Last Updated on September 3, 2023 by Christine Kaaloa
As thrilling as it is to explore new destinations independently, it’s crucial to be prepared for potential tourist scams that target unsuspecting travelers. In this blog post, I shed light on the travel scams to avoid if you travel solo and tips to help you navigate unfamiliar territories with confidence.
This post may contain affiliate links. I never leave home without travel insurance. Click for the tirip insurance finder tool to find one that matches your budget. I use World Nomads because it covers adventures that many other insurances don’t. I also get the plan that covers gear and travel theft.
Despite what some may think, that solo travelers make easy targets because they are alone, I disagree completely. Travelers in a group can make ideal targets for things like pickpocket and theft. But solo travelers only have themselves to look out for and make decisions. This weight of being responsible for your choices can make solo travelers feel hyperaware, anxious and vulnerable.
Travel Scams to AVOID if you are Travel Alone
Whether you’re planning a solo backpacking trip or a solo business venture, avoiding travel scams and knowing how to deal with or prevent them, safeguards your peace of mind so you can appreciate your independence more. Here’s some common tourist scams to beware of.
1. “Your hotel burned down…”
Your hotel burned down is an all too common redirection scam to deter you from your original hotel so the scam artist can take you to their hotel, where they’re likely receiving a kickback.
- Always call your hotel in advance or on the spot to confirm all is good for your arrival. Many hotels and hotel booking services send you friendly email reminders about your stay, but all the same, this scam can work with naive travelers.
- Book a hotel with airport pickup service so you don’t have to worry about getting to your hotel.
- Buy a local SIM or put your mobile service on roaming so you have access to a phone and can make phone calls or mapquest your route.
- Use ride share. Rideshares allow you to give drivers ratings and some allow you to leave reviews.
2. “That attraction is closed.”
“That attraction is closed.” is another redirection tactic scammers use to free your plans up so they can seduce you to their tour and souvenir or gem shops. I had this happen to me when I was visiting Bangkok’s Sometimes, they have agreements with the shop owners to bring you there in exchange for payment. I always check to see if the attraction is indeed closed.
3. A stranger leaves you a bracelet, pin, etc…
If a stranger places a pin, jewelry or friendship token before you and walks away, do not take it unless you want to make a donation. It’s not free. But if you want to support the community and it’s inexpensive, at least choose one that’s cute.
I’ve had my run in with a Bangkok taxi scamming me or wanting to take me to commission shops. I’ve had Indian and Thai taxis try to drive without the meter, by telling me it was broken. I’ve even had an angry Indian taxi driver leave me in a dark street at 11pm because he was going in the opposite way of the railway station (according to Google Maps) and I had called him on it. He tried to intimidate me by yelling at me, but when I wasn’t scared, he told me to get out!
- Ride share apps like Uber and Lyft are a more reliable and trustworthy option, although I’ve heard of stories with those too. But when it comes to cash-free transactions, the ability to track your driver in real time and rate your ride, the rideshare services are still better than taxis.
- Ask a local what their most reliable form of transportation is. In Sri Lanka, there were many rideshare tuk tuk services. In Mexico, Didi Driver app was more reliable than Uber. In Nepal, they have Pathao and In-Drive where you can hire cars to motorbike transportation. My hotel concierge recommended In-Drive as his favorite due to the costs. But expats I talked to preferred Pathao as slightly more in costs, but safer and more reliable.
Note: There may be rules about ride share and where they can/cannot go. In cities, taxi drivers have a tension with ride share drivers, especially when it comes to airports. In Cancun, Ubers are allowed to enter the airports, but they’re not allowed to pick up passengers and if caught by taxi drivers, this could spell a fight.
- Beware of private or luxury taxis. They’re not quite scams but some will try to lure you away from the normal ones and charge a higher price. New York and Seoul black sedan taxis are infamous for this. But the locals also know there’s a price difference between them. Only unsuspecting tourists don’t.
- Never tell a taxi driver it is your first time in that city, even if it is. Never let them know if you are alone. It’s always good to take a photo of your taxi driver’s name/permit so you can report him if anything sketchy happens and it’s also handy, if you’re the forgetful type of traveler, who leaves your belongings in the car.
- If the meter is broken, find another taxi. Period. Foreign travelers don’t know the going rate per distance. Taxis do and this is taking advantage of helpless tourists that don’t know better.
