i.e. How not to be a sucker when you're travelling...
If you're travelling for more than a few weeks then chances are you'll probably get ripped off at least a couple of times. But if you go prepared then hopefully you'll avoid most of the more common tricks people use to separate you from your hard earned money.
The first thing you need to get your head around is the idea that in most parts of the world tourists are thought of as walking wallets. And this is usually because that's what they act like! So don't take it personally. Its not that everyone in foreign countries are out to rip you off, only some of them are. Unfortunately they just all happen to hang out in the places most tourists want to see! So be on your guard, particularly in main tourist spots.
What to look out for
So what exactly do you have to look out for? Well, we can't warn you of all the traps out there, but the following examples should give you an idea of the kind of things to be looking out for in different areas. Most of these are annoying little things but if you're aware of them in advance then they don't have to be annoying to you. You may not encounter many of these, although as you'll see, if you go to Egypt you're bound to come across a few!
1. Restaurant extras
Many restaurants, particularly in the Middle East, will put various extra things on your table that you didn't order, like breads, and bottled water. You'll probably assume they're complimentary, but then when you go to pay for your meal you find they're charging you extra for each extra item you ate or used.
2. Restaurant communication difficulties
We found lots of restaurants in our travels where we might order two dishes from their menu, one for each of us. But then they bring out two for each of us and charge us double. If there is ever any possibility of a communication difficulty then you can generally expect the restaurant will make whatever mistake results in you paying them more.
3. Extra taxes
It can be worth either paying for your accommodation when you check-in, or specifically asking them if there are any extra fees beyond what you have been told. We once stayed at a place in Aqaba in Jordan where we had agreed the price in advance, but when we went to pay on check-out the owner charged us an extra 15% or so as a "tourist tax". He was adamant all the Aqaba hotels charge the tax, but we could have avoided the trouble if we'd paid on check-in. You also have to look out for extra taxes if you're using online booking systems like www.hotwire.com as some of these sites have the extra charges in fine print so you might not find out about them until the hotel asks you to pay the extra. You also need to look out for extra taxes in the United States, as it varies from state to state whether prices include tax or not. So don't be surprised if that super awesome $1 Junior Whopper actually costs you $1.12 or something. Completely ridiculous system if you ask me, but they didn't ask me so I guess they'll never know...
4. Luggage fees on buses
In lots of countries, particularly in Europe, you get charged extra per bag for any luggage you have. This is in addition to your ticket and you don't find out about it until you go to put your luggage on the bus. In Europe this is typically one or two Euro. If you can fit all your luggage in one bag then its probably worth doing it.
5. Buses where you don't know the fare
Often if you take public transport in countries where you don't speak the language, you don't exactly know what the normal fare is. If this happens it is easy for the fare collector to take advantage of you and charge you heaps extra. To combat this it is good to ask fellow passengers what the fare is before you have to pay. And if you think you know the fare, then instead of asking the fare collector how much the fare is, just try paying that much and see what happens.
6. Unscrupulous drivers
It is always best to either agree the fare with a driver before you get in their vehicle, or to agree they'll use the taxi meter (if it has one). But what happens when you get to your destination and they change the deal? When you're in a taxi or minivan or water taxi or other similar mode of transport its easy to feel entirely at the mercy of the driver. Early on in our travels we got ripped off by a water taxi driver who charged us double at the end of our trip saying the price we'd agreed was per person, rather than for both of us together. We decided we'd better pay to make sure we got back to shore okay. Later on in our travels however we'd become more difficult to rip off. An Egyptian van driver tried to offload us onto another van and driver for the second part of our trip, and we knew that the second driver was going to want payment as well. So we refused to get out of the first van until our first driver had paid the second driver our share of the fare and we were sure it was all clearly sorted. If you put up a fight most drivers will come to the conclusion that its not worth the hassle to rip off this tourist.
7. Corrupt Authorities
Just because someone has a uniform on doesn't mean you can trust them. Corruption is epidemic in many less developed countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. In many cases police or other authorities will be making money on the side such as taking bribes or other dodgy dealings. In some countries like Egypt, there are special police called Tourist Police. It is their job to look out for the tourists and make sure people aren't ripping them off. In practice however, many of the Tourist Police are corrupt and it is them who are the ones that rip the tourists off! There's not a lot you can do about this, except to be aware of it and try to avoid the Tourist Police where possible. At Mount Sinai for example, the Tourist Police try to force you to hire a guide to lead you up the mountain. Its a really simple walk and only a couple hours long on a well defined path, so you'd be doing well to get lost! They use shouting and intimidation but we found if you put up enough resistance they'll let you go without one. Presumably they get rewarded by the guides for their efforts. If you think this page has too much about Egypt then I'm very sorry, but that is where all the best examples were that we came across! For example, at the border crossing into Egypt, along with the immigration and customs people there was an official looking transport desk set up where people were telling us that the bus to Cairo was not running but not to worry, we could take one of their limousines there for just the cost of a heart transplant! Welcome to Egypt!
Markets can be a bit intimidating when you're new to travel, but once you get the hang of how things work its not so bad. In most tourist markets you can expect to be badgered continuously by stall owners wanting you to come and look at their products. Obviously its different from place to place, but in the Middle East especially people will try to strike up a conversation with you. They're very good at taking advantage of how polite most tourists are, but if you reply to their questions or even make contact they'll be all over you and make it very difficult for you to walk away. The best strategy we found in most cases was to completely ignore people's attempts at conversation. Our friends found that replying in Spanish usually worked pretty well too. Although I'm not sure that would work so well in South American markets... It gets much harder if you actually are interested in buying something. Then you have to haggle.
9. Tourist prices
There are loads of places in the world where you will be charged more for stuff just because you're a tourist. In poor countries this is understandable to some extent in some situations, as the locals can't afford as much, but it can get really frustrating when you go to a bakery and they try to charge you five times the normal price for something. The best defense against this is to get to know what the numbers look like in the local language so you can read the price lists yourself and then refuse to pay more than what it says. Some shops increase their prices when certain tour groups come in. If you're not on a tour then make sure the shop isn't charging you extra because they think you're with a tour that is also in the same shop at the same time. They charge extra presumably because they give a commission back to the tour operator, so if you're not on the tour then they won't usually intentionally charge you extra.
It can be really annoying to haggle with a stall holder (or van driver!) until you get a good price, but if you accept their price after only half a minute or so, then chances are you're getting seriously ripped off. Many tourists think that if you get the item for half the stall owner's first price then you're doing really well, but in Egypt we found many stall holders would start at more like ten times the fair price. The trick is to look at the object carefully and think to yourself how much you would pay for something like that at home. Is it really good quality or is it really just a piece of junk pretending to be good quality? Could you get something similar from the $2 shop back home? If they say they'll sell it to you for $10, try offering them $1 for it. They'll pretend to be highly insulted, but its all just part of the game of haggling. When it comes to markets its very important to not be overly polite. Remember, they won't sell it to you if they're really making a loss. And they've been haggling for a lot longer than you have so you don't have to worry about ripping them off. Its not going to happen!
11. Hard selling
Then Brent was attacked by a small child (we could not tell if it was a boy or a girl). We would not give it money so he jabbed Brent with a pencil. Then he started chasing us but I told him we would get the police which seemed to make him go away.
Then again at the end of the day we were being harrassed by a driver for a taxi tour. He chased us across the street and then followed us down the road. He just kept following us and pulling at Brent so finally I turned round and yelled at him which I felt bad about but made him go away. These people just do not take no for an answer!"