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13 Common Travel Scams—And How to Avoid Them

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While the vast majority of travelers return home without incident, there’s no denying we make easy targets. Excited, disoriented, and unaware of local customs, petty scams play you for a fool. If you don’t want to buy in, leave the paranoia and neurosis at home, but pack a little common sense.

1. The Store Scam

Common in Southeast Asia, Turkey, and India, a friendly local starts up a conversation, inevitably leading to an invitation to visit a relative’s store for a great deal. Alternatively, your guide, tuk-tuk, or taxi driver insists you’ll find incredible deals if you just stop at a store on the way. It’s all run on kickbacks, where everyone wins—except you. Usually, they get a commission for bringing people to look; in the worst case scenario, a vendor won't let you leave until you buy something.

2. The Deal Scam

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Although you’d never fall for it at home, many travelers get duped into buying rings, watches, gemstones, and jewelry overseas. Everything seems legitimate—the stores, certificates of authenticity—until you get home and discover your “deal” is worth half of what you paid for it. So use common sense when confronted with a deal that seems too good to be true. It isn't.

3. The Change Scam

Always carry a range of bills, the smaller the better. It’s a quick and easy scam for vendors or stores to claim they have no change. The weirder the currency, the more likely you’ll just let them keep the bills. Fine when you’re just losing pennies, but watch out for $12 to be rounded off to $20.

4. The Practice English Scam

A local approaches you on the street and tells you he wants to practice his English. Seems innocent enough, and it is … until the conversation shifts to a sob story about poverty, a family member’s operation, the need to buy text books for school—all bogus, and an attempt to get money from you, so just keep walking. Unfortunately, this scam hurts genuine locals who really do want to connect.

5. The Taxi Scam

Taxi drivers can be ruthless. You have no idea where you are, or where you’re going, and unless you’re writing down names and licenses (if there is one), there are no repercussions. Three blocks can easily turn into an hour-long ride. In foreign countries, try and settle on a price first to get some idea of the cost, and only use official looking cabs. In North America, make sure the meter is turned on, and matches the rate displayed.

6. The Distraction Scam

At a busy attraction or on a bustling street, somebody spills water/ketchup/mustard on you. Apologetically, they start cleaning it up, but in the momentary confusion, they or their accomplice has fleeced you. If you get splooged, keep walking until you can stop in a less crowded space, and be extra aware of your personal belongings.

7. The Fake Tickets Scam

Foreigners are targeted at train or bus stations, particularly in India. An official approaches, asks if you want to bypass the heavy line-up. Together you visit an office nearby, and buy your official-looking ticket there. Problem is, the office and ticket are fake. Revisit the office, it will be locked, and paid-off security will shrug. Your best bet is to stay in line, no matter how tempting it might be to attempt a shortcut.

8. The Runner Scam

If a stranger asks if they can use your cell phone, listen to your instinct. Mom with a stroller could use a hand, but the single guy wearing runners might just disappear with your phone.

9. The Friendship Bracelet Scam

Walking around a historic old town, a local gives you a trinket, or ties a piece of wool around your wrist. It’s a gift, a friendship bracelet to say: “thank you for visiting.” Walk away, and you’ll quickly be pestered for a small donation. Too small, and the pestering will continue aggressively. If someone gives you anything, expect to pay for it.

10. The Spot Bribe / Fake Cop Scam

Depending where you are, the cops might or might not be real. Either way, if they’re hitting you up for some random on-the-spot fine, tell them you’ll only pay it at the police station. They might get aggressive, but insist. It’s the quickest way to make them move on to an easier target.

11. The Peanuts Snack Scam

Much like the Friendship Bracelet, only with food. Little scraps of paper with peanuts or snacks are placed on your patio table. If you touch them, you’ve just bought it. The guy will either gather them later, or watch them blow away in the wind as the cost of doing business. Popular on Rio’s Copacabana.

12. The Dropped Ring Scam

You're walking along a Parisian street when a local approaches you with a gold ring that they say they found on the ground. Is it yours? No? Well, it's far too big for the local, so you should have it. As soon as it's in your hand, the local will insist on some compensation, since they found it and it's real gold, after all. (It isn't real gold.) If anyone approaches you with a ring, say no thanks and walk away.

13. The “Let Me Take Your Picture” Scam

Visiting the Taj Mahal? A well-dressed, well-spoken local tourist offers to take your picture with the world wonder in the background. Very kind, until you ask for your camera back, and he asks for his rupees for services rendered.

All images courtesy of Thinkstock unless otherwise stated. 

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The Hospital in the Rock
Budapest’s Former Top-Secret Hospital Inside a Cave
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The Hospital in the Rock

At the top of a hill in Budapest, overlooking the Danube River, sits Buda Castle, a gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site visited by thousands of tourists every year. Directly underneath the castle, however, lies a less-frequented tourist attraction: a series of ancient, naturally formed caves with a colorful and sometimes disturbing history.

