How do you know if you're getting ripped off by the taxi drivers waiting on the curbside in front of the airport? There's no easy answer, but it pays to check a few things ahead if you want to keep your money in your wallet. Depending on country, local laws, and the strength of the cab-driver unions, you may or may not be in danger of getting suckered into paying a little fortune for the ride downtown. Sometimes you don't have a choice - the airports are usually far out of town, and if no other transportation alternatives are available (it's too late at night or you have too many bags to drag yourself to the bus) you are stuck with whatever price the taxi drivers ask, and you have very little room for negotiation. Egypt is one example: there the taxi drivers working at the airports are like a crime syndicate (and the others are just petty thieves). You think you can just walk over to the next one and negotiate a better price?
I knew there were going to be taxi sharks at the Baneasa airport in Bucharest. Romanian cities have always had two kinds of cabs: the radio-dispatched cars affiliated to companies, practicing decent, uniform prices, and the "independents" who prey on unsuspecting out-of-towners and foreigners, and who would often charge ten times as much as the others. The trouble is, there's no easy way to distinguish between them. I didn't know what to expect: I hadn't visited Romania in over three years, money and prices had changed, and I had never taken a taxi from the airport, preferring the bus or having friends waiting for me. But we were going to land at 2AM; there was no night bus, and I had no friends left in this town anymore. Before the flight, a quick online check on Lonely Planet's ThornTree travel forum clarified things a bit - at least all taxis had to have the prices per kilometer posted in clear view on the passenger's door.
With that information in mind I stepped out of the Bucharest-Baneasa airport at 2AM, in a pouring, cold December rain. An army of yellow taxis with black checkered stripes was waiting at the curb, but none of the people who had just gotten off the same plane was rushing to them. Most were calling others on their cell phones, waiting for friends to pick them up. "Taxi mister, taxi?" I kept hearing as I cruised the sidewalk avoiding the puddles, trying to read the prices printed on the passenger doors of the cars. A few times, when the touts became insistent, I told them to sod off in Romanian. They were all independents, charging around 8 RON per kilometer (1 USD is about 2.4 RON), and some even had the audacity to try to convince me that it was a good price. If I believed them, for the 20km ride to my aunt's neighborhood at the other end of town, I would end up paying 60 to 70 dollars.
Patience paid off - Bucharest-Baneasa is one of those lucky few airports located in town and not out in the fields; thus new cabs arrived often, even at that early hour of the morning. Before long, I was able to stop a company cab as it pulled in front of the arrivals gate. 1.79 RON/km said the door sticker. Don't let this one get away! During the ride I talked with the driver about the "independents" and their shameless prices. The company-affiliated drivers often have clashes with the sharks about rates and territory control but in the end it's a free country and everybody is allowed to scam whomever they want. As long as the prices are in clear view (even if they are in minute print), it's OK to take the money away from the poor suckers who come to visit our beautiful country...
Not from us though, you won't. We've been to too many places. I may be wearing glasses, but I can still tell the crooks from the honest!Written in Cluj-Napoca.