Travel Scams & Tips to Avoid Them

Travel scams: the bane of every travellers' existence.

Reading about the horrific experience of 3 Malaysian backpackers at Lombok over at The Vocket, I decided to share this with others just so that everyone will be more aware of the types of scams they could encounter when travelling.

Our Lombok Scam Experience

As far as scams go, I haven't personally experienced one (thankfully), although I've had my fair share of haggling that went wrong due to my own stupidity (you'd think I'd know better after having gone through it a few times, but haggling is just really not my strong suit).

I haven't told anyone about our Lombok holiday scam - thankfully I wasn't affected by the scam, but 7 of my friends were. I just thought I'd share this (since it didn't fit into the original Lombok holiday narrative) just to warn everyone that holiday scams aren't restricted to petty pick-pocketers (alliterations are fun!).

Two of my friends and I had to leave earlier than the rest of the Lombok gang back in May. Our friends who came back later than us later recounted their tale as they told us how they got ripped off by the airport staff at Lombok International Airport.

They arrived with their luggages in tow and were ready to checked in - when they handed over their boarding passes with their passports, nothing seemed amiss except one thing: the airport staff told them that they did not have any checked-in luggage allocated to their boarding pass.
As a note: My friends and I actually bought the AirAsia tickets to Lombok without luggage and meal since we thought we could just add it on later when we have more money in our pockets, and so that's what we did. Funnily enough, there was no problem with my two friends' and my checked-in luggage.

Well, needless to say, all hell broke loose - my friends vehemently protested that they have already paid for our checked-in luggage and meal and even showed proof of payment as well as proof of the luggage being included in the boarding pass. They had all the proof they need, to be honest, but in the end everything fell to deaf ears. I think my friends argued with the staff for over an hour, and there was a long queue of people wanting to check in behind them. The airport staffs denied my friends their luggage rights and my friends had to pay extra. Interestingly enough, the airport staffs had originally wanted them to pay cash, but since my friends didn't have enough leftover cash they paid by credit card. (As an additional aside, as far as we could tell, these airport staffs had no affiliation at all with AirAsia.)

Once my friends touched down in KLIA2 airport, they went directly to the AirAsia counter to recount their complaints. The AirAsia staff at hand informed them that there was indeed a record of them having bought the additional checked-in luggage - but the record was deleted a few moment before they checked-in at the Lombok International Airport counter.

To say it was "suspicious" would be too kind - but as my friends had already paid for the additional cost, the damage was done. My friend did try to revert the charge on his credit card, but as the process was a huge hassle with Maybank, in the end all of my friends paid for the additional charge. (Not even AirAsia could help because it happened out of their jurisdiction apparently.)

Our suspicion was that my friends were deliberately targeted due to their large group and the airport staff deleted their luggage record because it was added-on separately - interestingly enough, their onboard meals (which they paid for with the checked-in luggage) was still available on board!

Our Lombok trip was one of the best trips I've ever been on, so this incident shouldn't deter anyone from going there or even travel elsewhere. But you know, I would rather avoid these scams if I could!

So how do you try to avoid travel scams?

Holiday scams are a "norm", but that doesn't mean we have to accept it. These are what I've learned on how to avoid some of the more popular scams:

1. Pickpockets

On my travels, I usually try to have three wallets - one wallet with emergency money stash (usually a mix of Malaysian ringgit and the foreign currency of the country I'm travelling to), one wallet where I put my daily budget it, and one wallet I use for the budget-of-the-day.

  • Put the wallet with emergency money in a safe, locked place (tip #2 applies)
  • Wallet-with-the-daily budget should come with you and stashed safely on your body (in your socks or whatever; I usually prefer to use the money-belt pouch that goes underneath your shirt but they do get uncomfortable!)
  • The daily wallet with your budget-of-the-day you can put in your bag. At least if your bag gets pick-pocketed, you'd only lose a couple of pounds/euro/yen/won/whatever. Don't put too much money in the daily wallet. 

Wear a cross-body bag if possible and ensure the bag is in front of you. Zip your bags up! If you want, you can also rip off a piece from a plastic bag and tie them through the loops of the bag zippers. This would result in the plastic bag rustling if someone did try to open it. (It's also a hassle for you if you plan on zipping & unzipping this bag a lot, but you know, pick your poison.)

