Travel rip-offs: just part of the culture?


Why is it so hard to not steal from people?

I know that I’m an easy mark when I travel. I’m not walking around flashing tons of cash or jewelry or anything like that, but I’m clean, dressed cleanly and usually carrying an SLR camera. Oh, and I’m a reasonably tall, healthy looking white guy. I stand out in a crowd, particularly in Asia. And Africa. And decent chunks of the rest of the world, too.

I’ve had a few "real" run-ins, a few simple scams and a few just plain idiots come after me at one point or another. The bigger scams, long cons or other bits are actually at least entertaining to me. Someone has to put some effort into those. But a guy just trying to take your cash with no good story to back it up is pretty pathetic. I usually come out OK, and even when I haven’t my losses were minimal; at the least I got a decent story for the few dollars.

I tweeted my frustrations this morning, the second time in the few days we’ve been here in Sri Lanka that someone tried to short-change us:

Another asshole tried to short-change me in Sri Lanka. It gets old very quickly. But apparently not to them.

I got one interesting reply:

@WanderngAramean Easy…they are poor, you are not.

She’s right, of course. Relative to the people here my daily spending is a week or more of income based on the average numbers. And that’s only the average income numbers; I’m not dealing with the most wealthy citizens or anything close to that here, so there’s a decent chance their incomes are lower than that. There is no doubt that, in nearly every sense of the word, we are rich.

Still, it pisses me off something special every time this sort of thing happens. I get that I have more money. I’m choosing to come here and spend that money. I’m even trying as much as possible to do it in smaller shops, hotels and restaurants rather than in the big chains and such. No, I don’t often hire the touts/"guides" outside the sites nor do I buy the tchotchkes, but mostly because I know they are just plain awful. I’m willing to pay a fair price for a fair product. Try to screw me, however, and you get nothing.

In India it was all about negotiating for the tuk tuks. There’s the metered price, which no one pays. Then there’s the local price, which I know I’m not going to be paying, then there’s the actual tourist price, which is in the ballpark of what I should be paying, and then there’s the actual price they offered up for the fare when you ask how much. I sortof get that part of the negotiating process, even though I’m no good at it. I understand that as a tourist I’m going to pay ~30-50% more than the locals for a fare. We’re generally talking about $0.30-$1.00 here, and that’s something I can accept. After all, we’re both openly negotiating in good faith and agreeing upon a price. And at the end of the ride I’ll pay that price and expect correct change. In this regard I was never disappointed.

But when the guy we took an elephant ride with here in Sri Lanka quoted me Rs. 6600 (~USD$60) and then tried to short me Rs. 1000 change, then tried to "fix" it to only shorting me Rs. 800, I was pretty annoyed. When the cashier at one of the official tourist sites (i.e. run by the feds) similarly tried to stiff me Rs. 1000 change it got old. And when the guy at the spice garden marked the prices up 250% and then tried to seem sincere in the "20% discount," all while telling our driver that they were offering us a price half of what we walked out on, I got downright pissed.

In many of these countries tourism is the best chance they have to actually develop an economy that will support their population and not destroy the country. Sure, there are no guarantees that it will work, but certainly trying to shortcut the process, stealing from the visitors along the way, is a fast-track to killing any chance you’ve got.

At least I see it that way. Am I the only one? Am I being too hard on these people? These people who, I might add, appear to be leading a reasonably successful middle-class life, with a decent income level compared to the cost of living. Why should I have sympathy for them trying to rob me, especially after we’ve agreed that I’m already willing to pay their inflated prices, so long as we agree in advance?

Which brings me back to the opening thought from this post: How hard is it to not steal from people??

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

32 Comments

  1. Uh … sorry, but being poor, or relatively poor, is no justification for stealing.

    Wealthy people occasionally cheat and steal too – no better or worse.

    Right is right and wrong is wrong. Moral relativism leads too many astray.

  2. As an expat living in South America for the last three years and having traveled to 48 countries as part of my work assignments, I, too, have my fair share of rip-off stories. There are those that I rack up to “the way it is,” especially when it’s my fault, but I agree that it gets old. Taxi drivers are the worst offenders where I live – they see a gringo get in the cab and try to take me on the “scenic route” about 20% of the time. Dishonest is dishonest regardless of income or social situation, and should not be tolerated.

