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How to avoid tourist traps and have authentic experiences when travelling

The ultimate guide!

You may believe that you're above tourist traps, that you won't fall into them, and you definitely won't be scammed by someone on the street. However, these traps are more than just people begging for money near major attractions. Some tourist traps aren't even scams, they're genuine restaurants or experiences, but they may not give you the most authentic experience and you'll definitely pay good money for it anyways.

This guide to help you to avoid making the same mistakes I have, particularly in big cities where you definitely could get more of a local, cultural experience, but are very likely to be ripped off for something inauthentic.

1. Try to find more authentic restaurants

You are most likely to waste money on your trip on poor quality food and drink whilst out and about sightseeing, or trying to enjoy an evening in your new destination. Sometimes, all you want is some comforting food, and that might not be the local cuisine for you. If that's the case, head anywhere that just takes your fancy, but be prepared to pay a little more for the privilege of enjoying a home comfort. However, if it's authentic, local food you're looking for, there are a few ways you can avoid restaurants that might be ripping you off for extra cash.

3 glasses of white wine and a bottle on a table in a restaurant

Signs of a tourist trap restaurant to avoid:

  • The menu outside the bar or restaurant is completely written in English

  • The menu has lots of pictures on it, potentially one for every dish

  • There is someone outside trying to persuade passers-by to head into their establishment, promoting special offers, etc.

  • A restaurant that is really busy outside of the local, typical eating times. For example, in Spain, it's customary to eat an evening meal late in the day, often around 9pm. However, British people generally eat earlier than this. If you see a restaurant in Spain packed with people eating a main meal at 6pm, it's most likely not a local spot.

  • If the menu has a massive choice of foods from all over the world. Pizzas, and curries, and burgers, and burritos, and paella? None of this food is going to be their speciality, and it probably won't be the best quality

  • If the establishment is a must-visit in several guidebooks or on several travel websites

  • If the establishment is very close to, or has a great view of a major attraction. We totally understand the appeal of having an Aperol Spritz with a view of the Colosseum in Rome, but you will absolutely pay at least double or triple of what you would pay around the corner, plus a hefty service charge. Sometimes it's worth the money, if you're having a cocktail right by the sea or tapas looking onto a stunning Spanish cathedral. Other times you realise you've paid ten Euros for a rubbish coffee just because you're in the main square...

You can find more authentic restaurants by looking for reviews and heading a little out of the main tourist areas. Walk out of the main square, turn a couple of corners, and all of a sudden your chances of finding some authentic and more affordable food have doubled!

An Aperol Spritz near a canal in Venice
This aperol spritz in Venice was only 4 euros, but 5 minutes walk away in St. Mark's Square it would've been at least 15!

2. Do your research

It might be incredibly exciting to head off on a trip without reading anything beforehand and just experiencing it when you arrive. However, it can leave you in situations where you feel completely clueless and really wish you had a quick google before you set off.

You don't have to spend hours upon hours researching everything, finding reviews and making perfectly planned itineraries if that's not your thing. But there are some things you should always check before visiting a new destination, in our opinion. By the way, our inspiration posts are a great way to get a summary of a destination and lots of the useful information you may need.

Things to quickly research before you travel:

  • Currency and average prices: If you arrive somewhere and don't have any of the local currency, you can be charged huge fees from ATMs to withdraw cash, charges from some banks to use your card, and high conversion fees to change your cash over. In addition, not knowing the conversion rate or average prices can really cost you.

  • Visas: This one is self-explanatory. No one wants to travel all that way and be refused entry at the border because you didn't check.

  • Language: We're not suggesting you'll need to become fluent in the language every time you visit a new country, however it's worth checking the national languages and what is widely spoken in the city you're visiting. Plus, it's always polite to learn a few key phrases to show respect.

  • Recommended places to eat: Don't just look on one website, or take a guidebook as complete truth. Search TripAdvisor, check Sightseekr for recommendations and look at individual travel blogs for their favourite spots.

  • Tours and excursions that you can pre-book: If you're wanting to head off on adventures, have a look which tours and excursions you can book before you go. It can save you a fortune, and prevents you being put on the spot by a sales rep on the day. You can read fully into what each experience has to offer, look at reviews, and use this to decide which is for you. Sites like GetYourGuide and Tiquets are great for this.

A cliff face with trees in front of it in Bergen, Norway

3. Travel out of season

The Arc du Cinquantenaire in Burssels
The Arc du Cinquantenaire in Burssels, very quiet as we travelled in March

Yes, it's really amazing to head to Spain in the middle of Summer for that bustling atmosphere and baking sun. And of course, you want to visit colder countries like Iceland when it's Winter, so you can have the full experience. But travelling out of season can save you a fortune on flights, hotels and experiences, as well as reducing the chance of falling into a tourist trap. Think about it - at the time of year when there are barely any tourists, will there be people on the street looking for tourists and trying to scam them?

Also, in the off-peak season, lots of places reduce their prices in a bid to get more customers. And the off-season generally has a lot to offer: less crowds, different weather conditions and much easier to book last minute. Sometimes it's not possible, especially for families who have to stick to school holidays, but it's absolutely worth considering if you can.

4. In the nicest possible way - Get Lost

A street in Bologna, Italy

One of the most exciting things about exploring a new city is turning off your phone, being completely present, and wandering around taking in the sights. For one of your days, or even just an hour, wander aimlessly, and when you see a street you like the look of, head down it. Continue until you don't recognise where you are and your feet are starting to ache, then stop for a coffee and use google maps to figure out your way back.

