Frequent Flyer Club

Ways You're Getting Ripped Off When You Travel Abroad

Chiang Mai, north Thailand
Chiang Mai, Thailand | Henn Photography/Cultura/Getty Images
Chiang Mai, Thailand | Henn Photography/Cultura/Getty Images

People go to extraordinary lengths to save up for a Big Trip. There are the small things -- like taking a miserable ham sandwich to work every day instead of eating out, or letting your hair grow a little more shaggy between cuts -- and there are the big things, like trading your car for one that only runs downhill, or raiding your grandma’s piggy bank while she’s busy making the meatloaf.

You know all the sites for finding cheap flights, and that you’ll get the best deals off season. But take one step off the plane and suddenly you’re the sucker paying $12 for a watered-down lemonade, or blowing the week’s budget on a sachet of “medicinal” seeds.

Most people you encounter abroad are honest (we think), but there are countless scams and rackets out there, specifically designed to relieve you of your hard-earned dosh. So we quizzed industry experts and pro travelers -- people who really know their rand from their rupee -- on the key rip-offs to watch out for abroad.

You're paying fees to your US bank

Imagine that someone stops you at the airport and demands 3% of everything you spend while you’re away. Now imagine that person is a zillionaire banker, with a diamond-studded monocle and tailored suit made entirely of $100 bills. Presumably, once you’ve gotten a selfie, you’d say something like “Pff! Nice try, now sod off before I set you alight.”

And yet, 3% is what you’re giving away if you use a regular bank card abroad. Tim Leffel, the brains behind the Cheapest Destinations blog, says “get a credit card with no transaction fees and a debit card that doesn't charge you on top of the local bank fee. The best ones are from Fidelity and Schwab, because they actually reimburse that local bank fee, too.”

You're booking all your activities in advance

If you’re the kind of person that insists on having your travel itinerary mapped out, printed and laminated before you go, you can stop reading this now and get back to your spreadsheet. For everyone else, Anne Lowrey of Part-Time Traveler has some sage advice. “If you organize an experience in advance, you don’t always get the best deal,” she says. “It varies case-by-case of course, but I saw this recently on a trip to Kerala, India. You can book a boat trip around the backwaters online, but you get a much better price if you’re willing to shop around in person. There are so many boats available, even in high season.”

You get hammered on the exchange rate

Here’s one for Captain Obvious: don’t exchange or withdraw money at the airport, lest you get smacked with ludicrous fees and lousy exchange rates at places like Travelex. Head for an ATM at a reputable bank in town instead, and try to locate it without miming “I’m about to take out a shitload of easily-stealable cash” to too many strangers along the way. You’ll save about 10% on every dollar for your efforts.

If you pay by card in shops and restaurants, the card machine might ask if you’d like to pay in local or home currency. “Always go local,” says Holly Johnson of Club Thrifty. “If you pay in USD, you’re basically allowing them to set the exchange rate” -- and frankly, they can’t be trusted. Watch out for this trick everywhere you go, especially at duty-free.

You're going to the wroooong restaurants

It’s a hard and fast rule of broke-ass travelers the world over: Come dinner time, veer off the main tourist strips. It’s really not hard to identify a “tourist restaurant” -- they’re the ones with pictures of abnormally bright food on their bilingual menus, and hawkers on the street in polyester waistcoats. They’re also the ones packed with, yeah, tourists, balancing DSLRs on the bread baskets. Tim Leffel says, quite simply, “Don't eat there,” because you’ll be paying the highest price for the most mediocre lasagne in town. Even “under the radar” spots in your Lonely Planet guidebook will likely be marked up. And cafes in famous, heavily touristed areas like St. Mark's in Venice or Prague’s Old Town Square will slap you with a fee just to sit there.

That’s the baseline when it comes to eating out, but there are sneaky tricks to watch out for too. “If ordering a bottle of wine, make sure they open it at your table,” is the advice from the vacation experts at STA Travel. “If it’s already uncorked, you can’t be 100% sure what’s in it or if it’s good quality.” And always read the label, not just to impress your date by seeming interested in the vintage and terroir. “If there are any typos, it might be fake alcohol,” says STA.

Medu Vada
Medu Vada, a savory snack from South India | Rahul Dsilva/Shutterstock

You're eating gross recycled oil

When it comes to street food, there are two main rules, says STA Travel: “Go to a cart making dishes to order, or find one with a line long enough that you know it must be good.” But watch out for vendors taking cost-saving shortcuts too. “The cooking oil should be light yellow. If it’s dark brown, it’s likely to be recycled ‘gutter oil.’” Some vendors even bleach waste oil so that it looks golden, but “it still has a tell-tale chemical taste or rancid smell,” STA says. Bon appétit.

