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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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A Beached Whale Sculpture Popped Up on the Banks of Paris's Seine River
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In Paris, dozens of fish varieties live in the Seine River. Now, the Associated Press reports that the famous waterway is home to a beached whale.

Rest assured, eco-warriors: The sperm whale is actually a lifelike sculpture, installed on an embankment next to Notre Dame Cathedral by Belgian artists’ collective Captain Boomer. It’s meant to raise environmental awareness, and evoke "the child in everyone who still is puzzled about what is real and what is not,” collective member Bart Van Peel told the Associated Press.

The 65-foot sculpture has reportedly startled and confused many Parisians, thanks in part to a team of fake scientists deployed to “survey” the whale. One collective member even posted a video on social media, warning Parisians that there “may be others in the water” if they opt to take a dip in the river, The Local reported.

The whale sculpture is only temporary—but as for Captain Boomer, this isn’t their first whale-related stunt. Last summer, the collective installed a similar riverside artwork in Rennes, France, and they also once strapped a large-scale whale sculpture to the back of a truck and drove it around France.

[h/t Associated Press]

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9 Notable Buildings With Secret Floors
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Secret floors have long captured the imagination; conspiracy theorists love to imagine that government buildings keep their darkest secrets within sealed-off stories. In the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “The After Hours,” the ninth floor of a department store is where the mannequins mysteriously come to life. Meanwhile, the hidden 7th-and-a-half floor of the Mertin-Flemmer building in New York was a portal for John Cusack into the actual brain of John Malkovich in the movie Being John Malkovich.

While these mysteries may have come from a writer’s imagination, there are notable buildings that have whole secret floors right under your nose—if you know where to look.


One of the world’s most iconic and recognizable skyscrapers, the Empire State building is also one of Manhattan’s premiere tourist destinations. The gleaming Art Deco elevators speed thousands of visitors to the observation deck on the 86th floor every day, and there’s also an observation pod on the 102nd floor. But just above, hidden out of sight, is the secret 103rd floor. Off-limits to the public, there is no glass protecting visitors from the elements, just a narrow walkway surrounding the top of the building. Original plans are thought to have allowed airships to dock to the top of the Empire State building, with passengers disembarking on the 103rd floor, and the 102nd being their official port of entry into the United States. The plan never came to fruition, however, and the hidden 103rd floor remains sealed off high above New York City.


For Calvin Sun, of the adventurous travel blog Monsoon Diaries, a hotel in the world’s most isolated nation held a particularly odd secret. The hotel Yanggakdo’s elevator has no 5th floor. Getting out of the elevator on the 6th and walking down, his group reached something peculiar: an entire concreted hidden floor, filled with locked doors and no people. The floor was covered with what looked to be government-issued propaganda posters, with messages like “Let’s prepare thoroughly in order to defeat the invaders” and “Our General is the best.” Other intrepid adventurers have reported bunkers, steel doors, official-looking men with computers, and others listening to headphones. Some have speculated that there is another floor hidden within the 5th, but its purpose remains unknown.


The Greenbrier is a luxury hotel and resort located amid the mountains of West Virginia. The local waters have been attracting guests since 1778, and the glittering guest list of the hotel, now a National Historic Landmark, has included 26 presidents. But hidden under the glamorous rooms and sprawling grounds is a massive underground complex, codenamed Project Greek Island. During the Cold War, it was built to hold the entire United States Congress in safety—just in case Washington was attacked by a Soviet nuclear strike.

The 112,000-square-foot bunker was big enough to hold both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and came complete with six months’ worth of food, 25-ton blast doors, decontamination chambers, water purification equipment, and its own hospital. The government’s construction of Project Greek Island was covered up by the building of a new west wing added to the existing hotel. To avoid detection, the huge amounts of land unearthed in the creation of the project were used in a new golf course, while the army of workers posed as employees of a fake audiovisual company called the Forsythe Associates, who “maintained” the hotel's 1000 television sets.

Project Greek Island fortunately remained unused, and was never officially acknowledged until a story in the Washington Post in 1992 exposed the secret. Today tours of this remarkable relic of the Cold War are given at the hotel, which still operates as a luxury resort.


Luke Spencer

There’s an old house in Amsterdam that looks much like the other Queen Anne-style homes along the canals that give this old part of the city its distinctive character. This particular house, however, holds a remarkable secret hidden away in the attic: a miniature, fully functioning church. Complete with marble altar, pews enough for 150 worshippers, and elaborate gilt decoration, the church was hidden due to the persecution of Dutch Catholics in the 17th century. Access to the clandestine church is gained by a false wall in the living room that leads to a narrow spiral staircase. Today the church is a museum, but still regularly holds services hidden away in the attic, as they have done for nearly 400 years.


