Common Travel Scams & How to Avoid Them

There are travel scams and then there are travel scams. You don’t need to fall victim to any of them. Here are some scams you’ll face and how to avoid them.

As experienced travelers we think we’re savvy when it comes to travel scams and how to avoid them. However, since the busy travel season is upon us, reviewing the most common scams and how best to avoid them can’t hurt, right? After all, these scams happen to the best of us.

Knowledge is power, so here are some of the most common scams you’re likely to deal with. The more you know about these scams, the less likely you’ll fall for them.

1. Broken Taxi Meter

Taxi drivers near airports or train stations are known to pull this scam, but it can happen anywhere. When you get into a taxi and start to drive, the driver will inform you that the meter is broken and charge you a ridiculous price. This can also happen at the end of a taxi ride, which is what happened to me once in Budapest. The driver never told me the meter was broken until he got to my hotel. Luckily, I asked the concierge at my hotel to please handle this for me and it worked out OK.

How To Avoid It:

Negotiate rates ahead of time, or ensure the meter is in fact working before you get in the car. If the taxi driver refuses to turn on the meter, or tells you it’s cheaper without the meter, get out and opt for another driver. Not all taxi drivers are scammers.

2. Overbooked or Closed Hotel

Again, this common travel scam happens largely with taxi drivers. While en route to your hotel, the driver will tell you your hotel is either closed or overbooked and then take you to a more expensive hotel where the driver receives a commission. I’ve never had this happen to me, though I’ve heard stories where taxi drivers tell tourists their hotel is a bad one, or that it’s closed.

How To Avoid It:

This may seem obvious, but call your hotel in advance and make sure they’re open. Ask if they offer shuttle service and then schedule a pickup. If your taxi driver still tells you the hotel is not available, insist that he take you there anyway. Tell him you already have a reservation, even if you don’t.

3. Free Bracelets or Rosemary Sprigs

Female travelers seem to be the target for this scam. A friendly man or woman will approach to chat, then place a “free” friendship bracelet on your wrist, or hand you a sprig of rosemary for good luck. Once you have it, they will demand money. When you refuse, they will begin to cause a scene.

How To Avoid It:

Don’t allow anyone to put anything on your body, and be extremely wary of accepting anything for free unless there is a good reason for it. Especially in very touristy areas. Ignore them and keep walking.

4. Spills on Clothing

Common in Europe, a traveler walks down the street and feels something plop on their shoulder, often times bird poop or a fast-food condiment. Then, a friendly stranger approaches and begins to wipe off the mess while taking your wallet from your pocket or purse.

How To Avoid It:

The best thing to do in situations like this is to not allow someone to help you. Instead, go to a restroom and clean the mess off yourself.

5. Fake Police Officers

The fake police officer scam is a popular one in many large cities. Most often, a person will approach a tourist and offer illicit items, like drugs. While talking with you, one or two other people will approach, appearing to be police officers and flashing “badges.” They will then insist the unknowing traveler hand over their passport and wallet. However, they are not police officers.

How To Avoid It:

Never hand over your wallet or passport. Request they show you their identification and then inform them you will call the police to confirm they are who they say they are. Or tell them your passport is locked up in the hotel safe, and they’ll need to accompany you to your hotel. If they don’t go with you, simply walk away.

6. Friendly ATM Helper

Someone approaches at an ATM cash machine to help you avoid local bank fees. What they really want to do is scan your ATM card with the card skimmer in their pocket and watch you enter your pin number so they can drain your account later.

How To Avoid It:

You might recall I had a wild experience at an ATM in Rome. Never let anyone near you while you’re making an ATM transaction, and ALWAYS cover the number pad with your other hand while entering your pin code. If someone approaches, take your card and find another ATM.

7. Group Photo Offer

While hanging out in a busy tourist location or at a landmark, a local offers to take a group photo of you and your friends. As you’re getting ready to pose for your photo, you look up and realize your new friend has completely disappeared with your expensive camera.

