Travel

Ways You're Getting Ripped Off When You Travel Abroad

Henn Photography/Cultura/Getty Images
Henn Photography/Cultura/Getty Images
Henn Photography/Cultura/Getty Images

People go to extraordinary lengths to save up for a Big Trip. There are the small things — like taking a miserable ham sandwich to work every day instead of eating out, or letting your hair grow a little more shaggy between cuts — and there are the big things, like trading your car for one that only runs downhill, or raiding your grandma’s piggy bank while she’s busy making the meatloaf.

You know all the sites for finding cheap flights, and that you’ll get the best deals off season. But take one step off the plane and suddenly you’re the sucker paying $12 for a watered-down lemonade, or blowing the week’s budget on a sachet of “medicinal” seeds.

Most people you encounter abroad are honest (we think), but there are countless scams and rackets out there, specifically designed to relieve you of your hard-earned dosh. So we quizzed industry experts and pro travelers — people who really know their rand from their rupee — on the key rip-offs to watch out for abroad.

You’re paying fees to your US bank

Imagine that someone stops you at the airport and demands 3% of everything you spend while you’re away. Now imagine that person is a zillionaire banker, with a diamond-studded monocle and tailored suit made entirely of $100 bills. Presumably, once you’ve gotten a selfie, you’d say something like “Pff! Nice try, now sod off before I set you alight.”

And yet, 3% is what you’re giving away if you use a regular bank card abroad. Tim Leffel, the brains behind the Cheapest Destinations blog, says “get a credit card with no transaction fees and a debit card that doesn’t charge you on top of the local bank fee. The best ones are from Fidelity and Schwab, because they actually reimburse that local bank fee, too.”

Phuong D. Nguyen/Shutterstock.com
Phuong D. Nguyen/Shutterstock.com
Phuong D. Nguyen/Shutterstock.com

You’re booking all your activities in advance

If you’re the kind of person that insists on having your travel itinerary mapped out, printed and laminated before you go, you can stop reading this now and get back to your spreadsheet. For everyone else, Anne Lowrey of Part-Time Traveler has some sage advice. “If you organize an experience in advance, you don’t always get the best deal,” she says. “It varies case-by-case of course, but I saw this recently on a trip to Kerala, India. You can book a boat trip around the backwaters online, but you get a much better price if you’re willing to shop around in person. There are so many boats available, even in high season.”

You get hammered on the exchange rate

Here’s one for Captain Obvious: don’t exchange or withdraw money at the airport, lest you get smacked with ludicrous fees and lousy exchange rates at places like Travelex. Head for an ATM at a reputable bank in town instead, and try to locate it without miming “I’m about to take out a shitload of easily-stealable cash” to too many strangers along the way. You’ll save about 10% on every dollar for your efforts.

If you pay by card in shops and restaurants, the card machine might ask if you’d like to pay in local or home currency. “Always go local,” says Holly Johnson of Club Thrifty. “If you pay in USD, you’re basically allowing them to set the exchange rate” — and frankly, they can’t be trusted. Watch out for this trick everywhere you go, especially at duty-free.

claudio zaccherini/Shutterstock.com
claudio zaccherini/Shutterstock.com
claudio zaccherini/Shutterstock.com

You’re going to the wroooong restaurants

It’s a hard and fast rule of broke-ass travelers the world over: Come dinner time, veer off the main tourist strips. It’s really not hard to identify a “tourist restaurant” — they’re the ones with pictures of abnormally bright food on their bilingual menus, and hawkers on the street in polyester waistcoats. They’re also the ones packed with, yeah, tourists, balancing DSLRs on the bread baskets. Tim Leffel says, quite simply, “Don’t eat there,” because you’ll be paying the highest price for the most mediocre lasagne in town. Even “under the radar” spots in your Lonely Planet guidebook will likely be marked up. And cafes in famous, heavily touristed areas like St. Mark’s in Venice or Prague’s Old Town Square will slap you with a fee just to sit there.

That’s the baseline when it comes to eating out, but there are sneaky tricks to watch out for too. “If ordering a bottle of wine, make sure they open it at your table,” is the advice from the vacation experts at STA Travel. “If it’s already uncorked, you can’t be 100% sure what’s in it or if it’s good quality.” And always read the label, not just to impress your date by seeming interested in the vintage and terroir. “If there are any typos, it might be fake alcohol,” says STA.

