids

Wrong Change 

This one has been tried so many times I kind of get a little joy out of loudly embarrassing the person by making a huge scene when it happens.  Oh it was an honest mistake? Unlikely. This happens when you’re not used to the local currency and you get change back that looks right but it isn’t until you count it later that you realize you’re missing a huge chunk of your budget.  I’ve seen this scam everywhere from a liquor store in London to street vendors in Vietnam. And when they’re caught, it’s always a sheepish sorry.  

person's palm with two coins

First, try to have small bills.  Meaning change them into something manageable at the hotel, restaurant, or a store.  At the end of the day, losing $20 is a lot easier to take than losing $100. Sadly, a lot of foreign ATMs don’t dispense cash at a denomination that’s immediately usable.  

I think the biggest issue occurs when there are added zeros at the end of the currency.  In the US, we’re not used to seeing a 100,000 note. But in some countries, it’s perfectly commonplace.  So if that happens, be aware if they try to give you change in odd bills. For example, if you’re expecting 112,000 back in change, there’s really no reason for the person to giving you 10,000 bills.  

No change in a taxi

This is one I’ve seen a couple times and I’ve usually seen it from a trip from the airport.  Unscrupulous taxi drivers know that you have just got off a flight, probably tired, and really just want to get to your hotel to lie down.  They also know you have the most amount of money, aren’t used to the currency, and if you just used the ATM or exchanged money, more than likely have only large bills.  

As you get into the taxi, you’ll negotiate a rate or do everything right about asking the meter to be used.  But, when you’re at your destination and hand over your money to pay, the driver says he doesn’t have enough change and can only give you partial change.  

So how do you avoid this?  First, be forceful. The last thing the driver wants is a confrontation as well.  If the driver insists he doesn’t have change, then tell him to wait as you go inside to get change from the hotel.  If that isn’t an option, I’ll just whip out my credit card and pay with that. Most taxis nowadays will accept cards. 

If that doesn’t work, then have him follow you to get change. At this point, you’re at a stalemate since you have his money and he wants to get paid.  But the difference is, now the driver is wanting to get out so he can go scam other tourists. However long he wants to play this stupid game is up to him.  I haven’t had anything go this long but I’ve been prepared to just to see how far it’ll go.  

Have some free tea…now buy something

This happened a lot in Jordan.  I would be offered “free” mint tea and told it was “Jordan hospitality”.  Some would even tell me it was rude to decline such an offer. Although I might agree in most circumstances, when the person is trying to sell you something, it isn’t out of the goodness of his heart.  Once they lure you into their shop and have you sitting down for some tea, they’ll basically say buy something as a way to reciprocate. Of course, you now feel obligated to buy something so you choose something useless and overpriced to get out of there.  

Most of the time, you can just walk by without stopping in because there is nothing to force you into the store.  However, sometimes you’re genuinely interested and considering buying something. In those cases, walk into the store but decline the tea.  Start looking around and get straight to the point. I make it known that if I’m interested, I don’t want my time wasted and I just get straight to the point.  Maybe it’s a cultural thing but I usually like to dictate the conversation and try to throw them off edge so I don’t feel powerless.  

Now I’ve also seen it where the tea is basically forced in my hand and they pretty much use every tactic to try to get me to buy something.  I’ve been called names, yelled at, and one even grabbed my arm and force me to stay. I just push past it and move along. Unless if you’re in a secluded store, the store owner isn’t going to make a huge scene if there are other tourists around and let it go.  In the end, I didn’t buy anything I didn’t need or want. 

Donate to help the homeless/handicapped/starving children etc.

It seemed like I saw this one on every street corner in Paris.  Usually you’ll see a group of children walking around with a clipboard.  They may not speak English but they’ll speak enough to say they’re collecting money for some cause.  They’ll ask you to sign your name, put down your country, and maybe some sort of contact info. Of course what they really want is the 10 Euros.  They’re pretty relentless and they’ll try anything to get you to “donate” whether it’s via guilt, flirting, or begging.  

When you see them walking toward you, just ignore them.  When they come up to ask for a donation, just say no and keep walking.  They may try a few times but after they realize they aren’t getting anywhere, they’ll leave you alone.  If they continue, you can turn the tables a bit and follow them around as they try to scam other tourists and warn the other tourists that it’s a scam.  The kids will just get so annoyed they’ll leave the area. I have to admit, I did find turning the table sort of fun.  

3 card monte

I saw this all across Paris as well.  I know it as 3 card monte but it’s also known as find the lady. It’s a game we’ve all seen.  3 cards are out and after a quick back and forth shuffle, you have to find the queen. If you guess correctly, you win, if not, you lose.  The thing with this game is that it’s rigged. Now you’ll typically see a group of people watching and a few “random” people betting and winning.  Unfortunately, they’re in on the scam as well. As soon as you step in, the scam starts and you’re out money…and by the time it’s over, it’ll probably be quite a bit. 

The easiest way to avoid this is to just keep walking.  Now that might seem obvious but here’s the thing. If you’re curious to see the total scam in action, take our cell phone or camera and try to video it. I guarantee you someone will try to to intimidate you from filming and if you continue, they’ll pack up and leave.  Gee, wonder why?  

