You step out of the airport and before you can take your first breath of muggy, tropical air, you’re surrounded by ten or more rickshaw drivers, clamoring for your attention and promising the best fares. Soon you have been herded onto one of these three-wheelers and spend the next two hours visiting every gem store and one-star hotel in the area.
Rickshaws are one of the cheapest and most abundant modes of transportation in Asia, but even experienced backpackers gripe over the arsenal of negotiation skills needed to successfully maneuver through the scams and chaos they present.
However, with a few basic tips you can avoid a lot of the frustration that comes with rickshaw riding and even get to your destination with relative ease.
#1: Don’t Select the First Rickshaw that Approaches You at an Airport or Train Station
Drivers who immediately approach disembarking tourists usually have a scam up their sleeve and view foreigners as an easy way to make some extra cash. Try to pick a driver waiting in areas appropriately designated for rickshaws or who are out of the main hubbub and catering to locals. Sometimes main airports or train stations have prepaid rickshaw stands where the price is calculated beforehand based on distance, these should be taken advantage of when possible as this is a more regulated system and your best bet.
#2: Avoid Catching Rickshaws in Known Tourist Zones
Steer clear of areas around historical landmarks or streets with a high concentration of hotels. Just walking a few streets over to a more local area can drastically improve the integrity of rickshaw driver and reduction in scams.
#3: Agree to a Price or Use of Meter Before Entering the Vehicle
For many drivers, negotiations happen outside the rickshaw and once the journey is underway it is too late to try to argue your way out of a price or switch drivers.
#4: Verify that the Driver Knows the Location of Your Destination
Oftentimes drivers have recently migrated from surrounding villages and know the city about as well as you do. If you sense the driver is unfamiliar with your destination, flag down another vehicle.
#5: Be Picky!
Unless you are in an area where there are few rickshaws or other transportation options, feel comfortable turning down drivers that seem suspicious to you. In a busy area you won’t have to wait long for another driver and you may save yourself a headache and time by choosing a more reliable, knowledgeable driver.
These are scams designed to take tourists to stores that the driver has connections with which can be of questionable quality and most likely in the opposite direction of your destination.
#7: Be Wary of Cheap Fares
If you are offered a ride for only 10 rupees/baht/dong, see it as a red flag and a high probability that you won’t be arriving at your destination in a timely manner. Drivers who offer ridiculously cheap fares usually compensate for this fact by taking you on a tour of businesses they receive commission from or by having some unexpected complication suddenly exponentially raise the price.
#8: Never Agree to Two Drivers
From a general safety standpoint keeping the driver to traveler ratio down is a good rule of thumb to abide by, especially when traveling solo. If asked to suddenly allow a “brother” along for the ride, stick to your guns and refuse — even if it seems to be a potentially benign request. While not a definite signal to a scam, most reliable rickshaw drivers are perfectly capable of driving on their own and having only one driver gives you more control over the situation.
#9: Always Feel Free to Get Out of the Rickshaw
If you become uncomfortable with a driver or the route being taken, remember you always have the option to get out of the rickshaw. However, it is important to take factors such as time of day and location into account before exiting the vehicle.
#10: Enjoy the Chaos
Sometimes surrendering yourself to the madness is the best tactic. While it is important to haggle to get a fair price or to get to your destination in a timely manner, remind yourself that a few extra rupees or baht is not going to put too big a dent in your travel budget and may feed your driver’s family for the night. At the end of the day, rickshaws really are a great way to travel and more intimately view a culture. For every scamming driver I’ve come across, I’ve been able to match the experience with drivers that offered great conversation and memorable cultural exchanges that I’ll never forget.
After traveling in Asia for six months, living and volunteering in India for two of them, I have taken many a rickshaw and witnessed first-hand the many tricks of the trade. However, by adhering to these few simple guidelines and precautions, I soon learned to rickshaw ride with the best of them proving that even a young, solo Western female can feel safe and confident in Asia’s crazy streets.