Getting Where You’re Going By Cab When You Don’t Speak the Language.. Without Being Taken Advantage Of

When readers shared their own travel tips and several really stood out as worth highlighting.

VC said,

Make sure to take a business card, piece of hotel statinonary, or a print out you brought from home with your Hotel’s name and address in case you need a cab later in the day. Much easier to just give the cab driver the exact name and address especially in international destinations.

When I’m headed to a city I’m unfamiliar with, where the language isn’t one I can ‘fake’ I will usually print out my own copy of the hotel’s address in the local language if possible.

It’s easy to get complacent and think of English as a universal language, but even in cities where business is frequently done in English taxi drivers and service workers outside of hotels may not speak it at all. In fact they usually won’t.

Cab drivers in Beijing are unlikely to know English. The dispatcher at the airport may know exactly where you’re going, and he may shout it at your taxi driver, but that doesn’t mean the driver will hear or understand and you can easily get taken all over the city without a clear direction.

Handing the driver a printed page with the name of your hotel on it closes this communication gap.

VC’s advice is correct as well, take a card with your hotel’s address on it in the local language. Regardless of your skills at the local language, your hotel can always put you in a cab and send you off wherever you’re going. But what about getting back? If you can flag down a cab and hand them a card with the hotel’s address on it in the local language you’ll almost always make it back just fine.

Sure, the cab driver will know you’re a tourist but you weren’t really going to disguise that anyway. And they’ll know you’re probably going to a hotel they could never afford to stay at, and may see dollar signs.

A circuitous route, or a journey without use of the meter doesn’t really worry me when I’m headed to my hotel. The hotel will know what your ride should have cost.

If there’s luggage in the car don’t ever dispute a price until the bags come out. But once they do, enllist the help of the hotel. Not only will they know if you’ve been overcharged, you’re their guest. I’ve never seen a cab driver in this circumstance who didn’t back down.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. The standard advice that is always given in guidebooks, to always insist on the meter being used, can be a challenge. Too many times I have had the driver quickly start driving away and then pretend to not understand requests to turn the meter on, and it’s too late. What’s the best advice here?

  2. Also carry a local map showing the hotel location. Very helpful when taxi drivers may not be literate in local language. Although I’m self identifying as a tourist, it shows a sense of geographical awareness and less likely to be driven too circuitous route.

  3. I found that cab drivers trying to screw you won’t drive you directly to the hotel for fear of the hotel’s response. Had this happen when I was in both Istanbul and Beijing. In Turkey I just gave the guy the what it should have cost me and I walked away. I doubted he would call the police since he was trying to screw me. He didn’t he just bad mouthed me,spat at the money, and drove off.

  4. This brings to memory from the Peninsula Beijing. At midday, I made dinner reservations at a restaurant. I ventured out for the afternoon, and upon my return to my room, I found a note from the concierge with ahadwritten map to the restaurant which I could provide any cab driver. Of course, when I departed by cab, the bell stand confirmed with the cabbie where I was going. And, after my dinner, I used the card for the Peninsula provided. Service at its best.

    I also recall that the Renaissance in Hong Komg provides guests with cards with the local attractions in English and Cantonese – all I had to do was to point to a word on the card (with an English translation for my purposes) and any cabbie could get me there.

  5. Rofl

    Followed this advice in Shenzhen in China

    Wo3 hui4 shou1 zhong1wen2

    I can speak chinese depending upon who is listening

    Taxi driver couldn’t read the card I gave him

    This is still the correct advice, but, if the taxi driver looks confused get out and get in another one BEFORE it leaves

    Not all taxi drivers in china can read the card,; or understand a foreigner speaking mandarin

  6. MS – if at all possible, find out from the hotel or a local source what the ride should cost beforehand. In China, I had a driver laugh at me when I asked him to use the meter, and try to charge me double the correct rate. I told him what I was willing to pay. When we got to the hotel, I got correct change from hotel reception, and handed him the correct rate. He just walked back to his cab.

