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How to Avoid Getting Ripped Off

Ripoffs in Armenia are like mullets: business up front, party in the back. That is, they’ll either try to hit you up for a large amount before the transaction or ask you for more just before you’re done. If up front they’ll walk away from the deal if you say no. If on the back-end they’ll back down and play by the agreement. And this is a pretty standard tactic around the world – I’ve written about the back end ripoff in India.

Armenia in General

Now I want to make myself clear up front – I think Armenians are generally a very honest bunch. But it’s hard making a living here. There’s nearly no room for profit and what you do get is usually eaten up by some random thing that comes up like official bribes, injury or having your flower shop run over. So I don’t blame Armenians – or any honest business scammer for that matter – from trying to make an easy Dram or Drachma. But that doesn’t mean I have to just give it up. I refuse to be a stereotypical sucker.

Business Up Front

For a certain segment of the ripoff artists out there, they’re willing to risk a low profit for a huge one. Some taxi drivers, for example, when they see you with bags in a touristy part of town will refuse you the standard fare and will only quote you an exorbitant one. Even if they know there’s only a 50% chance you’ll go with them. If they can make in 30 minutes what they’d normally make in 5 hours they’ll take the chance.

And when you stand up for yourself and refuse to pay that, the up front ripoffs tend to dissolve. They’ll usually let you walk away but will back down and pay your price. If they pay your price then you’re probably still getting ripped off, just not as bad.

There’s a large segment of the population who calculate how much to charge by adding a percentage to the cost. That’s what Marx and Engels argued was the true value of anything. It’s easy to see why they felt that way. But there are several faulty assumptions there, such as assuming no value for time not worked (ie. either infinite time or full time employment), taking risks (ie. someone might pay more for a car than a horse-drawn carriage) and other factors. Thus is the folly of supply-side economics.

Party in the Back

The other typical ripoff is when someone asks you for more just before you’re done. The reason given is usually something like you used more resources than you were supposed to, it took extra long or somehow otherwise you owe extra. Sometimes they will argue about what you agreed on or just simply say they want more. In taxis they might make the excuse that you had bags to put in the trunk, or it is night, or the airport cost is more, or they may just drive around in circles hoping you’ll think it was a long way away. At restaurants they may add extra items to your bill or round up when giving you change.

Not all of these tactics are outright fraud, many are just the custom. If your bill is 10.78 and there are no pennies in the country it may be expected that you’ll pay 10.80 instead. And in some countries there is a higher fare for taxis at night. But these are the exceptions. And if you’ve already negotiated a price, or if the meter is running just pay what you should.

Avoiding Ripoffs

When negotiating up front, don’t feel like you have to buy from a particular vendor. If you don’t know the price of something it’s OK to just ask casually and walk away. Odds are there’s a nicer one of whatever you’re eyeing at a shop a couple of doors down. If you get to the point of negotiating without knowing some relative costs you’re already at a disadvantage. Also know what you’ll pay up front, don’t let them decide that for you. That’s true for services as well as for products.

Don’t back down when asked for more at the end. Agree on a price and stick to it. Show the price written down on your phone’s calculator or similar. Some of these people are just bullies – if you stand up to them they quickly shrink away, but if you let them take advantage of you they’ll keep doing it. And don’t feel like you have to stay engaged, sometimes just walking away will make them stop asking. That’s especially true for taxis where, once you’ve paid the fair fare there isn’t any need to stick around. The taxi driver might call after you a time or two but he’s not going to follow you.

And keep in mind that some people will try both approaches. They’ll beat you up on the front end and at the end they’ll ask for more at the end. I’ve found that typically if you compromise on your price up front they’ll more frequently try to get money at the end. But if you stick to your price they’ll judge you as unlikely to pay.

In some places there are certain signals to make or avoid making. For example in Armenia the travelers who are ethnically Armenian but from a wealthy country tend to speak a different dialect. Locals pick up on that and will try to take advantage of their long-lost cousins. At markets in China the sellers and buyers use hand signals to signify quantity – if you know the hand signals you’re saying that you’ve done this all before and won’t be fooled. And negotiation has its rule of thumb in different places. In some you cut the price in half and offer that; in others you drop a zero or two from the asking price. And it’s always important to know how to check the authenticity of what you’re buying as compared to the knock-offs. For example, silk threads will burn separately, whereas the imitation synthetic materials melt together. You can search for how to spot a fake on the Internet and you’ll be informed when you buy. Often when you show this knowledge the shop keeper will go into the back or reach under the counter for the real stuff, smile at you and treat you with more respect.

Getting ripped off is a part of traveling. When you find out you’ve been rooked, laugh about it. It probably wasn’t for very much and use it as a chance to learn a lesson for next time. Applaud the savvy shopkeeper who can spot a sucker who has more money than sense…even if sometimes that sucker is you.

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Tips for Traveling with Technology

There was a Twitter conversation with Martin McKeay and Jerry Gamblin today talking about how geeks handle traveling with all our technology. Jerry suggested that Martin write a blog post, but I decided to beat him to the punch. 😉 This is part of an upcoming series of posts under the heading of Traveling Skills: The Art of Packing. In this post I’ll describe how and what I pack as a geek who travels with technology, as well as why.

My Travel Kit

These are the pieces of technology I pack with me wherever I go. Basically it’s my laptop, phone, camera, earbuds and a few cables and accessories.

