"You enjoy your ride? No? Too bad. You pay anyway."

Sometimes, you get taken for a ride, in every respect.

I’ll be honest: when Rand and I first arrived in Bulgaria, I was a little freaked. It was the first time in a very long while that I felt really and truly out-of-my-element while traveling. We’re usually pretty tame in our travels: we tend to stick to Europe, or countries where English is predominantly spoken. Failing that, we’ll be in a  country where we can get by on Rand’s minimal German, my Italian, or my miserable Spanish. In any of those situations, we never really feel like fish out of water.

But Bulgaria? That was another story.

I was petrified that, in this former Soviet country, we were going to get robbed, or beaten up, or swindled, or some combination therein. Fortunately, we only really got swindled, by one of the many rip-off artist cabbies that float around the city.

Before I tell you the tale, I would like to kindly note to my husband that I am not, in any way shape or form saying, “I told you so.”

Though man, if I wanted to, I totally could.

————–

The second we stepped passed security at the Sofia airport, we were swarmed with men speaking in heavily accented English, offering to get us a cab. Rand walked immediately passed all of them, to a small stand where cabs were lining up. We hopped into one, and the driver took us to our hotel. The total price was around $10 U.S., for a nearly 20-minute ride.

Compared to the expense of London, Bulgaria seemed ridiculously affordable. We were thrilled.

Later, we walked into the center of town from our hotel – it was about a 20-minute walk in freezing weather, but since we had never been to Sofia, we figured that a walk would do us good. After roaming around downtown (and having a shockingly inexpensive lunch), Rand hailed a taxi to take us back to the hotel.

The second I got inside, I was worried.

“There’s no meter,” I hissed at Rand.

“Don’t worry,” he said.

“But there’s no meter,” I hissed again.

“It’s like, a ten-dollar cab ride,” Rand reminded me. I reasoned that he was probably right – after all, the cab ride from the airport to the hotel was far longer and had only cost that much. But still – my alarms were up. Had we been in Italy, or, Spain, or some country where I knew the language, I would have spoken up. But instead I stayed quiet, and eventually dozed off. At some point, I stirred, realizing that we had been in the car for nearly 40 minutes.

The driver explained that it was the traffic.

Bullshit.

We could have walked back to our hotel twice over in that time.

When we finally arrived at our destination, and he told us the final fare (visible to him on his hidden meter) I nearly choked.

It was more than $50 dollars.

We had been taken on a ride.

————-

Needless to say, it’s not the best first impression Bulgaria could have made on me. I was infuriated. I was angry. I felt duped. Less so because we got taken (in the grand scheme of things, $50 isn’t that much) but more because I knew that something was wrong and I didn’t listen to my instincts.

Most of the cabs in Bulgaria are quiet cheap. But a few aren’t. They drive around, looking nearly identical to their inexpensive cousins. They even use a logo that looks remarkably similar to the cheap cabs. The government has tried to impose regulations (including a cap on taxi fares) but there are enough loopholes to allow the criminally high fares to continue. A recent article noted that 6 out of every 7 taxis in Bulgaria charge their foreign customers the inflated rates (though I don’t know how accurate that is – another site I found said only around 10% are scam-taxis. Still, if you are a tourist, they will be targeting you).

After our experience, I huffed and stormed around the room for a bit, letting off some of my building fury. I said ethnocentric and unfair things to my husband, who simply shrugged.

“How the fuck does the EU let this happen?” I raged.

Rand shrugged.

“This bullshit doesn’t happen in the states,” I huffed.

“No, but a lot of other bullshit does.”

Sigh. He was right. But it’s better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. And since knowledge is power and all that jazz, here is what I learned about taking and hailing a cab in Bulgaria.

