Taxi drivers and the inevitable ‘tourist tax’

Taxi drivers

Almost every foreign trip is going to involve taking a taxi at some point. It’s also true that wherever you go, there’s a high chance that you’ll step out of at least one taxi knowing that you’ve paid too paid for the ride. Taxi drivers appear to have an exemption from the universal code of fair play and will try a variety of clever tricks to separate you from your cash.

During my recent trip to Brazil we took a taxi three times from downtown Salvador to our hotel, around 10km away. The fare was different each time, although never by enough to justify making a scene. On one occasion the driver flicked the meter to the night rate – it was 2pm. He apologised and blamed his fat fingers when I pointed it out, before taking a slightly longer route to make up the bonus he had lost. Another one blamed an invisible hold-up in the road ahead and took us on a scenic tour of the suburbs, clocking up a few extra reais.

It would be unfair to label all taxi drivers as petty crooks. The driver who took us to our hotel from the bus station in Belo Horizonte had to make an unscheduled detour, as the local football team had just won the league and the streets were blocked with mad celebrations. While the meter clocked up 12 reais, he only accepted 7. My Portuguese is not to the standard where I could make out his explanation but I’d like to think it wasn’t just his poor eyesight in the dark cab that meant we got a cheap ride.

By and large, a trip of any length is almost always punctuated by an encounter with a less than scrupulous taxi driver (here‘s an embarrassing incident from Istanbul I wrote about earlier). As visitors to another country we are more often than not seen as naive, unaware of local pricing and easy sources of a little extra income.

It’s an inevitable part of travelling and those who can’t face it might as well stay at home.

Sure, we can largely avoid using taxis – I do whenever possible, by walking or taking the bus. But in certain parts of the world, much of Latin America for example, taxis are the safest way for anyone, especially a 6ft-tall gringo, to get around at night.

None of us like being ripped off and anger is understandable, but in the cold light of day we rarely lose more than what we’d consider as small change. I look back ruefully at the time we took a taxi in Aleppo on our Syrian trip in 2009. I gave the taxi driver a bit of an earful before handing over the $3 he demanded for what should have been a $1 fare. I’m certainly not proud of arguing to hold on to those extra $2.

Of course it’s wise to be aware in advance of what the fare should be and to make sure the driver is using the meter properly if not agreeing the rate before you set off. But if you end up paying a few extra dollars for your ride – a tourist tax if you like – it’s worth trying to keep the situation in perspective and not letting a bad mood spoil your trip.

(There we have it – yet another post in which I offer advice that I should follow myself on my next trip)


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