11 Common Travel Scams And How To Avoid Them

by Shelli Stein

We think we may be savvy when it comes to travel scams and how to avoid them. Maybe we even have our own tips to avoid travel scams. However, since the busy travel season is upon us, reviewing the most common scams and offering tips to avoid travel scams can’t hurt, right? After all, these scams happen to the best of us.

There are travel scams and then there are…travel scams. You don’t need to fall victim to any of them. Knowledge is power, so here are some of the most common scams you’re likely to deal with. The more you know about these scams, the less likely you’ll fall for them.

1. Broken Taxi Meter

Taxi drivers near airports or train stations are known to pull this scam, but it can happen anywhere. When you get into a taxi and start to drive, the driver will inform you that the meter is broken and charge you a ridiculous price. This can also happen at the end of a taxi ride, which is what happened to me once in Budapest. The driver never told me the meter was broken until he got to my hotel. Luckily, I asked the concierge at my hotel to please handle this for me and it ended up working out.

How To Avoid It:

Negotiate rates ahead of time, or ensure the meter is in fact working before you get in the car. If the taxi driver refuses to turn on the meter, or tells you it’s cheaper without the meter, get out and opt for another driver. I’ve also asked the driver to write down the price for me before getting in the taxi. Of course, not all taxi drivers are scammers.

2. Overbooked or Closed Hotel

Park South_Guest Room_Executive 7 CRPD900x590

Your hotel probably didn’t burn down overnight…

Again, this common hotel travel scam happens largely with taxi drivers. While en route to your hotel, the driver will tell you your hotel is either closed or overbooked and then take you to a more expensive hotel where the driver receives a commission. I’ve never had this hotel horror happen to me, though I’ve heard stories where taxi drivers tell tourists their hotel is a bad one, or that it’s closed.

How To Avoid It:

This may seem obvious, but call your hotel in advance and make sure they’re open. Ask if they offer shuttle service and then schedule a pickup. If your taxi driver still tells you the hotel is not available, insist that he take you there anyway. Tell him you already have a reservation, even if you don’t.

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3. Free Bracelets or Rosemary Sprigs

Female travelers seem to be the target for this scam. A friendly man or woman will approach to chat, then place a “free” friendship bracelet on your wrist, or hand you a sprig of rosemary for good luck. Once you have it, they will demand money. When you refuse, they will begin to cause a scene.

How To Avoid It:

Don’t allow anyone to put anything on your body, and be extremely wary of accepting anything for free unless there is a good reason for it. Especially in very touristy areas. Ignore them and keep walking.

4. Spills on Clothing

Common in Europe, a traveler walks down the street and feels something plop on their shoulder, often times bird poop or a fast-food condiment. Then, a friendly stranger approaches and begins to wipe off the mess while taking your wallet from your pocket or purse.

How To Avoid It:

The best thing to do in situations like this is to not allow someone to help you. Instead, go to a restroom and clean the mess off yourself.

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5. Fake Police Officers

Spanish police, as well as others in Europe, have the right to ask you to produce identification at any time.

Distinguish between real and fake police

The fake police officer scam is a popular one in many large cities. Most often, a person will approach a tourist and offer illicit items, like drugs. While talking with you, one or two other people will approach, appearing to be police officers and flashing “badges.” They will then insist the unknowing traveler hand over their passport and wallet. However, they are not police officers.

How To Avoid It:

Never hand over your wallet or passport. Request they show you their identification and then inform them you will call the police to confirm they are who they say they are. Or tell them your passport is locked up in the hotel safe, and they’ll need to accompany you to your hotel. If they don’t go with you, simply walk away.

6. Friendly ATM Helper

Someone approaches at an ATM cash machine to help you avoid local bank fees. What they really want to do is scan your ATM card with the card skimmer in their pocket and watch you enter your pin number so they can drain your account later.

How To Avoid It:

I had a wild experience at an ATM in Rome. It involved a lot of screaming on my part and is a story best told in another post! Never let anyone near you while you’re making an ATM transaction, and ALWAYS cover the number pad with your other hand while entering your pin code. If someone approaches, take your card and find another ATM.

7. Group Photo Offer

While hanging out in a busy tourist location or at a landmark, a local offers to take a group photo of you and your friends. As you’re getting ready to pose for your photo, you look up and realize your new friend has completely disappeared with your expensive camera.

