Top 5 International Travel Scams I Have Encountered and How to Avoid Them


Ever since I was a young boy, I had always wanted to travel to Turkey. I had heard and read so much about its unique blend of culture, architecture and cuisine. Istanbul had everything I would ever want to experience as a traveler. I just had to visit.

The stars aligned in 2013 and I was on my way to my dream destination. Yes, I was finally flying in to Istanbul! The flight had been a breeze. I had cleared immigration and collected my bags and was heading leisurely towards the queue for taxis. Little did I know that as I was pre-paying for the ride, my life’s first travel scam was upon me. I had handed over a 200 Lira note for a 86 Lira ride only to get 14 Lira back instead of 114. As I demanded my money back, the taxi driver tried to convince me aggressively that I had given him a 100 Lira note instead of 200. He also threatened to call his buddies if I did not relent. I had to back off. I had lost about 3,500 rupees in a wink and had had a disastrous start to my dream vacation. This is the story of my first travel scam.

Photo of Istanbul, Turkey by Rohan Sood

I could have blamed the jet lag, the language barrier, or the red eye flight I was on, but the fact is that I should have been more alert. I have since traveled to almost two dozen countries and have seen plenty of sneaky tricks that scamsters have tried to pull on me. I am sharing a few of my ‘favorites’, with hopes that you never let these travel scams happen to you.

1) The ‘You Have Something on Your Back’ Travel Scam

This travel scam is popular in South America and begins by someone smearing ketchup on your back without you noticing. Then a seemingly innocent bystander will tell you about the stain and offer you a tissue. What they are really trying to do is for you to take off your backpack or purse so that they run away with it.

If you find yourself in such a situation, it is always wise to pretend that you do not understand the local language and keep walking. You can always check your back for stains later.

2) The Million Dollar Tea Travel Scam

On my last trip to China, my girlfriend and I were busy checking out the Forbidden City when two friendly young women approached us and started a conversation. As someone who is always eager to interact with locals, I was instantly drawn in to the interaction. The next thing we know, they had offered to show us around an ‘authentic’ part of Beijing and to drink some tea together. As much as we wanted to, we had had a long day and politely declined the offer.

When I checked with our staff at the hostel, we were told that this is a popular Chinese scam where young women often lure foreigners in to paying hundreds of dollars for regular tea and food. That was a close escape! Always ensure you do not engage for too long with overly welcoming and persistent locals.

Photo of Forbidden City, Jingshan Front Street, Dongcheng, Beijing, China by Rohan Sood

3) The Flying Frenchman Travel Scam

You wanted to visit Paris with the love of your life for the longest time. And you made it. You are now standing under the Eiffel Tower, wanting to capture this fleeing moment in time. Almost magically, a Frenchman appears out of nowhere, offering to take a photo of you. You tuck your shirt in, suck in your beer-belly in and get ready to pose. POOF! The Frenchman has disappeared in to thin air and so has your phone!

While traveling, I almost always ask other tourists to take my photos and I offer to take theirs’ in return. A little game of mutual backscratching could save you a phone.

4) The ‘Attraction is Closed’ Travel Scam

Most popular tourist attractions such as museums and gardens are closed on certain days of the week and scamsters have figured out a way to leverage that as well. As you approach your destination, you will be met by a person who tells you that the venue is closed for the day. As you dive deep in to disappointment, he/she will offer to take you elsewhere, that is somehow ‘better’ and even cheaper. Secretly, that person is an agent for the other establishment and is steering customers towards his business, while also making you pay him for the transportation.

It does not take much to google operating hours of museums and other such destinations so that you avoid such travel scams.

Photo of American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West, New York, NY, USA by Rohan Sood

5) The Free Wi-Fi Travel Scam

It is difficult to resist the urge to post a selfie on Instagram or to check on your friends on Facebook while you are on the road. Unfortunately, you did not activate international roaming and the craving for free Wi-Fi is sky high.

You have been looking for open Wi-fi networks on your phone for a while and have just about given up. And then you see it. A network that reads ‘Free Wi-fi’. You connect to it without a care in the world and have just dropped a lit Instagram post. Little do you know that that network was set up by scammers. Such ‘data thieves’ often set up tempting unsecure Wi-fi hotspots in popular tourist locations that unsuspecting victims eagerly connect to. This gives them access to your phone, passwords, and other data.

Always remember that there is no such thing as a free lunch in this world. Make sure you only connect to official Wi-fi hotspots at tourist places.

Unfortunately, there are many more travel scams than the ones I have encountered. Your best bet is to thoroughly research the destinations you visit, and to always stay alert regardless of where you are on vacation. In case you find yourself on the verge of being scammed, simply walk away in often your best bet.

A traveler at heart, I have been to 22 countries on 6 continents. My favorite experiences are plunging in to sub-zero Antarctic waters, renovating a Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka and hiking Borneon jungles. I am also an engineer, a public speaker, a sustainability believer and a polar explorer. Follow my misadventures on and Instagram @geeknextdoor

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