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Don't fall for these tourist traps! Expert travelers share tips and things to avoid

By Kara Santos Published Apr 02, 2024 9:20 pm

Exploring new destinations for the first time can be exciting, but it’s not always fun and games. Dream vacations can quickly turn sour when you’re constantly faced with underwhelming experiences, overpriced souvenirs, or if you fall victim to travel scams while on the road.

Looking for a more authentic travel experience? PhilSTAR L!fe asked a few seasoned travel experts to share common tourist traps they’ve personally encountered and how travelers can avoid these.

Booking 'cheap' package tours

Lilliane Cobiao, the travel blogger behind Wanderlass, said one of the most common tourist traps is joining “cheap” group package tours instead of exploring on their own. 

“At first glance, they may seem sulit. For example, 6 days for $600 inclusive of flights, hotels, meals, and attractions, but in reality, when you dissect it, they aren’t. You can find yourselves spending a significant amount of time in transit, with limited time actually spent at the destinations themselves. They’re often fast-paced and tiring,” Cobiao, who has extensive experience in long-term travel around the world, told L!fe.

While she acknowledges the attraction of multi-country tours that allow travelers (especially first-timers) who want to tick off many destinations in one trip, she said travelers should be aware of what they're getting into. 

Accommodations provided on these types of tours, according to Cobiao, may be of lower quality, while dining experiences tend to be at tourist-oriented restaurants, which “may not offer authentic cuisine.” She pointed out how these tours often include stops at “tourist trap shopping locations,” such as shops selling jade or traditional medicines in Asia or carpets in Morocco.

“The best travel for me is DIY travel; then you can go to places you want to go to. With the amount of information available online—be it blogs or vlogs—it’s easier than ever to do the kind of trip you want to do,” she said.

George “JP” Ordoña, an accredited DOT Tour Guide and Philippine STAR travel columnist (Manilakad & Beyond), says travelers could extend trips to explore on their own after package tours.

“Package tours are convenient but itineraries are fixed and they bring you to unwanted shopping places. The solution is after you get your bearings from the package tours, spend a few days on your own,” Ordoña told L!fe.

Shopping for overpriced souvenirs

General manager of travel agency BASK Travel and Tours Amor Tejada, who personally visits the destinations she offers during her tours, said being taken to expensive shopping areas near famous landmarks is a typical tourist trap.

“Be aware, once a place gets famous, it becomes more pricey because they know that tourists will visit their place. During our visit to Turkiye, we went to Grand Bazarre in Istanbul, the biggest shopping area in the city. The price of items there is double compared to the shops we visited in a small town in Cappadocia. Luckily, we already bought pasalubong at more reasonable prices,” Tejada told L!fe.

To avoid overspending, she advises travelers to do their research on how much items cost and to patronize small shops in less touristy areas, which offer goods at better prices. Likewise, Ordoña advises travelers to seek out small markets and bazaars for their shopping needs.

“In Beijing, I skipped mall shopping and went to Panjiayuan Flea Market which was not part of the package tour,” he said, adding how the guide refused to tell him how to get to the flea market in the first place, which was a red flag.

It also helps to master the art of haggling or just avoid conversations with vendors so you don’t end up buying overpriced souvenirs in top destinations like Bali, Hong Kong, and Vietnam.

“Go to the malls first and get familiar with the price range. When you go to their tiangge, don’t ask the price unless you are sure of buying,” said Ordoña.

Not verifying if destinations are closed

Public relations professional Kelly Austria, who frequently travels locally and internationally for work, says being falsely told a destination is closed is another tactic used to fool travelers.

“This is a common scam in Bangkok, where tuk-tuk drivers claim that the temple you want to visit is closed and suggest another temple. Luckily, our inn had a warning poster about this, so we were aware and didn't fall for it. True enough, the temple we wanted to visit was open and welcoming visitors,” said Austria.

Ordoña experienced the same scenario during his travels. “While in China, I went to the Mao Mausoleum on my own, which the guide said was closed. We were in Tiananmen Square and I knew the Mao Mausoleum was open because I could see a long line, so I knew the guide was lying,” he said. 

He advises travelers to explore on their own, verify information with other sources, and follow their gut. These days, with the internet, it’s easy to verify operating hours or closures online just to make sure a place is open.

Shelling out for expensive private transport

Spending on expensive transportation like taxis is another avoidable expense, according to travel experts.

“After a long day of walking, most tourists are tired and just want to get back to their hotel as quickly as possible. Or when they do a lot of shopping and can't carry all their stuff anymore, the tendency is to take a cab. We went to a bar during our trip in South Korea and by the time we finished, the subway was already closed. We didn't download any app since we were on a package tour and the cab was the only option we had that time. The charge was almost triple than the usual fare,” shared Tejada.

