Changing money is an activity that should be confined to banks and licensed establishments, or ATMs, which will dispense cash in local currency. Avoid moneychangers who approach you on the street or in terminals promising you a better rate; these guys are skilled at counting out money and then palming some of it back as you conclude the exchange.
Finally, if you must transact business with these people, do it at a table or other surface where the money can be counted out into visible piles. Be prepared for them to balk at this suggestion.
The most common scam is shortchanging, because it takes advantage of foreigners’ inferior knowledge of the language, abetted by lack of familiarity with the local currency. It works on every level, from cheating backpackers to fleecing the rich. Take your tine and count your change carefully before walking away from the cash register.
The Bus Ticket Switch
A bit more sophisticated than the wrong change con is the bus ticket switch: you pay for a round-trip ticket but are given a one-way ticket. The first way to avoid this is to get to the station in plenty of time so you’re not rushing to buy a ticket and running to catch a departing bus. Secondly, as above, get into the habit of counting your change slowly and out loud after this (and every) transaction. If you are victimized, don’t be shy about approaching the police, especially if the country has a Tourism Police Force. Just be aware that following through could cut into your travel time.
The “Friendly” Local
Be slightly wary of friendly people who offer to be your guide. This is a tricky situation, because some of your best travel experiences can be spending time with local people. If they suggest going to a restaurant, be prepared either to pay for them or explain that you can not afford a restaurant but you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee, or a beer, etc.
If they suggest going to a restaurant, be prepared either to pay for them or explain that you can not afford a restaurant but you’d like to buy them a cup of coffee, or a beer, etc. If they offer to take you somewhere in a taxi, use your best judgment in deciding how far it is and if it is worth your time and money to go there (and back). If they’re genuine, you can always beg off and say you’ll meet them there the next day.
One of the best ways to prepare for these eventualities is to carry small souvenirs of your home city or country that you can dispense as little thank-you gifts to all sorts of people who show you kindnesses.
Watch out when taking taxis. If there is a meter, insist on using it. If not, or if it is “broken,” negotiate an agreed fare in advance. It is inevitable that once in a while you will fall victim to an unscrupulous driver who takes the long way or pulls something else.
Border crossings call for extra caution: buses are preferable to taking taxis; some taxi drivers have been known to rip foreigners off by taking them to fake checkpoints, or to lie about border crossing hours of operation in order to snag an extra fare late in the day.
Practice money vigilance.
Just about everyone knows by now that travelers’ checks are a thing of the past; with ATMs in every country now, the new money is plastic. I am in the habit of carrying three cards: two ATM cards (stored separately on my person, with precautions taken against pickpockets) and one credit card. (One does not need two bank accounts to have two ATM cards; you can get prepaid ones these days.)
Overkill, you say? Perhaps, but consider this: aside from the threat of one being stolen, a bank can temporarily suspended your credit card, “for your own protection.” What had set off alarm bells at the bank? Sudden ATM withdrawals (many times your own) from different cities while traveling.