During our travels, we've lost a reasonable amount of money (not to mention our tempers!) because we weren't ready for the exploits and trickery that can lie in wait for two westerners in a country a long way from home. It's a great shame, but if you're a westerner and you visit a very poor country, you might as well walk around with a t-shirt on saying “Walking ATM”, as that is basically how some people will see you. Their game is to confuse you, exploit your lack of knowledge, and sometimes outright lie, with the grand aim of separating you and your money.
In this post, I'll share with you some tales of how we were conned, things we wished we had done differently and some general money saving travel tips. Hopefully this post will help you save money by avoiding the cons and swindles that got us. Most things are just common sense, but these mistakes are surprisingly easy to make (especially when tired and stressed) unless you're anticipating them.
It may be tempting to have your unmentionables washed at the hotel's in-house laundry service, but almost universally these services are “per piece”, which means you pay a fixed price for each item of clothing. This is much more expensive than the “per kilogram” services offered by local laundrettes. Unless you've brought your Vera Wang little black dress along whilst traveling, there is no need to fork out for these services. Ask at the hotel reception if there is a local laundry nearby, and if they refuse to tell you or say they don't know, just wander around the area and side streets (safely of course!). Most of the time you'll come across somewhere. In Thailand, we found there were lots of self-service coin operated machines to use, and in Indonesia we found plenty of local laundrettes that provided washing and ironing on a per kg basis, with great rates, and turn around times of 1-3days. We made the mistake of using hotel laundry in Bandung, Java and paid nearly £25 for the laundry of two people, when we usually pay around £4. Suffice to say we never made this mistake again. So whatever you do, don't use the hotel laundry!
Metered or fixed rate? At first glance, metered taxis sound great, there is no chance of getting a bum deal because everyone gets the rate set by the meter and you only pay for the distance you travel. In theory, yes. We quickly found in Jakarta, that fixed rate, even with the acclaimed Blue Bird group of taxis, still left ample room for a good old con. Drivers will pretend to get lost, or just blatantly drive the longest route possible to a destination, clocking up extra miles (if you have a smart phone, make sure you monitor the route with Google maps etc). If you know where you're going and how much it should cost (check wikitravel for each city you visit, although it is sometimes outdated on prices, and check with hotel staff), you will take the stress out of traveling this way, and often get a better deal, by just haggling a fixed rate.
Tip1: If you are traveling to an airport or bus terminal, the driver is some often required to pay a parking fee or similar to enter; if you can carry your bags for a few metres, asked to be dropped off outside the airport/terminal instead.
Tip2: If arriving at an airport, bypass the bloodthirsty taxi mob immediately outside and walk outside the airport on your own, a few meters down the road from the airport (of course, make sure it is safe and not a motorway or the absolute middle of nowhere), and you will often find the taxis are now cheaper.
Angkots are found in SE Asia, and are communal vans that usually hold about 8 people. For locals the prices are very cheap (e.g. 3000-5000Rp in Indonesia), but for foreigners the price will often be vastly inflated. We had a bad experience with an Angkot on the way to the airport in Sorong. The driver insisted on some stupidly high price after the ride, over double that agreed; I argued and tried to give him the previously agreed price. Next the argument attracted some other Indonesians, that looked semi-official (we were at the airport), and who basically tried to translate the price to English for me, perhaps believing I had just not understood how much he wanted. I told them we had agreed a lower price before the ride, but the driver continued to refuse to accept the money, and the other Indonesians obviously sided with the driver.
The extra money was peanuts to be honest, but the feeling of being exploited, just because of being seen as a western cash cow is hard to shake, and I continued to insist I was not going to pay. By now things were getting lively. He said if I wasn't going to pay, he'd drive me back to the hotel. We had time to kill before the flight, so I said fine and got back in the angkot in principled indignation. It was only at this stage that brain caught up to heart, and I realised that back in the angkot, I was totally at this guy's mercy; he could take me anywhere, back to a house with his four burly brothers to extract whatever money they wanted from me. Needless to say I paid up. I threw the money in his general direction --- not my finest moment, I must admit --- grabbed my bags, and jumped out.
What can be done about this? Call the police or tourist police perhaps? It's basically low-grade daylight robbery, but to be fair it only happened twice out of lots and lots of angkots taken, and it must have cost us, I don't know, £2 in total. My advice would be to fight your corner, but not to get angry, keep cool, pay up and move on.
Tip 1: Be super explicit when arranging the price. Before the ride, confirm the price multiple times both in the local language (numbers are always worth learning for any extended stay in a country) and in English, even with fingers if necessary!