How To Avoid It:

This one is tough because you really need to read the situation. I’ve handed my camera to other people for a group photo. But it’s always me asking them for the favor, not them offering out of the blue. Busy city attractions are the most risky places for this. If you have to, ask fellow tourists instead and return the favor for them.

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8. Fake WiFi Hubs

These days you can find WiFi almost anywhere, but some of those free unlocked connections might be dangerous. Hackers will set up tempting unsecured wifi hotspots in public locations that unsuspecting victims connect to, thus giving the thief access to your computer, passwords, online accounts, and more.

How To Avoid It:

Always ask the hotel/coffee shop/airport staff which wifi connection is the official one. Do this especially when you see a tempting unlocked connection. To encrypt all your online activity, use a VPN, or virtual private network. I use one called ExpressVPN, and love it.

9. Fake Bus/Train/Plane Tickets

a close up of a ticket

Someone offers to sell you train tickets at a discount. Or so you can avoid the lines, they’ll sell you a ticket for a slightly higher price. Maybe a taxi driver offers to bring you to his friend who’s a local travel agent. However, the tickets they are selling aren’t real, and by the time you figure it out, the scammers are gone with your money.

How To Avoid It:

Always buy transportation tickets from the official ticket office or website. A good deal can sometimes end up being a real bad deal!

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10. Fake Hotel Wakeup Call

While staying at a hotel, you get a call from the front desk in the middle of the night to confirm your credit card details. Only it isn’t the front desk calling, it’s a scammer who will drain your accounts and then make a copy of your credit card using the details you give them over the phone.

How To Avoid It:

Never give out credit card details over the phone. Go down to the front desk in person the next morning if there is a problem.

11. Fraudulent Currency Exchanges

You arrive in a new destination and one of the first things you’ll do is exchange currency. Inevitably someone comes up to you saying they know the most cost-efficient place to do so. Who doesn’t want the best exchange rate, right? Then, that “helpful” person either gives you counterfeit bills, or demands a hefty exchange rate.

How To Avoid It:

To get the best bang for your buck, only exchange money from banks or trusted locations, or order money before your trip from your bank back home.

The Upshot

I’m sure there are other travel scams out there, and unfortunately new ones being created every day. However, tips to avoid travel scams help. The truth is that no matter how prepared you think you are, or what you know about how to avoid travel scams, you’ll eventually fall for some sort of travel scam.

But don’t let this keep you from traveling the world. Think of it as a rite of passage, even if an unpleasant one. There are always worse things that could happen! If there are scams I didn’t mention that you’ve had experience with, share them so we can all learn from them.

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Jeremiah April 23, 2019 - 2:26 pm

>To get the best bang for your buck, only exchange money from banks or trusted locations, or order money before your trip from your bank back home.

To get the best bang for your buck, use an ATM with a bank card that doesn’t charge a fee for using an out-of-network overseas ATM and will ideally refund any fees charged by the ATM. Changing cash or ordering money from you bank is falling for a different kind of travel scam, at least if you have the option to use an option that’s cheaper and will give you a better exchange rate.

Lucas April 23, 2019 - 2:44 pm

Here’s an Italian scam I unfortunately fell for even though I am quite attentive with these:
Official rental vehicle, reached the airport, fixed fair price. I had the money in hand and offered to pay. The driver insisted I pay with card (in a friendly manner, but still). I had a momentary loss of brain (can’t call it otherwise) and agreed. He did the correct moves (legit POS, right amount) but at the end somehow pressed the red button on the POS which issued a receipt as if the transaction had been refused.
Very politely, he asked whether I could nonetheless pay with cash, which I did. Of course, at the end of the day I had paid twice (once the official card payment and the double that he could pocket).
Moral of the story: if you have exact cash, use it. Nobody has the right to deny payment in their own currency.

Shelli April 23, 2019 - 2:50 pm

That’s quite a story, Lucas. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll certainly be more aware of this scam when I travel and hope other readers make note of this, too.

Tom April 23, 2019 - 3:34 pm

This is depressing — I often offer to take photos of other people. It just seems like a kind thing to do. What a bummer that people take advantage of what should just be a natural kindness.

Shelli April 23, 2019 - 3:46 pm

Well said, Tom. I agree. Thanks for reading!

Tony April 23, 2019 - 10:26 pm

Use a VPN. It’s worth it – especially when you’re traveling. I used ExpressVPN before I went to China and it was a gamechanger.

addhyanastro April 24, 2019 - 12:54 am

Always book through a verified travel agent and further self responsibilities should be mind while travelling.

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