This article may contain compensated links. See our full disclosure here
Italy is one of the most visited countries in the world and with such a large number of visitors as with most big cities around the world, you’ll usually find the odd scammer. We share some common scams and give you strategies to avoid them. For those people who haven’t done a lot of international travel or are going on their first trip to Italy, there’s no need for alarm – Italy is generally an extremely safe country to travel in, but there are a small number of tricksters who try to take advantage of visitors who are distracted by the business and beautiful surroundings.
In this episode, we get practical and talk about an annoying part of travel to any popular destination – scams. Even the most well-traveled of us can and do repeatedly fall foul of some of these scams – taxis often being the main culprit. We also talk about things that might appear as scams but are just a normal part of the culture.
What you’ll learn in this episode
Most of the 64 million visitors to Italy head to only a handful of places – Rome, Florence, Venice, Cinque Terre, Sorrento, and the Amalfi Coast – and the scammers tend to be concentrated in these areas. So, if you really want to avoid the scammers then it’s definitely worth heading off the beaten path into lesser-known areas, but chances are you’ll spend time in one of the big cities at one point.
Taxi scams are common the world over, but it’s important to remember that not all taxi drivers are dodgy – far from it. The unscrupulous few give taxi drivers a bad reputation, but it’s often where people have their main experiences of being ripped off.
- Not turning the meter on – ask them politely but firmly to turn on the meter
- Quoting a set fee that is way over what it should cost at the city’s standard rate. For instance, in Rome, there’s a set fare to go to and from the airport from the city, which is around €50
- Stating they only take cash – in Italy, they need to be able to take card
- Giving you the wrong change. ie you hand over a 50 euro note and they might give you back 10 when they should have given you back 20. This is preying on people that are tired, often after a long-haul flight
This is generally where you’ll find this most. Again – people are tired and disoriented, just wanting to get to their hotel or accommodation. In an airport, it can be a bit easier to see where to go, but a train station is a mass of people rushing to get everywhere, so take particular attention in train stations.
Approaches at the airport are also not allowed – you need to get into the line at the taxi rank which is monitored.
If you’re coming off a long flight from Australia, of you’ve had to change airports in the US as well as Europe, you’re going to be really tired so it’s worth it to pay the extra to book a transfer. Transfers are usually around €75, which to can be so worth it for the ease – you have someone meet you, they’ve got your name, they take your luggage, walk with you and then drop you straight at the hotel. You’re paid upfront and there’s no chance for any funny business
Tips to avoid taxi scams
- DO NOT hail taxis as this is not really standard practice in Italy so they’ll know you’re a tourist
- Book transfers or use taxi booking apps that work like Uber (standard Uber is not available in Italy, only the premium Uber black service) such as FreeNow in Rome and Naples and AppTaxi in Florence – everything is tracked so you’re less likely to be ripped off
AppTaxi – book a taxi in Florence, Venice, Rome, Milan, Naples, Bologna, Modena, Lucca, Padua, Verona, Trieste, Viareggio, Palermo, and Catania amongst others. This free app calls city taxis from the many available companies. You can track your ride and pay via the app, just like you would Uber.
Skip the line tickets and tours offered on the street
Skip the line
Picture the scene, you’re standing in line at a major attraction and the waiting time looks like it’s going to be 2 – 3 hours. Suddenly a friendly gentleman appears offering to sell you skip-the-line tickets. It’s tempting, right? Wrong! The only way to skip the line is to pre-purchase your tickets and tours in advance. A side-effect of the pandemic which has proven a benefit is that thee days you can’t generally access places like the Colosseum or the Vatican Museums without prepurchasing timed entry tickets.
This is a typical scam used in the line for security at St Peter’s Basilica which is actually free to enter, so there are no tickets unless you want to go up to the dome. The security line there can be very long and frustrating but no matter how hot or tired you’re feeling, don’t fall for this scam.