- If a taxi driver offers to take you shopping when you want to go elsewhere, tell them you’re meeting a friend and cannot waste time. These days there are so many ride-share services that I’m surprised taxis still attempt occasional scams.
5. Bogus Officials
Scam artists sometimes pose as bogus police, offering to guide you to somewhere safe, but often they will lure you to a shop where they get commission kickbacks or god forbid– somewhere worse where you are robbed. I was lost in the streets of Marrakesh, when a friendly officer offered to guide me to where I was going. I saw his police uniform and immediately assumed I could trust him. But instead of helping me find my way out of the maze of streets and to the main bazaar, he led me deeper into the streets and ultimately into the basement of a leather shop during after hours. By then, I knew he wasn’t a police officer. He gave me a tour of their empty tannery (the workers had gone home) and said if I wanted to buy anything. A salesman came out and I started to feel outnumbered, pressured and unsafe. So I quickly told them I was late, had to go meet a friend and quickly scampered out. The bogus police let me leave and after that, I only approached Moroccan women to ask for directions.
- Do carry a fake wallet.
- Never tell strangers you are solo. Always let them know you are traveling with a friend/husband/wife, so they know someone will search for you if you go missing.
- Avoid carrying all your money/valuables on you . Always leave the majority of your withdrawn cash in your hotel safe. I like also personally like to split my money into different stash pockets when I sightsee.
Check out my post how to deal with scammers, touts and beggars
6. Counterfeit companies
Counterfeit travel and tour agencies exist. In Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, they are virtually everywhere and they sell their services in the name of reputable companies. I cannot tell you how many Vietnam Airlines shops I’ve seen! And while you may still get decent service should you go with a counterfeit tour company or business, it’s all still shady.
- Write down your tour company’s address beforehand. When I was dropped off for my trekking tour with a reputable tour company, my driver didn’t know which address to take me to as there was a counterfeit shop down the street.
READ How to find reputable tour companies in Vietnam (and not get ripped off!)
7. Fake takeout menus slipped under your hotel door.
I’ve not encountered this one, but only heard about it, where scammers leave fake food menus under your hotel door and when you call the number, place an order with your credit card, you won’t receive your food. Always check with the hotel reception desk before ordering or better yet, check your Google Maps for nearby food options.
8. Car Rental Damage
Always check your car rental before leaving the car rental parking lot, especially if you didn’t take the damage waiver. I rented a car in Los Angeles with Enterprise car rental (yes, Enterprise). It was not the airport branch but one of the local ones in Hollywood. They tried to encourage me to buy collision and damage insurance and when I declined, they warned me about fees I’d incur if I returned the car with any “golf-ball sized dings”. They even showed me an example which I thought was weird at the time. I declined it because I bought collision insurance through Expedia where I booked the car and I had paid for my booking with my American Express card. I was doubly insured. I used the car for one day and minimally at that. At night, I parked it in a quiet and nice neighborhood. The next day I returned it, they found guess what– a “golf ball sized ding” under the running board under my car door and on the roof! Oddly, no paint was scratched and the dings were in two spots you’d not think to look! I eventually fought this through my American Express insurance and won, but still, it had me upset for weeks and I pledged to never use Enterprise car rental again.
- Ask the car rental agent to lead you around during your car check. Request the rental agent show you common places you need to watch out for. Check above and below the car. Beware of the “golf-ball-sized” warnings.
- Take photos of questionable damage or scratch in advance.
- Ask for proof the car the car did not enter the autobody shop within the last six months. Okay, so you are hit with a suspicious damage, and it’s in a location that you didn’t think to look at. Ask for the car’s repair records for the last six months to prove
- Buy trip insurance. By now, getting basic trip insurance is a given. Travel rewards cards like my American Express card and Chase Sapphire card come with free and auto collision insurance for car rental situations built into it while also offering perks like free checked luggage and enough bonus mileage for your first free trip..
You can find trip insurance plans in your budget here.
9. Motorbike Rental Damage
You’re renting a motorbike in Thailand or Bali and they ask for your passport. Some travelers don’t want to give it as it is sensitive information and it is really not necessary. Some companies will use it as a security deposit as travelers DO get into motorbike accidents often. This is why trip insurance is handy and I always get it ( World Nomads is the best because they cover activities like this, where other insurances do not)
- Do not give out itinerary information on where you’re staying. Some tourists have found their motorbike tires slashed overnight or their bikes stolen.
