Taxi scams: Six ways to avoid being scammed in a new city

The taxi driver is often the first person you meet when you lob into a strange town, perhaps the one that bids you a final sayonara when you leave, and your interaction can jar. Landing in a foreign country and hopping into a taxi, you might be beset by doubts – is this the shortest way, have I got enough for the fare, and, wow, isn't that meter spinning rather rapidly?

There are places where this will never happen. In Japan and Switzerland, there is zero chance that anything untoward will befall you when you step into a taxi. There are also some surprises. In Rome I've found taxi drivers honest to a fault, the taxis immaculate. The rest of the world, be alert.

No change

You're at the end of your ride, the meter says 50 dinars, kwacha or whatever the local currency might be but, guess what – your driver doesn't have any change. Nor does he speak any more English than "no change". Where is it that a taxi driver has no change? You can argue the point, flag down another cab and ask the driver for change but whose side is he going to take? Or make him take you to the nearest shop but that's a gamble worth taking from his point of view. But if the drop-off is your hotel, you're in luck. They'll definitely have change. They're also on your side, and won't mind a bit if he has to wait while you haul your gear inside and get the correct fare, no tip.

This way is quicker

You're fresh off the plane or the train, you're headed for your hotel but how do you know the way? Well, you just might if you happen to have a map app open giving you turn-by-turn navigation but if the driver insists that way is blocked with traffic or roadworks, or the bridge with the toll is a much better option, who are you to argue? If it should emerge that he's done you wrong there are usually taxi complaints offices – but good luck with that. I once complained - after a taxi driver took a roundabout route to my home in Sydney that cost $25 more than it should have – and it took two months, phone calls and a complaint in writing before I received reimbursement from Taxis Combined Services.

'But I gave you 100'

You did, and you'd swear that's what you gave the driver in a court of law, but now he's holding up a note with the number "25" and saying that's what you gave him, and it's way short. It's your word against his, and in this situation guess who has the upper hand? Try saying whatever you're handing over – "This is 100, OK, 100 pesos."

See also: How I fell for the most obvious travel scam

Riding with the scammers

Getting off the plane at New York's JFK Airport I took a shuttle into the city that dropped me off near Penn Station and, before I know it, my luggage is in the back of a gypsy cab with the driver ready to take me to my uptown hotel. He managed to bundle two more passengers in as well. My bad, but by the time I cotton on, the doors are closed and we're on our way. If it doesn't have a light-up beacon on the roof and a meter inside, it's not a taxi so get the hell out, and if it takes a screaming match with the driver to get your luggage back, go for it.

Meterless travel

You're in the cab and the cab has a meter, but the driver isn't turning it on. You insist. He ignores you. This happened to me in Marrakech just a couple of weeks ago, heading out to a distant restaurant at night in the new city. At the end of the journey the driver asked for 100 dirhams, about $13. If I was a local it would probably cost 30 dirhams but I'm a foreigner, inordinately wealthy by Moroccan standards, heading for a fancy restaurant where my meal is going to cost 400 dirhams. Is that a scam? Or just an evening out of the peculiarities of fate that have tipped the scales of wealth in my favour? Because that's what I'm calling it, and considering the circumstances I'm not too troubled by paying over the odds this time.

The knowledge

"First time in our beautiful city/island paradise?" It might seem an innocent question but if the driver knows you're new in town, that's solid gold. A circuitous route, perhaps a suggestion for shopping en route, a guided tour the next day, the possibilities are endless. A favourite tactic with taxi drivers in Bali.


The Uber alterative

Uber has its problems sure enough. Privacy issues, lack of screening of drivers, surreptitious tracking of clients, driver exploitation, data breaches that have allowed hackers to download clients' data and that go unreported, surge pricing that adds a wallop on wet days. Complaints against drivers are legion, but then Uber drivers around the world spend 8.5 million hours on the road each day so that's hardly surprising.

Some places have hobbled the ride-share service. Denmark, for example, requires all quasi-taxi services to have a meter installed. UberPop, Uber's cheapest service, is banned in France, Germany and Italy. The Northern Territory has also banned Uber, although a new regulatory model allows ridesharing services to exist.

These are all big-issue problems, and then there's the reality at ground level. An Uber is usually going to cost you less than a metered taxi, you can see where they are and check the time to pick-up and you know exactly who your driver is and that's an added layer of security for both parties.

There's just one app and it works the same in every country where Uber operates. No money changes hands so you don't need to faff around with foreign currency and in Australia 90 per cent of the time both driver and vehicle are heaps more wholesome than any taxi and its driver. Taxi drivers might not like it, but Uber, Lyft and the rest of the peer-to-peer rideshare operations are here to stay.

See also: Why men are more likely to fall for scams

See also: Five of the best travel scams