  1. Have someone call one for you. Either ask the host at your restaurant, the person working the front desk of your hotel, or staff at the museum/theater you are visiting to grab you a cab (failing that, ask a local who you know and trust). Most places have arrangements with legit cab companies so their patrons and customers don’t get ripped off.
  2. Check the signs. Cabs are required by law to post their rates on the door of their cab (in our case, the last rate had been scratched out hastily with a key – that was the rate we were charged, and it was 10 times what it should have been). Read all the rates, and make sure they are all under the rate of 1 lev.
  3. If you don’t see a meter, don’t get in. ‘Nuff said.
  4. Ask for an estimate ahead of time – a lot of sites post roughly how much taxi fares should be, so you’ll have a baseline.
  5. Learn which cab companies are legit and carefully seek them out. We discovered that O.K. cabs were reasonable, but some of their scammy competitors (with names that looked remarkably similar – like O.K. Express or C.K.) had rates that were 10 times as high.
  6. If you get a legit cab, tip generously. I’m all for rewarding the good guys.
  7. Be wary of anyone trying to lead you to a cab from heavily populated areas (like in touristy districts or near the airport). It’s destined to be a very, very pricey cab ride.
  8. Know how long the ride should take you. A bit of research can tell you if a place is a 10-minute cab ride away, or a 40-minute ride away. Knowing exactly where you are going (and letting the cabbie know) will keep you from being taken on an unnecessarily long and pricey journey.
  9. If someone muscles your cab away from you, let them. This happened to me when a huge guy who looked like a wrestler snagged my cab and I had to wait for another one. I huffed and puffed (okay, fine – maybe I pouted) – but only after the guy was long gone. There’s a lot of organized crime in Sofia, and we heard more than one story about folks getting beat up.
  10. If you do end up in a rip-off cab, pay the fare and be done with them. While what they’re doing is lame, it’s also unfortunately legal – and if you don’t pay, you’ll end up being the one who’s breaking the law.

Did the experience suck? Well, yeah – but, like most negative experiences that happen while traveling, it wasn’t all that bad. It could have been a lot worse, it gave the locals something to tease us about, and it turned out to be a pretty good story to share. And the rest of our trip and treatment? Really lovely. Everyone was incredibly friendly, goofy, and fun. I’ll tell you more about it (I promise) next week, when I’ve finally kicked what remains of this cold of mine.

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Comments (20)

  1. 1
    Philip says:

    Ah, but I think this bullshit probably does happen in the States. I used to take the train to Penn Station a lot and there were plenty of dudes reaching for my luggage and suggesting I follow them to their “cab.” And I learned to always get out of any taxi in Boston if the driver promised that he knew a “shortcut.”

    Though I can see how it would be easy to get crossed up when you are in an unfamiliar place. Glad 50 bucks was the worst of it.

  2. 2
    Rachel says:

    You know I love New Orleans, so I’m sad to rat them out — but this totally happened in New Orleans. I was with a group of 8 and one person was wearing ridiculously high heels and asked us if we could take a cab from the hotel. It was 10 short blocks over cobblestones, but the rest of us were okay with taking the ride to a wedding.

    We got one of those big vans, and on a busy Saturday late afternoon, I knew from the first block he was taking us in the wrong direction in the middle of a packed Quarter. I’m not sure how it happened since I was the only one familiar with the city, but I was sitting in the very back, farthest from the driver. I told the guys in the 2 rows in front of me to tell the driver, “We’re going the wrong way. Turn around.” and “Can you stop him?” and so on. They did that thing where they were afraid to speak up.

    20 minutes and $20 later, we arrived at the wedding we were attending. I glared at the driver, told him a few thoughts on behalf of Louisiana natives and then kept to myself that I resolved not to travel with certain people again. :)

    Your situation was scarier, probably far more frustrating (especially considering language barrier and unfamiliarity with a city), but I love that you turned this into such sage advice.

    • 2.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Rachel – that is SO infuriating. I’m glad it only cost you $20, but it sounds like this happened on the weekend of your wedding. If so, doubly infuriating. I love that you are the type to (politely) speak up. Though I suspect if we ever travel together, we will get into serious trouble. :)

      • 2.1.1
        Rachel says:

        I’m positive we could find lots of trouble to get into while traveling!

