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Five Top Tips for Avoiding Travel Scams in Europe

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I’ll never forget the first time I realized sweet looking people may not be so sweet when I was travelling through Europe.

I was in a crowded store in Barcelona and my handbag was hanging loose as I used both hands to look through a rack of clothes. I’d seen the little old lady nearby and we’d smiled at each other. The sun was shining outside and all seemed right with the world.

Thinking I was in the way when she tried to move past me, I helpfully reached around to move my bag. And found her hand in it.

That’s when I realized that she hadn’t been brushing past at all. Instead she’d been unzipping my bag and if I hadn’t reached back at that exact moment she would have been on her way with my purse. The purse she had in the hand at the end of the wrist that I now had a firm grip on.

We looked at each other, shocked. Each one clearly waiting for the other to make the first move. When I think back on that day I wish I’d been braver and shouted to staff to let them know what was going on. But I hesitated, worried that if I yelled she could become violent, and so when she dropped my purse I let her hand go and she backed away and quickly walked out of the store.

Over the years I’ve heard lots of stories from people on the road sharing their tourist scams woes, but luckily I’ve managed to avoid anything but close calls so far. (Excuse me while I go and touch some wood).

Beware scams in Europe including beautiful Barcelona, image by Logan Armstrong

So if you’re doing the smart thing and reading about tourist safety and tips to avoiding travel scams in Europe before you hop on that plane, here are some popular scams to look out for…

Don’t stop for these strangers

Talking to new people is one of the great joys of travel, so I hate the idea of telling people they shouldn’t stop for strangers at all, but unfortunately there are a lot of scams in Europe that prey on our trusting natures.

The good thing is that once you’re aware of some of the more common scams you can put your ‘You’re Not Fooling Me’ face on and briskly keep on walking.

Common scams include:

Did you lose this ring?

An oh so helpful stranger finds a ring on the ground and asks if it’s yours. When you say it’s not they notice a mark on the ring that says it’s pure gold and try to sell it to you. Or perhaps they say they can’t keep it for some strange religious reason and that you may as well have it instead, and as soon as you accept they start following you, asking for some money.

Sometimes the scam is as simple as that, other times they’re distracting you while their pickpocket accomplice is stealing your wallet.

I’ve often wondered what would happen if you said ‘oh, thank goodness you found it, I’ve been looking for that!’ and took it before walking away, but a better idea is to simply say no and walk on by.

Did you drop your wallet?

You didn’t, but the moment you reach to check you still have yours, you’ve let the pickpockets know exactly where your wallet is. Just in case they do manage to lift your wallet, it’s a good idea to have some travel cards hidden in your bag or concealed money belt.

The Ball and Cup Game

On that same trip to Barcelona many years ago, I remember stopping to watch the classic game where you bet which one of three cups has a ball or a pea in it after they’ve been quickly moved around.

I naively thought it was a game of skill and concentration and even though I wasn’t betting I wanted to prove to myself I could get it right. Which I did every time.

It seemed ridiculously easy, but of course at the time I didn’t realise that the people playing were part of the gang and were there to make it look that way. If I’d put my own money down I would have seen their sleight of hand skills pretty quickly.

Even if you just stand around watching this one, you’re leaving yourself open to pickpockets in the crowd. If you must watch, hold on to your valuables tight, however you’re better off just walking on by.

Avoid Maps

Both using them yourself, and anyone carrying one.

Nothing screams tourist like someone carrying around a map, and there’s no need to carry them at all these days when they’re already in our phones.

Reduce the risk of travel scams by not looking like a tourist with a map, image Porapak Apichodilok

If you don’t have data roaming you can save offline maps in Google Maps by simply tapping the Download button underneath the map of the city or town you’ve searched for.

As for people carrying maps, as soon as someone starts to tell me about how they were having a lovely lunch and then some well-dressed tourists came over and asked for directions I know exactly what’s coming next.

Mobile phones, wallets and cameras go missing quickly when one of the confused ‘tourists’ puts a large map over the table, hiding what their accomplices are doing under the map.

If you see map-wielding tourists coming your way, hold onto your valuables tight and tell them you’re just visiting too and can’t help.

Don’t use your device next to an open train door

This is a relatively new one to me and yet it’s so obvious that I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about it before.

When I was catching a train in Spain recently a friend warned me not to use my iPhone, tablet, or even be looking at my camera if I was sitting anywhere near the doors of the train while the doors were open.

He’d discovered the hard way that some thieves wait until the train is ready to depart then snatch your device out of your hand and jump onto the platform as the door closes behind them.

The shocked victim is then left watching them on the other side of the glass as the train pulls away.

When my friend went to the police station to explain what happened, they’d barely started the story when the police finished it for them. They’d heard it that many times before.

So, sit away from the doors if you can and keep those devices tucked away until the doors have safely closed and you’re on your way.


Avoid Helping Hands

Oh no! A pigeon has pooped on you, or you’ve had tomato sauce squirted on your jacket.

If this happens your first reaction should be to put your hands on your valuables, say you’re fine thanks, and walk as quickly as you can away from the person who is trying to help clean you up.

Another popular scam in Europe, this one lets thieves empty your pockets while they’re distracting and touching you as they supposedly help to clean you up. Get out of there and clean your shirt with no one around.

Other helpful people you want to avoid include the person who says they want to show you how to use their local ATMs when they really want to watch you put in your pin number.

Sometimes even people who look like the police can be part of scams in Europe.

If police in uniform tell you they need to check your wallet for counterfeit bills don’t hand over your wallet. That’s when the fake police steal your money as they’re checking it.

Instead ask them to take you to the police station so that you can be searched there. That will quickly separate the fake cops from the real ones.