  7. The Beijing example reminds me of my experience getting a taxi from PEK. I knew to avoid the unofficial taxis at the airport, and I waited in the 5 minute line after my 11 p.m. arrival. When I got to the front of the line, the dispatcher directed me to a rank. As I showed the driver the page I had printed of the hotel’s name (St. Regis) in Chinese and a map, a tout from an unofficial taxi approached and said something to him. The driver handed the page back to me and shook his head “no.” I went back to the dispatcher who directed me to another rank, and it happened again. After repeating this 6 more times, I finally gave in and spent 450¥ for a ride that I knew should have been about 100¥. As srptraveller said, not all drivers can read what you give them, but touts can also work against you.

  8. Pulling up the hotel’s webpage with its address (and perhaps even a picture of the hotel), then taking a screenshot on your smartphone works well too. It gives the driver all the info, eliminates you having to carry any additional pieces of paper, and you won’t need any cell phone service to pull up the pic.

  9. @flyingbuccaneer, I wonder if your problem was like mine late at night at PEK. The hotel was close enough to the airport that taxis did not want to take me. The metered fare would be too low to justify their long wait in a queue. A tout tried to snag me, but I went back inside to the dispatcher, and she said to try again. The next driver was willing to take me and used the meter properly. Needless to say, he received a very generous tip. I would have slept at the airport before paying an extortionate fare.

  10. “…enllist the help of the hotel. Not only will they know if you’ve been overcharged, you’re their guest. I’ve never seen a cab driver in this circumstance who didn’t back down.”

    I followed this advice in Istanbul, taking a cab from Istiklal to the DoubleTree Laleli, and we all stood outside fighting for what felt like hours (was really just like 10 to 15 minutes). The Hotel did not defend us, they just acted in the capacity of a language translator, and so we went back and forth, while I explained on Google Maps exactly how we got screwed. Eventually we were so exhausted of the fighting that we threw and extra $5 at the cab driver and walked away.

  11. In my experience, many of the hotels in China have a business card or other small card that have the hotel’s address written in Chinese on one side. Then on the back side are the major attractions in English and Chinese. That way you can point to the destination and most cab drivers have no problem. When a guy doesn’t use the meter or sets it at the wrong rate, I usually insist that they stop, get out, then find another cab. Of course there are situations where this is sometimes not practical and then you have to try and deal with it at the end of the ride.

  12. In my Wifes and my trips to Thailand and HongKong I always get the car from Hotel Valet. I’ve used the Hotel cards and only had a problem once in Bangkok when the driver couldn’t read or write. It was easily solved when a Policeman came over to see what was the problem. He asked us what we wanted and we showed him the card, he then talked to the driver. When he was done he came back and explained the driver had never learned to read or write but he told him where we were going and he took great care of us. Driver even came back to hotel 15 min. later with item we left in the car. Thai’s are the most friendly people I’ve ever meet.

  13. Don’t assume a cab driver can read. I found that out the very first time I ever tried to take a cab in a foreign country. Fortunately, the country was Mexico, and I was able to give directions in my pitiful tourist Spanish to reach my destination. That cab driver even asked the others if someone could read it for him but nobody could! At least not that day. It was 11 years ago, who knows, with the rise of everybody texting on cell phones maybe everybody can now read but I dunno…If you’re going to take a cab, I think you still need to get somebody on youtube or Skype to tell you how to pronounce where you’re going. Just in case. Or invest a few extra minutes and just take the shuttle/van etc. from the hotel. It’ll probably have the bonus of being cheaper than the cab as well.

    Mostly, as a solo female traveler, I don’t take cabs. Most foreign destinations have public transportation, shuttles, shared rides, etc. that make it easy to avoid being alone with some dude who probably isn’t even the guy pictured on the taxi cab license.

    I don’t think the language problem is the problem. I think the problem is that in some cultures, it’s considered OK for cab drivers to cheat their customers. The USA is the very worst. It’s a shame, but it’s my own country where I’ve had to keep all my luggage in a bookbag or computer bag close to me and then jump out of the cab because 1) the meter is broken b.s. or 2) cab driver starts driving in the complete opposite direction of the destination. I can’t remember ever needing to do this in a foreign country, but I’ve had to do it on several occasions in the US.

  14. Great perspective on how language can come into play while traveling. Anyone who’s been anywhere that doesn’t speak their native tongue knows the uncomfortable feeling of not knowing how to communicate. I’d recommend at least learning a few basic phrases to get you by. And these tips can help as well!

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