The Beijing Taxi Scam
In traveling through more than seventy countries, I’ve had very few bad experiences. And I’ve become a better traveler because of each one. This is the first in a series of posts about the worst things that have happened to me on the road and how they changed my travel planning.
Several years ago, right before I got married, I traveled to Beijing with a good friend. I had been to Beijing twice before and knew how to spot illegal taxis. Most of the taxi scams there revolve around unlicensed taxis that have rigged meters, so when we arrived at the airport I took what I thought were pretty good precautions to make sure we were getting a legit taxi:
- We got into the official taxi queue;
- I made sure it was an official taxi (based on the license plate);
- I glanced inside the car and saw an official taxi driver ID;
- I made sure that I had roughly the right amount of currency for the ride so that I could clearly hand it to the driver at the end and hopefully avoid the bill switch – e.g. where he tries to tell you that you gave him a 10 instead of a 100.
The driver opened up the trunk for our luggage and a large Chinese man in a gray shirt suddenly appeared and put our bags inside. It didn’t seem odd – maybe he was employed by the airport to help the taxi queue move smoothly? But then we got into the back seat and the large man jumped in the front passenger seat right before we drove off. That made us both a little uneasy…and we started to feel even more uncomfortable when we noticed that the driver didn’t switch on the meter when leaving the airport, and that the driver’s ID that I had spied in the car minutes before was now nowhere to be seen.
As we were driving out of the airport property and getting on the highway, the man in gray reached back and handed us a laminated rate card, stating that the fare to our hotel was US$100. I knew that it should be closer to US$12 based on past experience. But what’s the right way to react when you’re in a locked cab with two Chinese guys, one of whom is likely part of an organized criminal enterprise? We didn’t really think about it – likely out of anger, since we were experienced travelers and felt like we had done the correct things on arrival to prevent a situation like this. We both firmly said no, we stated that we knew the true rate, and we requested that they turn the meter on. The large guy argued with us, pointing at the card, and we went back and forth for a couple of minutes. Not knowing how much English the driver and mafia guy* spoke, our demands quickly became just two words – “no” and “meter”.
The driver (who was quiet through all of this) passed through a toll booth, with the two of us continuing to argue with the mafia guy and having absolutely no plan beyond saying “no” and “meter”. The mafia guy was arguing back in Chinese and English saying that those were the official rates. We were at an impasse, and it was fairly heated. Then the driver and mafia guy spoke briefly in Chinese, and the driver took the next exit from the highway – nowhere near the city center or our hotel. He started driving down a dark road.
My friend and I looked at each other. There were a lot of potential outcomes at that point – anything from getting robbed to getting killed – and we had no idea what was going to happen. We definitely didn’t expect what happened next. The driver headed down the road a little farther, and then made a u-turn, got back on the highway going the opposite direction, went back through the toll-booth, and followed the airport signs to Arrivals. As we were getting close to the taxi area where this had all started 15 minutes earlier, the mafia guy opened his door and jumped out – while the car was still moving. The driver then switched on the meter and got back on the highway. He drove us straight to our hotel.
At the hotel we quickly handed the driver the metered amount and had the bellman get our bags from the trunk. The driver started yelling at us in Chinese that we owed him more money…to cover the extra two tolls. We politely refused and headed inside.
How did my travel change because of this? Anywhere that I’m 100% comfortable with the taxis, like western Europe, I’ll still join the airport taxi queue. I’ve had no problems at all. In the rest of the world, though, I contact my hotel in advance and see what the rate is for a hotel car to be waiting for me at arrivals. As long as it’s reasonable (a 2x markup on what a taxi would charge vs. a 5x markup), I go with that. The safety/certainty is worth a few extra dollars, and an added benefit is that I can usually charge that to my room bill, which means that there’s less urgency to change money upon arrival. A second option available a lot of places is to arrange for private transportation before exiting the airport, at clearly-marked transportation booths. I’ve recently done that in Mumbai and Buenos Aires and it worked well. I pay in advance for the ride, get a receipt, and then am paired up with a driver. There’s very little risk there that I’ve seen, and the price is typically equivalent to a taxi outside.
Have you had any scary transportation experiences when traveling? How did it change your travel habits?
*We assumed the large guy in gray was Chinese mafia. It makes for a better story.
NOTE: I wrote up a post with general airport transportation advice to hopefully prevent you from ever getting into a situation like this: How to Get from the Airport to Your Hotel.
