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.