Image: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tengku Bahar  /  AFP/Getty Images
A Malaysian survey of 200 foreigners from 30 countries found Malaysia to be the worst among 23 countries in terms of taxi quality, courtesy, availability and expertise.
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updated 12/3/2008 9:53:11 AM ET 2008-12-03T14:53:11

In the past we've extolled the virtues of "The World's 10 Best Taxi Rides"—interesting and sometimes beautiful routes that can add fun and excitement to what might normally be just another trip across town. But what about 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 hellacious 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.

What should you worry about most? The Mexican kidnappers? The Russian thugs? The Sao Paulo gridlock? Collisions with elephants in Thailand? In reality, your biggest problem will be simple scams or miscommunications that escalate into shouting matches hindered by language barriers. Taxi drivers around the world have perfected the art of loud righteous indignation that's meant to intimidate, especially when they attract a crowd of curious onlookers who back them up and enjoy the show. It's up to you to decide when to cut your losses, pay up and get out of the situation.

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, where they can easily be held hostage.

Have enough local knowledge to avoid 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: Mexico City, Mexico
2003 AFP
Those green-and-white VW Beetles may be among the world's cutest taxis, but sad to say, Mexico City is home of the "express kidnapping," during which your taxi-driving thief will take you to an ATM, rough you up and force you to withdraw money. The problem is so well known that the Department of State maintains a travel warning about it.
Know the currency and the tipping policy. You've stumbled off the red eye and retrieved a handful of won, 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.

Behave yourself. Remember: a taxi ride is a business transaction, and it's important to hold up your end of the deal, even if you've had an unpleasant trip. And at the end of a long night, make sure you or one of your companions is sober enough to remain civil and keep your wits about you when it's time to pay.

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