Tip 2: If you have large suitcases/rucksacks expect to pay for these as an extra person.
Tip 3: Make sure they really know where you want to go. There was a time in a Becak in Indonesia, where we wanted to go a certain hotel in Makassar city. I told the Becak driver the name of the hotel, he looked kind of blankly at me, so I showed him the hotel name in writing, “Oh okay, okay, get in”. It was 15Mins later when we arrived at some different hotel. It turns out all he could read from the writing was the city name, Makassar, and took us to the hotel of that name. We were now even further from our desired hotel, still had to pay the guy (again, try arguing with a guy who doesn't speak English to tell him its his mistake and you're not going to pay up). Almost invariably, if they sound like they are unsure when you ask, they don't know, but just want your business anyway. Only take a ride if you are 100% confident the driver knows the place you are going.
Lots of restaurants add tax to the bill at the end (10% or 21% are common here in Indonesia). It's a simple tip, but be aware of this, and factor it into the price on the menu before eating there. Don't accept any freebies: In Jakarta, as we waited for our food we were brought a plate of otek-otek (fish cooked in bamboo leaf) as the waiter told us “so sorry for the delay, please enjoy these...”. We thought “how nice” as we tucked in. Only at the end of the meal, when the bill arrived, did we realise they were billing us for the otek-otek, despite presenting it to us with no mention of price and without so much as offering us it. Very annoying. This same pitfall got us with even simple things that you'd assume would be free, such as glasses of water. You can look like a plonker asking “Is it free??” all the time, but it's better than being ripped off.
Always have small change on any transit days, paying taxis/angkots/boats or otherwise in big bills is a recipe for disaster. Check for service fees on credit cards when paying for anything. It's often cheaper to pay via cash, but be careful to choose an ATM with no fee (no problem in Indonesia, but in Bangkok we only found a couple of ATMs that were free). Also make sure you pay off your credit card quickly, as the interest on cash advances usually starts accumulating immediately.
In Indonesia, certain airlines like Wings only give 10kg baggage allowance, yet they are connecting flights on a journey with other airlines, like Lion air, who offer 20kg allowance. When we were flying from Surabaya to Labuan Bajo, we went via Denpasar, Bali. The first leg with Lion Air, and the second with Wings. When we had bought the ticket, we saw 20kg because of the Lion Air flight, but at the airport were told we had to pay overweight baggage fees because of the wings flight. The fees are fairly cheap compared to the equivalent western fees, but just be aware of this. Even on subsequent flights, with full knowledge of the weight limit, there was often nothing we could do, as we needed to use certain airlines to get to remoter places, and if these airlines had baggage limitations of 10kg, we just had to pay to excess fee. Also be aware that lots of cities in Indonesia have so called “departure tax” for foreigners, just another money spinner.
I think it's kind of scandalous that lots of national attractions, have one rate for locals and another for foreigners, but that is just par for the course here in Indonesia. Expect to pay up to 10x what a local would pay for exactly the same activity. Maybe we should try that back in the UK? £20 for UK citizen to enter the Tower of London, £200 for foreigners? I know there is a disparity of wealth and tourism is a vital industry in SE Asia, so maybe I should just lump it, but it certainly irks.
Sellers will board buses and place food/drink next to you on the seat or on your lap. I read elsewhere that someone (it wasn't me this time, honest!) believed this was complimentary food from the bus company (think airline meal) and eat it, only to be shocked later that they had to pay the seller. The food/drink is most definitely not free!
Tip 1: on public bus rides never get off early. Often people will board the bus just before the terminal you are heading to and tell you that you have arrived for tourist attraction x. Usually they are from tout offices, and they are trying to fool you into getting off at their agency to sell you a more expensive option for the next leg of the trip. Stay on the bus until the official terminal or you are sure it is the right place.
Tip 2: check the prices ahead of the journey and check how much other people are paying. If your baggage is taking up a seat, you can legitimately expect to pay extra for it, but otherwise make sure you are not charged an inflated price. Also have small bills ready to just hand over the amount you know it should cost, and not a penny more. If you only have big bills, it gets much harder to negotiate the correct price.
Buy tickets from the official booths, not from travel agents above or around the station. Often these will be the same tickets but at a more expensive price.
If buying a SIM card for your unlocked phone, make sure the card is completely sealed an unopened. Once in Flores, we bought a Telkomsel SIM, supposedly with a month's data allowance, yet when we got home we realised the SIM card allowance was set to expire in 7 days. Also make sure you've registered the SIM before you attempt to put any credit on it at a 7-11 or elsewhere, otherwise your money will be likely swallowed into the void.