Theft in Venice: $75 coffee and how to avoid travel's biggest rip-offs

The holiday blush is normally a sign of too much sun, but when Juan Carlos was handed the bill for a couple of coffees in a Venetian square, he turned a deep shade of furious.

Juan Carlos Bustamente, was holidaying in Venice from his native Chile, when he made the mistake of stopping at the Caffe Lavena.

After sitting down to enjoy the view over two ‘caffe espressos’ and a couple of bottles of water, the café was asking for 43 euros.

At €11.50 a coffee and a further €10 per 250ml bottle of San Pellegrino – he paid around $75 for the experience.

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Indignant, the 64-year-old took to Facebook to warn other tourists.

It only added insult to injury when the restaurant tried to justify the costs.

“People get annoyed when the bill arrives because they do not listen when we hand them the menu even though it states clearly enough that prices are higher to sit outside,” the restaurant told the Sun newspaper.

“If they just want a coffee they can have it at the bar for €1.25 ($2).”

Italian surcharges for ‘scenic views’ are nothing new, but it’s certainly a trap that many tourists fall foul of.

In January, a group of tourists to Venice called the police when a restaurant charged them €1100 for a meal between four.

Travel is full of surprises, not always welcome.

Surcharges for credit cards, the $50 fine for that overpacked carry-on;

A canny traveller can get the feeling these are traps for tourists rather than actual surcharges.

With a little forewarning and forwards-planning they can all be avoided.

Here are some of the most common holiday swindles and how to avoid them:

Pockets: It's a travel hack not a fashion hack but airlines haven't starte weighing your clothing, yet.
Pockets: It’s a travel hack not a fashion hack but airlines haven’t starte weighing your clothing, yet.

What can you do? The last minute bureau-de-change is there to make a quick buck from mugs.
What can you do? The last minute bureau-de-change is there to make a quick buck from mugs.

Money

ATM fees

It’s easy to lose track while you’re using your card abroad, and racking up a hefty bill at home. Most banks will have a per-transaction foreign currency charge, and that’s before the insult of exchange rates.

What can you do?
Currency cards often offer the best value for money when you’re in the field. Many get rid of transaction fees and offer competitive exchange rates. A quick comparison can help you find the best one for your destination.

Be warned, some can take around a fortnight to issue and deliver a card. Also remember to check your balance when you return. There’s a bigger danger of unspent holiday money sitting on a card when you can’t see it.

If you have to use a bank card from home, take out larger amounts less often.

Currency conversion con
“Would you like to be charged in New Zealand?” It sounds like an ideal scenariao, to be able to know exactly how much you’ll be charged back home. Many retailers in tourist destinations offer the choice to charge your card in another currency to skip transaction fees through your bank. However, if you do choose to pay in NZ$ it’s unlikely you are getting the most bang for your buck.

Dynamic Currency Conversion, which is a grubby term for an exchange rate set by the payment facilitator and merchant. Just know they’re not doing it for your benefit.

What can you do?
Decline politely and pay in the local currency on your pre-paid travel card.

Exchange rate swindles

You’ve got to departure and you realise you’re travelling light on Russian roubles. Do you quickly pop into the currency exchange kiosk or shop around?

‘Exotic’ currencies can be extremely costly, and the last minute bureau-de-change is there to make a quick buck from mugs. i.e. you.

What can you do?

The time to shop around has probably passed, but at least you can check what you should be charged.

A quick Google search will give you the interbank rate – the baseline from which banks trade.

No one is going to give you exact bank rate, but a quick look on Oanda.com will give you a clear figure on what is reasonable.

If the shop’s rate is too insulting, you might be just as well to walk away and withdraw money from an ATM when you arrive.

Do a bit of real exploring: do you need any an excuse to go fora massage on the beach?
Do a bit of real exploring: do you need any an excuse to go fora massage on the beach?

Hotels

Tourist taxes and service charge

You’ve paid off your hotel costs upfront and now you can relax. Wrong!

From a 21 per cent tax in Bali to 20 per cent additional in Dubai, there are a ton of sneaky surcharges and taxes waiting for you in your room.

What can you do?

Stepping a few blocks down the street, you might find the same goods and services for sale in your hotel. But this way you avoid the hotel taxes.

It’s also a chance to escape the confines of your hotel and do a bit of real exploring: do you need any more excuse to go for some street food or a massage on the beach?

Resort fees
Resorts are notoriously inventive for their surcharges. Daily fees for use of pool-floats, phone chargers or even so-called ‘free’ wi-fi. It’s a sneaky way of shaving off a little bit from the actual price of a stay and presenting a more attractive number.

What can you do?
Americans are big fans of ‘resort fees’ – the resorts are at least. Las Vegas, is notorious for them.

Hotel websites and comparison platforms will tell you if these apply and help you get a more realistic figure for your holiday planning.

Suspicious damage fees: The obligatory rental car return snaps should be a must.
Suspicious damage fees: The obligatory rental car return snaps should be a must.

Car hire

Hire full drop off empty

It seems like a great deal, to be able to dump your rental car at an airport and not have to worry about circling for petrol stations as the check-in desk closes.

However, you are in effect paying for a tank of fuel – often at above pump rates – only to hand the remainder of the fuel back to the operator to sell on again. Short of siphoning petrol, there’s not much you can do.

What can you do?
Always hire full-to-full to at least be getting near market rate.

The “upgrade”
They’re terribly sorry, but the last of that model just drove off the forecourt. So the magnanimous dealer is offering an “upgrade.” It sounds like a positive outcome until they have the cheek to charge you $15 a day for the next model up.

What can you do?

Keep your booking details handy. If they can’t provide you with a free upgrade, insist you get a refund for anything less. If they can’t fulfil the contract, it’s their problem not yours.

Suspicious damage fees

A month or so after you’ve returned home and the holiday is nothing but a distant memory, the car hire debits your credit card for ‘damages’.

What can you do?

Document everything. You took the time for all those wingtip pics and beach selfies. The obligatory rental car return snaps should be a must.

Where possible, make sure you get a receipt of return and damage check before you leave the keys.

Crusie gratuities: The best solution is to cruise with a company that pays their staff properly.
Crusie gratuities: The best solution is to cruise with a company that pays their staff properly.

Cruising

Cruise gratuities

Many cruise lines add about $15 to your daily bill under the title of a ‘gratuity’. Typically in American run companies this is part of the culture as a way of making sure those who work in the background don’t miss out on tips.

What can you do?

It seems like penny pinching to refuse this charge at the purser’s office. Cruises are notoriously piratical around employment policy, and workers’ salaries can depend heavily on tips. The best solution is to cruise with a company that pays their staff properly.