To avoid this, she suggests: “Never ride unmetered taxis, use apps such as Uber or Grab when visiting a country and know their transportation system.”

It also helps to plan your explorations within public train hours and avoid surge pricing or explore areas within walking distance from your hotel at night. 

Likewise, Austria points out how travelers can save cash by making use of public boats instead of hiring private ones for island-hopping tours. 

“An operator was pressuring us to rent a boat from him at a price we found exorbitant. We started negotiations at P3,000 for a round-trip journey, eventually reducing it to P1,200 for a one-way trip to Sambawan Island,” Austria said, recounting an experience in Biliran.

They discovered they could ride a passenger boat instead which turned out to be more economical, costing them only P100 each. Be aware of standard rates and ask locals or fellow passengers how much rides on public transport cost.

Paying extra for hidden charges

Travelers should also be aware of hidden charges added to their bills when dining out.

“In Vietnam, as soon as we sat down at a restaurant, we were served nibblers and wet wipes. We initially thought it was a sign of excellent customer service. However, we were surprised when we received the bill and had to pay for all these extras,” said Austria.

It’s possible to be charged extra for items you assume are free, such as wet wipes, paper towels, and even drinking water. And while the costs may be minimal, these can add up in the long run or if you’re in a large group.

How do you avoid this? Ask the restaurant staff beforehand to ensure that you won’t be charged. You could also bring your own wet wipes, hand sanitizer, and a tumbler of water when you dine out. Be sure to scrutinize all the items in your bill before paying and ask for items to be removed if you didn’t use them.

Being targets for pickpockets

Getting your cash, cards, or passport stolen when traveling abroad is a nightmare no traveler wants to face.

Melo Villareal, the travel blogger behind Out of Town Blog who shared his ordeal on his travel blog says that no matter how well-traveled you are, sometimes you learn the hard way. Despite his extensive local and international travel experience, as well as warnings from fellow Filipinos about the mode of operation of gypsies, he still lost travel documents in Madrid and was pickpocketed in Paris because “everything happened so fast.” 

While waiting for their tour guide, they were approached by a group of young gypsies asking if they spoke English and if they could help them sign a petition paper. "About four of the teenagers approached me; one was asking me to sign the petition paper, while another one was asking if we could kiss. The request was so weird coming from a total stranger, so I refused,” Villareal recounted to L!fe.

Once the group started walking away, that’s when they realized that one of the kids had managed to unzip his sling bag and steal his wallet. After he shouted for help, the kids all started running away. 

“From afar, I saw one of the guys open my wallet and collect the cash inside before throwing it down on the floor. I immediately picked up my wallet and checked; though they took my 900 Euro, they left all the ATM cards. I was also grateful I kept my passport inside another pocket,” he said.

Villareal offers practical advice, such as carrying your bag in front (not to the side or back), only carrying enough cash for the day in one wallet, distributing cash in different pockets, and leaving important items in your hotel.

“Most of these gypsies will approach you by asking ‘Do you speak English?’ Just don’t talk or avoid them altogether, especially if they ask for your signature for a petition,” he said. He also suggests bringing a whistle and using it when you feel threatened or shouting “Police” if needed. 

Not being aware of local scams

Cobiao said travelers should be aware of common local street scams to avoid being victimized. Aside from being asked to sign fake petitions, other tactics include selling fake jewelry or tickets to free attractions such as temples.

“One time, long ago in Budapest, while riding the tram, I was approached by a ‘ticket controller’ to check my ticket. I proudly presented a validated ticket. She then told me that my ticket was not the right ticket as it was for the metro, not the tram. So, she fined me €20 (P1,200), only to later discover that this was a popular scam,” she said. 

According to the travel expert, scammers know people are normally anxious with authority figures and tend to fall for this easily. “It was a €20 lesson to smarten up,” she added, recounting how the incident was “basically a hold-up in broad daylight.”

“The lesson is to always be vigilant, paranoid, and suspicious of people. Ask to see an ID and a receipt,” she added.

Another thing travelers should be wary of is receiving "free" gifts. Being offered such items by strangers who befriend you isn't a sweet gesture, but a scam where you'll be asked to pay. Villareal recounted an incident in Paris where he was approached by a person outside a restaurant asking if he was Filipino.

"A bit surprised, I said yes and he immediately shared that he has so many Filipino friends. He quickly gave me a rose and told me he loves befriending every Filipino he meets,” shared Villareal. Since he was aware of the scam, he refused to accept the rose, but saw the same person asking for money from another older traveler in exchange for the flower.

The lesson: “Beware of gifts from strangers.” While it may seem rude, it’s best to avoid and ignore people offering gifts. Even a smile, a frown, or simple eye contact, could be taken as a sign of acknowledgment and make you a target.