Prague mayor goes undercover to expose the great taxi rip-off

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The Independent Online

An English accent is an expensive thing to have in Prague, as the city's campaigning mayor discovered when he posed as a tourist - and ended up paying six times the normal taxi fare.

An English accent is an expensive thing to have in Prague, as the city's campaigning mayor discovered when he posed as a tourist - and ended up paying six times the normal taxi fare.

Pavel Bem donned a fake beard for the experiment to test claims that Britons, among the city's main visitors, were being routinely ripped off. It didn't take long for him to get a taste of Prague, tourist-style.

"I asked him [a taxi driver] in English to take me to Prague Castle, one of our city's favourite spots for tourists, and was amazed when he went off the wrong way," said Mr Bem. "It's only a two-mile journey, but he took a number of detours and then charged me £18. It should only have cost around three."

The small-time con could prove far more expensive for the driver himself, who now faces a fine of up to £23,000 under a beefed-up penalty system imposed by Mr Bem.

"If this is the first time he has exploited a tourist then he will just face the maximum fine. But if it is proved that he has done the same thing in the past he will lose his licence."

With an average of about 200 flights a week between the UK and the Czech Republic, 500,000 Britons visit Prague every year, and many complain of being ripped off everywhere from exchange agencies to restaurants.

Authorities were quick to recognise the city's potential in the early 90s and spent millions restoring historic sites and re-cobbling the narrow alleyways and lanes immortalised in Franz Kafka's novels.

It remains one of the most popular stag-night destinations for young Brits with pubs catering solely for British parties, as well as being an equally attractive destination for couples on a romantic weekend.

But Britons who have visited Prague often return home complaining about overcharging and "rip-offs". Kiosks also sell tickets for public transport and some foreigners say they have been overcharged for tickets there, but because of language barriers and using a foreign currency they often do not realise until much later.

Others complain that bills in bars and clubs when totalled up afterwards often contain extra items that were not ordered and that waiters and waitresses suddenly lose their ability to speak previously excellent English when questioned by foreigners about what they paid for.

Last year, Prague's taxi drivers made European headlines when the German MP Cornelia Sonntag-Wolgast was charged €15 (£10.50) for a two-mile ride - four times more than she should have been - and when she asked about the price, she was reportedly told: "If you don't like it, take a tram."

Mr Bem took office in the wake of serious flooding in November 2002, vowing to crack down on petty crime. The Mayor said more inspectors would be dispatched, posing as foreign tourists to check on cabbies overcharging. He also advised tourists to always ask about the price of the journey before getting in a taxi and then insist on a receipt.

"Prague's reputation suffers greatly both home and abroad from the fact that there are many fraudulent taxi drivers and hundreds of pickpockets," he said. "There must be zero crime tolerance and a maximum focus on small crime, illegal drug distribution, prostitution, and the operation of erotic clubs that facilitate crime."

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