You're spending a small fortune on phone data and calls

Alright, so you really want to upload that video of you riding an ostrich for six glorious seconds, but if you haven’t got a deal on cheap phone data abroad, it’s going to cost you a whole lot more than your dignity. At the very least, call your plan provider before you leave and sign up for the best international package for your needs (just don’t forget to cancel it when you come back). James Feess (aka The Savvy Backpacker), suggests switching to T-Mobile or Sprint, because “they both offer free data to their customers, and it automatically connects when you arrive.” There’s a drawback though: “The data isn't fast. It's usually 2G and sometimes 3G -- just enough to do the basics.”

If you want fast speeds without paying a fortune, he recommends buying a SIM card and short-term data plan from the country you're visiting. “It's not too crazy a process, assuming you can get past the language barrier,” he says.

Grand Bazzar, Istanbul
Grand Bazzar, Istanbul | Cheryl-Ann Tan/Moment Open/Getty Images

You're not haggling hard enough

“Too many people are scared of bartering, but it’s completely acceptable in many cultures,” Anne Lowrey says. “It takes a bit of back-and-forth, but I think of it as a fun game. I usually try to reduce their asking price by around 30%.” Her top tips? “Never act like you want the item, find out a fair price for the item ahead of time, and be willing to walk away.”

It’s not just limited to marketplaces and street fairs, says Monica Stott of The Travel Hack: “You can negotiate the price of taxis, tours, experiences, hotels… basically anything you buy directly from a vendor. If you're staying in a hotel for more than three or four nights, ask for a discount or even your fifth night for free. The worst that can happen is they'll only chuck in a voucher for the hotel bar.”

You're tipping too much

Americans are far (far, far, far) from perfect, but one thing we do well is tip. In fact, we’re the most generous tippers in the whole world. But don’t assume the wait staff are paid so pitifully by their employers that they rely on your goodwill. “Research the local tipping customs before you go, or ask around when you arrive,” says Feess. “In some countries, you’re not expected to tip at all, and in other places the tip is usually included in the check. You don’t want to waste money tipping twice, or giving way too much.”

Bangkok, Thailand
Bangkok, Thailand | 304651610/Shutterstock

You fall for taxi scams

There are so many taxi and Uber scams out there, we’ve got a whole other story for ‘em. But, the basic gist is “never, ever get into a taxi without first agreeing on a price or asking for the meter -- period,” says Jackie Nourse, who has spent 15 years on the road as The Budget Minded Traveler. Even if the meter is on, you’ve still got to have your wits about you -- some crooked drivers rig their machines to tick up too quickly. Expert Vagabond Matt Karsten suggests that before you hail a cab, you “ask the hotel or hostel front desk for an estimate of how much the ride should cost, so you know you’re not being ripped off.”

Stick to the official, city-sponsored taxis, or a trusted ride-share brand. Believe it or not, even Uber isn’t everywhere (yet). Raymond Walsh at The Stingy Traveler says “it’s worth checking for local alternatives and downloading the apps before you go. Go-Jek is big in Indonesia, there’s Careem in the UAE and Pakistan, and Grab throughout most of Asia.”

Your hotel is bleeding you dry

We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through the hotel options online, and you find one that looks nicer than you can afford, and you can just about afford it. But the headline price is just the beginning, warns Tim Leffel. “You'll pay more for parking, more for everything in the minibar, more for the taxi outside, more at the bar and restaurants, and probably some heinous ‘resort fee’ to use the pool and spa you thought were included. Oh, and don't forget to tip the doorman AND the bellman.” On the upside, you’ll probably get a free USB stick, left over from 2004. Instead, decide which amenities you can comfortably give up, and book a room that falls comfortably within your budget. Because even that will likely turn out less comfortable than you expect.

You’re just not being nice enough

Jackie Nourse has one simple tip: be friendly. “Don’t act like you’re entitled to anything when you are in a new culture. A little bit of kindness goes a long way, and it will save you money in all kinds of situations.” N.B. you should probably always be nice, even if you’re not getting any material gain. At least, that’s what my parole officer told me.

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Jonathan Melmoth is a travel writer for Thrillist, who wishes he'd read this article *before* that time in Marrakech. Find out if he's actually started using Instagram yet @MisterMoho.