Rahul Dsilva/Shutterstock
Rahul Dsilva/Shutterstock
Rahul Dsilva/Shutterstock

You’re eating gross recycled oil

When it comes to street food, there are two main rules, says STA Travel: “Go to a cart making dishes to order, or find one with a line long enough that you know it must be good.” But watch out for vendors taking cost-saving shortcuts too. “The cooking oil should be light yellow. If it’s dark brown, it’s likely to be recycled ‘gutter oil.'” Some vendors even bleach waste oil so that it looks golden, but “it still has a tell-tale chemical taste or rancid smell,” STA says. Bon appétit.

You’re spending a small fortune on phone data and calls

Alright, so you really want to upload that video of you riding an ostrich for six glorious seconds, but if you haven’t got a deal on cheap phone data abroad, it’s going to cost you a whole lot more than your dignity. At the very least, call your plan provider before you leave and sign up for the best international package for your needs (just don’t forget to cancel it when you come back). James Feess (aka The Savvy Backpacker), suggests switching to T-Mobile or Sprint, because “they both offer free data to their customers, and it automatically connects when you arrive.” There’s a drawback though: “The data isn’t fast. It’s usually 2G and sometimes 3G — just enough to do the basics.”

If you want fast speeds without paying a fortune, he recommends buying a SIM card and short-term data plan from the country you’re visiting. “It’s not too crazy a process, assuming you can get past the language barrier,” he says.

Cheryl-Ann Tan/Moment Open/Getty Images
Cheryl-Ann Tan/Moment Open/Getty Images
Cheryl-Ann Tan/Moment Open/Getty Images

You’re not haggling hard enough

“Too many people are scared of bartering, but it’s completely acceptable in many cultures,” Anne Lowrey says. “It takes a bit of back-and-forth, but I think of it as a fun game. I usually try to reduce their asking price by around 30%.” Her top tips? “Never act like you want the item, find out a fair price for the item ahead of time, and be willing to walk away.”

It’s not just limited to marketplaces and street fairs, says Monica Stott of The Travel Hack: “You can negotiate the price of taxis, tours, experiences, hotels… basically anything you buy directly from a vendor. If you’re staying in a hotel for more than three or four nights, ask for a discount or even your fifth night for free. The worst that can happen is they’ll only chuck in a voucher for the hotel bar.”

You’re tipping too much

Americans are far (far, far, far) from perfect, but one thing we do well is tip. In fact, we’re the most generous tippers in the whole world. But don’t assume the wait staff are paid so pitifully by their employers that they rely on your goodwill. “Research the local tipping customs before you go, or ask around when you arrive,” says Feess. “In some countries, you’re not expected to tip at all, and in other places the tip is usually included in the check. You don’t want to waste money tipping twice, or giving way too much.”

304651610/Shutterstock
304651610/Shutterstock
304651610/Shutterstock

You fall for taxi scams

There are so many taxi and Uber scams out there, we’ve got a whole other story for ‘em. But, the basic gist is “never, ever get into a taxi without first agreeing on a price or asking for the meter — period,” says Jackie Nourse, who has spent 15 years on the road as The Budget Minded Traveler. Even if the meter is on, you’ve still got to have your wits about you — some crooked drivers rig their machines to tick up too quickly. Expert Vagabond Matt Karsten suggests that before you hail a cab, you “ask the hotel or hostel front desk for an estimate of how much the ride should cost, so you know you’re not being ripped off.”

Stick to the official, city-sponsored taxis, or a trusted ride-share brand. Believe it or not, even Uber isn’t everywhere (yet). Raymond Walsh at The Stingy Traveler says “it’s worth checking for local alternatives and downloading the apps before you go. Go-Jek is big in Indonesia, there’s Careem in the UAE and Pakistan, and Grab throughout most of Asia.”

Your hotel is bleeding you dry

We’ve all been there. You’re scrolling through the hotel options online, and you find one that looks nicer than you can afford, and you can just about afford it. But the headline price is just the beginning, warns Tim Leffel. “You’ll pay more for parking, more for everything in the minibar, more for the taxi outside, more at the bar and restaurants, and probably some heinous ‘resort fee’ to use the pool and spa you thought were included. Oh, and don’t forget to tip the doorman AND the bellman.” On the upside, you’ll probably get a free USB stick, left over from 2004. Instead, decide which amenities you can comfortably give up, and book a room that falls comfortably within your budget. Because even that will likely turn out less comfortable than you expect.

You’re just not being nice enough

Jackie Nourse has one simple tip: be friendly. “Don’t act like you’re entitled to anything when you are in a new culture. A little bit of kindness goes a long way, and it will save you money in all kinds of situations.” N.B. you should probably always be nice, even if you’re not getting any material gain. At least, that’s what my parole officer told me.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Jonathan Melmoth is a travel writer for Thrillist, who wishes he’d read this article *before* that time in Marrakech. Find out if he’s actually started using Instagram yet @MisterMoho.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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