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A Lesson in Not Getting Ripped Off

The French are cunning opportunists. Give em an inch an they’ll take a mile, I always say. If they detect the slightest hesitation or foreignness, they’ll rip you off faster than you can sputter out “buh buh bonjour”. So if you’re like me and would rather spend your precious centimes on something edible, here are a few tricks I’ve had to learn the hard way:

Know what you’re going to say before you say it, then say it with authority:

This applies to taxi drivers, bar tenders, waiters, or anyone providing you a service for a fee. If you get in a taxi and fumble over how to pronounce your destination, there’s a good chance you’ll be in for a halting ride full of red lights. The same goes for ordering drinks in a bar. When a frenchman orders “un démi” that means a glass of the cheapest beer on tap. When a foreigner (or an unaccustomed beer drinker for that matter) orders a démi without an authoritative delivery, the bartender will ask, “what kind?”, and probably in English for that matter. If you’re like me and don’t know jack about beer you’ll probably manage to point to the most expensive one, which is exactly what the bartender hoped you would do. So then you ask, what do you do if you order in perfect Parisian french and the bartender STILL insists that you clarify your order? A simple “le moin cher” gets the point across quite efficiently. Besides, you’ll fit in better with all the stingy frenchies that way.

Have a general idea of how to get to your destination:

Like knowing what to say before you say it, having an idea of where you’re going is very important when it comes to taxis. If your taxi driver suspects you are foreign despite your flawless direction delivery, he might still try to rip you off by taking the most indirect route possible to your direction. A good rule of thumb is, you never need to cross the river twice (except if you’re crossing over one of the islands in the Seine). So if you find your taxi driver zigzagging back and forth over a glistening body of water, speak up or you might not be able to afford lunch the next day.

In a new place, scan a menu before you order:

Imagine you’re sitting in a café and your waiter comes over to ask what you’d like to drink. You casually order a café crème. You’re totally confident at this point in your ability to order things in clean, clear French. The problem is, you’re not french, and your waiter knows it. It’s probably something inherent about you, like your hair color or your smile that gives you away. Things that are difficult to change. So he brings you a large café crème for a whopping 6 euros instead of the normal 3 euro priced size. Why? Because he’s french and you’re gullible (or so he assumes)! A problem like this can be remedied with a simple glance at the menu, where you would discover that there are in fact two sizes of café crème with two distinct prices. Now you know to clarify when you order, “un petit café crème s’il vous plait”.

Look over your bill carefully before you pay:

After a long night of eating and drinking with friends, the last thing you want to do is stare at your bill and crunch numbers. But even a quick glance could save you from getting scammed. One night I was out with some visiting American friends at Le Buci in the 6th. At the end of the night two of us decided to split the check. We were prepared for a hefty bill as it had been a long evening with several friends coming and going. When I went to tally up the total though something wasn’t quite right. Somehow our bills had been inflated. I asked the waiter to recalculate the bill, which he did with some reluctance. I was right, he had overcharged us by a total of 40 euros. He sheepishly pulled out two 20 euro bills from his personal wallet and handed them to us. In this particular instance, I got lucky and I happened to be paying attention. You have to wonder though how often bold waiters like this get away with such shameless scams…

Finally, be pleasant:

When it comes down to it, all the swindling and trickery is a just light-hearted game of cat and mouse to a frenchman. So if you’ve caught him in the cheating act, the best defense is to play along: “Oh no it’s fine. I’m sure the 40 extra euros on our bill was an honest mistake. Pas de soucis!” After all, it very well might BE an honest mistake, in which case you don’t want to hurt the guys’ feelings.

Simply put: be prepared, be informed, and be nice.

Practical Info:

A taxi ride in Paris shouldn’t cost more than 20 euros unless you order it in advance, get stuck in a traffic jam, or go outside the périphérique.

In a bar, the best strategy is to pay straight up in cash after every round. You avoid the inherent confusion that comes with big complicated bills and the risk of having your credit card details stolen. Plus the bar doesn’t have to worry about a dine and dash scenario if you’re paying promptly after each drink. It’s a win-win scenario.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting article and just prevalent with French, but with most of the western world. Thats why I tend to enjoy travel in the “non-western” world more, where people go out of their way to be nice, honest and fair to travellers (not all, but definitely a huge majority). The wholoe waiter thing is honestly, just despicable…

    Good post,

    March 24, 2011
    • Sophie #

      Thanks for the comment John! I think a healthy dose of skepticism goes a long way for a tourist.

      March 27, 2011

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