  3. I was scammmed by a so-called travel agent in Verdun, Montreal, Quebec. Never been scammed in my endless travels in SE Asia but first time was in Canada and very difficult to get payment back. Can happen anywhere.

  4. Overcharging tourists is part of the game… I just remember my first business trip to NYC and how many times I got ripped off. In fact come to think of it, most of the prices charged to tourists in Paris, London & NYC are far too high 🙂

  5. No, you are not being too hard on them! Like you said, THEY ARE FUCKING STEALING. End of discussion. Comments (and the mentality) of people like reesfo are ignorant and off-topic.

  6. Ugh I agree with the way you feel!! I am a white-girl and my guy is Filipino.. This year we spent 2 weeks in his family’s home town in Caloocan City in The Philippines & even though he is Filipino, they knew he was “americanized” just by looking at him and seeing him with me (the only white girl in a 10 mile radius, im sure) and tried the same to us! Luckily, we spent 85% of the time with his family there & they made sure that we weren’t ripped off.

    It’s a shame…

  7. I always make it a point to have tons of small bills so that I can pay exactly what I want/need to pay. I can’t remember the last time I actually needed to have someone in a foreign country make change for me, and it’s eliminated a lot of these problems.

  8. If you travel enough, then you either have stories like this, or maybe you just aren’t very aware. Let me tell you two quick stories.

    First, in Iquitos, Peru, the fare for the moped/rickshaw from the airport to our hotel, tripled from negociations to arrival. I ended up just paying the higher rate. I gave in for a few reasons, first, even the higher rate was lower than what I would have called a fair price before the trip. Second was the language barrier that was present, maybe the driver had trouble communicating with me the fare. Finally, I knew he need the extra couple dollars more than I did, so in my mind it was part charity.

    Second, when I shop, I sometimes notice the 20 oz can of soemthing for $2.00 when the 10 oz cans of the same item are $0.89 each.

    The reason that dishonest people short your change is why the store might charge more per oz. in the bigger can. So many people live their lives unaware of things like counting change and just assume (or lack the intelligence to check). Pull the stunt with 10 people, you get away with it 8 times, and the other 2, you simply claim a mistake and correct the change. Is it right, never …. but it is a crime that will never be punished.

  9. Stealing (eg, shortchanging on an agreed-upon price) is not okay. But the price variation seen in many parts of the world is not stealing.

    As was explained to me by an acquaintance I made once in Turkey “If you people want to buy something, you just walk into a store and buy it. We would never, ever do that. You have to find someone you know, or someone who knows someone you know, or have some connection with, before you would even think of buying something from them.”

    There are no “manufacturers suggested retail prices” in much of the world. You have to haggle, and you will be doing so from a position of great disadvantage because 1) you usually don’t have a sense of the actual local value of the thing you’re bargaining for, 2) you’re often bargaining for something that has no local value (like an elephant ride) and 3) you’re a foreigner (which is often true of people from the next village, by the way) and therefore you lack the social context necessary to achieve the insider price.

    All of this transpires in the first world as well, but we slap a fancy name on it (like “preferred customer” or “elite member”) and twenty pages of “Terms and Conditions” to make it okay. So next time you think you’re not getting the same price a local person does just reflect that membership has its privileges and you cannot be a member of that particular club.

  10. @Mike S, your comment about letting him get away with it because he needed the money more than you is part of the reason this continues on and on and on, and why he will continue to try to forever rip people off.

  11. Actually, you are right about this one; thanks for the post. As a senior citizen, I would like to suggest that it doesn’t get any easier as one ages.
    You have a good point about tourism and local economies. Because I like to travel by myself; crime tends to keep me from wanting to travel abroad.