The way I view it is why on earth would I want to be wasting time gambling on a stupid street game when I’m on vacation?  If I wanted to gamble, I’d just go to a casino so this really never made any sense to me as to why people would play or even want to play.  But just keep walking and don’t waste your time.  

Taking a “free” taxi 

Sometimes, you’ll be approached by a “friendly” local who wants to help you by taking you a special monument.  Maybe they’ll play to your emotions and say it’s a memorial for the lives lost in a flood or fire. It could even be something in the country’s past that they’re playing up like a civil war memorial or some awful mass grave.  Of course the sales pitch is you should go pay your respects to this holy place. The odd thing is that you’ve never heard of this memorial and you didn’t see anyone mention it online anywhere. 

Well, miraculously as you agree, a tuk tuk or a taxi pulls up and they usher you in. Now of course the ride out to this memorial will be free.  But this 5 minute drive “just around the corner” drive turns into a massive hour long drive and of course when you get there, it’s a memorial that tiny and nothing like what was promised.  Now you see why you haven’t heard of this in any guide book before is because the stupid site isn’t worth seeing or visiting. But now that you’re an hour out of town, how do you get back? Well luckily, the taxi driver who drove you out there is more than happy to drive back but now at an incredibly inflated price.  

The argument the driver will make is that the drive TO the memorial was free, not the drive BACK.  And since there’s little to no chance of you getting a taxi in the middle of nowhere, you’re stuck paying the price.  

Look, I’m all for visiting sites and doing things on the spur of the moment.  But you’ve got to have some common sense when it comes to these things. Remember how your parents told you not to get into cars with strangers?  Well this is one of those times. Also, if you haven’t heard of this memorial, monument, etc. then there must be a good reason. The government isn’t going to spend thousands or millions of dollars on a monument no one will see.  What’s the point in that? If you’re approached, just keep walking and ignore them. Eventually, they’ll realize they’re wasting their time and they’ll go away.  

Hotel is overbooked

You just landed and you’re exhausted from jet lag and ready to take a nap at your hotel.  It’s moderately priced, nothing fancy but not terrible. You probably found it online and booked it.  So imagine the shock when you get into a taxi and ask to be taken to your hotel and he tells you that it’s closed or fully booked!  Out of pity and the kindness of his heart, the taxi driver offers to take you to another hotel that has a vacancy, and he saves your vacation.  

If someone tells you that your hotel is closed or fully booked, just tell the driver to take you to the hotel so you can straighten it out with the staff there.  Common sense dictates that the taxi driver has no way of knowing if your hotel is booked or closed so immediately you should be on alert. The driver is only trying to take you to another hotel so that he can get a commission or a kickback from the property owner.  

Attraction is closed

white closed sign hanging on glass

A variation of the hotel is closed scam is being told the temple, museum, church, etc. is closed but the driver will take you to another site closeby.  Along the way, you oddly make stops at every single useless store to see if you need to get any shopping done. By the time you’re done, the driver drops you off at another temple and you find out that the original temple you wanted to visit was never closed. 

This is infuriating on so many levels because it not only costs money but also wastes your time. The best way to avoid this is to make sure you look up the times when the site is open and closed.  If you’re unsure, ask the hotel if they’re aware of anything special going on. Here’s the thing, I’ve been caught in the wrong on this one. When I was in Cambodia, I wanted to visit the palace. Well everyone told me the palace was closed that morning because there a special event happening.  Of course I thought everyone was in on the scam so I ignored them. Well, it turned out that there was a special event and that the prime minister of Japan had come for an official visit. Not only was the palace closed that morning but the street up to the palace were also closed. But, I was wrong once and I’ve seen the scam tried on me so I figure it’s still a win in my column. 

If the driver won’t take you, just get out.  Tell the person you want to get out of the cab and cut your losses.  Losing a few bucks is much better than losing more money and losing an entire day to useless shopping only because the taxi driver is getting a kick back from the stores he takes you to.  It’s just not worth it. 

Need the right clothing

I saw this in Bangkok.  So if you want to go to the Grand Palace, there is a strict dress code.  Luckily I had read that you can just rent some appropriate clothing to wear at the door.  However, as you walk toward the palace, I was met by countless touts holding laminated signs and pointing at every tourist who wasn’t appropriately dressed.  Some even tried to say that you needed to change before you were even through the gates! Of course they had an entire kit you could buy so can enter.  

If you’re in any country and wanting to visit any religious site, you really need to read up on the customs and dress code for where you’re entering.  I remember telling a few American tourists that it was a scam and they seemed stunned. Sure, I wasn’t dressed properly either but I knew there was clothing available at the gates.  The major sites are definitely going to know and understand that not all tourists are going to come adequately prepared. You aren’t the first one to show up in shorts and shirt. They’ll also find a way to make money off of it as well.  Just like some places will charge you extra for taking photos, if there’s money to be made, they’ll find a way to get it. So there’s no reason to go with some scammer at the gate since there’s no chance it’ll be cheaper.  