The entire cave system is over six miles long, and most of that has been left unchanged since it was used as cold storage (and a rumored dungeon) in the Middle Ages. Between 1939 and 2008, however, a half-mile stretch of those caves was built up and repurposed many times over. Known as Sziklakorhaz or The Hospital in the Rock, its many uses are a testament to the area’s involvement in World War II and the Cold War.

At the start of World War II, the location served as a single-room air raid center, but operating theaters, corridors, and wards were quickly added to create a much-needed hospital. By early 1944, the hospital had officially opened inside the cave, tending to wounded Hungarian and Nazi soldiers. After less than a year of operation, the facility found itself facing its largest challenge—the Siege of Budapest, which lasted seven weeks and was eventually won by Allied forces on their way to Berlin.

As one of the few area hospitals still operational, the Hospital in the Rock was well over capacity during the siege. Originally built to treat around 70 patients, close to 700 ended up crammed into the claustrophobic caves. The wounded lay three to a bed—if they were lucky enough to get a bed at all. Unsurprisingly, heat from all those bodies raised the ambient temperature to around 95°F, and smoking cigarettes was the number one way to pass the time. Add that to the putrid mix of death, decay, and infection and you’ve got an incredibly unpleasant wartime cocktail.

A recreation inside the museum. Image credit: The Hospital in the Rock 

After the siege, the Soviets took control of the caves (and Budapest itself) and gutted the hospital of most of its supplies. Between 1945 and 1948, the hospital produced a vaccination for typhus. As the icy grasp of the Cold War began to tighten, new wards were built, new equipment was installed, and the hospital was designated top-secret by the Soviets, referred to only by its official codename LOSK 0101/1.

Eleven years after facing the horrors of the Siege of Budapest, in 1956, the hospital hosted the casualties of another battle: The Hungarian Uprising. Thousands of Hungarians revolted against the Soviet policies of the Hungarian People’s Republic in a fierce, prolonged battle. Civilians and soldiers alike lay side-by-side in wards as surgeons attempted to save them. During the uprising, seven babies were also born in the hospital.

Surgeons lived on-site and rarely surfaced from the caves. The hospital’s chief surgeon at the time, Dr. András Máthé, famously had a strict "no amputation" rule, which seemed to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, but in the end reportedly saved many patients' lives. (Máthé also reportedly wore a bullet that he’d removed from a patient’s head on a chain around his neck.)

The Hospital in the Rock ceased normal operations in December 1956, after the Soviets squashed the uprising, as the Soviets had new plans for the caves. With the Cold War now in full swing, the still-secret site was converted into a bunker that could serve as a hospital in case of nuclear attack. Diesel engines and an air conditioning system were added in the early '60s, so that even during a blackout, the hospital could still function for a couple of days.

The Hospital in the Rock

The official plan for the bunker was as follows: In the event of a nuclear attack, a selection of doctors and nurses would retreat to the bunker, where they would remain for 72 hours. Afterward, they were to go out and search for survivors. Special quarantined rooms, showering facilities, and even a barbershop were on site for survivors brought back to the site. (The only haircut available to them, however, was a shaved head; radioactive material is notoriously difficult to remove from hair.)

Thankfully, none of these nuclear procedures were ever put into practice. But the hospital was never formally decommissioned, and it wasn’t relieved of its top-secret status until the mid-2000s. For a while, it was still being used as a storage facility by Hungary’s Civil Defense Force. The bunker was maintained by a nearby family, who were sworn to secrecy. In 2004, it was decided that responsibility for the site fell solely on St. John’s Hospital in Budapest, who were seen as the de facto owners in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By 2008 the bunker was renovated, refurbished, and ready to be opened to the public. Today it operates as a museum, with exhibits detailing life in the hospital from various periods of its history, as well as the history of combat medicine as a whole. The sobering hour-long walk around the hospital concludes with a cautionary gaze into the atrocities of nuclear attacks, with the final walk to the exit featuring a gallery of art created by survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Another part of the caves beneath Buda Castle. Image credit:Sahil Jatana via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The caves beneath Buda Castle have certainly had a bumpy history, and walking through them now is chilling (and not just because they keep the temperature at around 60°F). A tour through the narrow, oppressive hallways is a glimpse at our narrowly avoided nuclear future—definitely a sobering way to spend an afternoon.

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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Take a Peek Inside One of Berlin's Strangest Museums
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Thomas Quine, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Vlad Korneev is a man with an obsession. He's spent years collecting technical and industrial objects from the last century—think iron lungs, World War II gas masks, 1930s fans, and vintage medical prostheses. At his Designpanoptikum in Berlin, which bills itself (accurately) as a "surreal museum of industrial objects," Korneev arranges his collection in fascinating, if disturbing, assemblages. (Atlas Obscura warns that it's "half design museum, half horror house of imagination.") Recently, the Midnight Archive caught up with Vlad for a special tour and some insight into the question visitors inevitably ask—"but what is it, really?" You can watch the full video below.


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