  12. It is refreshing if the local government steps in to set some guidelines in some of these situations. For example, I was touring in BKI. At the airport, I heard foreigners negotiating fares with local cab drivers, I thought the usual, they would definitely pay more than locals. To my surprise, the cab price has already been set by the local authorities, if any cab driver tries to charge more, his license to operate the cab at the airport would be suspended. How refreshing to hear that. On another note, at tourist attractions, the entrance price was posted and it is understandable they charge tourist twice or three times more than locals but it is all done with transparency. I can’t say that about buying things. In general, I try not to buy anything knowing the chance of getting rip off is too high, it leaves a bad taste on a otherwise fun trip.

  13. There’s no excuse for shady business practices. Do you let a child steal and lie, assuming that they’ll improve when they grow up? It’s the same thing with a developing country. It will retard development, and even if the economy does grow, they’ll just have more stealing and more lying.

    Haggling is different. Some places expect it. But I’m no good at it, either, so I just refuse to play the game. If they quote me a price I think is fair, I pay it (so what if I could get it for less?, the price was still cheaper than in the US). If I think it’s too high, I walk away, and it’s up to them to quote a different price that brings me back. Very rarely do I need anything badly enough that I must put up with the inflated price.

  14. From a friend’s blog post on India:

    “Big take-home insight #2: Lonely Plant is wrong about fare negotiations

    Both the Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide I have consulted during my time in India advise you to always negotiate cab and rickshaw fares in advance. This is nonsense.

    Remember your basic game theory: at the end of the ride, you are already where you want to go. The driver can either take the fare you offer or get nothing. The bargaining power is on your side.

    Therefore, you should NEVER make any attempt to negotiate the fare before the ride. Just get in, stay quiet, and pay what you want at the end of the ride.

    I’ve had tremendous luck with this. If the driver protests and won’t take the fare, you set it the money on the dashboard and walk away. (Best to get out of the vehicle before offering the fare). As I’ve become more bold, I’ve stopped being bothered when the driver tries to hold initial negotations. Sample dialogue:

    Me: “Can you take me to [x place, a measly 20 rupees worth of distance away]?”

    Rickshaw driver: “100 Rupees.”

    Me: “No.” [climb into rickshaw and sit down]

    Rickshaw driver: “90 Rupees.” [climbs into rickshaw and starts engine — major tactical mistake on his part]

    Me: “No.”

    [Rickshaw driver shrugs, begins to drive. When we arrive at destination, I offer the entirely reasonable 20 rupees and we go our separate ways. This has worked thus far.]

    I always offer a reasonable fare. If I were a true economist I would try to offer nothing and see if I could get away with it. But, as you know, economics, the term for which is derived from the Greek for “if I had channeled my mathematical acumen into computer science I’d be a zillionaire by now”, is a discipline full of small and bitter people.

    My whole plan is, of course, subject to the caveats that (1) you don’t want to do this in some dark and deserted place. Fortunately, in India it is never deserted. And (2) you don’t want to be so grossly unfair as to bring the wrath of the crowd upon you. But no rickshaw driver is going to run after you on the grounds that you only paid him the normal price, rather than the grossly inflated white person price. And the law isn’t on their side because they’re supposed to be running the meter and because Indian policemen loath Indians.

    Also, you have to have the correct change with you and you have to know the appropriate fare for the place you are going. The latter doesn’t take too long to get figured out. But getting change in India is really difficult. I mean, heaven help you if you’ve just been to the ATM and all you have are 500 rupee bills (~$12). Those you can really only use at a bustling establishment, like a McDonald’s or a store being run by Sikhs or Marwaris (they’re like the Jews/Chinese people/Lebanese of South Asia). Maybe Gujaratis. But, in general, no one ever has change.

    Liet motif of time in India: Poor people’s fundamental problem = not enough money.”

  15. I feel bad for you. Really. Please don’t come back to our part of the world. We clearly don’t deserve you. We suck.

  16. Stealing should not be tolerated anywhere by anyone. Even if some don’t have as much as others it still gives them NO right to steal to get more.

    My wife just told me of a preschool situation. A family we know was out of work and thus got an incredibly cheap tuition rate for their son. The husband found work and rather than telling the school and thus paying the going rate they just kept mum in order to keep the cheap rate. Stealing. It’s just not the right thing to do, no matter who you are, where you are, or how much or little you have.