Another option these people use is to offer you a very cheap tour of the sights. Regular listeners know that we are always keen to make sure people understand that tour guides in Italy must have a license which takes a lot of time to study, concluding with a very hard exam to pass. The guides (especially the good ones) are in hot demand and would never go hawking on the street. They need to carry their accreditation badge at all times, so you can ask to see that if someone tries to sell you a tour.
The easiest way to avoid all of this is to pre-book everything before you go, which is a good idea generally as things get so booked up – unless you’re traveling between November and February/early March in which case you can probably walk straight in/have a short wait.
Where to pre-book your tickets
GetYourGuide is our preferred place for simple skip-the-line tickets. GetYourGuide is based in Europe and has the largest listing of tours and activities in Italy.
For more than just entry, our favorite small group tour companies are Take Walks (formerly Walks of Italy) and Liv Tours and we prefer With Locals for private tours. Both offer very well-designed and engaging tours of the major sights in Italy as well as interesting food and cultural tours. We have detailed advice for booking tickets/tours for the Colosseum and for the Vatican.
Fake designer goods
Most people understand that Gucci doesn’t sell their bags and luxury items at local markets off a blanket but just to make it clear, those convincing-looking knockoffs are not real and come at a different kind of price than the at least 4-figure tags you’ll see on the legitimate versions.
Italy is highly protective of its luxury goods industry so be warned – there are fines for anyone caught purchasing these goods. Knockoffs are generally made very cheaply using inferior materials and techniques. They are also often made in sweatshop environments, which is not something you want on your conscience.
If you like to shop, you can grab designer items at discounted prices of up to 70% off at discount outlets in Italy. You likely won’t pay just €30 for a bag but you will get an authentic piece made to exacting standards with no haggling on the street. The Serravalle outlet near Milan is huge and there’s the Barberino outlet near Florence and the Castel Romano outlet near Rome.
Creative con artists
We hate to disillusion you but the guys dressed up as Roman centurions wandering through crowds of tourists are not paid to be there to add to the atmosphere. Often very charismatic, they invite you in for a photo but will then ask for cash before handing you back your phone or camera. The city of Rome is really cracking down on this, but forewarned is forearmed, so you can avoid falling prey to this.
A scam in Florence particularly is a street artist accusing you of walking over or damaging their sidewalk art and asking for cash in compensation. Most people haven’t, of course, done that, and any legitimate artist has usually cleared a big space around the piece that they’re working on. This can lead to an embarrassing and awkward scene, so if it happens to you, try to simply hold your ground and walk away.
We tend not to carry much cash – if any, these days as do many which makes cash scams more difficult for scammers but they can try to get you to go to the ATM – don’t and go straight to the nearest police. Fortunately, you’ll find lots of station points in major tourist areas.
People offering free stuff
Bracelets, roses, or anything free is a huge red flag that they are actually going to demand/expect payment. This situation can be very uncomfortable because unlike taxi drivers (who earn a reasonable wage and should know better) it is very clear the people taking this approach to earn money are pretty desperate and are often refugees escaping horrible situations at home.
If this happens resolve to be firm but kind. We tend to remind ourselves that we are part of the lucky 2% of people in the world who travels internationally for pleasure, but this can feel intrusive, is annoying plus sometimes this scam is also part of a pickpocketing effort – the best thing to do is say “Basta!” which means “no/enough” very firmly (but not rudely) and they usually go away.
Some things that look like a scam but are not
These things are often restaurant related and might be something you are not used to, but are standard practice in Italy, so do try to accept it as a different culture and not be antagonized.
Paying more for your view/being waited on
In Italy, you are generally charged more to sit outside in the piazza and enjoy your coffee or meal than you are standing at the bar inside. This is not a scam but standard practice which makes sense when you consider that there is a waiter involved in bringing the food/check and the tables outside are most popular. Places, where your meal or coffee will likely be what many consider to be outrageously priced, are Piazza San Marco in Venice and Piazza Navona in Rome. If you don’t want to pay €8 for a coffee, then simply don’t sit outside here/in hugely popular places. But we think that sometimes the price is worth it for the experience if you linger for a while and soak up the atmosphere, watching the passers-by.
