EDITOR’S NOTE: To understand scams is to also understand your privilege of flying around the world to see something new, just for fun. While it’s important to be aware and you have every right to protect yourself financially, also know that you are incredibly fortunate to be traveling in nations where locals often have to hustle to stay fed. Don’t overdramatize getting burnt for five dollars here or there — it’s part of the travel experience and part of what it means to travel in areas where people are struggling.
Most of all, don’t allow your experiences to leave you jaded (or prone to generalizations) about the people you meet.
–Steve Bramucci, Editor, Uproxx Travel
Travel’s one of the best things you can do for yourself, which is one reason we are so damn enthusiastic about it ’round these parts. Unfortunately, travel isn’t sheer, unadulterated good times 24/7. There are people who prey on unsuspecting tourists, and fear of being the next person targeted keeps some people from giving into the wanderlust that thrums in their travel-loving hearts. We think this is a freaking shame because often a little research and know-how are enough to avoid negative situations.
In hopes of helping you get more out of travel, we reached out to some people we admire and follow avidly on social media: Charlie and Lauren, the couple behind the awesome travel blog Wanderers and Warriors. Raised in the same UK town, Charlie and Lauren lived parallel lives. They went to the same school and had friends in common, but never spoke to one another. Charlie was preoccupied with his family’s boxing gym and a burgeoning boxing career, and Lauren was living a traditional life that left her somewhat unfulfilled. Ultimately, Charlie was encouraged by his family to travel up the East Coast of Australia for three months, before accepting a professional boxing contract. Lauren followed by booking a spontaneous trip to Australia, finding the purpose for which she’d been searching.
When the pair crossed paths at a local shopping center in their hometown, they finally spoke, and boy, did they have a lot to talk about. They began making plans for adventures and taking small trips while in Oz, and now, their shared morals, values, and love of adventure have cemented a lasting relationship. Together the duo has traveled to Bali, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand — staying for lengthy periods and creating blog posts to help fellow adventurers make the most of their time in these destinations.
When we approached them to speak with us about travel scams and how to avoid them, they graciously agreed to help. Speaking to us from Bali, Charlie and Lauren led us through a list of things for warning signs to look out for abroad (and at home). Read through them and hop in the comments with any advice you have for traveling safely.
Don’t Automatically Believe Your Accommodations Disappeared
Charlie: One of the first travel scams that comes to mind is being told your accommodation doesn’t exist. We touched down in India and got bombarded with people asking if we wanted taxis, where we were going, and what we wanted to do. We obviously told them no, we’ve already got a hotel booked. As soon as you name the hotel, they tell you, “Oh no, that one’s burnt down or…”
Lauren: “It doesn’t exist.”
Charlie: That one doesn’t exist, or bad things happen at that hotel. Yeah, it got quite bad at some point. One guy even told us, “Two tourists died at that hotel last week.”
Lauren: For me, I was like “Oh my God, two tourists died there last week. We can’t go there, Charlie. We cannot go there.” Charlie was like, “No, no, look. He’s obviously sayin’ it because he’s making some kind of commission.” So we carried on, and everything was fine.
Charlie: We always tell people: book your accommodation in advance. Get it marked on your map, and if you want someone to take you there, make sure they take you there and not to one of their hotels. Just head straight to where you’re going. You’re gonna know the place you’re heading and at least know that if you booked online that it will be legit. Don’t listen to the first local that tells you to go somewhere else.
Lauren: They get a little bit of a commission I think if they take someone to a hotel. They say, “I brought this person here, so I get 10%.”
Charlie: A lot of hotels in Asia we found out pay off the taxi drivers and tuk-tuk drivers like 10% or 20% of the whole stay. So, if you go there and book like three nights they’re gonna get a decent wage, probably more than their daily wage for their taxi driving. They’ll always try to get you to go to a different hotel.
Beware “Broken” Taximeters
Charlie: Taximeters. It’s a pretty basic one and most people that travel experience this I guess. All of our stuff’s based on Asia because that’s where we spend most of our time. In Asia, taximeters are a big scam. It’s hard to avoid, really. If you’re asking for a taxi in a more westernized Asian country and they have taximeters, make sure they put on the meter.
Lauren: If there is a meter in the car, insist that they put your fare on the meter or walk to another taxi because they are going to try to charge you full price. Always negotiate the price before you sit in the car because as soon as you sit in the car and the doors are locked, you are kind of committed to paying whatever they tell you to pay.
Or, use apps to get around. There is Uber, Gojack, Grab — download them, and try to prearrange transport through there.
Understand The Complex System Involved When Giving Children Money
Charlie: It is really such a shame to see a child begging while you’re traveling. We have done our research and we don’t want to encourage the begging. We take them to shop for some food, or if we have food, we give them whatever we have. They generally don’t want the food, but we don’t give them money.
Lauren: We offered to give up our bags of food, so many times, especially in India. We are trying to feed them — but our research shows that cash ends up going back to some big gang member or something like that. You can’t really avoid it but there’s a desire not to pay into the gangs.
We got told in India if a kid is asking for money, it is either because they are involved in the trafficking of the gangs and have no choice or they are accustomed to tourists giving them money.
Understand That Not All Friendships Are 100% Pure
Charlie: We always tell that to people. You are going to make a lot of good friends traveling. Western friends, Asian friends, whatever, worldwide friends. Sometimes you can get scammed by these friends or other backpackers and travelers. As sad as it is, if you do get turned around they will take it and they will take advantage of it. Lauren has a good example of a guy we met in India.
Lauren: We were staying in a hostel and he was a local Indian guy and we said to him, “We are going out shopping. Blah, blah, blah.” He was so interested that he said, “I will come with you. The locals will charge you more, so I will talk them down and that will make that cheaper.” And we thought, “Wow, that’s such a good idea.” So, we went with him, and looking around we saw a few things and we were going around the market for about an hour.
We got about four items and we realized that it ended up to way more … it would be the same prices as what we would pay at home for clothes. It was really hard to get the money back. He had been telling us higher prices and taking the difference. That was an eye-opener.
Be Knowledgeable About Exchange Rates
Charlie: In Bali, a scam that we have come across was exchange fees. Everybody loses money on exchange, right? It’s impossible to get an even share when you are changing money. Every country that you come to.
We negotiated a price with a guy and it was all good and we handed over the money and switched the money out and then he kind of short-changed us. We were counting it up and we said, “You know, you shortchanged us, however much this is.” And he was like, “That’s our fee.” But the piece of paper we signed didn’t include a fee; it didn’t include a percentage to the worker or anything. In local exchange centers, I feel like they must pocket a couple of notes every time they exchange money.
Lauren: And tourists don’t really realize; they just go to the next exchange.
Charlie: You don’t know the value of the money; you don’t understand the colors of the notes, and you take their word for it. Always check your money when you are doing money exchange. But, even when you are getting a good rate, they still might try and add a percentage on or take a commission. We understand that; that’s how they earn their money, sometimes they do take a commission or a fee.
Make sure you know what fee you are paying first. One guy tried to take like a couple of hundred, and a couple of hundred more, so it added up to like 20-30 English pounds and we are like, “That’s not the fee for changing money over.” If there is going to be a fee on top of the exchange rate, again like the taxi meters, make sure you know everything before you hand any money over.