  • Apple Macbook Pro, with charger
  • iPhone and USB cable
  • 16 or 32 GB USB thumb drive
  • 8 or 16 GB SD card (can double as a thumb drive in a pinch)
  • SD to USB adapter
  • Mophie Juice Pack and USB cable (iPhone battery/case)
  • Dual USB wall adapter
  • Mini dual USB car adapter
  • 3-foot 3.5mm male to male audio cable (for car Aux input)
  • Nikon prosumer DSLR with Nikkor 18-200mm VR lens (usually, but not always)
  • Shure E2c (old mid-grade) earbuds with Comply Tx-100 foam tips
  • Fenix E05 flashlight and one non-rechargeable alkaline AAA battery (these last way longer in storage than the rechargeable ones do)
  • iPad (usually, but not always)
  • Special mention: 3G Internet card (I used to travel with one of these and they’re great, but I don’t anymore)

I like to keep it simple. I keep all the cables and accessories in a clear ziplock bag so I never have to dig too far for things. The earbuds I usually keep in an exterior pocket of my bag or in my pants pocket.

My Support Kit

There are a variety of things I keep at home to support my travel kit. Most importantly are my chargers. The Nikon rarely runs out of juice, so I don’t have to worry about that. I also have extras of the cables and accessories, in case I lose one on the road I’m not without it on my next trip. I also have a battery charger and use rechargeables. They’re a bit more expensive, but worth it in the long run. All these things would be nice to have, but I really don’t use them often enough to justify bringing them along.

That brings me to my first philosophical rule of traveling with technology…

When in Doubt, Leave it Out

Equally as important as what I bring is what I don’t bring all the time. These are things that are either too heavy, or used too infrequently to justify bringing. If I know the job will call for something special then I’ll bring it, but normally I try to leave as much as possible at home.

Most people want to be prepared for whatever situation they may find themselves in. For geeks that means a lot of technical equipment. Phones, laptops, tablets, portable hard drives, external speakers, adapters, cables, chargers, batteries, antennas, and potentially dozens of other “can’t do without” items. And that doesn’t even include clothing, shoes, bags, books, and everything else. But all this stuff gets heavy and odds are you won’t end up using most of it. Here’s what I always ditch.

  • Small portable speakers. I have a couple of great pairs, but I don’t use them often, they’re heavy and whenever I go to use them I find the batteries have already died.
  • Extra laptop battery. I have replaced the battery once and it may be time to do it again. But I’d rather spend a little extra to have a fresh battery than lug an extra one around for months without needing it.
  • Lots of camera lenses. I just use the one. It was more expensive than going with several lenses, but it’s a way more portable option. Plus, I treat my DSLR as a point-and-shoot anyway – I just want to whip it out and start snapping, not mess with lenses and such.
  • Battery chargers. I only have one thing that requires a battery and I carry a spare. My DSLR has never run out of juice on me while I was on the road. Even on multi-week trips with hundreds of photos!
  • Bigger flashlight or headlamp. I chose this one because it fits on my keychain, is bright and runs on a standard size battery. I don’t use it often and so it’s a compromise as compared with a headlamp or a big maglite or something.
  • External hard drive. Do I really need access to 1TB of movies, songs, funny videos, or whatever? No. Do I need to backup everything over the course of a week? No. (See below for backing up on the road.) These things are bulky, require special cables, heavy and hardly ever get used.
  • Extra laptop. Even when I was traveling for work and forbidden from doing personal things on my work laptop, I never brought a second one. I found that if my phone and iPad weren’t enough then it could usually wait until I got home. (See the next section for ways around that.)

Here’s a tip from my article on adopting a minimalist packing philosophy: Start packing with absolutely nothing, then ask. If the answer to 3/4 is “yes” then bring it. If not, leave it.

  • Do I know it will be difficult, expensive or impossible to buy there?
  • Am I positive that I’ll use it as much as I think?
  • If I don’t bring it, will my trip be substantially worse?
  • Do I use this every day at home?

Consolidate, Standardize and Compromise

Standardize on batteries and cables. Use interchangeable plugs and cables (for example, I have this dual USB adapter) to charge your devices, rather than a specialty one for each device. To the degree you can, get devices that run on standard size batteries so you can just buy new ones rather than having to lug a charger. That also helps in case your proprietary battery dies. And use the same size batteries across devices if you can so you can simplify things.

Ditch point-and-shoot cameras. Annie Leibovitz recommends the iPhone to a point-and-shoot. So do I. They’re way simpler and more portable, and you can share the photos right away. If you don’t like an iPhone, the one you’ve got will probably do just fine. And if not, I’m revoking your geek card. 😉 If you’re a serious photographer there may be no getting around a DSLR, but these days I often leave it at home unless I know I’ll be going somewhere photogenic.

Use the Cloud for everything you can. Yes, cloud security is an issue, but you can find ways around that. Crash Plan or Jungle Disk can replace your portable hard drive for incremental backups. Tablets and smart phones can replace a lot of what you’d need a full size computer for. Google Docs works fairly well for simple editing, and CloudOn is a full-blown Microsoft Office instance accessible through an app. If you ever find yourself seriously in need of a computer, the iPad has apps for that too. Consider LogMeIn to remotely connect back to your desktop at home. Or OnLive Desktop will provide you with a virtual Windows desktop.

International Tips

Get multiple power adapters, rather than one universal one. They’re usually smaller and easier to pack, plus you don’t have to carry them all if you’re not going everywhere. I bring 2 of these small European plug adapters and one of these multi-plug European plug adapters, as well as a 220/240v power converter (make sure you read up on how to use it) for devices that won’t handle that much voltage.

Your Tips

Have I missed something that you always take with you? Is there a good idea that you want to expand on? Let me know what you think.