In restaurants and cafes, there is often a charge for bread/cutlerly called ‘coperto’. This is technically illegal in some places including Rome but not very well policed. The charge will be around €2 – 5 depending on the location and style of the establishment. Where it is legal it must be published on the restaurant menu which you’ll find outside the front of the establishment. When you consider that tips are not the norm in Italy, this is a minimal extra cost.
In very touristy places (Amalfi Coast – we’re looking at you!) you may also see servizio or a service charge of 10-20% added to your bill. This should also be printed on the menu, so do make sure you check if you’re concerned about inflated prices.
Not really a scam but still annoying, is the rounding up of prices and all those fun, added extras – like a rendition of O Sole Mio in your gondola or letting you jump into the water at Capri’s blue grotto. It’s not so bad paying for this but it might feel .Now I really dont have a problem with paying for this but perhaps it falls into the tip category and not an upfront charge..
Tipping had its own podcast episode as it is not the same as you might find in your home country, and it’s important to respect a country’s own culture and handy to know the do’s and don’ts.
What to do if you get scammed?
If you do get scammed or someone over charges you, should you report it to the police/the carabinieri? Technically, yes, this is the right thing to do but in reality, it can be quite difficult unless there are officers close by and you have specific evidence and would also be hugely time-consuming.
Italian cities are cracking down on scams where they can. For instance, the city of Rome has a program to catch out the centurions, but the scammers typically just move to another area (ie not near the Colosseum). They’ve recently been encountered in a popular spot, Pincio Hill, in the gardens of the Galleria Borghese.
The best course of action is probably just to move on and chalk it up to experience and, if the damage was minimal, laugh about it later. It can leave a bad taste in your mouth but do you really want a scammer ruining your much-longed-for vacation? It’s giving them a double win. The best revenge is to move on and spread the word to your friends and family that are headed to Italy about what they can do to avoid the problem.
Getting scammed is rare in Italy except maybe by taxi drivers, so if just need to keep your wits about you, be prepared and you will avoid the worst of it. If it does happen to you, don’t beat yourself up. Despite countless trips to Italy, Katy fell for the taxi scam in Rome just last year going from the station to Piazza della Rotunda. She was tired and didn’t have the mental energy to fight the crazy €30 charge. The best way to avoid these things is to prebook taxis and transfers and ideally not carry a lot / if any cash.
Credit and debit cards VISA and Mastercard are widely accepted (though American Express and Diners Club are less so). You may want to consider a foreign currency card like the Wise Mastercard where you can pre-load it ready for your trip by converting Euros easily and cheaply from your US dollar, Australian dollar or Canadian dollar accounts (plus many other currencies) and can do it when the rates are good.
Places mentioned in the show
- Serravalle – outlet shopping near Milan
- Barberino – outlet shopping near Florence
- Castel Romano – outlet shopping near Rome
- Pincian/Pincio Hill – a hill in Rome. The hill overlooks the Campus Martius
- O Sole Mio – a well-known Neapolitan song written in 1898. Listen to Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition here
- Carabinieri – the national police of Italy who primarily carries out domestic and foreign policing duties
Resources from Untold Italy
- Italy is a safe place to visit, but there can be pickpocketing in crowded places, which can generally be avoided with a few simple measures, find out How to avoid pickpockets in Italy
- Discover why we believe it’s key to have travel insurance for Italy
- Get help planning your Italy trip in How to plan a trip to Italy and check out our 101 Italy travel tips
- Listen: to episodes about planning your Italy visit in Episode #104 Experiences to include in your dream trip to Italy and Episode #053: Planning the perfect Italy itinerary and making your budget stretch in Italy, in Episode #116 Extend your Italy trip budget with these travel hacks and Episode #145 Budget friendly ways to explore Rome
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.