Travel writers share their worst travel scam experiences

“What was the worst travel scam you’ve ever fallen for?” Doug Mack asked me during the second round of drinks at a recent “meeting.” The soon-to-be-published travel author had just returned from a trip to Havana, Cuba, where he and his girlfriend had been victim to the “I meant that’s the price per person” airport taxi scam after forking over the originally agreed upon total, and was looking to commiserate.

I paused, trying to think of a gripping story, but came up empty. It’s possible that Doug, like many people before him, believes that I get into a hell of a lot more hijinks while on the road than I actually do. I don’t know why people think this. Believe it or not, I am, in general, the picture of common sense and decorum while I’m on the road. My world travels have been surprisingly, almost uncannily, disaster-free.

Yes, there were the relentless, but relatively tiny bribes I was shaken down for during my first visit to Moldova and Transdniestr (I’ve since developed a defense strategy.) There was that time some jackass tried to snare me with the Greedy Tourist scam in Kiev. I might have been kinda drugged while going through the naughty tourist motions in Bangkok’s notorious Pat Pong district. But in 25 years of traveling abroad I’ve never been robbed, beaten or even had medium sums of money liberated from my wallet.

Usually it’s inexperienced travelers that get caught up in travel scams. Naivety, unfamiliarity, fatigue, greed, drunkenness or an unfortunate combination can lead people to do things they might not ordinarily do. Exchange money at the bus station with a dude sporting a face scar? Buy discounted precious stones to sell for a huge profit back home? Two incredibly attractive women suddenly wanna be your best friends and go bar hopping? Instant alarm bells would go off if any of this happened at home, so why do people fall victim to these situations in foreign countries?

Some travel scams are far more sophisticated. So sophisticated that even travel-hardened veterans sometimes fall for them. Longtime Africa savvy traveler Peter Gostelow recently fell victim to a new wrinkle on the bait-and-switch money changing scheme in Malawi. After six months of living in Romania, in the company of three eagle-eyed companions, one of them Romanian, I was taken for quadruple the normal taxi fare in Bucharest (which still only amounted to about US$35).

In truth, anyone having an off day can fall for a scam, not just traveler newbies. As proof, I solicited travel scam stories from a few travel writing veterans. Here’s a sampling:

Eva Holland website Twitter

“I was freshly arrived in Istanbul, and naturally I was only carrying big bills, straight from the Forex. So when I got hopelessly lost and wound up taking a quick taxi ride back to familiar ground, the driver had to hand over a lot of change. Later, when I went to spend those bills, I learned that they were discontinued notes, now-worthless old lira rather than the new ones that had come into circulation a year earlier. He must have had them ready and waiting for a sucker to climb in his cab — and this time, that sucker was me.”

Paul Clammer Twitter

“Even experienced travellers have to start somewhere, and so it was that I found myself in Morocco in 1994, looking for help in a Lonely Planet guide I’d one day end up co-authoring.

We’d arrived in Casablanca, and almost immediately fallen in with a lovely guy who took us around and introduced us to mint tea. Nothing untoward, but when we met him the next day he needed $30 to pay for a parcel that needed posting – of course we were happy to oblige, and he’d pay us back in the evening. Our rendezvous that night was in a seedy bar, and when we arrived there were plenty of empty bottles on the table. He’d pay us back in a moment, but first a few beers.

And then the details of a complicated drug smuggling scam – he had friends on the docks, who immediately turned up, equally drunk and swaggering and looming over us. Maybe we could actually lend him some more money, as an investment for a bigger shipment? It sounded like an offer we couldn’t (or shouldn’t) refuse. Nervously, we offered another round of drinks, and then when we were at the bar, ran pell-mell out of the door, and straight into a taxi. Thoroughly spooked, we crept out of Casablanca on the first bus the next morning. ”

Zora O’Neill website Twitter

“Egypt is difficult because the people who aren’t scamming you are so incredibly kind, so I live in fear of mistakenly accusing one of the nice people of being a sleazy bastard.

What happened this time: I was there in September 2011, so people were still a bit giddy about the revolution. My first day out walking around Cairo, everyone on the street was all, “Hey, you heard about us in America? What we did? Revolution!”

On a quiet street, one guy flagged me down. He wanted me, an American, to understand how Egyptians worked together. During the 18 days of the revolution, he told me, he and his neighbors, Copts and Muslims, had banded together to keep the street safe. My scam-sensors were on high alert. But he was talking to me about the revolution–he couldn’t possibly be so callous as to be using this as bait. Could he?

Oh, of course he could. Next thing I knew, I was locked in this basement perfume shop, sipping tea and sniffing really dubious lotus-flower oil.

For the first time in my life of visiting Egypt (nearly 20 years at this point), I bought some perfume. It must’ve been a cumulative effect over the decades–the touts finally wore me down. I spent nine bucks on some crappy lavender oil. I did turn down the upsell for the pretty glass bottle. “Well, I had to try,” the guy tending the store said with a shrug.

I wrote it off in my expenses as “Onsite research” and added a note in the guidebook about revolution-related sales gambits. And how you shouldn’t get too mad at the sales guys–they have to try.”

Ryan Ver Berkmoes website Twitter

“First time I took a guided day trip tour. It was from Mexico City to assorted old Aztec ruins and pyramids. I was psyched as the price was great and I’d see a lot in one day. Well what I saw a lot of was really shitty gift shops filled with other glassy-eyed daytrippers looking at a lot of crap, much of it imported from China. Meanwhile the “guide” was collecting his commissions and telling us how this was his “cousin’s place” and other complete nonsense.

Our lovely lunch was a bus-trip-filled slop house with steaming tables of shit that wouldn’t pass muster at Taco Bell. Our stops at the sites were very brief and mostly consisted of warnings NOT to buy handicrafts from the vendors of the official gift stores… (as opposed to his “cousins”)

I learned my lesson and am very picky about ever signing on for day trips. There are good ones, but first ascertain how many retail opportunities will be presented, etc.”

What’s the worst travel scam you’ve ever fallen for? Were you on your first trip or your twentieth?