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.
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.
“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.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you don’t see a meter, don’t get in. ‘Nuff said.
- 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.
- 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.
- If you get a legit cab, tip generously. I’m all for rewarding the good guys.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.