10 Tips for Spotting Tourist Traps

As the travel industry grows, so do the opportunities to take advantage and exploit tourists. Here are a few tips on how to avoid tourist traps.

If you have traveled at all, you have probably developed a sort of love-hate relationship with tourist areas. Welcoming millions of tourists on a daily basis, the world’s largest cities are also home to innumerable tourist traps, pickpockets and scams. It’s natural to want to see some of the most famous attractions in the world.  Most of us have made our peace with the notion that experiences, like riding to the top of the Eiffel Tower or taking a gondola ride in Venice, will have a touristy side. However, falling for a scam in a foreign country can completely ruin your experience. Here are the top 10 tips for spotting and handling a tourist trap:

Crowded landmark destinations and tourist spots around the world

Crowded landmark destinations are where travelers should expect to find an abundance of tourist traps.

Do your research

We can’t emphasize this enough. One of the most effective ways to avoid falling into a tourist trap is by doing your homework. Guides like Yelp, blogs and YouTube videos, and checking in with locals are your best bet for current, relevant information.

Take Prague, for instance: most locals will tell you that large beer should not cost more than 50 CZK (2USD).  Anything higher is most certainly a tourist trap. And although hotels in certain areas not far from the city center are half the price, one reason for that is that the neighborhood is just not savory.  You have to be willing to deal with riffraff to enjoy the lower rates.

No locals?

If you’re sitting in a bar or a restaurant, take a look around. Are there any locals there? If not, maybe you should get up and leave. In most cities, tourists almost always eat in the city center, paying exorbitant prices for the subpar quality. To enjoy truly local and delicious food, get off the beaten track and follow the people who know best – the locals. Don’t be afraid to stop someone on the street to ask for recommendations – most people would be happy to help and share advice.

There are countries and cities where servers are instructed to hand out foreign language menus with exorbitant prices. Having a local CityPal with you can ensure that you are charged the local prices and not the “tourist fees”.

Picture of a Singapore Hawker Center where travelers can find inexpensive and very good local food.

Singapore Hawker Center where travelers can find inexpensive and very good local food.

Restaurants with a view/Traditional restaurants

Sure, it’s nice to enjoy a cup of coffee under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, but it’s not the view you’re going to eat, right? Bars and restaurants with views or in prominent places are almost always a tourist trap – they profit from their location and view, you’re rushed, the quality of foods and drinks are compromised, and the prices are much higher as well.

As a general rule, you should also avoid restaurants that advertise themselves as ‘traditional’. How to spot this tourist trap? The sign would always be in English and would say either ‘traditional’ or ‘authentic’ – you can be almost 100% sure there will be nothing authentic about the experience. These are particularly prominent in European cities, like Prague or Budapest.

Street food

Do you know the easiest way to spot a gullible foreigner in Prague? They’ll be eating trdelnik – a sweet pastry which is sold on every corner in the city and marketed as ‘traditional’, although every Czech person would tell you that trdelnik has appeared on the streets of Prague only about 20 years ago. The true traditional and way less expensive street food that Praguers enjoy is a grilled sausage with mustard and a slice of rye bread, or roasted chestnuts.

Street food is, generally, one of the traps tourists fall in (with a few exceptions). Take the street hot dogs of New York as an example.  The city is famous for its food carts but the hot dogs are at most convenient and fast, and apt to give you an upset stomach.  It’s better to spend some time researching or ask a local friend or a CityPal to recommend a place to try out.

Historical Horse & Carriage Rides

Two of the staples of Prague and New York, respectively, are rides in historical/vintage cars or in a horse drawn carriages.  These are one of the most profitable tourist traps. The cars in Prague are replicas of old car models, and in some cases don’t even bear any resemblance to the original. The horse and carriage rides are crazily overpriced, too.  If you intend to take a carriage ride through Central Park in NYC, and are willing to pay hundreds of dollars to do so, that’s fine, but know what you are in for and consider other options (biking, for example).

Picture of Old Town of Prague where a horse carriage ride can prove to be an expensive tourist trap.

Old Town of Prague where a horse carriage ride can prove to be an expensive tourist trap.

Taxi’s Tourist Traps

As a general rule, be careful about taking taxis especially in places like New York, Paris or Bangkok.  Other options like Uber or Liftago are better bets.  If you want a cab to ferry you to the airport or around the city, avoid those asking for a flat rate.  Reputable companies will always use the designated meter.  Knowing the expected cost for transportation is an important research topic during your pre-trip planning.  If you are confident of the prices, feel free to bargain – it can never hurt to negotiate.

Souvenirs from the Busiest Streets

Generally speaking, souvenirs are often a tourist trap but let’s face it, sometimes we just must have that item. In big cities like Paris or Prague, souvenir shops in the city center or located near tourist attractions charge double or triple the price for an item that would be sold for much less farther afield. In China, souvenirs sold at scenic tourist spots are almost always a tourist trap: the prices will be much higher and the quality or authenticity can definitely not be guaranteed.

Too Good to be True

This kind of a tourist trap is found everywhere. You’ve stumbled upon a leather wallet or a designer bag that’s half the price of what High Street shops advertise? If it’s too good to be true, it almost certainly is. As a general rule, luxury items sold at a steep discount are fake, and fakes abound.  A better bet would be luxury brands outlets often located outside of city centers where you know what you are getting.

Picture of Illegal street vendors with brand copies in Barcelona

Illegal street vendors with brand copies in Barcelona

Tea with Strangers

Locals in large and popular tourist destinations are busy living their own daily lives. That’s why you should be somewhat wary towards people who are aggressively friendly. Take the ‘tea with a stranger’ tourist scam that’s popular in China. The scam involves a friendly and often attractive stranger who invites you to share a meal or tea with them, usually to practice their English. If you fall for it, the stranger would disappear just before the bill arrives, leaving you to cover their part, too. Or coerce you into buying exorbitantly priced tea and tea accouterments. Usually, the owner of the restaurant, bar or a shop is in on the scam.

Exchange Offices

A common tourist trap is a foreign exchange office. It’s best to do your research – both online and by walking around and comparing prices. Many cities are notorious for exorbitant exchange rates in the exchange offices located in the city center. Check the exchange rate at a reputable bank first and then choose street exchange office based on that knowledge. The rate on a street might be higher or have hidden fees.  A place that asks you to sign anything, pay them a commission or rushes you into making a decision is almost assuredly a tourist trap, too.

Use the comments section and include your suggestions for avoiding tourist traps.

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