This scam is not one I’ve ever personally fallen for but I’ve been set up for it a few times and been able to avoid it because I’m a control freak of the first degree and I like to know exactly where I’m going to be staying when I’m in India. This particular scam relies on people turning up in a city without a hotel booking and just hoping that the hotel they want having space. It doesn’t work if you’ve already pre-booked, got your confirmation, and had recent email or phone contact with the hotel owner or receptionist.
Here’s how it works.
The unwary traveller arrives at the airport or railway station, tired and possibly emotional (especially if they’ve been on the train for days and the toilets all backed up). He or she steps out of the station or airport and gets swamped by taxi drivers. Finding one who looks less insane than the others, the tourist asks the driver to take them to a specific hotel. For the sake of illustration, let’s call it the Hotel Xanadu. The Indian yes/no head wobble starts as the driver attempts to confuse the poor tourists. "No, no, sir, madam. Xanadu bad hotel. Xanadu fire, Xanadu closed, Xanadu renovations, Xanadu wiped off the face of the earth by a meteorite" I think you get the picture.
The worried tourist is confused but the helpful taxi man wants to help. "I take you somewhere nice, much better, you come with me, very fine hotel, very comfortable " and off you go, into the night (it always seems to be at night) trusting life, luggage and limb to your new best friend. He pulls up outside a generic, grubby little hotel where not surprisingly they just happen to still have a room for you. It’s late, you don’t have the slightest idea where you are, you don’t feel in a position to really ‘negotiate’ and the streets you passed through to get here had enough people sleeping on them already that you’re not keen to join them.
If the receptionist is really professional at this scam, he’s going to tell you that there’s a big event in town, all the hotels are full, he has a room for the next two nights but you need to pay for all the nights up front. You weigh up the options and give in because you can’t face going to find another hotel and you’re not planning on staying around too long. You pay way over the odds for a poor room and the driver gets a healthy ‘cut’ from the receptionist for bringing you there. Meanwhile in another part of town, the receptionist at the Xanadu is wondering what happened to those nice people who sent him an email to say they were coming but hadn’t actually paid for the room. He looks around the nice lobby of his hotel that’s not closed, not on fire and hasn’t been hit by a meteorite.
The tourists have a room in a hotel they wouldn’t have booked if it were the last on earth and for which they’ve paid well over the odds. The hotelier and the driver are happy – maybe if the tourists only stay the one night, the receptionist can even hide that they were there from his boss and pocket the overnight fees. It’s a dog eat dog world in the tourist trade.
So how can you avoid this particular scam? Well if you’re like me, you book ahead, carry the paperwork that shows you’ve already paid, and you mail the hotel a day or two beforehand to remind them that you’re coming and to let them know when to expect you. With online booking so easy these days, you can have a last minute reservation that means you really don’t have to change your way of travelling in order to have security of knowing you’ve got a bed for the night. When the driver says that your hotel has been shut down by the health inspectors, politely say that you think he must be mistaken because you spoke to the manager who is a close family friend just that morning and suggest that maybe he’s mixed it up with another place. This is the polite version. The short version is more direct "I don’t believe you. Do you want to take me to this hotel or shall I get another driver?"
If you are of the ‘I’m going to take my chances’ type, then be aware your driver will get a cut, take a good look at the hotel room before you part with any money, and if you don’t like the place, get back in the taxi and ask him to take you somewhere else. The driver isn’t going to give up on you as he’s holding on for his commission. If you have to, make him drive you round for hours until you find a place you like – after all you’re going to be indirectly paying him for his time.