We’ve now been in India for a month and have loved pretty much every minute of our experience. However, having met two separate couples who had almost identical experiences upon arrival here we felt we had to share our Delhi baptism of fire. If nothing else hopefully this will help others avoid this unsettling start to their Indian adventure.
Both being quite well travelled we’d like to think that we’re pretty switched on to tourist scams, however the impressive planning and elaborate execution that went into this particular con caught us off guard.
Before leaving London we were advised that the pre paid taxi rank at Delhi airport was by far the safest way to avoid getting ripped off. So upon landing at midnight we headed straight to there and purchased a ticket to our hostel in Paharganj. Before long we were jumping into one of the many pre paid taxis and careering Indian style through the Delhi streets.
Whilst chatting with the driver in broken English we gathered that there were festival celebrations taking place around the city and therefore there was a high terrorism alert. Being October - which is India’s festival season and given the current tensions with Pakistan this sounded feasible, although talk of terrorism is always sure to unsettle you slightly.
Our journey began to derail as we approached what we were told was our neighbourhood. As the driver tried to turn down the necessary road we were stopped by a ‘Police Road Block’ barrier. He explained this must be due to the celebrations and appeared unsure as to how he was going to get us to our destination. As it was 2am in a completely alien city walking didn’t seem the safest option so our driver suggested we ask for advice from another taxi driver stood at the side of the road. After some head shakes and gesturing, he pointed into the distance and said “Tourist Office”.
We agreed between us that this was a sensible plan and when we pulled up to a relatively smart building sporting an official looking ‘Tourist Office’ sign we felt we were in safe hands. The office manager who greeted us was very helpful, getting out guidebooks and putting Jess on the phone to ‘the guy who ran our hostel’. We spoke briefly and he apologised hugely for the inconvenience and said we’d have to find somewhere else for the night. The manager explained that due to the road closures our choices were limited but that he would keep trying for us.
It was at this point that we first became slightly suspicious, however we were put on the phone to a few more hotels each of whom explained the same issue and said that they only had $200+ rooms available. In this time another tourist had turned up at the office with his taxi driver - and of course - they were experiencing the same issues!
After a few more unsuccessful calls the Office Manager said he knew of one place near by which would be our cheapest option and would cost around $100. He wasn’t sure if there were any rooms free but thought it would be worth a go so put us back in the taxi and sent us on our way. When we arrived the receptionist exclaimed that ‘we were in luck! He had just one room left!’ This was when the grand scam began to unravel. This receptionist, unlike his fellow con men was not a skilled actor, in fact he was amusingly brittle in his delivery. We smelt a rat and aborted our attempts to negotiate immediately.
Fortunately for us, prior to leaving London we had been put in touch with a friend of a friend in Delhi. On the off chance that he would be awake at 2.30am we decided to pay the roaming fees and text him our dilemma. Within minutes we received a response: ‘YOU ARE IN A SCAM!!’.
Suddenly it all seemed quite obvious - as we played back the events in our heads like the recap in a detective mystery, we realised that pretty much every person we had spoken to in the last 3 hours was in on it and contributing to an impressively elaborate scam!
20 minutes later our knight in shining armour came to the rescue, taking us to the hotel where he was staying for the night. He went on to explain that this scam was relatively common and that they targeted tourists arriving late at night so as to limit their options.
Less than 3 hours into our time in India and we had already experienced 2 very contrasting sides to the country that have been a feature of our time here ever since. On the one hand there are people trying to pull any scam possible and on the other, there are the kindest, genuinely generous people who want to help you for no cost and show you the delights of India.
5 tips for avoiding airport scams like this one:
Check with your host the day before you leave that everything is fine and your booking is confirmed.
If possible ask your hotel to arrange pick up - this will be at a slightly higher price but only a couple of pounds and well worth it.
If possible arrive in the day time - arriving late at night, they know you do not have many options and so will have to cough up even if you know you are being scammed
Tell cab drivers you have been to the city many times before - seems obvious but they pray on people who clearly don’t know what they’re doing.
Ideally have someone you can contact if things do go wrong.