It will happen. No matter how much it may hurt the experienced traveler’s pride, being overcharged by a taxi driver is as inevitable as buying a fake Polo or being given the ‘special price’ for the souvenir bracelet because you are so handsome.
My first independent taxi ride occurred in Shanghai. I was eager to test my language skills and looking forward to the adventure of finding my own way. I left front gate of my university and 45 minutes later, was dropped at the back gate. Later I found that I could have walked the distance in about 15 minutes. So began my education.
There are three known ways to be ripped off by a taxi: it is unmetered and you are quoted an exorbitant rate, it is metered and the driver decides to drive you in figure 8’s for an hour, or you are in Washington D.C.
Unless you know the language, the city, and the price scale, avoid unmetered taxis at all costs. First, they are taking business away from those taxi drivers that work within the system. Second, they are dangerous; there is generally no recourse if you have a complaint and there is always a possibility of something more devious occurring (use your imagination). Third, they definitely have the price advantage in this situation.
However, there are times when you will find yourself in a situation where you need a ride and this smiling man sucking on the Russian cigarettes is your only option.
Generally people get ripped off immediately after arriving in a new location. They haven’t been able to get any local advice and they are vulnerable to price gouging. When you first arrive in a new city, particularly in the developing world, you will quickly be approached by eager drivers.
Never go with the first person who approaches you, ignore them, keep walking like you know exactly what you are doing.
Look around and see where the drivers are gathered and stay away, try to stay unnoticed for a few minutes. Use this time to gather your senses, take everything in and formulate your next move. This will also give the drivers time to calm down from the initial rush and poach other unsuspecting tourists ahead of you.
Pick Your Driver
If after evaluating the situation, you decide to use a non-metered taxi (this is never advisable at an airport, as they will always, always have legitimate transportation if you ask around) try to approach a driver who is away from the group or approach one directly at his vehicle. He will be more likely to bargain when he doesn’t have to worry about peer pressure.
Use Your Map
If you have a map, use it! If you can understand exactly where you are and where you want to go, you will be able to estimate the distance which will give you considerable bargaining power. Once you are in the car, pull out the map and follow your route, or at least act like you are following the route.
The driver may assume you know more than you do and this can help convince him to go directly to the destination. I once gave in and jumped in a taxi in Guatemala without fully understanding where I currently was(no street signs) and quickly fell victim to the classic zoning scheme- more on that later.
The Metered Taxi
Ahh, safe at last, surely this little machine full of ticking numbers can’t go wrong. Right? Perhaps. But it definitely does not work if it is not on. So first, before you go anywhere, tell them to turn the meter on! I don’t care if its the national holiday, too hot outside or their mother’s birthday. Unless you feel like you have a handle on the route and the price, the meter should be on if they have one. Get out if they refuse.
Be Aware, Be Active
If they have a meter, they should also have a notice in the car from the government agency that licenses them. Take note of this and let them see you looking at their license or a complaint phone number. Developing countries often rely heavily on tourism and taxi drivers know that they do not want to have a complaint lodged against them by a foreign tourist.
If you speak the language even just a little, just saying the word ‘why’ when making a turn will force the driver to explain himself. Even if you don’t understand what he is saying, it will put a thought in his mind that you are an active passenger, not readily duped.
Never let a driver tell you that it is a holiday and rates have gone up. Never initially believe that it costs more to travel between ‘zones’ of a city. In some cities this may be the case, but I have yet to experience that and even so, the price difference should be negligible.
I was also once told in Malaysia, that union disagreements have forced the drivers to turn off their meters. You can always get out of the taxi and try another one. If you hear the same story then there may be truth to it.
Now I must say as a caveat to everything written above that I have taken hundreds of taxi rides in a dozen different countries and perhaps a handful have taken advantage of me. For the most part I’ve found taxi drivers to be pleasant and honest individuals. Do not allow yourself to become overly paranoid.
Many times when I have not understood the cost or the the route taken, it was my mistake, not the driver’s. If it does happen that you find out you paid too much, learn whatever lessons you can and enjoy the new story you have about the taxi driver who gave you an unscheduled tour of Lima.
If you’re worried about being scammed abroad, check out five rules for recognizing and avoiding travel scams and ten common travel scams and how to avoid them. If you’re wondering when haggling becomes exploitation, take a look at when does budget travel become exploitation?.
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