Helpful local at the ATM 

So you’re at an ATM and the machine doesn’t seem to be working or you just can’t get it to work.  A “helpful” local offers to help you with your card and guide you through the steps. There might even be someone else at the ATM acknowledging that the way you’re trying to use the ATM is wrong.  They help you out even translating when needed.

Unfortunately, the next time you go to the ATM, you realize your money is gone and drained. The scam here is that they’re trying to get you to use your card through a skimmer.  They’ll then “help” you with the ATM and try to get your PIN as you enter it so they can then drain your account later.  

If someone offers you help at an ATM, just walk away.  It’s as simple as that. But also try to use ATMs that are connected to banks or better, inside banks so you can ask an employee there if you need help.  It would certainly take a brave scammer to set up shop inside an actual bank. If anyone is invading your personal space, they’re probably doing something they shouldn’t be so be weary.  If someone is standing unusually close to you as you use the ATM, they’re probably up to no good so just take your card and go to another ATM. Trust me, there’s more than one ATM.  

Selling an “extra” metro ticket

This seems to occur where the ticketing system is antiquated.  Nowadays, you mostly see a system where you tap a card and get on but if you’re in a city where single use paper tickets are still used, be aware.  

Someone will approach you saying they bought an extra ticket by accident while you’re waiting in line at the ticket kiosk (seems to happen more if there’s a long line).  Since the person has an “extra” single fare ticket, he offers to sell it at the same rate. When you go to use it, it isn’t valid and you can’t get through because the ticket is actually an old ticket that’s been used. 

Look, we all like to save money when we can, but saving money on the metro is just not the way to do it.  If a local really had an “extra” ticket, wouldn’t they just save it and use it the next time they needed the metro?  This is just an odd one but I’ve seen this one as well and I think it’s the fact that the ticket isn’t that expensive that gets people to bite.  

Begging children

Look, we’ve all seen them.  Children tapping on the taxi window asking for money.  Maybe they have a backstory of how their father died and how they’re the breadwinner for the family or how the family is so poor they don’t have enough food for dinner.  

It might sound callous but you just need to move forward.  Sometimes they’re just there to beg for money but sometimes they work in gangs and while a few of them distract you, the others are rifling through your backpack and pockets. 

Of course you just need to keep walking but if there is a gang of them, have an anti theft bag (like the one I use and recommend here) or at the very least have a lock that goes through the zipper holes.  I always put my wallet either in the bottom of my backpack or in the part of the backpack where they would have reach behind me to get to it.  I don’t walk around with it in my back pocket. You could also get a money belt so that it’s virtually impossible for someone to get to it without you noticing. 

More Scams!

There are obviously more scams out there that we don’t know about.  The thing about a scam is that it isn’t until you find out you’ve been scammed that you hear about it.  Until then, you may think it’s perfectly normal. Of course we’ve all heard the stories of attractive locals who come up to you in a bar but some are more subtle.  

How to avoid being scammed

Obviously we live and learn.  Once it happens, you can’t do anything about it so hopefully you learn from your mistakes and try not to let it happen again  But here are a few tips that help me out when I travel. 

Walk with a purpose

Whenever I feel like I’m going into a crowded area where I might be bombarded with scammers, I try to walk with my head up and with a purpose.  I don’t dilly dally around looking at trinkets or wander aimlessly looking at everything except where I’m going. If you look like you’re in a rush or don’t have the time for bullsh**, people are going to see it in you body language and not want to engage.  It’s an intimidating posture and rather than target you as a victim, they’ll gladly move on to someone easier.  

When in doubt, say “no”

Make your knee jerk reaction to everything “no” when you’re unsure.  Unfortunately, that will close you off from some really cool opportunities when you’re met with some genuine people.  But it will protect you as well. I’d say I try to read the situation and if I’m unsure, I just decline. This can be a little tough since we tend to say yes to things even if we really want to say no because we’re trying not be rude.  However, this can get you into some trouble when it comes to scammers. Look, you can always explain to someone that you were trying not to be scammed and I think any traveler or local will understand the sentiment. And if it’s a scammer, I don’t care if you’re offended.  

Don’t speak English

This is the one I use most often.  I’ll gladly walk through a busy market and just smile and nod at people without saying a word.  Of course people will start speaking to me in English and I hear every word, but I don’t react and don’t say anything.  Oftentimes, it’s actually kind of fun to hear what people have to say when they think you don’t understand. This one works great because scammers don’t have the patience to try and scam you.  They aren’t going to try completely overcharge you because the language is too great (or so it seems).  

Final thoughts

Look, travel scams happen.  I’ve been a victim multiple times.  Sometimes, it just happens in the split second you let your guard down.  But that’s how you learn. I haven’t fallen prey to all the scams listed here but I’ve definitely fallen for a few and I’ve definitely seen all of them used at one time or another.  

Ultimately, if you do get scammed, just take it in stride.  You can’t let one incident ruin your whole vacation. You’re spending hundreds or more dollars on the trip and you can’t let a loss of a few dollars ruin the entire trip.  Just be aware of the scams and try your best to avoid them.  

Oh, and if anyone says they’ve never been scammed before, they’re either lying or too stupid to know they’ve been scammed.  

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