Scammed: A Room, a Taxi Driver, and a Travel Agency
The streets of New Delhi are dark and our taxi driver is insistent.
“You have to call your hotel for directions,” he says, claiming a festival has blocked the usual routes. Looking out the window of the vehicle, my sleep-deprived brain concludes it’s a possibility; there are barricades and people in the streets.
It’s 2 a.m. and we’ve been awake nearly thirty hours—if you don’t count a short nap on the flight from Toronto to India—and we’ve spent more than two hours in gridlock, fighting off trucks only allowed into the city during the wee hours of the morning.
Already, there’s been some unexpected departures from our plan. Our taxi driver has picked up a friend, although we’re not sure why, and I wasn’t able to get an Indian SIM card at the airport as I’d hoped.
No problem, our cab driver assures us; we can use his phone to call our hotel. He’ll get directions from them, if I just put the number in. Warily, I punch in the number and hand the phone back to the taxi driver.
“They don’t have a room for you” he says, handing me back his phone. A polite, English speaking voice tells me our room has been rented out for the aforementioned festival; didn’t I get the email? He gives his apologies, but adds there’s nothing he can do.
Are we being scammed by the hotel, I wonder? We once watched staff at a Sri Lankan hotel turn away a French family with an entire vacation booked, under the pretense of a false email advisory, even as they protested. While they were lying to the French family, they told us to wait quietly and they’d get us a room. Is this a variation of that same run-around?
All we want to do is crash—but how do we find a room in the middle of the night, in a city of twenty-two million? But wouldn’t you know it? Our driver just happens to know a travel agency that can help us! And it’s open. At 2 a.m.—in a seedy neighbourhood, next to a strip club doing a brisk business. It just keeps getting better.
A friendly employee ushers us inside. He’s there to help us he says, all we have to do is tell him how much we want to pay for a room. Now, the pieces are coming together and we make it clear we don’t want to pay too much. A room, including breakfast is agreed upon and booked while our driver brings in our packs. An agency driver will take us to the hotel and be there in the morning to pick us up.
We’re advised several times not to pay any money at the hotel, but to pay at his agency the next day.
Finally, at 3 a.m., we walk into an overpriced room that’s seen better days. It’s tolerable, but at this point we’re willing to sleep just about anywhere. We sleep fitfully and wake up starving; at least the buffet breakfast is plentiful and good. Spotting our driver we tell him we’ll be ready shortly.
The agency is sure they have a fish on the hook—wouldn’t we like them to book another room for us or perhaps take one of their tours? No, no we would not.
But we still need to find a room. Paying, we head out to a coffee shop we spotted the night before, hoping it has Wi-Fi—it does but we can’t get it to work without an Indian phone number. A customer at the table next to us comes to our rescue, putting in her number to secure a passcode for us.
We book a nearby hotel without delay; it’s not in the area we wanted to stay in, but we’re relieved to have a place. Our day improves when we find a shop selling SIM cards en route to our hotel and I immediately call Booking.com to complain about our situation.
The voice on the line drops a bombshell; our original hotel had been available the whole time. Our reservation had never been cancelled—we’d been scammed.
But it was the driver and his friend—in cahoots with the travel agency, not our hotel—that were behind the elaborate bait-and-switch. We later learn we shouldn’t have booked a taxi at the pre-paid airport booth. On a previous trip to India a few years earlier this was recommended, but now the system—originally intended to prevent scamming—had been corrupted; a common story in India.