Avoiding Taxi Scams in Europe

By Rick Steves

Though many Americans are wired to assume that taxi drivers in other countries are up to no good, I've also found that most drivers are honest. Sure, scams happen. But with the right tips and a watchful eye, you'll get where you want to go without being taken for a ride.

Be extra careful at airports and train stations. Dishonest cabbies often lurk at major transit points, ready to take advantage of travelers who are jet-lagged and travel-weary — just when they're most susceptible to getting ripped off. If you don't want to worry about getting conned the minute you arrive at a new destination, plan ahead.

In many cities, you can arrange for an airport shuttle bus to pick you up at the airport and zip you straight to your hotel (you can ask your hotelier for a recommended service). Another option, much cheaper than a taxi ride, is taking public transportation into town. Recently, I took a speedy train from Rome's airport to the train station downtown, then caught a bus from there to my hotel. It took me less than an hour, and while a taxi would have cost me about $65, I paid about $38 — for the train fare and a handy transit pass that lasted me all week.

If you want to take a taxi from the airport, it's better to head for the official taxi stand and join the queue rather than flag one down.

Always choose a well-marked cab. It should have a big, prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Avoid using unmarked beaters with makeshift taxi lights on top.

In some cities, it's easy to flag down a cab; in any city, you can find cabs at a taxi stand. These stands are often listed as prominently as subway stations on city maps; look for the little Ts (or ask a local to direct you to the nearest one).

When you need a ride from a hotel or restaurant, you can have the staff call a taxi for you (or you can phone a taxi yourself). This can dramatically decrease your odds of getting ripped off, but be aware that in many places, the meter starts ticking from the time the call is received. Note that if you have an early-morning flight to catch, it'll save you some stress (and cost nothing beyond the usual supplements) to have your hotelier book a cab for you the day before.

Establish a price or rough estimate up front. It's usually best to make sure the cabbie uses the taxi meter. But for certain standard trips (such as to or from the airport), it can be common for the cabbie to use a set price. Know the going rate — ask your hotelier or the tourist office in advance how much a taxi ride should cost to your destination. You can check your guidebook or World Taximeter for estimated taxi fares in larger cities.

Sometimes tourists wrongly accuse their cabbies of taking the long way around or adding unfair extras. But what can seem like a circuitous route may still be the shortest, given pedestrianized zones and one-way streets. And many supplements are legit, based on the time of day (nights, early mornings, and weekends), amount of baggage, extra people, airport taxes, port fees, and so on.

In cities such as London, Paris, and Barcelona, meters are tamper-proof. That said, even cabbies with honest meters have ways of overcharging tourists. One common trick is for cabbies to select the pricier "night and weekend" rate on their meter during a weekday. An explanation of the different meter rates should be posted somewhere in the cab, often in English; if you're confused about the tariff, ask your cabbie to explain. If you suspect foul play, following the route on your map or conspicuously writing down the cabbie's license information can shame a cad into being honest.

Pay with small bills. Using small bills minimizes your chance of getting ripped off. If you only have a large bill, state the denomination out loud as you hand it to the cabbie. They can be experts at dropping your €50 note and then showing you a €20. Count your change. If, for whatever reason, I'm charged a ridiculous price for a ride, I put a reasonable sum on the seat and say good-bye. Don't be intimidated by a furious cabbie.