        This cabbie ride wasn’t on our wedding weekend, but about a year before. The next year, on our wedding weekend, I was warning those who hinted at possibly taking a cab that this could easily happen. And I had my brother drive me to the wedding! :)

  3. 3

    Hi,

    unfortunately even we(the Bulgarians) some times get trapped by these “honest riders”. It is really bad for a first impression but I hope that you both get nicer memories from your visit here that this one. There are really beautiful places in Bulgaria that must be visited and I hope that you next visit here will be troubleless and more pleasant that this one.

    Best wishes,
    Ilian Iliew

    • 3.1
      Everywhereist says:

      Aw, thank you Ilian! Fortunately, we met some fantastic folks (you included, I think) and the rest of the trip was pretty darn fantastic. I’m going to write about it next week.

  4. 4
    Kristy says:

    When I was 21 a group of friends & I traveled to Miami for Spring Break – our very first cab ride took us 25 minutes out of the way and kept trying to take all of us to the strippers not “the strip” – fortunately, there was booze waiting for us at the end of the journey :)

    • 4.1
      Bogdan says:

      SINCE WHEN WAS BULGARIA A SOVIET COUNTRY? I wish people would just stop writing about Bulgaria if they dont know the facts.

      BULGARIA WAS NEVER PART OF THE SOVIET UNION

      The web is full of crap like this and why is it only idiots who spend a few days in the country feel the need to write their reviews based on lame first impressions and misunderstandings.

      It’s great they dont speak much English here, let it stay like that.

      You say the driver had no meter, then you say it is a hidden meter? You were likely sitting in the back and the meter was on the botto left of the passenger footwell. Raise your fat rear up a little and you could have seen it.

      I bet it was 50lev the driver was asking for, but you assumed it’s $ because of course Bulgarian drivers need to quote dollars and speak English right?

      • 4.1.1
        Everywhereist says:

        Hi Bodgan –

        Forgive me – here in the West, Bulgaria is often viewed as a satellite of the Soviet State. I realize that’s not technically correct, but politics do tend to shape reality, don’t they? And consequently, they shaped the words of my post.

        And no, I’m sorry, but the meter was hidden, and the cabbie did indeed want $50 US dollars for the fare. When we arrived at the hotel, the doorman saw what had happened – that we had gotten swindled, and apologized profusely. He explained that what the cabbie had done was technically legal, but it is frowned upon and the EU is trying to crack down on it.

        And no, I don’t believe that everyone should speak English nor quote in dollars. That is why my husband and I carry local currency and speak four languages between the two of us.

        It seems you are multilingual, too! With one of those languages being douchebag.

        • 4.1.1.1
          some guy says:

          Read above your own words where YOU say Bulgaria is a former Soviet country. It wasn’t a member of the Soviet Union. The guy points this out (and he’s annoyed by this blog post’s stereotypical and belittling style) and you call him a douchebag? Not very friendly, especially for a blog supposed to help people.

          Also, he is right; you can’t claim to know everything about catching a taxi in Bulgaria or whatever based on your limited experience. Stereotypical stuff like this get people annoyed. Looks like you visited Bulgaria without doing proper research beforehand having a strong bias (dangerous former Soviet country) and this shaped your experience

          By the way I am not even from Bulgaria (I am from Turkey)

  5. 5
    AmandaH says:

    Just seconding that it does happen in the states. A lot. Happened to me in New York – although we didn’t say anything because the cabby was taking us on sort of a tour of the city and telling us all these fascinating stories about being a cab driver in New York. It was like paying for an off the record tour guide.

