Avoiding Taxi Scams Abroad

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Take my advice, I used to drive a cab
Take my advice, I used to drive a cab

Today, OMAAT wrote an article about how he got hustled by a taxi driver in Beijing. Getting taken by a taxi driver is one of the worst things about travel. Based on my experience in Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh, I would say that Egypt is the worst place that I have encountered the shady taxi driver. (see Taxi in Luxor: A Lesson in Patience, see Luxor Taxi Conclusion: It’s Impossible to Pay What You Paid, see Sharm el-Sheikh Taxi: For 40, I Bring You Camel, Tomorrow) The taxi situation is so bad worldwide that TPOL dedicates a separate category (and soon a separate menu item in blog redesign) dealing with taxis. If you are looking for an abridged version checkout my original post “Taxi, My Friend?” The Worst Places to Hail a Cab.

Having lived in Shanghai, I know that taxi drivers have a propensity to be cunning. Here are the tips that will save you from being taken by your taxi driver whether you are in China or overseas.

  1. Write the destination in the local language.
  2. Track the directions on your phone.
  3. Be engaged: Once you enter the taxi you should make sure he turns the meter on unless you have already agreed on the price.
  4. Do not pay if you feel you are ripped off: I simply will refuse to pay. I will not rationalize that it is only a few dollars. If it is a ripoff then the taxi driver curiously will let you walk out without paying because he knows he is doing something wrong. If you have made a mistake or if the taxi driver believes that you are weak then he will go through the trouble of preventing you from leaving. Once in Shanghai, the driver took my friend’s bag as ransom and it almost got physical. Sorry shifu, you got lost I’m not paying you more because you got lost.
  5. Don’t get killed: Common sense is in order here. If you feel that you are in a situation that is dangerous then hand over the extra Thai baht. Nothing ends a vacation abruptly like getting hacked by a machete.

And if you want to read more about shady taxi drivers and TPOL’s other exploits, buy a copy of the book The Entrepreneur’s Compass: A Roundabout Way of Getting There that includes this excerpt about taxis in Shanghai.

The Taxi at the Airport

My favorite part of traveling is arriving at a new airport. Upon landing, I skip the baggage claim—as only rookie travelers check bags—endure the invasive procedure at customs, and then appreciate the brief moment of calm before departing through the exit doors, arriving at adventure.

The airport experience provides a great rush of adrenaline. It is worth pausing in the arrival terminal to take in the entire scene.

There are the bank tellers baiting you to exchange money, promising the best rate with no commissions, the mirage of the information desk that is somehow always unmanned, and the limitless number of people on hand, ranging from those waiting for friends and family to arrive to the shady actors preying on unsuspecting tourists. The latter are easy to identify, as they casually greet you in perfect English, “Taxi, my friend?” That is your hint to run.

Shanghai Pudong International Airport was no exception. Recognizing this, I hastily made it past the taxi tricksters and proceeded to walk to the government-authorized taxi line. The next order of business was to tell the taxi driver where I wanted to go. I assumed in an international city like Shanghai, surely the taxi drivers would understand enough English to comprehend the name of my hotel. Nothing was further from the truth. Riding for over an hour through a dense fog, I was on my Blackberry trying to use Google Maps to make sure the taxi driver was at least headed in the right direction. I was yelling at the driver in English, pointing to the name of the hotel on my itinerary, while he was yelling back at me in Mandarin. How we ever found the hotel, I will never know. At the time, I was convinced the taxi driver was playing dumb to run up the meter.

I later discovered that hotels have completely different names in Mandarin than they do in English. Saying Le Royal Méridien over and over, softly or loudly, while banging on the protective glass that safeguards taxi drivers from psychotic tourists is completely useless when the hotel is called Shang Hai Shi Mao Huang Jia Ai Mei Jiu Dian, or上海世茂皇家艾美酒店 in Mandarin characters. Even if the driver could read English, he still would have been confused because there was nothing in the Mandarin name that was remotely close to the word Méridien. My apologies to the taxi driver, wherever he may be. (He is probably working right now, as they work fourteen-hour shifts with only one day of rest.) Quick advice: for those traveling to China, print the directions and the name of the hotel in Mandarin characters and make sure your phone is capable of displaying them, as    is not Mandarin.

Feeling terrible for questioning the integrity of the taxi driver, I let my guard down. This proved to be a costly mistake.

The Taxi in the City

The Shanghai Metro is the second-largest metro system in the world, rapidly minding the gap between the frontrunner, the Seoul Metropolitan Subway. The metros are fast and efficient, but sometimes hailing a taxi is more convenient than finding a metro stop. As a result of my airport taxi misstep, I tried to be more patient with the drivers. On one occasion, I knew the taxi driver was going the wrong way because we had been driving for far too long. I kept telling him to take me to Chengdu Lu, and he kept nodding in the affirmative. Again I repeated Chengdu Lu, and again he nodded in the affirmative. Evidently, the driver thought I was stupid and was trying to rip me off. I had no choice but to return to being skeptical, screaming Alex.

Minutes later, he stopped and pointed at the street sign. Indeed, we had arrived at Changdao Lu. Hearing my lousy pronunciation, the driver sincerely believed that I was saying Chang, not Cheng. In written text, it is impossible for me to demonstrate how dissimilar these two syllables sound if pronounced correctly. But if you are not a proficient Mandarin speaker, you, too, would be frustrated by the low margin for error. After that, I went back to taking the metro—decidedly more convenient.

Surprisingly, in a city of twenty-four million people with twenty-four-hour activity, the metro stops operating by midnight. Since the bars don’t get going until late, I was forced to rely on taxis to get around at night. As a precaution, I printed off the address in Mandarin or called “The Magic Number” to tell an English speaker my destination, who would then relay the message to the driver, who now, apparently, knew where I wanted to go. Even with this strategy in place, I continued to see inconsistencies in fares.

Whether this is myth or fact is debatable, but I conjectured that there was a direct correlation with the color of the taxicab and the veracity of the driver. Without fail, whenever I entered a burgundy cab instead of a green or blue one, the driver would charge more, seem to drive in circles, and appear to be confused. It didn’t matter if I had the name printed in Mandarin or if “The Magic Number” operator told him where I wanted to go. Given my past taxi experiences, I resigned my fate (and wallet) to the honesty of the taxi driver. It was only after leaving a nightclub at seven o’clock in the morning with the aid of sunlight that I realized I was a short two-minute walk from home. Meanwhile, Mr. [Ron] Burgundy taxi was making unnecessary detours to rack up a higher fare.

From then on, I walked home.

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