Top holiday scams and how to avoid them

Date Posted: 24/12/2012

The pros of travelling definitely outweigh the cons, but that doesn’t mean group travel organisers should throw caution to the wind when exploring new places.  Here are some top travel scams to look out for.

While the language barrier and the cultural sites are exciting, they also open up travellers to scam artists and petty thieves. During a group holiday, many of us are already distracted, so adding a new place and big crowds only further overloads the senses, making it difficult to keep eyes peeled for cons and 'overly friendly locals'. You may have a tour manager with you, but ensuring your party are well informed is always a good thing.

Here are five of the worst travel scams out there, including spots where they are most commonly found.

'Señor Sticky Fingers' - Pickpockets
Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain

Pickpockets are no longer limited to the simple 'bump and grab'; their scams and scenarios have greatly diversified. In many instances, pickpockets are working in teams – while one shows you a gold ring or points out mustard on your shirt, another cohort is stealing your wallet.

Keep in mind, though, there are many more things for thieves to steal than simply your wallet. Cameras and smartphones are readily carried by travellers, and they have a high resale value in most cities.

Another popular iteration of this scam is the distraction. A woman will approach you waving a newspaper or asking for help reading something, but under the newspaper, she is palming your iPhone off the café table. It’s important to note that if someone offers you unsolicited help, politely decline and quickly walk away. Always keep the majority of your valuables (passport, important papers, and extra credit cards) in your hotel safe, and make sure to record the serial numbers of any vital electronics that could be stolen, as some cities require a serial number in order to file a police report.

Unfortunately, pickpocketing is a scam that is not limited to one specific destination, but it is rampant in crowded areas with a large number of tourists. Also, while pickpocketing probably exists everywhere, it's common in Barcleona, particularly Las Ramblas, the central pedestrian street that runs from Placa Catalunya through the Gothic Quarter and to the sea.

'He’s Going the Distance' - Gypsy Cabs
Termini Station, Rome, Italy

Taxis are often ground zero for scam artists, since passengers entering taxis have often just arrived in a city or aren’t completely sure how long or how far their destination is from their pickup. Taxi scams can be as simple as drivers being unlicensed to overcharging and 'long hauling', when drivers take a longer route to a destination to increase the fare, which is particularly common in Las Vegas. 

However, there are few rules to follow to make travelling by taxi easier. First, Rome has taxi queues where licensed taxis wait for fares – always use a taxi from one of these lines.

Secondly, if you are leaving your hotel and going to a site, ask the doorman or concierge how much the taxi fare should cost to get to your destination. It’s always good to know what the appropriate cost is for the distance you are traveling. Rome, Italy, is a particularly bad spot for taxi scams, especially near Termini Station.

'The Overly Sympathique Stranger' – Volunteers with Poor Intentions
Gare du Nord Station, Paris, France

When in a country with different currency or a language barrier, a common trick is for 'volunteers' to offer to assist you when making a transaction or using any automated machine. Kind strangers may offer to assist you in buying a week-long ticket, but in fact, they’ll get you a one-time use ticket and pocket the change.

Be wary of any stranger that 'offers' help too easily, particularly in high tourism areas or transportation hubs, such as Paris’s subway and train stations, particular Gare du Nord. If possible, buy transportation tickets in advance or through a window vendor at the station; at the very least, know before you arrive how much the tickets should cost.

'The Palace is NOT closed today' – Tuk Tuk Scammers
Grand Palace area, Bangkok, Thailand

In certain parts of south-east Asia, it's been commonly reported that travellers have been approached by locals claiming that a popular site was closed due to an assortment of excuses, ranging from a religious ceremony, royal function, a Buddhist holiday, or simply for cleaning. These locals steer tourists into a nearby tuk tuk (or rickshaw), offering to take them to a gem factory or another tourist attraction that is open and then return them back to the site once it reopens.

You might find that the approaching locals even appear in some sort of uniform, making their information and suggestions seem more reliable. However, the palace/site/wat is probably not closed today, so before you turn around and embark on a tuk tuk ride to commissioned jewelry stores and tailors, check for yourself. There are numerous reports of this happening at a variety of sites in Bangkok, Thailand including the Grand Palace and Wat Po.

'The Math Genius' – Cash Payment Scams
Istanbul, Turkey & New York City

Sadly, the 'math genius' can be found in a variety of places, and the most common culprits are waiters or taxi drivers, since they’ve already provided you with a service and you need to pay them to exit the situation.

If the scam occurs in a taxi, it usually goes this way: you owe the driver 15 euros, and you pay with a 20 euro bill. He switches out the bill you gave him for a 5 euro bill, which looks quite similar. He holds it up and argues that you owe him 10 more euros. You apologise and give him another 10 euros, and only after exiting the car do you realise you essentially paid twice the taxi fare. 

Almost every traveller has fallen for this trick at some point, just because of exhaustion or being unfamiliar with the local currency. While this can happen everywhere, it is a particularly common problem in Istanbul, Turkey and New York City.

These tips have been collected by members of which is a premier resource for travellers seeking an insider’s perspective.

Photo credit: Artists on Las Ramblas by Steve Tune.


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