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How To Avoid Being Ripped Off By Taxi Drivers

Taxis in Sulamainiyah, IraqIt happens. Travelers get ripped off. And it happens often.

One of the most common ways of getting ripped off involves taking local transportation and sometimes it seems as if we spend hours every single day trying to negotiate taxi or rickshaw or tuk-tuk fares wherever we go. And somehow, no matter how hard we try, we almost always end up paying infinitely higher prices than locals.

Of course, as soon as we find ourselves being ripped off or once we learn that we paid much more than other travelers for the same journey, we are oh-so-quick to place all of the blame on the evil taxi or tuk-tuk or bicycle rickshaw driver who took our money.

After all, didn’t we approach the driver with a smile on our face, hand them a piece of paper with our destination scrawled in local script and then, just as our guide book instructs us to do, attempt to reach an agreement on the price before we entered their vehicle?

Yes, that’s exactly the steps we are trained to take and yet, we repeatedly find ourselves frustrated when the driver quotes us an extraordinarily high price for what we believe to be an extraordinarily short journey. Twenty-five dollars for a ride to the market? Come on, that’s a ripoff! It’s a good price sir. That’s ridiculous, I’ll give you five dollars. Five dollars? Impossible. Twenty dollars is my final offer. Are you nuts? No sir, fifteen dollars and we leave now. Fine, let’s go.

Eventually, too frustrated and tired to participate in this argument any longer, we accept the inflated price, climb into the vehicle and then proceed to spend days afterward moaning to every other traveler we meet about how everyone is trying to rip us off.


THE MYTH OF THE BROKEN TAXI METER

After eleven years of traveling, and I do admit that I only figured this out quite recently, I made a discovery that, for the most part, instantly eliminates the chances of me paying non-local, heavily inflated prices for transportation, no matter where I am in the world.

What I noticed is that it is only foreign travelers who approach taxis, tuk-tuks and rickshaws around the world and actually attempt to negotiate a price before even getting into the vehicle. If you take a moment to look around you, the locals in most places do not follow this method. Instead, they simply enter the taxi or step into the rickshaw and tell the driver their destination.

And off they go…with that all-too-infamous broken or missing taxi meter that all of us travelers are constantly reminded of, miraculously working just fine.

When’s the last time you’ve seen a local involved in an angry argument with a taxi driver over the fare? It almost never happens.

Why? Because there is almost always, despite what our guide books tell us, a fare system in place, even in the most undeveloped and chaotic cities of the world. Meters are used with more frequency than we’re led to believe and when there are actually no meters, there are typically government-set prices that drivers are required to charge.

Unfortunately, we travelers automatically assume that such a system couldn’t possibly exist in a place like India or Thailand or Syria and that the goal of every taxi driver must naturally be to rip us off. So we stroll up to the passenger side of the taxi, pop our head into the window and ask “How much?”, immediately indicating to the driver that we don’t know the first thing about how the local system works.

At that point, not surprisingly, the taxi or rickshaw driver might see this as an opportunity to earn some extra money and hence the higher than normal fares that we are forced to pay. They know we’ll agree to some random price in the end and that random price is going to be a lot higher than the local fare.



Auto Rickshaw in India


A RECENT EXAMPLE

During my recent trip to the Middle East, I found myself at a restaurant one night with a handful of other travelers in the Syrian city of Aleppo. In between mouthfuls of hommus, tabouli and grilled eggplant, the conversation turned to taxi fares. The other travelers all complained that it was impossible to get a decent rate for a ride between two points within the city. They all spoke of paying 300 or 400 Syrian Pounds ($6 or $8 USD) for each ride after negotiating with drivers.

At one point, I asked them why they didn’t just have the driver use the taxi meter. “There are no meters in the taxis” was the immediate reply.

Well, every single taxi in Aleppo, Syria has a working meter and upon discovering this myself while taking a taxi ride with a local friend, I never had any issues with taxi fares at all. Whenever I needed a ride, I simply jumped in the back seat, informed the driver of my destination and paid the metered fare. A typical fare for a fifteen minute drive across the city was a mere 20 Syrian Pounds (40 US cents) and not once did a taxi driver try to tell me the meter wasn’t working or try to charge me a higher price.

