Tourist Traps: How to Recognize and Avoid them

Nachos at Margaritaville, Las Vegas

We have all heard the term “tourist trap” but it is easier to get caught in one than you may expect. Even highly experienced travelers will get stuck in a tourist trap from time to time and in some scenarios, tourist traps are virtually unavoidable. However, there is definitely a difference between a tourist trap and a situation where there are no other options available; therefore, the establishment, service etc. is simply taking advantage of that fact. These scenarios are quite easily recognizable, so we do not believe it is necessary to go into further detail.

The Restaurant: A Classic Tourist Trap

The most common tourist trap comes in the form of eating establishments. This is more than just a restaurant jacking up the rates simply because they are in a heavily crowded area. Obviously, any larger city will have higher rent and property taxes in high traffic areas, which forces restaurant owners to raise their rates to keep up with the finances. However, this does not mean that the rates need to be unreasonable or include hidden costs.

The example he most well remembers is from a trip he took with his parents, where they found themselves hungry in Brussels, Belgium. The majority of their time was spent in the high-traffic, largely touristic areas. There is a street near the historical district which features nothing but restaurants; all of which fall under the term “tourist trap”. Every one of these establishments had a sign out front featuring a three course meal for a great rate. In addition to that, almost every one of them had an employee standing out front literally begging you to come in and take advantage of the fantastic deal. Many people simply fall victim to the pressure and just sit down. After all, we are tourists. How are we supposed to know where the locals eat and where to find the best deals?

Now, these establishment owners are smart. These employees standing out front selling visitors on dining at their restaurant are a sneaky way to keep people from noticing their other trick, which is the most obvious sign you are being duped. Almost every restaurant will have a menu outside, where potential customers can be enticed by the delicious selection of food and determine if the rates are reasonable. This is common practice for many restaurants and not a sign of a tourist trap. What one needs to note, however, is the cost of drinks.

If you are perusing a menu outside of the restaurant and there is no page including drink prices, run. Furthermore, if there is a drink listing and you do not see prices next to the selections, run. This most often means that you will be paying double or triple the standard rate—a cost you will not be made aware of until you are handed the check at the end of your meal. Likewise, if it is a menu that one can flip through, the drink pages may be listed in unusual places. In searching for the drink selection, one will often look in the very front or the very back of the menu first. Restaurant owners know this; therefore, the clever establishment will hide the drink listing somewhere in the middle of the menu, behind all of the pages listing their amazing lunch and dinner specials. Before you reach this page, however, you will have already been ambushed by the above mentioned employee (sometimes restaurant owner) whose job it is to keep you from catching on to the dupe until it’s too late. Americans may be used to restaurants not providing drink prices and therefore, will not think twice about such a thing, but that is not common practice in Europe and it is nevertheless something one should look out for when traveling in the United States.

Finally, after sitting down to take advantage of the deal, you will be served unimaginably small portions that will leave you needing to eat again within the next couple of hours. Obviously, once it gets to this point, you are beyond being saved and the trap was a success. This is exactly what happened to him and his parents. He quickly noticed the trap, based on the lack of drink prices in the menu, but by that point, it was already too late and they were sitting down and ordering. Just as with his case, most people are simply too nice to just get up and leave after noticing the trap.

If the restaurant has passed all of these tests and you find yourself in a seemingly honest establishment, you should still pay attention to what is included with the meal. In many restaurants, it is implied that your meal is served with sides, but if it is not indicated, you should always ask. Especially in tourist areas, you may find yourself paying a normal price for a complete dish, only to find out that that lasagna you ordered is only a single slice on an otherwise empty plate, which is charged at the rate of a meal which would normally at least include breadsticks, if not a side salad.

How to Avoid Tourist Traps

Now that you are aware of some of the most common things to watch out for, you should know that the easiest thing to do is to just walk away before entering. Even if the establishment is pressuring you to enter, simply ignore them or say something like “we are just looking for later.” The next problem is finding a place to eat before the hunger emotions come out and cause arguments amongst your group or family. Obviously, it is difficult to go and look at every single menu outside of the multiple restaurants, so one of our suggestions is just to walk in a direction away from the main tourist areas until you find a place you’d like to eat. This is another way to help you explore the city like a local.

The most obvious thing you can do is look on any review website to find the local favorites. You will also find plenty of restaurant reviews from travelers, who will often tell you exact prices and expectations of menu items. This is how we were directed to an amazing burger in the touristy city of Heidelberg.

There are many things to look out for when traveling to avoid spending more money than necessary. We hope that this article will help you spot some of the most obvious indicators associated with tourist traps and help you avoid falling prey to such establishments. If you are interested in some tips for traveling on a budget, be sure to read our General Travel Tips and Tricks.

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