- If this happens to you, get a police report. You cannot claim insurance without it. Also, take photos and do not trust the motorbike company’s repair quote if it feels excessive. Get it estimated or offer to get it repaired elsewhere.
10. Buying expensive jewelry or gems
Okay, I’m not a big jewelry or gem person, so I’ve only heard of this scam, which is being taken to a scam jewelry shop and being sold fake gems. Don’t trust a taxi driver or a random person off the street, who wants to take you jewelry shopping.
- Do your research and only purchase gems from legitimate gem dealers.
11. Destitute Mother with Baby
You may have seen a mother with an infant in her arms begging (or for that matter, a homeless person cradling a dog– these really make me mad). In many cases, the infant does not always belong to the beggar (and the dog is stolen). Other examples are begging children, and cripped or blind beggars. This is a tactic to gain sympathy and although you have good intentions, the money does not often go to the beggar, but to whom they work for or to an addiction. After the movie Slum Dog Millionaire came out, it exposed how children are used by gangs to work as beggars.
One traveler said they bought milk for a begging mother with an infant at a nearby milk shop, only to witness the mother return the milk back to the shop, where they paid her. I’ve bought food for beggars only for them to not know what to do with it. The moral is, you don’t know if the panhandler is truly who they appear to be, …if they’re using your money in the way that is intimated… or if there is a larger scam at play.
- If you want to make a donation, do so to The Red Cross, Salvation Army or charitable non-profit that assists homeless families. Donate to the organizations you know are helping many recover from poverty.
Check out 30 Responsible tips for Ethical Travelers to avoid situations like these!
12. Credit Card Identity theft
Always keep your credit card in your eyeshot. Anyone can take it to the back and take a photo of it.
I once checked into a hotel and within a few days, my credit card company flagged a notice about a huge Best Buy purchase made in the city I was in. At the time, I traveled a lot for work at the time and always had to put a credit card down for my hotels, so I opened a separate credit card that I used strictly for staying at hotels and work incidentals.
- Keep a separate account for travel and travel debit/credit cards. Some travelers like to travel with a prepaid credit card so if their card gets stolen, they only lose the money the put on it.
- Place notifications on your credit card so you are notified each time the card is used for a purchase.
Read my tips for using international ATMs abroad if you’re concerned about money
13. Gypsies and pickpockets
There are many types of pickpockets out there. The ones you hear most about are gypsies in Europe like Barcelona, Paris, Rome, Athens. Sometimes, they come in the form of an overly helpful local who helps you clean up mustard that’s spilled upon you. Many of them stand outside train and metro stations waiting for an unsuspecting traveler to help and sometimes they can work in teams to distract their targets as their accomplice does the stealing. I’ve had a gypsy who was an obvious gypsy wait at a train station in Bologna to help passengers buy their ticket in exchange for money. In my case,I actually needed help in buying my ticket so I let her show me how but kept my credit card far from her. All I had on me was a yogurt, so unfortunately that’s all I could pay her with.
- Always hold strangers at a distance from you and utilize the street smart tips in this linked post.
- Situational awareness. Be aware of your surroundings and hold your bags close to you. If you’re going into a crowded train or bus, swivel your bag in front of you and place your hand over it to show you’re prepared for pickpockets.
- Carry anti-theft purses (here’s wonderful recommendations here and here)
- I wrote more tips about travel theft on this post 27 ways to prevent pickpockets
14. Overly friendly locals & quick friendships
Some locals may want to take you home with them or treat you to a drink. Ask yourself what you did to merit that hospitality. In Kyoto, I once met an unusual grandma on the bus who wanted to take me home to meet her nephew. In Japan you don’t think about scams because the country overall feels safe. But while I wasn’t looking that grandma was trying to look into my backpack and when I turned back she whipped her hand away.
As a solo traveler, I have a tendency to make fast friendships with locals and other travelers. I’ve gotten bold about inviting travelers to split the costs of a room with me or to share a taxi. But while I like to give strangers the benefit of the doubt, I never drop my guard. When meeting people, I always have my window rolled up high until they prove themselves and over time, I slowly roll that window down to half way.