How To Avoid It:

This one is tough because you really need to read the situation. I’ve handed my camera to other people for a group photo. But it’s always me asking them for the favor, not them offering out of the blue. Busy city attractions are the most risky places for this. If you have to, ask fellow tourists instead and return the favor for them.

8. Fake WiFi Hubs

These days you can find WiFi almost anywhere, but some of those free unlocked connections might be dangerous. Hackers will set up tempting unsecured wifi hotspots in public locations that unsuspecting victims connect to, thus giving the thief access to your computer, passwords, online accounts, and more.

How To Avoid It:

Always ask the hotel/coffee shop/airport staff which wifi connection is the official one. Do this especially when you see a tempting unlocked connection. To encrypt all your online activity, use a VPN, or virtual private network. I use one called ExpressVPN, and love it.

9. Fake Bus/Train/Plane Tickets

Someone offers to sell you train tickets at a discount. Or so you can avoid the lines, they’ll sell you a ticket for a slightly higher price. Maybe a taxi driver offers to bring you to his friend who’s a local travel agent. However, the tickets they are selling aren’t real, and by the time you figure it out, the scammers are gone with your money.

How To Avoid It:

Always buy transportation tickets from the official ticket office or website. A good deal can sometimes end up being a real bad deal!

10. Fake Hotel Wakeup Call

While staying at a hotel, you get a call from the front desk in the middle of the night to confirm your credit card details. Only it isn’t the front desk calling, it’s a scammer who will drain your accounts when he makes a copy of your credit card using the details you give him over the phone.

How To Avoid It:

Never give out credit card details over the phone. Go down to the front desk in person the next morning if there is a problem.

I’m sure there are other travel scams out there, and unfortunately new ones being created every day. The truth is that no matter how prepared you think you are, you’ll eventually fall for some sort of travel scam. But don’t let this keep you from traveling the world. Think of it as a rite of passage, even if an unpleasant one. There are always worse things that could happen! If there are scams I didn’t mention that you’ve had experience with, let us know!

Do you have questions about travel, about hotels, or about packing? Email me, Shelli, with your Ask Anything and watch for it in a future post!

10 thoughts on “Common Travel Scams & How to Avoid Them

  1. Radster

    Taxi driver doesn’t have any change. San Francisco circa 2008.

    How to avoid: Call them out on their BS, pay with card or use Uber/Lyft.

  2. Kristin

    Great tips! When I was in my 20’s, my ex and I travelled a lot. For some reason he was often the target of confidence schemes. Once after a flight to see me in SAN, he telephoned to say he had met and become fast friends with Whitney Huston’s flamboyant manager- she was wearing a floor-length fur and lots of jewelry. Told him she was going to pick me and some other friends up and introduce us to movie and music stars all around So Cal in a limo. She told him she was sadly the recent victim of a purse theft. Luckily he called on their way to pick me up, right before he was to put the limo on his credit card. I asked him why Whitney’s manager was flying in economy and

    1. Shelli Post author

      Thanks, Kristin. Glad you found these tips useful. This story made me laugh. And nothing less than “first class” about an old Civic :) He was lucky you had some common “cents”!

  3. Kristin

    I asked him why Whitney’s manager was flying economy and needed a total stranger’s help renting a limousine. Long silence. Ultimately I picked him up alone in my crappy old Civic, but he didn’t loose any money that time.

  4. mike murphy

    when you see the “pickpockets in the area ” warning signs, don’t automatically check to see if you still have your wallet . signals the pick pockets where to look.

  5. Pingback: ATW: Walmart Drains Gift Cards, Creepy Clown Motel, Mall Car Giveaways are a Scam & More! - Miles to Memories

  6. AS Travler

    Nice of you to take over here with some good mostly the mundane, since grant is doing so well in his practice of
    laissez-faire capitalism.


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