Be aware of your surroundings and look at any suspicious people in the eye and give them a "I'm watching you" vibe just so they know you're watching.

That's right, you - no not the guy behind you, YOU

2. Keep Your Passport Safe

If I think I don't need to bring your passport for the day's excursion, I always prefer to leave my passport and other valuables somewhere in the hotel, but we all know that that's sometimes a double-edged sword. If you do leave it in the hotel, ask yourself this:

Does the hotel look trustworthy / safe to you?

It's hard to check of course but I always read reviews of the hotels I'm staying at at TripAdvisor & - other travellers often gives out good tips & tricks about their stay, and you could glean their wisdom by spending an hour reading their reviews. If I'm staying in a hostel, I'd lock my passport in my luggage - however, you'd run the risk of your luggage being stolen too, so take your laptop lock and lock your luggage to the bedpost or something of the sort. (Lol, I know, the lengths I go to.)

Hotels usually have a safe which you can utilize, and I prefer those.

Otherwise, bring your passport with you (especially if you think you need it for your travels) - just make sure you keep it secret & safe & close to your body (body wallet, secret pockets, do it by whatever means you have to keep it safe).

3. Don't Give Away Your Credit Card / Passport Details

Yeah this should be common sense, but sometimes during travels you tend to be lulled into a false sense of security (totally understandable if you're on a lazy vacation in Bora Bora for example).

I try not to give my credit card details at all if possible - probably unavoidable with hotels & car rentals, but always be vigilant. If you feel like it doesn't make sense for you to give your credit card or passport details away, DON'T.

If you get calls in the middle of the night claiming they're from the hotel and saying that there's a problem with your card details and could you please re-confirm it along with your CCV code? Yeah, probably not a good idea to give it to them. Instead, go down and check directly with the hotel the next morning. ALWAYS deal with people in person if possible, not over the phone.

Always ensure your credit card transactions are done either face-to-face or if you're doing it online, ensure that it's a safe connection and that you've satisfied yourself that the website doesn't look suspicious (do your research by googling things up online - yes, it's time-consuming, but it's worth it).

If you're asked to produce your passport, show them a photocopy of it instead (make a few photocopies! You can even leave a copy in your luggage for easier tracking). If the other party insist that you show your original passport, claim that you've left it at your hotel. If you're dealing with authorities, let them know that you're willing to go back to the hotel with them to show you your passport. (Lie only if you have to, but know your limits.)

Again, don't leave your passport with the hotel, the rental car company, etc for any reason if you absolutely don't have to!

4. Lock Your Luggage

Yeah this should be common sense too, but I guess some people are lackadaisical with their belongings? Even if you think there's nothing worth stealing, it's always a good idea to be vigilant and lock your luggage.

Also, you can do the "plastic-bag loop through the zippers" trick (see #1) for your luggage too!

5. Be Wary of "Free Wi-Fi"

Sometimes e-thieves (something I'd never thought I'd type out) will try to get your personal information via the free wi-fi you're accessing.

So if you're surfing the web via a free wi-fi you've connected to ("Score!" you thought elatedly), don't log into your banking account, don't do any online transactions if possible (find an internet cafe or a secure wifi) -- unless you want to find yourself out of your bank savings ("...dude, NotScore, NotScore, noooooooo!" you scream dejectedly).

Yeah, and the "Free Wi-fi" is only there to steal your monies

6. Know Your Budget Airlines

  • For AirAsia, I definitely recommend buying your luggage together with your ticket, as opposed to adding it on later via "Manage My Bookings". Hopefully you will be able to avoid my friends' Lombok Luggage Loss as you can prove that you've bought it with your ticket. If you feel safer buying extra luggage beforehand, then do it. Don't leave it to chance. 
  • Consider bringing only cabin luggage to avoid the checked-in baggage fees - I know this is hard especially for parents with kids, but it's just a suggestion :) 
  • Check the limitations of other budget airlines too - don't let yourself be caught having to pay more. 
  • Buy a digital luggage and confirm the weight of your luggage before you check-in, take a picture of it, and bring the digital luggage with you to the check-in counter. This way you can avoid the whole overweight-luggage trick some airports / airlines employ.  
  • Do your research about budget airlines - in other words, google for reviews to see what other travellers are saying about the airlines. For example, I've heard awful things about  Easy Jet - doesn't mean I won't buy their cheap tickets, it just means I will know how to navigate their tricky extra charges.

