Walking around India with glowing blonde hair, parachute pants, and the backpack/daypack humpback/pregnant belly combo is a sure-fire way to indicate, “I’m not from around here.” What does this mean to the rickshaws slowly following your swagger or the cyclists hoping you’ll turn around and want their transport services? Some might see an honest service opportunity while others will only see dollar signs. Unfortunately, many cabbies, rickshaw drivers, and transporters have found ways of making ends meet through games of haggling, deception, and tugging at the heartstrings of traveling passers-by. Even catching a taxi on the streets near your hometown watering hole can prove difficult. All it takes is practice and charm to avoid a driver getting the best of you.
Striking the Deal
Each city, or country, has its own transport scam trends. The best way to identify them is to find someone you can trust – one who does not have an affiliation with transportation. Hotels, clubs, fancy restaurants and many like-establishments have an allegiance to drivers who charge more than the Average Joe Cabbie in order to supply the referrer a commission.
With six hours to spend in Bangkok before flying home, I wanted to shop, eat, and get to the airport by 4:00am in the most economical fashion. I utilized the rapport I created with a patch vendor on Khao San Road to find out what I should be paying for everything from taxis to Thai massages. In the midst of the haggle, I had his full attention as a customer with needs. He had no affiliation with the resident cabbies and nothing to gain from leading me into a scam. He just wanted to make the sale and move his merchandise away from my toxic, penny-pinching ways.
Anticipate the Game
Even if you do discover the correct price for a ride from A to B with a willing driver, with un-metered taxis you’ve only just begun dealing with the mind games of transportation. Some drivers sense your discomfort and attempt to exploit it for the reaction: “I’ll pay anything; just get me outta this cab.” Others may tap into your compassionate side and share their lives, accentuating the struggles, to bump another dollar on the fare. And then, there’s the classic lost-in-translation method that makes a cabbie agreeable and understanding when a price is set and miraculously lose his memory, or language skills, upon reaching the destination.
When it comes to drivers anywhere, I’ve found two things pay off: being amicable and ever-so chatty.
Travelers who make small talk tend to be more comfortable with the situations they’re in, and when we appear comfortable, we seem savvy and less vulnerable to instant inflation. If I strike a connection with my cabbie, the likelihood of getting swindled lessens a considerable degree. Some respond to conversation very well, as to a breath of fresh air amidst a stuffy list of customers. Though you’ll find some that couldn’t be bothered to mumble, not everyone gives the driver the opportunity to share how he’s doing.
This, however, is his perfect chance to recommend places in town that commission him for your visits. Drivers can make the local bargain market seem like a myth.
It helps to anticipate what they may try and call them out beforehand; displaying your awareness of the games they play.
“So I know we agreed on 40 rupees to the Siliguri bus station, but I know you’re going to forget this deal, even though I wrote the fare down on my hand. I’m really hoping you’re an honest and swell guy who claims he has change when he really does.” With this sort of dialogue, it’s all about tone and appearance. Speak kindly and smile the entire time. It doesn’t work any other way. And a word from experience: the more you make them laugh, the better the fare becomes.
And when you’re back on North American soil, be sure to watch the meter for extraneous button-pushing for luggage or extra people. Chances are, if you’re taking a cab at home, you know the best routes to take; so you’re likely to notice if your driver is taking you for a costly ride. Again, be a charmer and call him out with a wink and a smile.
When a driver begins telling you things that don’t make sense, making side comments on changes in the route, note the impending inflation tactics. “There’s lots of traffic this way” - “I’ve got twenty-two kids” - “I must go all the way around to the other side” - This is when you assure him how pleased you are that he’s a swell guy who is surely taking the best route and charging the fair amount upon which you both agreed.
When abroad, it’s important to make the final transaction with five simple steps:
1. Thank the driver kindly; 2. Ask any questions you may have about where to go next while you still have his money and, therefore, his attention; 3. Ask for the change beforehand, or as you hand the cash, making sure he knows you’ll wait for it; 4. Thank him again and compliment his integrity while shaking his hand; 5. And, if he gives you problems with the change, don’t let go of his hand and keep smiling (since so many drivers are softies for a smile).
I now look forward to the little battles because it’s not just my mission to pay the right price but to befriend and amuse the driver for the short time that our paths converge. Looking at these moments in your trip with dread will take away from your opportunities to make great exchanges several times a day. It’s unfortunate we’ve come to expect dishonesty from those on which we must rely abroad. Reward the drivers who exhibit their integrity, and hopefully this act will ripple to benefit future travelers looking for a ride.