The "what meter?" Bangkok airport taxi scam

The "what meter?" Bangkok airport taxi scam

Generally speaking, Bangkok’s brightly coloured taxis are abundant, cheap and reliable, but we’ve heard one too many stories from travellers who were “taken for a ride” from the airports in more ways than one. Here’s how a common taxi scam plays out, and how to avoid it.

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Don’t get “taken for a ride”!

After passing immigration and collecting bags at either Suvarnabhumi or Don Muang airports, travellers emerge into the arrivals halls. A tout or two might appear to offer “taxi services” like they do in airports all over the world — avoid them.

Approach the official or kiosk at taxi stands marked with a sign that reads, “TAXI – METER ONLY”. They’ll ask where you’re going, give you a printed piece of paper and point you in the direction of a taxi. Your friendly driver will then help with your luggage, and away you go.

Here’s when the scam unfolds. The driver perceives travellers to be tired, excited, new to Thailand (or Asia) and probably not too concerned about being scammed after going through such an “official” process to get a taxi. The driver will ask for that piece of paper and neglect to give it back. If the travellers notice that no meter has been switched on in the first place, they assume an acceptable fare has already been determined.

From this point, we’ve heard of a few different scenarios playing out. In one, the driver slowed down after a few kilometres and cheerfully said, “Okay, 200 baht per person so 800 baht for all four of you.” At least, in this case, the driver left some room for negotiation, but he had already broken the law by not using the meter.

More often, drivers will bring travellers to their destination and then nonchalantly request a ridiculous sum as though it’s normal. In one case, the driver meandered through a maze of backstreets for a good 15 minutes, pretending to have serious difficulties finding a hotel on a major road simple to locate. He not only scammed travellers by not using the meter but also took advantage of the fact that they didn’t have the hotel’s phone number. He then cited this “struggle” while arguing that he deserved 1,500 baht for the trip.

The amounts requested after a meter-less journey vary widely and seem to depend on how greedy the driver is, how oblivious the driver thinks the travellers are, and what sort of mood the driver is in. We heard from one woman who forked over 1,200 baht for a ride that should have cost 300 without thinking twice. Another paid 800, and we’ve met a few who settled for around 700 after an argument.

Metered fares from Suvarnabhumi typically run between 200 and 500 baht, depending on what part of the city you're going to, plus the 50 baht airport surcharge and any tolls, which are extra.

To avoid falling victim to this common scam (we’ve covered some other Bangkok scams here), say two words before you enter the taxi: “Meter please“. If you really want to be safe, keep the door open until you see a glowing red “35” show up on the meter (as in 35 baht, the starting fare for all taxi rides in Bangkok). If the driver refuses to use the meter, take that piece of paper back to the official at the desk, tell them what happened and ask for a different driver. You could even take a photo of the taxi plate number and file an official complaint.

Also, hold onto that piece of paper given to you at the taxi stand. It’s your record of the date, time, requested destination and taxi license number, and the driver has no reason to take it from you. An identical record is kept at the airport, and if the driver is held accountable for taking advantage of travellers, they will face suspension and fines. Some taxi drivers, especially those who use large cars, have complained that fixed fares from the airport are only fair. Until the law says otherwise, we disagree.

One more tip: the ground floor taxi stands are not the only places at the airports to catch a taxi. If you want to avoid the 50 baht surcharge, head up to the fourth (departures) floor at Suvarnabhumi and look for a taxi that has just dropped off travellers (this is technically against the rules but we've never had a problem doing it). At Don Muang, either head up to the departures floor for the same trick, or walk downstairs to the main road from the pedestrian bridge leading from Terminal 1 to the train station; taxis can pick you up by a nearby bus stop.

Although the “what meter?” taxi scam happens frequently at the airports, drivers often try to charge flat fees rather than use the meter throughout the city, so always make sure that meter is switched on.

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David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.