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Top tourist scams in China and how to avoid them

If you aren't a local to China, or even whichever city you are visiting, expect to fall for tourist traps in China! However, they can be avoided. This short guide covers the main tourist scams, our experience in avoiding them (or falling for them) and signs you can look out for to avoid them!

1. The tour scam

There’s a lot to be said on this matter, whether it is the actual tour you book or the activities in the tour itself. Here are my top tips on avoiding the tour scam:

  • When you book the tour, make sure it isn’t cheap. I know this sounds counter intuitive, but when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. There are many $100 or even $1 tours (can be 1 day to a week in length) which are too insanely cheap. If the tour is too cheap, this is usually because of a few reasons: they will take you shopping and strand you at the mall until you buy something expensive; the quality of the accommodation and food might be shocking and the tour might not have any activities in it at all - it will be missing all the things you want to do like the Great Wall.
    Daniel and I actually booked a tour which was 3 to 4 times more expensive than the average tour in China. In exchange, we got a private English speaking tour guide who focused on the history of China, decent food and accommodation, no rushing around the sights and most importantly, no shopping malls. Even when we were taken to apparent jade factories and tea ceremonies en route to an attraction, because we paid a premium price, we were not forced into buying anything.
  • If you are taken shopping during the tour, buy something cheap at least once to placate the tour guides. For instance, taking tourists to tea houses are a common activity. They will give you a cup of tea or a tea ceremony and then expect you to pay or buy something. Buy something cheap if it’s there. Some of the cheap tours available actually rely on the commission from these sales to keep running. Remember, you get what you pay for.
Tour groups at the Echo Chamber at the Temple of Heaven
Tour groups at the Echo Chamber at the Temple of Heaven (you can spot them by the flags)

2. The transport scam

This is mostly for those who like to catch taxis, especially to and from the airport. There are two main types of scams here:

  1. Private car companies who masquerade as taxis but charge at a much higher fare. Daniel and I fell victim to this when we left Beijing airport. There are multiple “car transfers” and random desks to enquire at for taxis or private cars.
    Because the signage in Beijing isn’t particularly clear, it’s very easy to walk up to one of these desks and then get charged a fortune for transport. Don’t expect honesty like you would get perhaps in other countries. When we asked the first desk we approached, we were charged 400 RMB. After shaking our heads the first time, the price went down to 350 RMB. We walked outside to ask another desk, and suddenly the price was down to 300 RMB. They refused to answer if it was taxis and instead just said “no meter”. Ask for the meter. If there isn’t meter, never accept the first price they give.
  2. There are also black taxis. These are illegal taxis and may charge you at ridiculous prices, drop you off in the middle of nowhere or drive off with your luggage. Avoid them! Real, legal taxis in Beijing, for instance, have a number plate that starts with “δΊ¬ B”. Also, line up in the official line at the airport. Have smaller notes ready so there’s no hassle over change.
Number plates in Beijing
An example of a number plate in Beijing, China

3. General price gouging scam

Foreigners often get ripped off badly. Haggling is a big part of the culture in China, so when they see you’re not a local and don’t know the local prices, they start at prices maybe 4 to 5 times higher. Ask a local or your hotel beforehand about what the prices should be around!

The hotel as well might try to rip you off for e.g. maps, wifi access etc. If you’re on a tour, ask your tour guide to negotiate and get it all for free. If you don’t have a tour guide, say no and walk around - the price will drop! Also, make sure you get receipts and invoices of everything!

Invoices you receive in China
Invoices you receive in China

4. Restaurant menu scam

Foreigners who look like they can’t read Chinese might be given a separate "English" menu with inflated prices. Avoid this by either asking for the Chinese menu (hopefully with pictures!) or bring a local with you.

5. Fake beggar scam

Unfortunately, in China, there’s a lot of fakery with beggars. There are whole organisations which prey on the needy and poor and force them to beg on the streets to earn money for them. So when you give them money, it doesn’t necessarily go to them - it might be to their “boss”, which is the last thing you want.