  17. I concur with MikeinNYC that there’s a critical difference between actual stealing and price variations, and especially agree with his point that price variations happen in the States at nearly every level.
    I live in California, and the closer you are to the beach, the more you are charged for EVERYTHING; housekeeping, landscape maintenance, gas, pool maintenance, food, etc. Not for any other reason than it is perceived that you can afford it/the market will bear higher prices in these neighborhoods.
    This is certainly not 3rd world-invented rip-off scheme.

    I actually find the behavior of Mark’s friend in India to be offensive. Why should you pay the local price? The locals pay the local price because they earn the local wage, which is probably next-to-nothing. You can and should pay the extra 30 cents or whatever meaningless amount you are being “overcharged”. It means nothing to you and maybe an extra meal for their families. This is not to say anyone should tolerate actual theft.

  18. Worst one I ever had was checking into a hotel in Luanda, Angola.

    Arrived at the hotel, and the front desk agents and manager insisted that I must pay upfront for the two days prior to my actual arrival date the full fee just for the privilage of them having held the room for me.
    The amount was somewhat in the area of $500 US per night.

    Once my Angolan agent got involved, however, the “fee” magically disappeared. Amazing how when you are standing out, you are marked for a ripoff.

    Nigeria, however, recently was surprisingly honest in all the business transactions I had from street vendors to hotels, to corporations.

    1. Thanks for all the great comments, folks!!

      I really don’t mind the “tourist prices” too much, so long as I think I’m getting an appropriate value for my money. If I’m supposed to haggle to get that then I can play along a bit, though I’m not good at it and I don’t really enjoy it. I know that I still overpaid for a kilim in Turkey, but my version of the negotiation was quite different than most and it was ultimately successful in that I got the kilim and the guy got my money and neither of us felt too bad about the situation (that I can tell). I am not a hug fan of the haggle and I won’t engage just for fun, but if I want to buy something I know going in what the price is supposed to be and what I should be getting in exchange for that cash. I have no problems with that arrangement, even knowing that I’m working from a disadvantageous position. Like I said originally, I know that I’m rich in nearly every sense of the word and I don’t mind paying the agreed upon rate, but that’s where I draw the line.

      To the point about simply paying what you know the proper fare to be (Mark’s friend’s story), I’m not a fan of that approach. I’ve been in similar situations before, mostly in Egypt, but I’ve always stated quite clearly what I expected to pay upon arrival. If they fought with me at that point it was their problem, but I make it very clear what I’m going to pay. If they don’t like it they can refuse the fare; some do and that’s not a problem under my “full disclosure” version of operating.

      And, yes, Oliver, the prices tourists pay in NYC are far too high. But if you can figure out how to get out of Times Square things become much more reasonable. Heck, even as a local I have to suffer those inflated prices when I’m working up near there.

      And thanks for letting me vent, everyone. I feel much better now. 🙂

  19. When less-developed locales figure out that integrity comes first, they will make strides toward becoming less-developed. If a culture makes a conscious effort to be fair and honest with its tourists (we in the US included) the money will come honestly, but it might come slower. Slower, yes, but arguably more sustained based on a better reputation. I’d rather grow slow and sure if I’m a tourism-involved business, since the flipside is much less pleasant.

  20. FYI-

    In India, they don’t call them tuk tuks- while your story link doesn’t seem to be working, I’m presuming you’re referring to a “3-wheeler”/”auto-rikshaw”.

  21. stop being a CHEAP BASTARD and pay the locals a bit more. Why are you complaining about being shorted $10 when your going to spend 10x that amount next week on a whore when your wife’s not looking? Your rant does not make any sense to me. You’re on vacation, live a little Mr. Wilson

  22. You should just sit at home and save your hard earned money. Getting stiffed sometimes is called being a tourist in a 3rd world country. And stop wasting our reading time with your mr. cheapo stories you sorry old fuck

  23. Disagree with the “it’s OK because the locals are poor”. The price is the price. It’s not contingent on how much we earn. As a “foreigner” you paid for a visa, airline ticket, airline taxes, hotel room and hotel taxes. Everyone’s money is the same.

