Every traveler’s worst nightmare is being scammed while on vacation. Luckily, most of the time this does not involve violent robbery, but rather being tricked out of your money by some sort of con. Travelers are usually easy targets because they are unfamiliar with their surroundings and with local practices, but there are some methods that anyone can use to avoid common scams. Of course, it always pays to be aware of your surroundings and to use common sense. A healthy dose of skepticism is also important (but it is equally important not to get carried away and completely distrust every person that you meet).

Here are ideas to help you protect yourself from the most-common travel scams.

Money changing scams

Pile of Euros

Photo: Images_of_Money / Flickr

Often, travelers are most vulnerable when changing their money into the local currency. Changing money outside of a bank can lead to a much better rate of exchange, but it can also make you vulnerable to quick-change artists. This type of con relies on travelers who are unfamiliar with the local currency denominations. For example, bills that are the same color or size can lead to confusion. The money-changer may substitute lower value bills for higher value bills that look very similar. The tourist may not realize this until they have walked away. The best way to avoid this scam is to only change money in reputable banks or to have a trusted local come with you when you are changing money. Someone who does not mind taking the risk to get a better exchange rate should at least be expecting some sort of quick-change con and should demand that the bills be counted into their hand one by one.

Unsolicited advice (commission scams)

Many people who are on the fringes of the tourism industry make money by earning commission for leading tourists to certain hotels, shops, services, or restaurants. This is a rather benign scam, but it can lead to some expensive surprises. Usually, a friendly-acting local (often with great English skills), will approach and make small talk, trying to gain your trust. He or she will then recommend a certain place, perhaps even saying that other choices are “not good” or “not trustworthy.” If you try this recommendation without first checking prices, you may be in for a nasty surprise when the bill comes. To avoid this type of scam, the best policy is simply to be skeptical of anyone who approaches with unsolicited advice. Stick to your plan (go to the places you have pre-selected based on recommendations or guidebook entries). If you really want to try a place that someone you have just met recommends, at least check (and double check) prices before entering, buying or eating anything.

Unlicensed taxis

Taxis on the street

Photo: Kojach / Flickr

Most taxi drivers are honest, but some may try to swindle tourists by taking circuitous routes, by not using meters, or by using meters that have been altered so that they tick up faster than normal. The best way to avoid this type of scam is to take a taxi that is part of a reputable taxi company. You can look for recommendations in guidebooks or on travel sites like Lonely Planet. You should then only take taxis from these recommended companies. In most cities in the world, drivers are required to have a license posted on the dashboard. It can pay to take a quick glance at this license and make sure that the picture matches the driver.

“I don’t have correct change” scams

A related set of scams can happen when a driver or waiter or shop-owner claims that they do not have the correct change. This claim is usually made after you have already eaten or already taken a ride, so you feel obligated to make the payment even even though you will not be getting the correct change in return. The best way to avoid this is to carry smaller denominations of bills so that you can pay the exact amount every time. Most hotels will be willing to change your money from larger bills to smaller bills.


Crowded metro train

Photo: blmurch / Flickr

In certain destinations, unaware tourists are almost guaranteed to have their pockets picked or purses snatched. Pickpockets like to work in crowded areas, on buses and trains, or on crowded sidewalks. A money pouch, worn inside of your clothing, can be useful for avoiding pickpockets. At the very least, don’t hold your money in your back pocket and never flash cash while in a crowded area. Especially savvy travelers will simply keep their cash in their front pocket and keep their hand in that same pocket whenever they are in an area that is filled with people.

Do you have any travel scam stories? Feel free to share your tips for protecting yourself from common travel scams in the comments section.

Josh Lew
Josh Lew
Josh Lew has traveled widely in Asia and the Americas. He has contributed to popular travel sites like Gadling and Brave New Traveler and currently writes a weekly travel column for MNN. His work has also appeared on the websites of CNN and Forbes Magazine.

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