I didn’t even have a chance. Walking down Rue Lepic in bohemian Montmartre, a Roma gypsy whispers in my ear.
“Monsieur, you want to play a game?”
He directs me to a table where his friend is waiting. The idea is to guess which of three cups had the dice in it. It looks so easy; I’m suckered in.
I’m directed to hand my 10 Euros over to a monkey wearing a little red hat and vest, sitting on the side of the table. Already, I’m intrigued. The monkey takes my money, stuffing it into his vest pocket. I wonder why the monkey doesn’t just run away, and then I notice the chain on the back of his vest. It made me ponder to where, if given the chance, would this monkey flee, here in the middle of Paris?
The game starts and I’m told to watch the dealer’s hands. He shuffles the cups, but not too quickly, in hindsight an obvious ploy to lull me into a false sense of security and bravado. It works.
I choose my cup.
The dealer tells me he is not an unreasonable man. If I give him 20 more Euros, I can take my pick from the remaining two cups. If I choose correctly (And how can I not), he’ll triple my winnings.
I have a 50 % chance. I give the monkey 20 Euros. I pick my cup.
“Commiserations, Monsieur. Double or nothing?”
Before I can respond I hear a whistle. Rapid fire French, tense words are exchanged.
The table is packed up within seconds, the gypsies flee, monkey perched on a shoulder; the cups in one paw, my money in the other.
Some scams we willingly fall into. I knew there was only a small chance of leaving that exchange with my dignity (and wallet) intact.
Other times it’s something small like paying 3 times the local price for a bus ride or entry to a museum. But when you compare it to the prices everyone pays back home and the local wage in that country, you can’t really complain.
And that’s why I’m sort of OK with being ripped off a little bit while travelling.
Sure, it can be frustrating when you’ve spent 10 minutes trying to convince the taxi driver to turn the meter on, only have a niggling feeling when you see the same restaurant 4 times in 10 minutes that maybe you’re being taken for a ride (literally and figuratively). But really, we’re pretty fortunate to be travelling in a foreign country to begin with, so I try to let the little stuff slide.
So here, in my opinion, are some acceptable scams, and a few tips to avoid the ugly ones;
I’m ok with paying an entry fee on Sundays to places in Mexico like the Teotihuacan Pyramids or the Museo De La Basílica De Guadalupe while residents get in free. In fact, it’s a good idea to see the sights with dual pricing structures on any other day – it will be less crowded. There are plenty of other places that have free entry for foreigners on Sundays, like the Museo de Arte Moderno. The two-tiered entry fee system doesn’t bother me either; why should locals have to pay huge fees to witness and experience their own history? Higher entry fees for tourists go towards wages, upkeep and restoration – meaning that significant cultural or historical wonders will be preserved for generations to come.
Tip: In other countries it might not be so easy to enjoy free entry to the top sights, which means you might soon find a big hole in your budget. If you’re penny pinching and want to avoid hiked up entry fees, take your student or international youth card (available from STA Travel). To be entitled to a card you need to prove your age (or lack thereof) and/or proof of enrollment, so that might limit your choices if you’re not under 26 or studying.
Another option (which I’m not condoning) is to pick up a very realistic fake card from one of the backpacker slums, like Khao San Road in Bangkok. But you’ll have to grapple with your conscience first, and if you decide to take the plunge, remember to shave and, well, just try to look like a poor student.
Beat the queues
The Statue of David is generally considered a must see on any trip to Florence, and the $10 Euro entry fee is a fine price. But the 300-metre line down of tourists snaking down the Piazza Del Duomo at the crack of dawn? A total joke. After hours of waiting you’ll finally make it inside, but be warned that you might not be able to take photos, which was the case when I went.
Tip: There is however an outdoor replica around the corner in the Piazza della Signoria. Your friends won’t even tell the difference (well, maybe), and if you’re lucky you’ll get a perfect shot a pigeon sitting on David’s head – you won’t find that on a postcard.
Paying double the local rate for a 10-hour chicken bus ride in Peru is ok, especially when the standard fare is only a few dollars anyway. It’s still heaps cheaper than taking the tourist bus and you get the added cultural experiences of sharing your seat and sparking up a conversation with a local. And quite possibly, their donkey.
Tip: The local bus will take forever. Don’t plan on arriving to your destination on time, it just won’t happen. If you are strapped for time, but don’t want to pay exorbitant flight costs (especially in South America – surely the biggest scam of all) the tourist bus is a good bet. It’s more expensive than the chicken bus, but considering the alternative it’s a good budget choice. Most bus companies in South America offer a choice of Cama (bed) or semi cama with air conditioning, and sometimes even a meal.
One bus company in Argentina was offering the full deluxe service; 3-course meal, a glass of champagne and ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’ endlessly repeating on the TV. You might miss out on ‘mixing it up’ with the locals, but you still get to experience cross-country travel, which beats flying hands down.
The European Public Toilet Scam
I’m not ok with paying $1 Euro for the privilege of peeing next to a passed out junkie in a derelict, smelly toilet at Charles de Gaulle Train station, Paris. Sure, it’s only 1 Euro, but when you’ve been sipping too many café au lait’s while waiting for the Eurostar, you’re not left with many other options. Disgusting and expensive public toilets aren’t solely found in France – it’s Europe wide, though some countries seem to maintain their public amenities a bit more frequently (Germany, for instance). I have no problem paying for a clean and safe public toilet – but to fork out to ‘go’ in a filthy, stomach churning, cesspit is utter madness!
My advice? Try to find a busy bar or café nearby that you can sneak into, otherwise bring lots of spare change, and think of your happy place.
Finally, here are my top 4 tips for a scam free holiday
- Taking a metered taxi isn’t always the best option. Especially if you don’t know exactly how far away your destination is. After 10 minutes of arguing about the broken meter, there’s always the chance that you’ll be taken the long way home. Organising a fare upfront means that you’ll get to your destination via the quickest route possible, and keep your taxi driver onside – always a good thing.
- If you feel something wet and gooey on your shirt – just keep walking. Same goes if someone offers to clean up the bird poop that suddenly appeared on your shoe, it’s a scam that’s been doing the rounds for some time. The idea is to distract you by offering to help clean it up while someone else sneaks in and quickly pockets your wallet, bag, iPhone – whatever they can get a hold of.
- Be weary of moneychangers on the street. Engaging in unlicensed money trading is illegal in many countries, and also leaves you open to sleight of hand tricks. If you do trade money with street vendors make sure you count every note before you walk away – many people have reported being given fake notes or money wrapped around paper – giving the illusion of a thicker stack.
- Most importantly – avoid, wherever possible, a monkey wearing a matching red vest and hat.