Keep Your Eyes on Your Money

Large bills are lovely things to have in theory, but tricksters and scamsters are so good at taking them off you that it’s better to break them into smaller notes as soon as you can.

Whenever you’re handing over a large bill to someone say out loud how much it is and make sure you both see it. Some taxi drivers and waiters will fumble with your note and pretend to drop it, only to pick up a smaller one and say that you gave them less money.

Woman sitting on bar stool with handbag lying on the floor. image Daria Shevtsova

Another taxi scam involves the driver insisting on payment up front, then suddenly not being able to complete the journey for some strange reason and giving you back a counterfeit bill.

Don’t let your credit or debit card be taken out of your sight. If they can’t bring the card machine to your table, follow the person as they’re processing it.

And if someone is taking a long time to count out your change don’t just grab it and rush off. That’s another old scam that relies on our trusting natures. Wait patiently, and it may even be worth counting your change back in front of them.

Remember, most people are good

After sharing all of these bad things that people may try to do to you, I could understand if you were a little bit concerned before your travels.

Which is why I want to stress that in all my years of travelling I’ve managed to avoid falling victim to any of these nasty types (pauses to touch wood again). And being aware of these travel scams in Europe will help you to avoid them too.

If you’ve experienced any that I’ve missed please do share them in the comments below so we can let more people know about them. And before travelling, don’t forget to check out the advice for the country you’re going to.

The Australian government’s Smartraveller website has a section dedicated to different travel scams and you don’t have to be an Aussie to use it. Anyone can check it out.

If you’re travelling by yourself and would like to explore the bars but don’t feel too confident doing it by yourself, lots of places have fun bar tours that you can join. Not only will you get to go to places the locals love but they’ll also be able to fill you in on local tips and tricks, and any extra scams to know about.

Remember, most people that you’ll meet on your travels are good. Some are even going to be amazing. So don’t be scared to meet new people.

Listen to your instincts and enjoy your adventures.

Ready to pack your bags for the big trip? Here are some tips for things you’ll be happy to have packed in your carry on when you get on that plane.

Leave a Comment

  1. Tim Scheybeler says

    The wife and I leave for Barcelona in just over a week from now and begin an extended tour of both Spain and Portugal that will end on April 06. We live in Northern Alberta and at present, we still have close to three feet of snow on our back garden. We are looking forward to even the cooler months of the year that we will get in March and April of 2020. We are still facing temperatures of well below zero on the Celcius scale here in Alberta, Canada. If we can find some spring flowers and some green grass to walk upon both of us will be very happy indeed. We have been doing a great deal of researching on the internet as to the many places to visit and drop in on and we are planning to see a great many sites along the Southern Beaches and Cities of Spain and the long bottom half of Portugal all the way up to Porto where we will stop and finish out our stay until we come back to Alberta. Both of us are extremely excited in regards to this trip and hope to have a great vacation.

  2. Some useful tips there and I am quite familiar with some of those tricks. However, it might help to remember that they can occur everywhere, NOT just in Europe !!
    Happy travels


    • Thanks Gaby, and I agree that while scams don’t only happen in Europe some of these are ones people may not have come across in other parts of the world before and will hopefully never see again. Personally I’ve experienced some of these in Europe and never anywhere else in the world. And luckily most scams are easily avoided if you know what to watch out for so hopefully this will help some people avoid a bad experience on their holiday.

  3. Michael says

    Whilst in Petra, be cautious of the Bedouin, and definitely don’t take them up on their offer to spend the night in their cave. As the saying goes “Never bed a Bedouin… especially if he looks like Johnny Depp”! Actually I just made that saying up, but it’s words should be heeded non the less. I should be polite, like Amanda, and proclaim that not all Bedouins are nefarious, but the odds are in your favor to just completely avoid the males aged 40-15 and to be cautious of everyone else. This is being covered up by the Jordanian government so I felt obliged to mention it after perusing this article. I myself am a tall, intelligent, well dressed male with a good sense of humor and would find it a more than daunting task to convince a girl to come stay at my place (not to mention cave) after just approaching her on the street as a complete stranger. Most people would agree without a moment of thought that it would be wise to avoid such a scenario. However, most people fail to take into account the role the surrounding environment and culture plays in the decision making process, the mindset of an adventure seeker/traveller, and how preconceived notions can hold sway over all of this….. . . . that, as well as severely underestimating the power that eyeliner and a good tan can have over women.
    I enjoyed your articles so I thought I’d suggest an idea for a future article as a thanks. You could consider writing about responding differently to situations during travel or in specific parts of the world vs. your normal assumed response from everyday life. From big decisions to insignificant ones that had little to no discernible effect. “Things I Never Consider Doing… Until I Did Them While Traveling”, “How Your Surroundings Affect Your Decisions” or it could be a series “Things You’d Never Consider Doing… Until You Travelled to _____” and you do an article on specific locations.

    • Hi Michael, thanks for sharing and that’s an interesting idea for another blog story. I have a long list of ideas in the pipeline already but may come back to this one when I’ve managed to make my way through that one. Thanks!

  4. Cheryl B. says

    Was on Mars Hill a few years ago taking a panoramic picture. A thief walked by quickly and stole my camera out of my hands (he brushed my face with his hands!). He was able to escape quickly down the steep, rocky terrain. A friend on the train from Pompeii was offered a seat (her husband was not) and a few minutes later she caught the “kind seatmate” reaching inside her purse.

    • Oh I’m so sorry this happened to you! It’s such a shock when someone steals something from you – especially if it’s right out of your hands. Thankfully most people are lovely but it’s good to be able to watch out for these ones.

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