Luke Spencer

When the New Yorker Hotel opened on 8th Avenue and 34th Street in 1930, it was one of the most technologically advanced hotels in the world. It came complete with its own in-house radio station, printing press, 50-chair barber salon, and a dining room that featured a retractable ice rink and skating show to entertain the guests. With 2500 rooms, it was promoted as a “vertical village.”

Underneath the lobby was a giant power plant, occupying a hidden floor around 80 feet below the sidewalk. The DC generating plant was so huge, it was powerful enough to provide electricity for a city of around 35,000 people. The plant was also so sophisticated that one of the hotel’s most famous long-term residents, the inventor Nikola Tesla, who lived there for the last decade of his life, is reported to have wandered down under the lobby to tinker with the plant and talk with the engineers. Remarkably, the plant is still down there, the switches for the old skating rink, coffee shop lights, and ballroom silent and unused. (Much of the plant was modernized in the 1960s, however, and switched over to the alternating current Tesla championed.)


Observant visitors to the Magic Kingdom, upon disembarking from the monorail and heading toward Main Street, USA, may notice that they are walking on a slight incline. Indeed Cinderella’s Castle, which lies ahead, appears to be on a hill. In reality, the thousands of daily guests are unknowingly climbing over a vast hidden complex of secret floors, rooms, walkways, and tunnels. Disney World itself is built on top of an intricate hidden infrastructure that Cast Members consider the first floor. (The entire Magic Kingdom itself is technically the second and third floor.)

The story goes that Walt Disney was walking through the original Disneyland in California, and saw a Cast Member dressed as a cowboy walking from Frontierland through to Tomorrowland. Thinking that this would ruin the fantasy illusion for the visiting children, Disney World was designed on top of a hidden 9-acre system that would house walkways for Cast Members, trash collectors, kitchens, and break rooms. Today, tours are available for adults to see behind the curtain of the Magic Kingdom.


The John Hancock Center on North Michigan Avenue is one of Chicago’s most iconic landmarks. When it was completed in 1969, it was the tallest building in the world, second only to the Empire State Building in New York. But what many people don’t realize is that it is actually possible to live inside one of America’s most famous skyscrapers. The residential floors run from the 45th to the 92nd floor, but it is the 44th floor that holds all the secrets. Off-limits to all but the residents, the 44th floor is home to a vast 5200-square-foot supermarket. There is also a library, concierge service, a high-ceilinged sky lounge, and the highest swimming pool in the United States. During elections it even has its own polling station.


Luke Spencer

Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights is a church steeped in history. One of the oldest Congregationalist Churches in New York, it was once presided over by the inspirational orator, minister, and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. Described then as “the most famous man in America,” his fiery anti-slavery rhetoric was so renowned that Plymouth was the only church in New York visited by Abraham Lincoln. Beecher would hold mock slave auctions on the site, where parishioners would raise money to free slaves.

But the extraordinary events on the church floor covered a remarkable secret below it: a hidden floor, with the entrance through a door behind the organ. Dry, dusty chambers, brick archways, and tunnels are all that remain of one of the principal stops on the Underground Railroad. This hidden floor provided a sanctuary for so many escaping slaves that it became known in hushed voices as the Grand Central Depot. At great risk to themselves, the brave parishioners of Plymouth Church, led by Beecher, vowed to help as many slaves as possible. “I will both shelter them,” Beecher said, “conceal them or speed their flight.” The church is still vibrantly active today, and tours are available to visit what was once one of the most secret places in America.

Luke Spencer


Luke Spencer

Hidden in the roof of St. Thomas’ church in London is something as chilling as it is fascinating. Climbing the circular staircase of the old church to the garret (or attic) there lies one of the oldest known operating theaters still in existence. Once part of the ancient St. Thomas’ hospital, visitors today can crowd into the tiny theater and stand on steep wooden terraces overlooking the operating table. Here 19th-century medical students would watch the pre-eminent surgeons of the day practice their craft; one notable surgeon was said to be able to amputate and cauterize a limb in under a minute.

In the attic above the theater is the old herb apothecary and garden where herbs were stored and cured. Still well-stocked today, the Herb Garret resembles a Victorian cabinet of peculiar curiosities, featuring wormwood, poppies for opium, and a “bath of sheep heads for Woman suffering from unknown illness.” After St. Thomas relocated, the church garret was sealed up and forgotten for decades, until it was rediscovered in the 1960s. Today operating as a museum, tours are available for those who want to experience the lancets, blades, and bone saws of over a hundred years ago. 

Luke Spencer


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