Airport taxi scams and how to avoid them

Dazed, jet-lagged, and in unfamiliar surroundings where you likely don’t speak the language, the easiest way for a traveler to get scammed is to fly into an airport and look for a taxi into the city. If you’ve flown into an exotic or cheap city you are probably well aware that new arrivals are like lambs for the slaughter for the city’s taxi drivers.

Most of these scams happen most in countries where labor is cheap, but some even happen in (seemingly) law-abiding cities like New York, Los Angeles, or London, so it’s important to walk off that plane with a strategy and at least a little knowledge of what to do.

The top two-thirds of the International taxi prices list accounts for most of the problems.

Why we are all so vulnerable to airport taxi scams

No matter which airport you arrive at, even if it’s only a few hundred miles from your home, there can be almost unlimited variables in how things are supposed to work, including:

  • Some airports have a flat-fee for rides into the city
  • Most airports charge an extra fee for taxis in one or both directions
  • Some airport taxis use toll-roads, which the passenger pays for, often during the ride
  • Some airports offer prepaid taxi vouchers inside the terminal
  • The distance to the city can vary dramatically for each Airport
  • New arrivals rarely have someone working on their behalf
  • In some cities, airport officials are actually part of the scam

So if a driver approaches you near baggage claim and offers a ride for US$40, how are you supposed to know if the normal fare is only US$8?

Many of us get a horrible first impression of an otherwise-lovely city because we trusted a taxi driver and got burned. Here are the most common scams as well as how to avoid each of them.

Scam: Lying about your other options

Particularly in less developed countries, taxi drivers and airport scammers can be extremely aggressive, often basing themselves in restricted parts of the airport (if they cut the security guard or police in on the action). In some cases they’ll be extremely friendly, but in others they don’t bother with charm.

They’ll ask if you need a taxi into town, and if you say you are going to take the airport shuttle bus you might hear that the last one has just left, or the next one isn’t for 3 hours, or some other ludicrous lie.

Avoiding this

Sadly, it’s best to just assume they are lying and carry on with your original plan, even as they continue to shadow you. More importantly, do your research before you get on the plane in the first place so you know your options. Know when and how often the shuttle buses run or if there’s a train option and so forth.

One resource we have here on Price of Travel is typical prices for airport taxis for each major city, plus prices for trains, shuttle buses, and public buses. Click on a city page, like the New York City prices page, for example, and you’ll see the various options and how much each costs. It first displays in USDs, and by using the dropdown menu on the top-right of the page you can change the prices into any other currency, which will help you know the local currency amount when you arrive.

If you are carrying a guidebook or a smartphone app guidebook it should tell you your main transportation option. If not, or if your guide doesn’t include that information, you should look up the city on wikitravel or the Toandfromtheairport site. Wikitravel in particular is usually exactly up to date with that information.

Scam: The meter is broken

Many cities actually have a flat-fee for airport taxi rides into the city, or better yet, a pre-paid taxi counter where you buy a voucher and then give it to your driver as complete payment. But if this city typically uses the normal meter for airport rides, it’s still very common for drivers not to use them by telling you it’s broken or simply not turning it on at all. If this happens, especially if you haven’t already negotiated a price, there’s no telling how much they’ll try to charge once you arrive.

It’s most common in cities where the per-kilometer rate is low, and you can get a good idea of normal fares by scanning our list of taxi prices around the world.

Avoiding this

Just as with the example above, it’s critical to know how the taxis are supposed to work in this city before you land. Many travelers these days brag how they prefer to shun guidebooks and just step off the plane to wing it. While that’s a fine strategy for many things, it makes you a sucker at the airport.

Scam: Currency complications

When you are using money that you aren’t familiar with there are a variety of scams to look out for including:

  1. Agreeing to a price in local currency and then being told you are expected to pay that amount in dollars (or pounds or euros) once you arrive.
  2. Being quoted an outrageous price in local currency that baffles many people (In Hanoi the standard price is around 300,000 dong but they’ll often quote you 500,000 or more)
  3. Getting back incorrect change, or having the bill you paid with switched for a smaller note

Avoiding this

With currency-related scams the main thing is just to know how much you are supposed to pay in the local money, and keeping close track of your bills. If you appear tired and disoriented, chances of these scams will increase.