15. Attractive Flirts
This is more for the guys than the ladies, but I’ve heard stories from guy friends where they’ve been picked up by local ladies while sightseeing and the lady wants them to visit a bar with them to get to know each other better. When they are lured there, the female in question has them buy drinks, gets them drunk and then robs them.
I had a male friend that met a Chinese woman in Beijing at the Great Wall and she took him to a bar where she had him keep buying drinks for her. That’s too common scenario for bar escorts in Asia.
I’ve heard of more dicey scams, where the male is lured into meeting the woman’s male friends in a gambling room and the male traveler finds themselves pushed into playing cards, until the friendly game quickly turns into betting and they have difficulty escaping. Avoid the attractive flirts.
16. Taking photos of street performers
Think twice, before you snap at street performers! The moment you snap, be prepared to pay for that photo. I especially do not like street performers who use animals as entertainment because of the exploitation. When the animal does not perform they are punished. Your dollars are not going to their care. Read my post on responsible travel tips for ethical travelers
17. Being charged double gratuity
Always check restaurant bills carefully. Sometimes, they’ve already added a gratuity or even a double gratuity. It’s not really a scam but still, make sure you’re not tipping twice.
As an American, this sometimes accidentally forget this rule, that in some places, gratuity is already added. Traveling Memphis, they not only had a gratuity, but one place also charged me an extra dollar for a Ukraine relief fund. Mexico occasionally adds in a gratuity charge as well. Always, always check your bill when you get it.
18.The Sob story
Spare a quarter? I can’t afford the plane ticket, bus ticket… home. We’ve all heard this a couple of times, if not seen it written on cardboard signs at the on-ramp of a highway. Often that is a form of manipulative begging to get you to help by donating money. With beggars, they’re not going home but often using it for a drug problem. Panhandlers in the U.S. can make as much as a $100/day doing that and it does not motivate them into finding a job when that is their job.
19. Cashiers and money changers will count your money fast.
Always check your money when you receive it from a local money changer. Recount the money before you walk away and stand in front of the changer while you do this. Some money exchanger will try to switch money on you or return less the amount they’ve quoted. For this reason, I avoid money changers and prefer ATMs at reputable local banks during banking hours or I’ll go to the airport exchange when I arrive, even if I know i’m paying a little more in the exchange value.
Additionally, when you make purchases at stores, using large bills, always recount your money. I have a bad habit of not doing this and sometimes, cashiers can be flawed. You want to make sure you’re getting your correct amount back.
- Break your large bills ASAP so you’re not breaking change often.
- Read my tips on Dos & Don’ts of ATMs abroad
How do you prevent travel theft and scams?
1. Research in a new city and possible scams before you travel
Research is the best way to prevent tourist scams because most scammers prey on naive tourists. I like to Google “common tourist scams + (insert name of city)” to see what article it pops up. In some destinations, like southeast Asia and Thailand, scams can feel like harmless bug bites. But in major cities like Rome, Barcelona, New York, they can feel much more intimidating.
2. Travel with anti-theft gear and accessories
Buying anti-theft bags and accessories certainly helps prepare you in avoiding pickpockets and theft. Check out this post for a variety of ways I avoid travel theft. Here’s a couple of posts on anti-theft purses and bags for solo female travelers.
3. Avoid places that house unfavorable characters
There are some places that just breed scams with sketchy characters and red light behavior. In Bangkok, I went to a ping pong show with some folks I met at a hostel and the night quickly turned from silly to dark when the mamma of the house, blocked the exit until we purchased more drinks.
Going to a ping pong show is a regret of mine, not because of the scam but because of how degrading it is to women- AVOID THIS at all costs.
4. Practice street smarts
Street smarts is soethign I use on all my trips. It basically means that I don’t let my guard fall for anything, because I am the sole person responsible for my life. When traveling abroad solo, you are responsible for your life. Don’t entrust it to others. Check out my street smart safety tips
5. Trust your intuition and gut
If something doesn’t feel right, then it usually isn’t. Trust what your instincts are telling you. As solo travelers, our intuition is usually on high to protect us. Listen to it.
6. Buy Trip Insurance
While you cannot always prevent bad things from happening to you, you can be insured enough to be compensated for some of it. I use World Nomads because it covers a lot of the adventure activities I do that other trip insurances won’t like riding a motorbike, scuba diving, trekking, etc..
Have you been a target of a tourist scam? What would you recommend in travel scams to AVOID if you’re traveling alone?
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