Traveled to Istanbul in October 2011, we rented an apartment for our 10 days and arranged a ride with the owners recommendation. She asked that we pay the $1200 in American cash or Turkish lira and did not want to take a credit card. We opted to take the American $$$ from home, so we were carrying a large amount of cash. We were delayed upon arrival because the customs staff had a meeting which resulted in no processing booths being open for close to an hours. Once we got through security and found our driver we loaded up and headed toward our rental. About 5 min into the trip the driver asked my hubby if he could make a quick stop, we had been late and he needed a quick break. We agreed thinking it was a personal “need”. The driver pulled into a dark dead end side street where there was a very small gas station with lots of locals. He took the keys and said he would be right back. Wellll- this short stop turned into 5 and then 10 minutes, we were starting to wonder what was going on. Hubby told me not to get out of the car and he was going to go check. I saw him walk around the back of the vehicle and found out later that he had taken a picture of the license plate and emailed it to his work account. He walked into the station, bought some bottled water, but saw no sign of our driver. Coming back out to the chicle I could see he was really wondering now what is going on. He climbed back in at which point I told him if we get robbed, I’m going to swallow his grandmothers rings, which are my wedding rings. Just as we were trying to decide if we should collect our suitcases and walk toward the pipulated street we cam in on, the driver came back- telling us ok now we can go. Hubby asked what were you doing and in broken English he motioned that his stomach was upset. We must have believed him because we let him continue on and we did end up at out apartment where we met the owner. All was good, but it did cause us to take pause.
Wow, at least it makes for a good story after the fact. The uncertainty is the worst!
Lyn (aka) The Travelling Lindfields says
Working out how you are going to get from the airport to your first hotel is one of the most important planning things you can do. We have been to Buenos Aires many times and always used the booth at the airport to arrange a driver. The only time we didn’t the taxi wanted to charge us many times the fare. Fortunately we realised this before he started the taxi and we got out and headed to the familiar booth.
Yep, every time I’ve been in Buenos Aires I’ve used the airport booth. Really nice when they have those – you can pay in advance and not worry about any scams (hopefully). Mexico City operates the same way.
Wayne Seto says
That experience sounds scary as hell. The major metropolises of China are well known for this. I don’t find this problem as prevalent in the smaller cities. I got myself into a hairy situation in Shanghai with the infamous “tea scam”. When I was in Beijing, I opted to take the subway in to avoid such shenanigans. Great post. A reminder to keep me on my toes.
Wow, I just read up on the Tea Scam. I hadn’t heard of that before – I could easily see getting drawn into participating. Yep, always keep an eye out. Easier said than done in foreign countries, especially when tired or jet lagged…
Chris Rusted says
More and more we are finding it better to book a car in advance either through the hotel or a travel service. The up to 2 times figure has been a good rule for us too.
Even using airport line-ups we have had problems with drivers trying to surcharge “mystery” fees. This includes North American cities, like New York and Toronto.
In Istanbul we booked a car in advance through the hotel at an agreed price but the driver wouldn’t honour it, and despiet email confirmations the hotel denied the rate. Your idea of having it charged to the room is excellent.
In Rome we were exiting the baggage area and approach by a young man who seemed like an airport employee helping us expedite through the area by offering to take us to a taxi. He turned our to be a schilling for a limo service. We took the limo as you they had the logo NCC on the car and had a licence inside that looked fine. The experience was positive, the rate was fine and we ended up booking them for the return to the airport, but…
Tom Paul says
Worldwide services such as Blacklane and My Driver by Sixt are a good bet. You book and pay in advance and a driver is waiting for you at Arrivals with a sign. They police their drivers pretty well and all I would do is ask the driver for evidence of the booking in their smartphone, which they will have if they are genuine.
Eric Stoen says
Great advice – thanks Tom.
Don Nadeau says
So good that you had researched what the fare should be. That can be as simple as calling a hotel in advance.
Not mentioned was verifying the fare (or the maximum you could be charged if a meter rate) prior to you AND your luggage entering the cab. That is always good advice.
Some travelers don’t realize how convenient some transit links are. I’d rather take something like the Heathrow Express into a city and then upon arrival hop on a taxi or a subway if needed.
