Image: Worst taxi rides
© Konstantin Sutyagin
Rider beware! From Moscow to Manhattan, unlicensed gypsy cabs will respond to your outstretched arm and offer you a ride. Proceed with extreme caution.
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updated 7/18/2007 9:09:16 AM ET 2007-07-18T13:09:16

It was just last month that we extolled the virtues of The World's 10 Best Taxi Rides, interesting routes that can add fun and excitement to what might normally be just another trip across town.

And now, the flip side.

Everyone has a taxi horror story to share, a tale of woe that may involve scamming, intimidation, extortion, physical threats, drunken driving, faulty shock absorbers, unending traffic jams, malfunctioning meters, or simply oppressive body odor. Add infrequent but terrifying armed robberies and kidnappings, and simply sticking out your arm on the sidewalk can seem like a dangerous roll of the dice.

Naturally no city that wants to maintain a good business environment and attract tourism can allow this vital point of contact with its visitors to be uncomfortable or dangerous, so in most places, taxis are heavily regulated and carefully controlled. Guidebooks are full of suggestions about how to distinguish real taxis from fakes and what to do once you slide into the back seat. Having scoured much of this advice and listened to a few juicy horror stories, here are some common-sense tips that can work in any city you visit, even those we've identified as spots for potential taxi trouble.

Know what a legitimate taxi looks like. From Moscow to Manhattan, unlicensed gypsy cabs will respond to your outstretched arm and offer you a ride. Proceed with extreme caution. Why would you get into an unmetered, uninspected car with an unsupervised mystery man who may or may not speak your language? Take a minute to find out what the real taxis in the city are supposed to look like. If you do want to try a gypsy cab, don’t get in if anyone other than the driver is in the car, and don't put your belongings in the trunk.

Have enough local knowledge to discourage scamming. Even the quickest glance at a map should give you some sense of the direction you should be heading and how long it should take. Long airport trips are always scammers' favorites. Keep an eye on the meter (make sure it's running unless you're on a flat-fare journey), and don't be afraid to speak up if you feel you're being taken for a ride.

Image: Manila, Philippines
© Hugo Maes
In a city full of fanciful transportation alternatives—everything from rickshaws to wildly decorated jeepneys—the local white taxis appear boring by comparision. What won't be boring is the fight you have with the driver when he refuses to turn on the meter (frequent visitors say it happens all the time) and instead tries to haggle for an unfair flat fee.
Know the currency and the tipping policy. You've stumbled off the red eye and retrieved a handful of yuan, rupees or pesos from the ATM. How much are they worth? Do you have small bills? Can you identify the coins? The last thing you want is to wrestle with the driver over your bankroll and follow up with a debate about the tip, if tipping is customary. It's up to you to know the currency and the customs.

Depend on your hotel concierge for advice. He or she can explain the local taxi routine to you, call for dependable rides, and advise you on how long your trip should take and what it should cost. The concierge can also help you decide if a private hired car would make more sense, especially for a busy business traveler who has to make several stops throughout the day or a tourist who's short on time. In many cities, especially in Africa and South Asia, the private option is surprisingly affordable.

Image: Moscow, Russia
© Roman Barelko
The new Russia's anything-goes form of capitalism carries right over into the world of taxis. Indeed, anything goes, and anyone will pick you up if you stick out your hand. You'll see plenty of metered yellow taxis, but you'll also attract gypsy cabs—ordinary Muscovites who are simply looking to make a few extra rubles as they drive across town.
Behave yourself. For a true taxi horror story, read the adventures of "George," an American living in Japan whose late night taxi ride went terribly wrong. After drunkenly arguing with his driver, the two got into a scuffle, the driver hit the ground, and he was slightly injured. Soon George was charged with everything from assault to robbery and found himself sitting on the floor of a Japanese prison cell surrounded by unsavory characters. Remember: A taxi ride is a business transaction, and it's important to hold up your end of the deal.

Check out our list of cities where taxis can be problematic and learn how to play it safe when you go.

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