Not a single other traveler I met in Aleppo had ever paid a metered fare.






HOW TO PAY THE LOCAL FARE

Whenever I arrive in a new destination, before even stepping out of my hotel, guesthouse or hostel for the first time, or even the airport if I’m arriving by plane, I always make sure to ask a reliable local how the taxi system works. Such reliable people include the staff in the guesthouse, the official information booth at the airport or any other local who has no interest in leading me astray.

Do the taxis and rickshaws use meters? Do they have flat rates? How much should it cost to reach my destination?

With that basic knowledge, I no longer have to stick my head into a taxi window while pointing at a page in my guide book that explains how much I should pay, or in other words, announcing to every taxi driver in the region that I want to negotiate for something that is generally not negotiated for, which will always be a losing situation for us travelers.

By giving the driver a friendly nod and getting into the vehicle without asking ‘how much?’, I’m in a much better position to enjoy a peaceful ride for a local fare. This tells the driver that I already know how much the ride should cost and that this is not my first experience (regardless of whether or not it is) using a taxi in this city.

Not only does this save money, but it saves time and even more importantly, it saves us from all of that unnecessary frustration that we carry around in response to being ripped off every time we need to go somewhere.


IT WORKS ALL OVER THE WORLD

In the past two years alone, I’ve put this method into place while traveling through India (yes, even in places such as Delhi the taxis and rickshaws have and will use their meters), Thailand, Mexico, Central America and more. And the number of times that my attempt to use the local system ended up in an argument over the fare could be counted on one hand.

Of course, if we attempt the local method in a heavily-touristed area like Khao San Road in Bangkok, then we shouldn’t expect much success. When we are surrounded by hundreds of other travelers all willing to lead themselves straight into the trap of being ripped off, chances are the taxi driver we approach will prefer to wait for the next person to come along. Instead, if we walk five minutes away from such a touristy area, the situation will be much different.

Along with receiving the local fare, we might actually interact with our driver as well, as opposed to holding a life-long grudge against him for leaving us no choice but to accept the inflated price that, in reality, we brought upon ourselves.


Any taxi experiences to share or advice to add? What method do you use to try and avoid paying higher fares while traveling?

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127 Responses to How To Avoid Being Ripped Off By Taxi Drivers

  1. Brian says:

    I’ve gotta say, I disagree here.

    I have traveled in Central and South America on four different trips now and you cannot just get in, act like you know where you’re going (or maybe you do know), and hope you get a normal rate. If you do that, you’re forced to pay whatever they say at the end of the ride. I got charged $5 in Ecuador for a 12 block ride and couldn’t do anything about it because it was 10 at night. You have to negotiate or you’re gonna get hosed.

  2. Dan says:

    I’ll only get in a cab when I’m in a hurry, lost, or with a group; I prefer to rely on cheaper modes of transportation like trams, trains, buses, and ferries when available. In my years living in Turkey, I find here that the best things is to do here is to find a driver willing to run the meter. Often pre-negotiated prices are double what the metered fare would be even if it is rigged.

    I once got half-way to my destination insisting that the driver run the meter and when he flat-out out refused I told him to let me out, he did, where he picked me up (of course I didn’t pay him anything). I then got in a cab that agreed to run the meter, that driver ended up enjoying some fast food with me and getting a long ride, fare and tip. G’speed!

  3. JJazz says:

    I agree. I just moved to New Jersey US and I needed to go 2.9 miles back to my house. I asked how much they said $20. I said run the Meter. He yelled at me for like 2 mins so I left. Next cab wouldn’t run the meter either and I ended up paying the $20 just cause he was polite. Is regular cab fares really less than $2 for every mile? I’m definitely going to try this again till they run the meter

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  8. Rina Rumahorbo says:

    Hi…

    I hope u already wandering around in Indonesia, especially Jakarta (the capital) since the last time u published this article… Because in my country (Indonesia), we r sooo clever so we can also make the meter worked in our criteria…;) If u can understand what I mean… We call it “argo kuda”, who run as fast as the horse… And that’s not only applied to foreigners from other country which visit our country, but it also applied to the same nation who come from other area… Because “we don’t know the local rate”… That’s the real issue here…
    That’s why, when I am abroad, I kind of worry that the clever idea of my people in my home country already spread universally to other country, and I don’t trust to any meter on taxi, tuk tuk, or whatever… While I also don’t wanna have any conflict when I just entered the vehicle, pretending I know the rate, while I am actually not, and by the time I dropped off from that vehicle, I argued with the driver…
    So, the saver way for me is when I don’t know the distance nor the place yet, I asked the local people about the rate… The locals who also passengers..
    When I know the distance already, and the rate and appropriate amount, I keep asking the price first, and when the driver mentioned the highest price he wants, when it’s too high, I just leave him… When it’s not too high, then confidently, I will negotiate with him…
    It’s only my thought…

  9. Chris Barnes says:

    Good advice. Like most things, it’s all about confidence. If you come across as a confident and friendly person, you’re less likely to get ripped off. The moment you have your head in a guide book or newspaper sized tourist map with a sheepish look on your face, you become a target.

    Also, if the driver ever asks if it’s your first time in the country, never, ever ever ever ever say yes. I always tell them it’s my 3rd time and i study/have friends/family here and you’re less likely to get ripped.

    It doesn’t always work, i sometimes find it’s better to just laugh it off, most of the time you only get ripped a few extra $ in your own currency, it’s not the end of the world!

    Keep up the great blog!
    Chris

  10. Petra says:

    Bah! There’s only one way to stop being ripped off by taxi drivers, and that’s to stop using taxis altogether.

  11. Paul D says:

    This isn’t just a problem in third-world countries. I just experienced the same thing in Atlantic City, NJ. Trip was 2 or 2.5 miles and when I finally arrived after several wrong turns by the driver he announces “$25.00″! Of course the rate on the side of the cab says $1.39 per mile.

    When I complained to Yellow Cab to report him, I got a reply from the President of AC Yellow Cab saying the meter is only used within Atlantic City and since my trip went a few blocks outside the limits it is up to whatever the driver wants to charge! When I asked how each trip was a negotiation since I had never experienced that before, I told me that I was “insulting”

  12. So, effectively what you are saying is treat taxi drivers in any other country in the same way you’d treat a taxi driver in your own country (in other words like human beings) and they might treat you with respect too?

    Surely not? :-)

  13. Ghosterman says:

    Going to Bangkok this fall, and what you’re saying is after I land, get the basic info from the info desk and just get in a taxi without saying anything (‘the friendly nod’)? Because it feels like that when I arrive at my destination the driver will try to charge me the tourist price anyway, even though I then mention the price that he should charge me? I would then again be stuck with negotiations…

    • Wandering Earl says:

      @Ghosterman – In Bangkok, there are official government taxis outside the airport that you pay for ahead of time. Then you take the ticket they give you and hand that to the driver. You don’t actually give any money to the driver at all.

      • Anand Subramanian says:

        The official BKK airport taxi system is a big ripoff. I have been to Thailand 5 times so far. The official airport taxi rate is almost double than the actual fare. I know the rates now after visiting few times. I know how much to negotiate for. But, if you catch a taxi outside, it may stop after few mins and transfer you to a different taxi. Definitely, I would not advise if you are using the taxi at night.
        Also, just believing the taxi meter everywhere is not a good idea. I am originally from India. I know how taxi meters work there. I still get ripped off sometimes and get ridiculed when the taxi driver thinks that the price is not right or too cheap. But, I just carry on and find a different taxi or auto in India. Wandering Earl, probably got ripped off by the Taxi meters few times too but he probably did not notice. The price even after rigging probably did not matter much to him. But, I can guarantee that the price he paid was way more than usual local may have paid for the same trip. I can guarantee that more than 70 to 80% taxi meters in India are rigged in all major cities. I face the same problem of facing the taxi rate negotiation even though I grew up in India and visit every year.