Jean Farrell says
Anyone who knows me, knows about my love-hate relationship with taxi drivers. Having lived in NYC most of my adult life, I’ve taken a LOT of taxis, and had a lot of words with taxi drivers. In NYC, you don’t argue about the fare, but about the route. I’ve always feared being scammed by taxi drivers in other countries. So much so that I actually ripped off a taxi driver once, however unintentionally. I took a taxi with my mother from the train station in Rome (a long time ago, when the train station was really sketchy). I wanted my mother to see what a good traveler I was. The taxi driver didn’t turn on the meter, which right off the bat set off alarm bells. He told me the fare, which sounded too high. We’d taken a taxi to the train station from the same hotel at the front end of the trip, and I remembered the fare being much lower. I argued with him all the way to my hotel, even though we only spoke a few words of each other’s languages. I refused to pay him what he asked, so he finally took what I offered and drove off in a huff. When I got inside the hotel, I asked what the proper fare should have been, and it turns out he had quoted me the right fare. I had mis-remembered. I did feel terrible about underpaying him and would have made it up to him if I could have. But I did impress my mother.
Eric Stoen says
That’s funny! You just never know. Yesterday in Montevideo we got into a taxi and the meter was actually covered up by cardboard. I hoped that maybe the screen was broken but that it was still working and would print out a receipt at the end with the fare, or that it was a fixed fare. The fact that the hotel called the taxi and that it’s generally an honest city made me optimistic, but still I was uncertain what was going on until we were dropped off and he said 1100 pesos ($38), which is almost exactly what we had paid to go into the city the day before.
That’s pretty wild! We were also nearly scammed by a taxi driver from the airport at 2am in Beijing. He pretended like he didn’t know where he was going. Luckily our GPS was working.
Uber is also great for avoiding taxi nonsense, when available.
Eric Stoen says
GPS and Uber are great for avoiding scams. I almost always have Google Maps or Waze going in the back of a taxi in an unfamiliar destination.
Oh man do I have the scam taxi story of a lifetime. So when I was 20 I studied abroad in China for 2 weeks and the first stop was in Beijing. Everyone from my University arrived alone and nobody warned me about the kind of scam taxis there were. So when I was approached by some people asking if I needed a taxi in English I was like oh maybe this is some sort of tourist thing. I would expect it to be more expensive but it wasn’t going to be a huge deal. Well as they’re loading my bags up I do a quick check of the taxi and I don’t see a meter or anything it just looks like a normal car. I asked where the meter is and the guy goes oh it’s cheaper without a meter and instantly every red flag went from peeking to screaming and I ran around the back and I pulled my bags out just before they closed the trunk.
They were like hey what are you doing and I was like I’m not getting in a taxi that has no meter that’s not right and I pulled my bags and I ran back into the airport. Well unfortunately for me I am a woman and I’m black so I stood out like a sore thumb which allowed the scam taxi guys to stalk me all throughout the airport trying to convince me to come back, it was terrifying. I ended up going upstairs to the passenger only area to have a bit of a breakdown, desperately trying to figure out how to call and asking other foreigners I saw what to do, only to come back down and they were still looking for me. My phone wasn’t working and I couldn’t contact my professor to figure out what to do and the only way I could get a reprieve from them was to hover around cop or to go upstairs. Eventually I realized I could trick them into giving me their phone, so I told them I would need to talk with my friend and ask to use their phone. In reality I used it to call my professor and I started speaking English very very fast in order to throw them off and I asked how to get into a real taxi. I had to bully the lady directing people to taxis into handing me off to a regular taxi guy instead of one of the English scam guys and as I left they were all leering at me “Meter meter, I need a meter” and laughing.
Then when I got in the taxi the guy didn’t speak any English I didn’t speak any Chines,e but luckily I knew the name of my hotel in Chinese and I said it to him and he appeared to know where to go. But it was a solid hour drive and heavy traffic where I had no idea where I was going, no way to communicate if he decided to take me somewhere else, I just had to completely and blindly trust this guy but he did take me to my hotel. Things went pretty well once I actually connected with my group, but I will say my University did a very poor job preparing us for what to expect at the Beijing airport. That was the worst travel landing experience ever had and that was after I tried my best to research on my own; the only thing that kept me from potentially getting in a lot of trouble were quick wits and a sharp eye. Truth be told I don’t ever really want to go back to Beijing, however Shanghai was a much much better experience.
Eric Stoen says
Wow! And they know what they’re doing – targeting tired and disoriented travelers. I’m glad you figured it out before you were a victim. Hopefully your story will help others.
Poushali Nag says
My brother and his collegues went to Russia and reached Moscow Airport at 4 in the morning. They took 3 taxis and drivers put on metres, they thought it is metre wise so it might be genuine enough but they had to pay 370 $ for each taxi after reaching the hotel. They thought it might be a very expensive country as compared to our Asian countries and payed. And then they figured out it was all a scam and actual fare is just around 17$ for each taxi. While returning, they went same distance and paid 17$. Also, in Russia it is better to download Yandex cab app.