How to avoid the most common travel scams in Europe
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Travel scams can happen to the savviest of travellers — and even travel writers and experts themselves. I almost let a scammer dressed as a security guard for Thailand’s Grand Palace convince me the attraction was closed for the day and guide me elsewhere before realising something just wasn’t right.
TPG U.S. writer Brian Biros got mixed up in an elaborate carpet selling scam in Morocco, TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig had a run-in with gemstone scammers in Thailand and TPG Travel Editor Melanie Lieberman was the victim of a car rental scam along Spain’s Costa Brava. No one is immune to getting scammed, especially when in a foreign country where you may not be familiar with the local language, currency or customs.
Europe is especially rife with travel scams, so here are some tips to help recognise some of the most common ones as well as how to avoid them. And, if you do happen to fall victim to a scam, we’ll tell you what to do about it.
Research your destination
Countries in Europe vary immensely when it comes to scams — and likewise, some can (and do) happen everywhere. A scam in Prague could be entirely different from one in Mallorca, while certain tricks transcend borders. And of course, pickpocketing can happen anywhere. Understanding some of the most common scams in the country you’re visiting (a quick Google search can help, and we’ll include some in this post) will help you be prepared before you travel.
It’s also a good idea to know the local emergency numbers in your destination before travelling. Some spots have special tourist police numbers or bureaus, so doing a quick search before you leave will ensure you have all the necessary info should something bad occur.
Know the most common European scams
While the carpet scam and the Grand Palace scam are unique to Africa and Asia, Europe has plenty of scams to be aware of. It’s best to follow the aforementioned advice and research your country before travelling, but here are some of the most common scams — take note:
- Friendship bracelet scam: Typical in cities like Paris and Milan, someone will tie a friendship bracelet around your wrist and then insist you pay them for it. Or, while you’re distracted, an accomplice will pickpocket you.
- Trileros: Common in Mallorca and other Spanish cities, these scammers will try to get you to play a game of Trilos, where you guess what is hidden beneath a cup. If you get the answer wrong (which you will as the game is rigged), you’ll be asked to pay up.
- Car rental scam: When driving through the Costa Brava, watch out for anyone attempting to signal that you have a flat tire. If you stop, one person distracts you by showing you the “flat” while an accomplice may be stealing your luggage.
- Herb/flower good luck scam: Steer clear of anyone attempting to offer you a sprig of lavender or rosemary for good fortune. While you accept the flower, you may be pickpocketed, or simply followed until you give the scammer money.
- Spilling scam: One scammer will spill ketchup or another liquid on you — even water. While you’re distracted, another will rob you.
- Taxi scams: While these can happen anywhere and in a variety of ways, some of the most typical ones are taking the long route to overcharge you, saying the meter doesn’t work or handing you incorrect change and insisting you paid them with a smaller bill that you actually did.
Here’s how to avoid the above scams (and others):
- Be wary of anyone approaching you. If you need someone or something, like a taxi, guide, tour or want to buy a souvenir, plan to source it yourself. This way, you don’t need to talk to or deal with anyone approaching you. Just walk away. If you see anyone coming towards you with a sprig of lavender or friendship bracelet, immediately hightail it the other way. Keep your hands at your sides, turn away and firmly shake your head and refuse to take hold of anything if you are unable to exit the situation immediately.
- Don’t let anyone touch you. While the concept of personal space in Europe is often non-existent, make sure to stay aware of your personal space and who enters it. When in crowded places or public transportation, instinctively hold your purse a little tighter or put your backpack/wallet in front. If anyone touches you, do a quick scan of all your items. While this may seem extreme, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Guard your belongings at all times. Don’t hang your purse on the back of your chair or put it on the floor — you’re basically asking to get robbed in a city like Barcelona. Only take with you what’s absolutely necessary, and leave the rest (and any important documents like your passport) in the hotel safe.
- Utilise ride-hailing services. It may be best to avoid taxis, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the currency, city or language. This way, you’ll pay via your linked credit card, clearly see the quickest route to your destination via the map on your phone and won’t have to speak to the driver in a new language. And if anything does go wrong, you have a record of the trip on your phone and can complain.
- Be alert when driving a rental car. Don’t stop for anyone when driving — even if someone signals you have a flat. If you stop at a rest stop, take any valuables inside with you, enter in shifts and always keep an eye on your vehicle.
- Be careful with home rentals. If it seems too good to be true, it likely is. Stay at places with several reviews, or that are hosted by “superhosts”. If you arrive at a rental and it’s not what it seems or the host says the rental is full, but they’ll take you to another, immediately contact the platform and document everything. Worst case scenario, find alternative lodgings and sort out your claim later. Having travel insurance may also help if you run into this type of scam.
- Be careful when partying. It’s much easier to scam or rob someone who’s had too much to drink. Have fun, but keep your wits about you so you’re not an easy target.
- Pay with a credit card whenever possible. There’s less room for error if paying with a credit card. No one can give you the wrong change or say you handed them a certain bill when you didn’t.
- Book direct. Try to book flights, hotels and accommodation directly through each vendor’s main website or a reputable online travel agency like Hotels.com or Airbnb.com. Don’t click through from emails to an airline or hotel website, instead, go directly to the website to avoid any funny business.
Here’s what to do if you’ve been scammed
- Don’t panic.
- Contact the tourist police or regular police as quickly as possible to report any scams. Always save a copy of the report.
- If you’ve been physically harmed in any way, get to the hospital immediately.
- Cancel any credit cards or contact the embassy if you need to get a new ID or passport before leaving.
- Contact your travel insurance provider if necessary.
- Don’t be embarrassed. As I explained earlier, scams can happen to anyone, even expert travellers. The best thing you can do is share your experience to help others.
While travel scams aren’t entirely unavoidable, knowing the most common scams and how to protect yourself against them can greatly reduce your risk of becoming a victim.
Featured photo by lvcandy/Getty