        • Wandering Earl says:

          Thanks for your input Anand and you are right, I’m sure I got ripped off just as everyone does while in India for transportation. But when I’m able to travel 30 minutes across Delhi for 30 Rupees, I’m happy as opposed to the normal foreigner fare which would be 150 Rupees for the same trip.

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  15. I’m currently in Kuala Lumpur, and they have a great system of fair metered taxis here. The only problem is, a lot of drivers know they can get more by negotiating. So the average conversation goes like this:

    Me: Zouk Club, please.
    Driver: Ok. Twenty ringgit. (It would be less than 10 with the meter)
    Me: No, use the meter, please.
    Driver: No, no meter, sorry.
    Me: Ok (exit cab)
    Driver: Ok, 15!
    Me: (Still walking)

    As you wrote, I assume that most drivers have determined that it’s more cost-effective to wait and find a gullible tourist who will go off-meter than to break down and use the meter for a regular fare. Sometimes as I start to get in the cab I’ll see a baseball cap hung over the meter, a sure sign the guy won’t use it, so I move on to the next one. In more touristed parts of town, I sometimes need to try five or six cabs before I find one willing to use the meter.

    One last note: Another problem with the meter is that it gives the driver a strong incentive to “take the scenic route”, running up the meter by taking advantage of your lack of knowledge of his city. I experienced this a lot in the city that I lived in recently in eastern Thailand. Once I figured out the general fare prices for the city, I sometimes preferred to take negotiated tuk tuks rather than the metered taxis, since I knew the former wouldn’t try to take me on some ridiculous Nautilus maneuver through the city backstreets.

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  18. Ritu says:

    Thanks Earl, point well taken! Your methodology works well in Thailand!

  19. Vito says:

    It is funny, before I started to travel, I read too many times in travelers websiter or blogs, the advice about “negotiate the price” with the taxi driver before get in.

    I’ve been living in the Philippines, and I’ve have to say, you are completlly right, the best thing is just research information, in internet, with the locals to do not pay the “tourist” price, also the map, check the zone, look de distance, and learn the name of the streets and the “popular” stores or buildings around the place where you are going, because first…yes, you can just take the taxi, or tuk-tuk, but first thing, they look you and they know you are foreigner, sometimes after they listen to you like “you know very good the place where you are going” they act like “they don’t know the adress”, so “that is their 2nd chance to see if they can scam you”, there is when you must start to say another streets or “reference point” to make them understand…. “not with me dude”

    And of course, always the smile and politeness will help us.

    Very nice blog! it is really very helpfull for the “new backpackers”.

    I hope you visit south america one day, I advice you the south of my country, Chile.

    Regards!

    • Wandering Earl says:

      Hey Vito – Glad to hear this method works in the Philippines as well! And I’ve actually been to Chile before, and loved it :)

  20. Lien says:

    I recently got back from Peru and Ecuador. I used taxi quite often in Lima and Quito and i found out that the best way not to get rip-off in these city is to ask the people at the hotel front desk/restaurant/shop to get an idea how much the fare should be from one place to another. This worked well for me. In Lima official taxi has a registration number on the side of the car but some reputable business has their own ‘taxi’ connection and these are safe too.

  21. Kelly says:

    I agree that the best advice is to ask a local. An ounce of knowledge beats a pound of strategy.

    I’ve met rigged meters in Russia, Poland, Estonia and Egypt, and my wife got hit with one in Thailand. I never trust the meter, and frankly I would prefer to come out badly in a fair negotiation than face the rock fight that invariably comes at the point when I suspect, but can’t prove, that a meter is rigged.

    If you’re not prepared to face the occasional rip-off, taxis may not be for you. If you’re up the the challenge, however, I recommend this: Always be prepared to use a forceful and persistent “no” when you believe you’re being taken. Don’t waiver because of the possibility that you could be wrong (and indeed you may be), just be confident and say “no” to any price you suspect is usurious, meter or no-meter. I have found that a confident, forceful “no” often discourage drivers whose intent lies in petty thievery, and pushes the price down into the band of reasonability. However, if the driver still insists on the price, then it’s likely the price is fair(ish), or, somewhat less likely, the driver is a louse. Good fun either way!

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