Italy is a remarkable country to visit due to its nice weather, amazing food, lively people and cultural heritage. However, if you’re looking to make the most out of your holiday this spring/summer, and avoid disappointment, I’ve compiled a list of six common scams to avoid. You can thank me later!
A small disclaimer that this is a brutally honest blog, I use terms like “gypsies”, “african men” loosely. If you take offence, don’t read on…whatever.
Free Friendship Bracelet for Africa
Around touristic areas, such as Milan’s Piazza Duomo and Castello and Rome’s Spanish Steps Colosseum, a friendly man (usually from Senegal) will approach offering “free colourful bracelets”. Accompanied by something or other about “helping Africa” or being a “friendship bracelet”.
Should you accept, he will tie the bracelet around your pulse and quickly ask for a “donation”. Some will go even as far as not to let go of your pulse and you can’t just tear the bracelet off since it’s quite thick. Then the demands start…usually at 10 Euros. See a full video here on YouTube.
How to avoid: You can see them from a mile away. A firm NO is sufficient. If they do place them on your shoulder, simply ignore it or brush it off. Or you can run away like this guy haha!
Gypsies at the ticket machine
At busy metro stations you’ll often see Eastern European gypsie women begging for change. You can tell they’re gypsie by their long colourful dresses and wooden high-heels.
I have to admit that I have problems with this one since sometimes I have no choice but to use the ticket machine. What I don’t like is when they start pressing the buttons for me and reaching for my change. They may even work in pairs to pickpocket you while you’re distracted – so watch your belongings! Some of the machine dispensers plastic thingie are even purposely bent enough that when the change falls it goes into the ground where they will pick it up. Complete pests.
How to avoid: Newspaper stands often sell transport tickets. If you do have to buy at a machine, purchase a ticket for 10-journeys or daily/48h to avoid having to re-purchase. Otherwise, a firm no will do the trick or just simply ignore them. Grab your change and walk away.
Avoid places with menus in English
Italian food should not be expensive since the ingredients are relatively basic compared to other worldly cuisines. A bowl of pasta in Italy SHOULD NOT cost more than 8 euros…same with pizza, unless it has seafood, for example. I was shocked in Venice recently that some of the restaurants were charging 25 euros for a pasta dish! Who knows if the quality is even that great.
However, what you’ll often see are tourists grabbing the first table they see at a terrace in a touristic part of town, usually enticed by an employee at their door.
How to avoid: Obviously avoid the super super touristy parts of towns to dine, such as anywhere close to Piazza San Marco in Venice, Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II in Milan and touristic heart of Rome. That’s easier said than done if you’re short on time and with kids, for example.
But avoiding some of these tourist traps may literally save your budget. In fact, lunch scams are so common in Venice that the local tourist board had to intervene recently after a group of four Chinese tourists were charged over 1000 Euros for a seafood lunch near San Marco Square. Always ask for a menu and check the prices.
What you can do instead is head away from the touristic centres to osteria-style (more homely food) restaurants that offer a fixed lunch menu (check Tripadvisor). Often this includes a primo (pasta/rice) and secondo (meat/fish), as well as water and coffee for only 10 Euros. Otherwise, in the evenings you may opt for an aperitivo buffet which will only cost you one alcoholic drink (5-10 Euros).
I’ve had some disappointing experiences while taking a taxi in Milan, which is why i tend to avoid it if I can! The last episode was taking a huge turn-around after the taxi driver informed me that one of the on-ramps into the highway was under construction (a few hours later I checked and there was nothing).
How to avoid: This one is simple. Uber! It’s perfectly legal in Italy and if the driver decides to pull a fast-one you can dispute it and get a discount (I have in the past). In addition, always ensure that the meter is turned on (they sometimes forget).
Certain extra charges are normal, for example, for bags in the trunk, travelling on weekends/public holidays and travelling late at night.
Validate your train ticket
Train travel in Italy is more complicated than in other countries. Adding to the chaos of stations and in constant watch for pickpocketers, you’ll need to keep one more thing in mind before boarding your Trenitalia train. Validate you damn ticket!
Not a scam per se, but some conductors are a real pain. If you forget to validate prior to boarding the train you may face an on-the-spot fine of 50 Euros each or 100 Euros later. Cynical me thinks that some of these conductors may even pocket the money, so if you do have to pain the fine then ask for a receipt.
Where’s the ball?
I recently encountered this game, also known as the ‘Shell Game’ on Ponte delle Guglie in Venice. There are other variations, such as with playing cards (Three Card Monty).
The game begins when the “dealer” puts a small rolled-up paper ball underneath one of the matchboxes and then start shuffling the boxes, while loudly speaking, “Where’s the ball? Where’s the ball?”. Once he’s done shuffling, he takes bets from his audience on which of the three boxes the ball is placed.
He then takes on bets from the punters and if they guess correctly the player will win back double his money. If they guess incorrectly, they lose it all.
Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it? Except, there’s two or three guys “in on it”…winning on purpose to tempt the greedy passer-by. One of them yelled “50 Euros” then “I’m a winner!! Yea!!!”. So obvious, at least to me.
The young couple I circled in yellow later told me they lost 80 euros in this scam. How come they couldn’t guess right? Well, slight of hand since the operator could easily place the ball in which box he wanted after the punter made the decision.
As soon as the game started, it ended and each of these scammers walked away in a separate direction. Here’s a full round of this game on a video in YouTube.
Italy is a beautiful country with lots to offer everybody. Keep in mind that there will be nasty people out there who will take adventure of your enthusiasm/naivity. At the very least you’d be wise to take some precautions, even going as far as purchasing anti-theft bags/suitcases, especially if you’re carrying expensive camera-gear. Thanks Uiler for the tip!
This may leave a bad taste in your Italian experience. Make sure that the only taste that is left is of pistachio gelato.
P.s Some more scams to avoid
- Picture with gladiators at colleseum
- Skip the queue tickets for Florence’s art museums
- Fake tax police
- Purchasing counterfeit goods on street
- Someone distractedly cleaning bird poo on your shoulder
Do a google search on “scams in Italy” before travelling! Otherwise, watch the complete British series of the Real Hustle…fantastic show!
About the Author
Alexandre Rotenberg is a travel photographer and blogger, based in Italy.
He has recently published a Brutally Honest Guide to Microstock Photography where he gives brutally honest tips on making it as a stock photographer in times of diminishing returns due to oversupply.
Got caught by the ticket validation
In Cinque Terre. Fortunately the conductor was a good guy and charged me and my son 5 euros each instead of 50.
The scams are largely the same ones that you would expect to find in
London and I suspect most major European cities these days.
Very useful information though Alex.
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The friendship bracelet guys were very active in Rome when we were there. I had heard of it before so I was able to warn my wife off but they were quite persistent.
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The other one I remember is if you are driving in Italy. It is not uncommon still to find petrol stations where the car is filled up by the attendant. If you tell them to fill the car up, you have to watch that they properly set the machine to zero before they start. Alternatively ask for a specific number of Euros worth of fuel.