It’s hard not to pity the group of Japanese travelers in Venice who, upon reading the bill for an average meal of steak and fish, reportedly found a price tag befit for a Michelin star restaurant: more than $1,200.
While it’s easy for an experienced traveler to think “That would never happen to me,” the truth is, if you travel in tourist-heavy areas or locations known for business travel, it could. Laws and enforcement differ from country to country, meaning not all merchants fear rules and regulations the same way businesses might at home. That means your outsider status could easily put a target on your back.
So, if you find yourself with a hustler on your hands—be it a restaurant owner, hotel employee, tour operator, or rental car agent —the best thing to do is to fight back with a mix of locally-sourced help and pre-emptive measures. Unless you simply refuse to pay and flee (probably not the best idea) you may not be able to settle the score in the moment. But you do have recourse after the fact—if you play your cards right.
Due diligence: Unfamiliar cultures and foreign languages can be intimidating, but being abroad does not mean being silent. In other words, ask questions—lots of them. For instance, if a menu lacks prices—or you have no idea of the exchange rate—best to confirm the price of things at the time of ordering. Equally, if you hop in a taxi from the airport and prices are not set or clearly stated, negotiate the price up front (rather than falling victim to the the convenient “my meter is broken” trick mid-ride). Same goes for hotel bills: If you’re planning to pay when you check out, ask for a print-out of the expected invoice for the nights you’re staying when you check in. That way, there are no surprises a the end of your meal, ride, or stay.
Go local: It’s harder for restaurant proprietors to get away with extortionate overcharging in a local joint. After all, you could ask the diner next to you what they’re paying. So seeking out non-tourist restaurants is a good idea. To help, use travel blogger Nomadic Matt’s five block rule when it comes to choosing where to eat.
Use your credit card: The number one financial tool a frequent traveler should have is a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. While cash is helpful for smaller transactions, there’s no hope of getting it back once it’s changed hands. It’s good practice before a meal begins or you check into a hotel to confirm that the establishment accepts credit cards. If they don’t—and are insisting on cash for a large transaction—that’s a pretty big red flag.
When you’ve been scammed: So let’s say the worst has happened, and you’ve received a bill you’re pretty certain is taking you for a ride. The first thing to do is try to resolve it with the merchant or vendor themselves. Ask for an itemized bill accounting for each and every charge. If the items don’t match up with the prices listed on the menu, point that out. If language is a barrier, send one member of your party to a nearby shop or flag down a local to ask for help (You can see if they’re willing to come back to the establishment to help you). It may be embarrassing—but it’s not as humiliating as being overcharged.
Watch your statement while traveling: It’s easy to go heavy on the grappa and sign the bill without glancing at the amount when you’re on vacation. So get into the habit of keeping receipts and checking your credit card statements regularly while traveling. If you see anything amiss, you will still have time to go back and try to settle with the merchant.
Gather the evidence: If the vendor will not relent and there is no way to extricate yourself without paying, it’s time to gather evidence. Ask for copies of the bill and your credit card receipt (or snap a picture), take pictures of the menu or price list, and ask for the name of the merchant—noting the address and name of the establishment as well. Your task is to prove that you tried but failed to fix the problem with the merchant, as well as gather enough evidence to make a claim when you get home.
File a dispute: According to 2016 research, credit card disputes are twice as high in the travel industry compared to other industries. In the US, under the Fair Credit Billing Act, you have 60 days to file a claim for a charge that’s come as a result of fraud/theft, merchant error, and unauthorized or unwarranted charges, so don’t feel you need to deal with the admin while on your trip. (Although if your card has been stolen, act as soon as possible). If you can prove you’ve made a good faith effort to resolve the issue with the merchant—and you have proof of the mistaken charge such as receipt and price lists—credit card companies can become your ally in getting a refund. But ultimately, the final call is up to them.
Don’t be trigger happy: While credit card disputes can work, they are only to be used when you’re certain you’ve been wronged, not when the steak was a little overdone or you didn’t like the attitude of the front desk clerk. If your card issuer finds your dispute is not valid or a genuine overcharge—i.e. if the charge was due to an established policy you just didn’t bother to read— your credit card company could cancel your card, so proceed with caution.