The Italian ice-cream parlour’s windows were small, but they still saw four British tourists coming from a long way away. An Englishman named Roger Bannister (not the runner) and his three companions were flabbergasted when they were charged £54 for four gelatos from Antica Roma, a bar and ice cream parlour in central Rome this week. They’re hopping mad about it, and even the mayor of Rome has waded in, calling the prices a scandal. So how can you guard against being ripped off while in Europe?
1. This sounds simple, but always look at the price before ordering. Don’t just assume that €5 will buy you a coffee, or £50 will cover four ice-creams.
2. Often the stated price isn’t always the full story. So don’t just rely on the printed prices – ask the staff. It’s common, particularly, in Europe, for extra charges to be piled on top of the cover price, like coffees doubling in price the moment you sit down, or for appetisers like bread and butter to be charged, even if you didn’t ask for them.
3. Know the value of the currency. Before the Euro, Italian businesses got away with an even bigger scam: they’d charge you 9,000 lira, you’d hand over a 100,000 note, and they’d give you 1,000 in change. By not checking the zeros, you’ve paid ten times the price. Thankfully the Euro makes short-changing harder to pull of, but with the current poor exchange rates, people are still often under the impression that a Euro is worth less than it is, and thus find themselves paying more than they think for goods and services. As a rule of thumb, even though a Euro is worth about 85p, assume the prices are in pounds and a Euro is worth the same as a pound. That way, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised at the cost of your holiday.
4. But if you still smell a rat – either metaphorically or on your plate – you should complain, or refuse to pay. This will only work if you are charged more than the price on the menu, unless your meal or drink is hugely unsatisfactory – for example if hot food or drink is served cold, if it’s undercooked, or is quite clearly stale or rank. But it’s remarkable how often restaurants think they can get away with serving up total rubbish. Don’t just “put it down to experience,” as many people do. Say something, even if you have to use a phrase book, or get a local to help you.
5. The Bannisters made a fatal error in choosing to buy an ice-cream right next to a major tourist attraction, the Spanish Steps, where the vendors were waiting to pounce like vipers. These places get away with ripping people off because they know they have a captive (and often lazy) customer base who are unlikely to complain, especially if they don’t speak the language. The answer is to go further afield, but still check the prices.
6. But you can avoid the tourists traps if you do your research. We all know what it’s like trawling past cafes and restaurants in foreign cities, with no idea and no way of telling which ones are good or bad. So if you want out of the Bad Food Lottery, swat up before setting out. Sites like Trip Advisor have honest feedback from previous customers, while Time Out offers professional reviews (and price guides) for most major cities.