By doing this, you'll see other parts of that city that a guidebook or TripAdvisor would never direct you to. Hopefully you'll get to see some local life and you might spot somewhere you want to return, like an interesting looking museum or a restaurant that smelt incredible as you walked by.

5. Chat to locals

This can absolutely be combined with the previous point of getting lost and exploring a little further. Stopping for a coffee in a cosy café, especially on your own, is a great way to get talking to some locals. Once you've started chatting, if there's anything in particular you want to know, or would appreciate a recommendation for, politely ask. People love to talk about things they love! Ask what food you should try while you're there, or what experience you definitely can't miss on your stay.

If just the thought of talking to a stranger in a coffee shop makes you feel physically ill, don't worry. A great other way to receive local recommendations is to join travel groups on Facebook, and ask for ideas there. There are even specific groups for different countries and destinations, which are a brilliant place to get your questions answered and hear about other people's experiences. You might even be pre-warned about a common scam in the area, or a restaurant with terrible food. And you can do it all from the comfort of your bed!

6. Make use of technology

It doesn't even need saying that modern day technology has it's downsides, and often prevents us from living life to the fullest. However, there are so many great things you can do while travelling to prevent yourself being ripped off, all from your phone.

One tip that I just couldn't miss from this post is use taxi apps! Most cities or tourist destinations have some provision, whether it's a more local company or one of the big companies like Uber, Bolt, FreeNow, or Grab. Using these apps means you are quoted a price before your taxi even arrives, preventing being overcharged by a taxi on arrival because the driver realises you're a tourist. You can also check your driver's reviews from other customers, share how your trip is going with a contact and even know their number plate before they arrive.

As well as this, don't dismiss the value of Facebook groups, individual travel blogs and review sites to get more information about a destination and make sure you avoid any well-known tourist traps. Sightseekr inspiration posts are a great way to get a summary of a destination before you decide to book, then read up on more things to do and get individual experiences from social media and travel blogs.

Use tools like Google Maps to save the places you've seen recommended, or find pre-made itineraries for the destination you're visited.

7. Wise up on common scams and issues in the area

Personally, I think that I've saved the most important point for last. You should always have a quick check if there are any particular safety concerns in the area you're visiting, and what the most common scams are. For example, Barcelona is known to be a city where tourists very regularly get their bags and/or phones stolen, so you know you have to take extra precaution. Generally, you can find this type of information on google, but social media is a great way to find out too.

I'll share some of the most common scams aimed at tourists for you to avoid, but be aware that this is not an exhaustive list. These are just the ones that we've experienced or heard about when travelling or conducting our own research.

Common scams aimed at tourists:

  • The bracelet scam: This is where somebody tries to give you a free gift, sometimes it will be a flower, but often it's a bracelet that they will try to tie onto your wrist. Initially, they will say it is free, then as soon as you've taken the item, they will request a tip or payment for it. If you refuse, they often have others in the area, and you can end up with quite a crowd around you and feel very intimidated. The best way to avoid this is never take anything offered to you, no matter how much they insist. Another outcome of this scam is that as you are distracted talking, negotiation, trying to return the item, or having the bracelet put on your wrist, an accomplice will take your valuables.

  • The "free" tour or ride: This scam is a testament to the common statement of "if something seems too good to be true, it is". If you get into a taxi (or any other vehicle) and they offer to give you a free tour of your destination, say no! They will always demand a large tip or say they never said it was free in the first place. Furthermore, if you are waiting for a taxi and someone approaches you , offering a free ride, it probably is not legitimate. Even well-established free walking tours of cities can end up with you spending more than you would've booking a paid tour! Free walking tours are free to book and join, but you are expected to leave a tip based on how much you enjoyed the tour. However, sometimes the tour guides can be quite pushy throughout the tour about the value that the tip should be, and you may feel pressured to leave much more than you originally intended.

  • The damaged rental vehicle: It's fairly common to return a rental vehicle, and be met with claims that "this scratch/dent wasn't there last week" and be asked to pay for the damages. The best way to avoid this is to take pictures of every inch of the vehicle before you leave with it! Then you have solid proof no matter what accusations come your way.

  • The vulnerable person begging: Of course, in every destination there are unfortunately going to people in misfortune who are living on the streets. However, sometimes in major tourist destinations you'll see very clearly vulnerable people sat with signs asking for money for food or somewhere to sleep. Potentially they will even approach you on the street or sat outside a bar and ask for change. As heart-breaking as it is, children, people with disabilities or pregnant women who are begging will be often under a larger organisation or gang and probably won't even get to keep any money you give them. If you really want to help, you could buy them some food or a drink. Otherwise, just apologise and decline.

  • The petition: This scam can occur on the street, or someone could approach you as you're sat outside of a café or bar. Someone will approach you and ask you to sign a petition for a good cause. If you sign it, they will them tell you that you've just signed stating that you will donate to their "charity". It will be hidden somewhere in the small print. Again, these people are very persistent, and will tell you that because you've signed you legally have to give them a certain amount of cash. This is a very tricky one to get out of, you have to just keep being firm and insist they remove your name. Try not to sign anything in the first place!

Another note to remember is that the excuse of not having cash doesn't always work nowadays! I was once caught by one of these common scams, and said I didn't have cash so couldn't pay. The man reached into his pocked, pulled out a card machine, and simply said "Apple Pay". Very clever...

Follow these tips to give yourself a much better chance of avoiding scams, saving money whilst travelling and having the best experiences possible. Remember to check for current travel advice in your chosen destination, and have a look on our Ready to Book page to see the latest travel deals and our trusted companies to book with. Have an amazing time - Jess



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