    After an obscenely long train ride, I also got into an unmarked cab in London – the second we were in I knew something was wrong (no meter –grrr), but I didn’t want him to drop me off on a dark street because I didn’t know the area and I didn’t want to walk back to the train station with all my luggage. It ended up being 10 pounds, which seemed fair but who the heck knows? I really should have known better but I was just so tired and oblivious.

    Rip off artists are everywhere. I hope these stories might ease the pain of your experience a little and make Bulgaria seem slightly less frightening (although I’ve never been there, so I have no idea).

    • 5.1
      Everywhereist says:

      They do, actually. :) It’s funny – I guess it happens all over the place (keep hearing about it happening in NYC, and I remember a guy in Seattle taking forever to get me to Ballard from my house – which isn’t far at all. Of course, he was just clueless). Perhaps it was because it was our absolute first impression of the town that it upset me so much. At least the rest of the trip was really lovely. :)

  6. 6
    Theodora says:

    This happened to me in Bulgaria, also, although for 30 euros, not 50 bucks. Very angry with myself for accepting the guy at the bus station, because I knew it was going to be a scam.

    I don’t think there is any difference in logo. It’s just they speed the meter up, position it semi-hidden and take the long route round. You’ll find this happening also in Vietnam and Egypt, and many other parts of the world. The simple thing is “don’t get into the taxi if you can’t see the meter.”

  7. 7
    Elie says:

    Recently had similar thing happen to me in Amsterdam

  8. 8
    Alyson says:

    We went to Bulgaria earlier this year and had the bad luck of getting one of these gypsy taxi’s at the airport. Luckily my husband had been before and knew within 2 minutes that we needed a new cab. Unluckily he had driven away from the airport, dropped us off in the snow and left us to walk the 3 minutes back in 10 degree weather!

  9. 9
    Anisa says:

    “It seems you are multilingual, too! With one of those languages being douchebag.”

    First of all, let me say this is one of the funniest things I have heard in a long time!
    second, great responses to the above gentlemen.

    Anyway, I have had this happen coming out of the train station in Philadelphia. Although, we didn’t get taken. We were met in the train station by a an old gentleman telling us a story about his daughter who actually drives the cab, who walked us outside away from all the cabs lined up. My instincts kicked in big time. I knew something wasn’t right. My husband kept following him all the way to the cab, and I am going , no no no. Meanwhile, the gentleman was saying it would only be $10 for the ride. We then kindly told him no, that we just took a cab to the train station and it only cost us $5 so we knew how much the fair should have been for the same trip back. Then we walked over to all the cabs lined up outside of the train station and caught one of those cabs.

  10. 10
    Plamena says:

    Hello,

    Sorry for commenting a ~3 year old blog post.

    As others said previously, we Bulgarians are not immune to such experiences. These taxis are rare enough to not be an everyday experience but are common enough for everyone to have at least one such “drive”.

    These types of taxis are mostly around tourist spots BUT I would like to inform everyone going to Sofia that on the Sofia Airport or the Sofia Bus Station, there is one specific company that has won an official bid to be able to serve the clients arriving at the airport/bus station.

    You have to go to the line of taxis just in front of the Airport/Bus station, there will be a person who will dispatch all arrivals to a taxi – use this service and NEVER accept the offer of a taxi driver that came to you by himself offering “cheap taxi”!

    IF EVER you stumble upon a taxi driver that charged you more than you think he should, or he didn’t turn on his “meter”, don’t argue, just take his license plate or his taxi number, and search for the phone number on which you can complain. DO COMPLAIN, IT WORKS – the driver will be fined and/or eventually his taxi license will get revoked. If no one complains nothing ever will change.

    I hope this little advice helps, I wish everyone a good stay in Sofia and Bulgaria in general – the place is beautiful and full of things to see.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The Everywhereist » Blog Archive » Bulgaria: the jury is still out - 12. Jan, 2011

    [...] I remember how out of my comfort zone I was. How powerless and frustrated I felt after we got ripped off. How annoyed I was when I later asked the hotel concierge to call me a cab, waited out in the cold [...]

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