Confessions of an expat – how not to get ripped off

The vast majority of travel blogs specialize in telling us how wonderful somewhere is, how lovely the people are and how good the food is. But that’s looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses, and Winding Road doesn’t do that. Sure, there are some great places in the world and good experiences are more commonplace than bad ones. But this is a realism zone where good and bad are recognized and acknowledged as such. So this article looks at a global phenomenon: ripping off foreigners.

That’s what we like to see: no haggling

In many tourist destinations, there are two tiers of pricing: one for the  ‘ordinary’ local, and the other for visitors and the (perceived) wealthy. There is the floating, infinitely variable price that isn’t written down anywhere and depends entirely on who the customer is. You know the kind of thing: an item that costs the person in front of you $10 is suddenly $25 when it’s your turn. I’m not sure if this is because people who look like tourists (even if they’re not) are assumed to have  more money than local customers, or if it is simply a form of bullying that can be carried out by anyone, regardless of age, size or physical strength. Tourists are ripped off all over the world by the very people who are described in the brochures as ‘friendly’.

You don’t have to be foreign, either. You just have to appear gullible or perhaps meek enough to accept your fate.

“What can I do for you, Tex?” “It’s Arizona”

In the old Clint Eastwood film Coogan’s Bluff, the Arizona cop on a first visit to New York is conspicuous by his cowboy hat and boots. On his taxi journey from the airport he asks the driver: “How many stores are there named Bloomingdales?”

“One,” the driver tells him.

“We passed it twice,” says Clint.

It is best if you can appear to know what you’re doing, and without being confrontational, to get a price before you get in the car. That is difficult if you don’t know the going rate, but some airports have a map, broken down into areas, so you can see which sector your hotel is in and  show the driver you’re aware of what he can charge.

In Coogan’s Bluff the driver also charged him for luggage, meaning his small briefcase, and Clint didn’t start a fight about it. A man has a straight choice: you could try the macho approach, but it’s not generally advisable.

I’m a middle-aged white man and so are Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, so I am automatically placed in that category. I’m there to be exploited because I must be loaded like they are and anyway the likes of me have done plenty of exploiting in the past.

In the Caribbean region, my wife always gets a better deal than I do, because she is neither white nor male. Whether we’re getting a taxi or buying avocados, it is best if I hang around out of sight while she does the bargaining.

I give you special price: $10 each, two for $35

Not being able to speak the language and therefore being unable to argue is an obvious disadvantage.

There’s another kind of rip-off that is more straightforward and you know about it as soon as you enter the premises, or possibly even before that. It’s the kind of place where the prices are unashamedly astronomical and the proprietor’s answer would be ‘If you can’t afford it, don’t come in here.’ This is the kind of joint where you think, ‘At these prices I’m going to eat every single one of the free peanuts, even if it makes me sick. And I’ll have the little black tissue that serves as a coaster too.’ It’s where the Happy Hour is not all-encompassing and the drink you really fancy – even something as mundane as a bottle of beer – is not included in the scheme. It’s also the kind of place where the manageress is skilled at selling expensive things to people who can’t make up their mind.

So while your non-drinking, indecisive friend is mulling over the choice between a Coke and a Carib Light, this unscrupulous person is saying seductive things like ‘Pina Colada’.

Do you really want this? Or can I get you something more expensive?

‘Oh, it’s delicious, and our bartender makes a great one. No, it’s not strong, in fact I can ask her to put less rum in it if you like.’ The reduction in alcohol won’t be reflected in the cost, of course, because she’s doing you a favour. The way things are in this money-grabbing world, it’s a surprise if they don’t impose a penalty charge for what they would classify as a special order. You’re asking their highly trained drinks mixer to put only one shot of alcohol in instead of two. That means she has to think – it throws her off her stride.

Of course, if you have more than enough money in the bank to handle anything these people can throw at you, you might not even notice. But for those on a budget, who have been saving up for this occasion and can just about handle it, such upselling (as it’s known in the retail trade – where they regard it as a good thing) amounts to nothing less than abuse.

One particular technique that really is below the belt is probably, again, a skill they have learned. It’s when the server deals direct with the weaker prey on the table. In many parties, they know perfectly well who is going to be footing the bill, particularly when it’s a family. Mum or Dad, keen to get their offspring to acquire the simple social skill of ordering a drink or a meal, will nod at the youngster encouragingly to make up his or her mind and speak to the waiter. Then that waiter senses impressionability and proceeds to cut the bill-payer out of the conversation, forcing them to look like a tightwad or spoilsport if they intervene. So Junior ends up with the foie gras and truffles and a bottle of French sparkling water when he would have been perfectly happy with a lamb chop and a glass of lemonade.

One of the challenges of the modern world for the innocent is to at least try to imagine what is going on in other people’s minds when, in their place, you would be trying to keep the customer satisfied. The French must be at least partly to blame for this, because they invented a word that makes innocence sound like a bad thing: naïve.




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