    MikeInNYC is 100% correct.
    > All of this transpires in the first world as well, but we slap a fancy name on it (like “preferred customer” or “elite member”) and twenty pages of “Terms and Conditions” to make it okay.

    Obviously this is something that has room for improvement is many places on earth, emerging markets and developed (deteriorating) nations alike.

    1. I don’t mind the different prices for locals. I wholly support foreigners paying the ridiculously high rates at the major tourist sites and such to help support the heritage of these destinations while the locals can visit for relative pennies. That’s not my problem at all. But when my driver tried to charge me the tolls he was supposed to be paying and then short-changed me his tip dropped in a hurry. He lost a lot more money than the few rupees he tried to scam. Maybe enough other folks just don’t care so the numbers work out in their favor over the long term. That certainly would be disappointing but it is the only way I can figure out that this makes sense to them.

  24. I have to agree with Seth. It is crazy to be charged more than an agreed upon price or even a posted price, that is thievery.

    I also disagree with the assumption that because you make more, you should pay more. I don’t care if you think I am the biggest cheapskate in the world – I may be, but getting overcharged is infuriating especially if you are charged even more than a similar item or service would cost at home.

    Wherever I travel, I try to go to places off the beaten path and avoid chain hotels like the plague . This usually provides a good bit of insurance against getting ripped off It also pays to know the local language.

  25. What happened is wrong but probably no avoiding it also. Any body would be pissed. There can be no way to justify that what happened is right.

  26. I’m with Seth – you can’t justify stealing. Who gets to decide if a person is “poor enough” to get away with it? At what point does the dollar amount become unjustifiable?

    If one of the folks in the tourist area needs more money, then charge more and see if anyone buys it. Plus often the clerk ripping off the customer isn’t the shop owner – likely the owner is getting ripped off as well.

    I found Japan to be one of the best places to visit, in terms of not having as much of that sort of thing to hassle with. Inflated prices for tourist areas or for “convenience” of course exist everywhere.

  27. Your comment about “I look white, tall, and healthy” is totally uncalled for and reflects on your limited IQ and knowledge despite your tall (pun intended) claims of having travelled around the world. Are you implying that people in Asia & Africa are short, dark and unhealthy. They are people of that classification in all possible countries of the world. I have couple of Armenian friends too and they never classify themselves as white but rather fair skinned. And that’s what you would be considered in the US, not necessarily a caucasian – the difference is pretty obvious. I have seen whiter than white Chinese girls here in the US and I wouldn’t start classifying them as white because their classification is Oriental. So stop dreaming and accept and admit your real self buddy!!

    1. Yes, Jack, I am stating unequivocally that as a tall, white guy I look very different than 99%+ of the other folks around me. Has nothing to do with race or heritage, just appearances. And, for better or worse, I believe that skews the interaction I had with the various merchants during the trip.

  28. I try not to let it get to me but I would be lying if I said it didn’t. Since you pretty much have to haggle for EVERYTHING it wears you down after awhile.

    I want to say that this really doesn’t have to do with feeling cheap. On my last trip to W Africa, compared to locals I probably paid ~$1 more for various purchases in the markets, and $5-10 more for transport and guesthouses. I know I got poor exchange rates when I changed money. I accepted it too many times when vendors didn’t have change. If I had to guess I probably overpaid ~$100 during my 2 week trip. This obviously isn’t breaking the bank.

    But to me it is the principal of it. I met lots of very kind-hearted and generous locals, and there were lots of vendors/merchants/service providers who were honest in their dealings with me. It kind of galls me that the people who benefited most from my visit were the ones that were the most dishonest toward me, and who saw me as nothing more than a cash machine. The extra $5 I paid to the dishonest cabbie won’t make a difference in my life, but it is not an insignificant amount of money over there. The dishonest ones benefited materially off of me, and I hate thinking that they were “rewarded” for their behavior.

    Next time I think I will try Mark’s method. Even when I don’t have a good handle on local prices it is pretty easy to tell when you are being gorged.

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