The Savvy Traveler's Guide To Avoiding Tourist Traps And Scams

It happens to the best of us. Bleary from jet lag, basking in the joy of being on vacation in a new place, head craned, staring at some beautiful historical site ... and then it happens. You're approached by a smooth talker who asks if you speak English. When you answer yes, he then asks to borrow your phone to call his mom since he just had his own phone stolen. You're a nice person, you don't mind, and you feel bad for him. He even offers you some money as an assurance that he's a "good guy." And then he begins to wander away with your phone to have his conversation in private, and then he's gone. It happens that fast.

Your phone, your lifeline, all your information available to him since you unlocked your phone for the call, stolen away in the hands of a crafty scam artist. Now, this could have been you, but now you'll know exactly what to watch out for to keep your money and all your personal belongings on your person.

What is and isn't a scam

To identify a scam, it's equally important to know what isn't a scam as much as what is a scam. For the most part, people with good intentions — and who understand personal space — are not going to come up to some random person on the street to ask for their help specifically, especially if they look like a tourist. The example above is a real scam that people perpetrate all over the world.

If someone genuinely needs to make a call, ask for the number and tell them that you'll put the phone on speaker mode. If they refuse or make some excuse, you'll have your answer. This advice can be replicated for most scams by using common sense and being a little skeptical. When you're approached, you have to ask yourself, why are they asking me? Why not go into a shop to borrow their phone? Or ask someone who's clearly a local that speaks their language? While this advice might sound paranoid, it's better to be safe than sorry.

Another common scam that preys on people's goodwill is people with maps asking for directions somewhere. They'll get close to you with the map to distract you, and either they or a partner of theirs will pickpocket you. People who genuinely need directions will just ask you from a distance. If there is any doubt in your mind about a person's intentions, listen to your gut.

Common scams and tourist traps

Taxis are a repeated source of pain and frustration for travelers all over the world. Whether it's a yellow cab in New York or a tuk-tuk in Thailand, you're right to be skeptical. Good blanket advice for countries where there is no Uber or other local ride-shares is to always ask for the price before you get in the car. Ask a local shopkeeper, your host, or the hotel front desk what a good price is for a taxi or whatever is the local mode of transport. Make sure the taxi meter is on.

It can be tempting to grab a table at a restaurant with a view. If you do, be prepared to pay a lot for mediocre food cooked to appeal to a wide variety of palates. While this isn't necessarily a scam, it's a tourist trap. If you want the real thing, you'll need to be adventurous and explore less high-traffic areas. Google Maps and local recommendations will be your friend here.

In general, do not accept anything from anyone under the guise that they are "just being nice." In rare cases, this might happen. However, it's very common to have people approach you with lost rings, friendship bracelets, petitions, CDs, candy, and more, asking you to pay them after they so generously "gifted" you the item. Simply give them the item back if it was put into your hands, or ignore them and walk away.