In Paris and Italia, there was a scourge of touts selling annoying tourist toys that they launch a hundred feet into the air. I first noticed them at La tour Eiffel, but they can be seen at all the famous landmarks of Western Europe. In addition, Roma touts were incessant in pushing selfie sticks. It seemed that nearly every Asian tourist already had one. I was imagining what selfie stick kingpin was minting all this money. It is only a matter of time before we see luxurious variants of selfie sticks or ones with self-defense capabilities for women.
When I took the flight from Roma to Istanbul, I left Western and Southern Europe and have hardly seen a selfie stick since. The touts of Eastern Europe are much less present, perhaps owing to the frigid temperatures. The sights are also not as populated as the grand squares of Roma and Paris, although the attractions are still beautiful. Every city seems to push a regional tourist trap. In Istanbul, the Bosphorus cruise was everywhere, although I highly recommend the way I did it. In Roma, many restaurants had solicitors in front of their doors, urging people to try their fare. Amusingly in Wien, the touts were in themed garments, pushing Christmas concerts!
This morning, I took a 157-minute train ride (€29) from Wien to Budapest. I am here for four nights, split evenly over two Radisson hotels (free of course, due to Club Carlson points). My first hotel is the Park Inn by Radisson, which is a healthy 7 kilometers northeast of the center of the city. Having researched that taking the Budapesti metró subway would take more than 40 minutes, I decided that it would be worth the approximate $11 to settle into my hotel door-to-door within 20 minutes. A regular metró ticket is $1.34. I was even hoping to take an Uber, as its estimate was less than $10. The railway station I arrived at had easily accessible Wi-Fi, but there were no Uber cars available! The Uber market here has serious supply problems.
I crossed the road and spotted a line of three yellow taxicabs. I am wary of taxicabs, but these looked legitimate enough. I use taxifarefinder.com to estimate my fares so I do not get taken for a ride. As it turned out, I did. The flag drop of 450 Hungarian forint (equivalent to $1.73) was legitimate. The distance rate is 280 forint per kilometer. I have a habit of live-auditing any taxicab ride on my iPhone, and the driver took a fairly straight route, at most, 5% off from optimal. I had estimated a final fare of 3000 forint, but the stop came to 6150! I noticed that the rate was going incredibly fast. A drop of 450 forint + 8 kilometers x 280 forint = 2690. Add in some extra for time and 3000 is about right. There is no legitimate way I could arrive at 6150 forint for an 8-kilometer taxicab ride in Budapest, which is a cheap city.
The driver was quite friendly, even though I strongly suspect he cheated me. I did not put up a fuss during the ride since I know this never goes anywhere, even if I could speak Hungarian. I was also on the lookout for being given incorrect change. I had already decided that I was not going to tip him. Forint banknotes are in the following denominations: 500, 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, and 20000. My fare was 6150. I gave him 10000. Inexplicably, he expressed exasperation that I did not have smaller notes! I literally gave him the smallest note above my bill amount. If I went to a New York restaurant, and the bill was for $63, the waiter would never say that a $100 bill was inappropriately large to handle. This driver had clearly scammed me and was now complaining about having to find change for his spoils. He stopped the meter, and we drove to a Tesco grocery superstore, where he ran in for several minutes to find change. In the meantime, I leaned into the front seat and took a snapshot of his identification. His professional credentials were not taped on the backseat, as they often are in the United States.
When the driver returned, he drove me back to the hotel and gave me my correct change of 3900. I gave him no tip, and he carried my 21-kilogram bag out of the trunk. He was quite friendly, and we appeared to have a mutual understanding that I know he scammed me and that he was to smile goodbye even without a gratuity because he made an extra 3000 forint. I got scammed for $12, and I was in a bad mood.
When I checked into the hotel, I immediately relayed my taxicab story to the Radisson front desk representative , and he confirmed that my rate was too high. I have never filed a taxicab complaint despite being lightly scammed by taxicab drivers in Las Vegas, where I lived for several years. I had so little faith that anything would be done that I would just leave the cabs in a huff, without giving a tip. The drivers would grouse about it though. At least my Hungarian driver smiled and was cordial while using the rigged meter. I duly called the Budapest authorities where I heard a bunch of Hungarian, leading me to think this was going to be a short call when miraculously, I heard a “Dial ‘9’ for English.” I could not press “9” fast enough, and the young man on the other line spoke English far too well to be working this job. I eventually filed a formal report and was told the findings could take up to one month. Now, I do not expect anything to happen, but I feel better having done it.
Before getting scammed out of $12 by a Budapest taxi driver, I had to retrieve Hungarian forint since there were no Uber vehicles available. Uber is great because payment is automatic, obviating the need for hard cash. I inserted my fee-free Schwab High-Yield Interest Checking debit card into an ATM at the Budapest Keleti pályaudvar railway station, and I was given several denominations options to withdraw: 100.000; 150.000; 200.000; and 250.000. I was immediately perplexed. I knew that the current exchange rate was 260 forint to the dollar. I was also aware that many countries use the “.” in the same way that Americans use a “,” to denote thousands. I thought there might be some historical hyperinflation in Hungary that I was not informed of and that the currency assumed extra zeros like the old Turkish lira.
I used the calculator on my iPhone to determine that “100.000” forint would be equivalent to $384.62. That cannot be. In every other ATM I have ever used, there are always preset withdrawal options, with the smallest one being on the order of $50. Why in Hungary of all places would the smallest option be close to $400?! Then again, “100.000” could not mean just “100” forint since that would be only 38 cents. Bear in mind that the thoughts of this and the previous paragraph flashed through my mind in a nanosecond, as I was standing at the ATM. Finally, I thought that the smallest denomination could not possibly be $400 and pressed it out of curiosity. My bank record showed that I withdrew $384.62 and that I had such equivalent of forint for my four days in Budapest, much too much! I will inevitably have to convert much of this back into USD, leading to a mistake of several dollars. I am still confused, especially since there was an option that allowed me to withdraw nearly $1000 in forint. To keep this in perspective, that would be like going to an ATM in Manhattan and withdrawing $5000, which would probably be more practical since there are so many ways to spend it there.