Scam: Unlicensed taxis

Even in cities where taxis appear to be heavily regulated, unlicensed “gypsy” cabs are often still around. Part of their strategy is to make it clear that they aren’t licensed to be taxis, and act as if this allows them to offer you a much better price. Oddly, that part is also usually a scam. In both New York City and Rio de Janeiro I’ve been approached by aggressive rogue taxi drivers who actually quoted prices well above the normal fixed price.

Avoiding this

For a great many reasons it’s best to avoid unlicensed taxis, especially at airports, when people are their most vulnerable. If a driver says the normal fare is US$30 and he’ll take you for US$25, you can bet the normal fare is more like US$20. Always use the official licensed and marked taxis from the taxi stand out front.

Scam: Taking the “scenic route”

This one is pretty obvious to most people, and yet it still happens all the time. In cities where they use the meter, a taxi driver will have a great incentive to take the passenger the longest way that they can get away with, as the meter keeps climbing and climbing.

In many cities, including Las Vegas, a driver might ask you if it’s okay to take the freeway instead of the busier surface streets. In Las Vegas the freeway will usually actually save the passenger money, even though the journey is longer, but in many other cities this is a way for the driver to run up the meter on some ring road or suburban highway.

Avoiding this

Even when in a city where taxis are known to use meters, it’s wise to ask the driver for an estimate before you even get in. The estimate should match the figure you’ve researched, or move on to the next driver. If your driver has estimated a proper fare it’s far less likely that you’ll be taken the long way.

Scam: Taking you to a hotel they recommend since your choice recently closed or burned down

This occurs even more often at train and bus stations in big cities, but it also happens at airports around the world every day. Your driver will ask where you are staying, and at some point after you are on the way, he’ll tell you that place closed down or burned down last week, but he knows of an even better place.

Or worse yet, you ask to go to the city center and then ask if he knows of a good hotel. These taxi drivers know they’ll probably never see you again, so they’ll tout a crappy hotel that has a hard time getting guests otherwise. The hotel owner will happily pay a 20% commission, or even more, to a taxi driver bringing a new guest. And of course, that commission is added right to your bill in the form of an inflated price, so not only are you at one of the city’s worst hotels, but you are paying well over the normal price too.

Avoiding this

There are probably some taxi drivers in the world who actually do take passengers to good hotels, but generally it’s a bad bet. Even if you don’t have a reservation, ask the driver to take you to a specific hotel in the area you want to try. If they say it’s closed just tell them you just spoke to the hotel from the airport. If they say they know of a better hotel just tell them you’ve already paid for the room.

Scam: Driving off with your luggage

This one doesn’t happen often, but it’s still worth knowing about. I’ve recently heard about a case in Bangkok where an airport taxi driver pulled off to the side of the road claiming to have broken down. He asked the passenger to hop out and look at the back end of the car, and the driver simply drove off with the person’s luggage locked in the trunk. This sort of scam can take on many forms, so it’s good to at least be aware of the possibility.

Avoiding this

First off, if you can safely carry your bags inside the cabin instead of the trunk that’s always a good idea. At the very least, keep your laptop or any other valuables with you instead of in the trunk. With your valuables locked away the driver knows he can hold them hostage if he tries to overcharge or pull any of the other scams mentioned above.

If you must put some or all of your luggage in the trunk, make sure the financial agreement is settled, and don’t ever step outside if the driver asks you to for some peculiar reason.

Final tips

Even if you prefer to invent your trip as you go, the absolute least you should know is how you’re going to get into town before you get on the plane.

If you are traveling solo or as a duo then research the public transportation options, as they are always much cheaper and sometimes are even faster as well. For example, in Amsterdam and Kuala Lumpur, the express airport train is quicker and cheaper than a taxi, especially during rush hour.

For the ultimate cheapskate airport taxi move you can sometimes flag down a cab that has just dropped someone off at the departure gates. All larger airports prohibit or heavily discourage this, but a driver can usually offer you a nice discount since you are saving them from having to drive back to the city empty or get in the back of the main taxi queue.

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