7. Double Check The Price You've Agreed On

I've personally experienced this in Lombok. We'd hired a tour agent to take us around since it's easier with our large group, and we've emailed the agent back and forth and finally agreed on a price.

When we got to Lombok, we were greeted by our tour agent (although he was not the one we dealt with directly) and it was all smiles when we were dropped off to our hotel for check-in. Then, the agent asked for full payment before we start the tour the next day - fair enough.

I'd prepared the exact amount of money to pay the tour agent, down to the very cent - however, when I checked the bill, the agent had quoted almost double the price! Luckily I checked the amount first and furiously searched for the e-mail stating the price we've agreed on beforehand and told this to the agent in charge of us.

The agent immediately called his boss (the one whom we dealt with via emails and phone) for confirmation and finally agreed on the original-quoted price. Now I'd like to think that this is just a miscommunication as the tour agent was really non-confrontational about the whole thing, but we decided to be alert to any hidden charges from then on.

The outcome of the whole thing is that you should always double check the price you've agreed on previously and the price you're asked to pay now.

If you don't double check, CC shows you what happens

8. And finally... Travel Insurance

At the end of the day, despite of all the careful plans we've cooked up to foil our fraudulent foes, we have to accept that sometimes accidents happen. It won't always happen, but it could.

This is where travel insurance comes in.

For destinations with questionable safety status, I always buy travel insurance. Now that I'm almost always travelling alone, I always buy a travel insurance. I prefer to get a yearly coverage as I know I will at least travel more than 3 times a year - personally I feel it's worth the peace of mind.

Do your research when it comes to travel insurances and look at all the T&Cs involved in it, especially on the ease of claims if you do run into a loss/accident. There are a lot of offers in Malaysia, and there's a few international travel insurance worth looking into as well (although a bit more expensive what with the Ringgit depreciation), so pick the one that you think is worth it. It also depends on what you want to cover - luggage, delay, heck even your travelling gadgets will be accounted for if you want to go for more coverage. So yeah, do your research and pick the one you like most.

TIPS: Make a list of all your belongings (on your phone & on physical paper) so that it's easier for you to keep track of your belongings and easier for claims as well. Also it helps you to see what you should insure and what could do without. To take it a step further you can take a picture of your luggage and all your travel gears just so you can show your insurance company later what condition it was in before it meets with any accident.

When all else fails, always have travel insurance as your backup!


The above is not the be-all and end-all of the travel scams - thieves will always try to trick you in a new, "innovative" ways - the best advice I can give you is to be alert at all times, especially so if your intuition is telling you something is wrong. If despite every precautions you've taken, something still happens, remember that you're on a holiday - don't stress about it too much, and make sure your valuables and yourself are insured!


Diyana said...

I've got a couple of tips to add to your advice for pickpockets because I think part of deterring pickpockets is appearances. If you make it look difficult to access valuables in bag without spending a few minutes digging through it or that there a ton of stuff burying your money, it'll deter the pickpockets that are looking for an easy pass and grab steal.

-Get a bag that has a zip and a flap that goes over it. It's double protection and if you sometimes forget to zip, it'll still look closed to a potential thief. Plus a big flap would make harder for a hand to slip in without be more noticeable compared to just a zipper.
-Stick your wallet in the bottom of your bag. It'll take a few seconds more to take it out and put it but it'll be safer for your wallet. Most shopkeepers for tourists won't care if you spend more time rummaging for your money and they're pretty patient. Even if your bag barely have anything beside the wallet, just spend a few extra seconds swirling your hand in your bag when you take out and put in your wallet.
-Aso I know some people love to bring to their nice fancy bags for trips but depending on where you go, I would suggest leaving the Louis Vuitton at home. You can bring something more moderately priced like a small Coach, or something even cheaper like Liz Claiborne. Just make the bag seem like it's not worth stealing itself or that it (or yourself) is not an attractive target compared to someone else.

Nadirah said...

Diyana, thank you for those great tips! I will add them to the main post & credit you if you don't mind :)

And yes, I agree, appearances play a big part of it - choose your bags wisely :D