Traveller Warning – “No Menu” in a Restaurant Can Lead to Unwanted Big Bills
What is the ‘no menu scam’? In essence, it is very simple – a tourist buys drinks at a cafe without asking the price, which turns out to be much higher than it should be.
Where can it be found? It’s global, and particularly common in poor countries which see a lot of tourists.
There are many variants, but most run as follows:
1. The victim orders drinks in a cafe, or food in a restaurant.
2. The menu does not have prices, and the victim does not think to ask how much the drink or food costs.
3. When the bill comes, it is far higher than it should be.
As so often, travellers are relatively susceptible to these scams because they are not familiar with local price levels and customers. They are less likely to complain than locals and in many countries they are richer than most locals, and hence easier to fleece. Perhaps above all, they are out for a good time and are not looking to spoil their holiday with arguments about a few dollars.
From the two examples below, these scams may appear to be an Eastern European speciality, but, unfortunately, they are more widespread than that. In Morocco, tourists sometimes eat lunch at hole-in-the-wall sandwich bars. Customers usually pay after they have eaten, and prices can be much higher if the customer is a tourist. I have heard of similar scams in Thailand, Vietnam and in some South America countries. I doubt that they are limited to these places: wealthy, foreign tourists frequent cafes all over the world. The amount of money lost by the victim who has been swindled in this way is usually small, but the feeling of anger is often much greater than the small sum seems to warrant.
Related to the “no menu” scam is the “new price” scam:
1. The victim finds something he wants to buy while shopping, or he may be in a cafe and about to pay the bill.
2. He is presented with a bill which is much higher than its price tag, or than the menu, led him to believe.
3. He complains to the waiter or shop assistant, and even asks to see their manager.
4. The scammer tells the victim that the price he saw was the “old price” – prices have just gone up since the list was printed. This may be the case, but it is more likely that the waiter thinks the victims will simply pay up and leave, rather than bother to argue over the difference.
If the victim refuses to pay the “new price”, the scammer can sell the victim what he wants to buy at the original price and the business will have lost nothing.
A related scam occurs in restaurants:
1. Food, in particular, meat or fish, will be priced on the menu by weight.
2. The restaurant staff, however, will provide their customer with much less meat or fish than they charge her for, or they will charge her by weight for meat or fish which is mostly bone.
3. As the customer does not have scales with her, she will not be able to work out the price she should be paying, and will most likely pay the restaurant what it asks.
Many seafood restaurants do not include prices for dishes involving fresh fish. They often list the price for these meals as “market price”. This is not usually a scam, since the market price of fresh fish can vary dramatically day by day. However, there is no excuse for changing prices of items like coffee dramatically, just because the cafe happens to be serving tourists rather than locals. I learned in Bosnia to be suspicious of a cafe or a restaurant which does not produce a menu (see the example below), and especially of one which does not show a price list when asked. Since then, I have never assumed that I know what a price is, but have tried to remember to ask before I order. However, what I have learned from my friend’s experience in Budapest (another example below), is that even when I think I know the price, I can still be swindled. Other than refusing to pay, or paying and then reporting the restaurant to the tourist police, if there are any, there does not seem much that a tourist can do to frustrate a waiter who decides to double the price of a drink on a whim, and without telling him.
My experience of a “no menu” scam in Bosnia
In 2009, I was in Mostar, Bosnia, a delightful town centred on a famous bridge (“Most” in Bosnian) over the River Neretva. The Bosnian economy is still at a standstill, and there is little work there besides tourism. Tourism is therefore a huge industry, and, as always, some businesses are dishonest. I was there in June, and after two hours of walking around the Old Town with three friends in the baking sunshine, I was ready for some refreshment. We found a cafe with shaded benches and cushions on the ground on which to recline and sprawled on the floor. The four of us had five coffees, a cup of tea and a couple of pastries between us.
Prices in Bosnia are low compared to Western Europe, so we were surprised when the bill came to almost twenty euros (USD28 / GBP18). In most other cafes in Mostar, it would have come to no more than eight or ten euros. When we asked for the menu to check the prices, the waiter pretended he did not have one available. As the additional amount was relatively small, we paid and left, but decided never to go to that cafe again. When I got back to my hotel, I heard by chance from the manager that that particular cafe was notorious for charging foreigners extra if they did not ask for a menu. In that case, the cafe would automatically double its prices, or increase them even further if the foreigners looked like they could afford it.
“No menu” scam in Hungary
A friend experienced a variation of this scam at a cafe in central Budapest. He ordered a beer, and had the foresight to ask how much it would cost. He was told that it would be 600 Hungarian Forints – about USD2 / GBP1.50 at the time. In the course of a pleasant afternoon’s drinking, he ordered several beers. Eventually, he came to ask for the bill. He was unpleasantly surprised when it he saw that the waiter had charged the first beer at 600 Forints, as they had said, but had charged subsequent beers at 1,000 Forints (USD4 / GBP2.50 at the time). He refused to pay, and disputed the charges with the waiter. The waiter insisted that he pay. My friend called the manager, who also insisted that he pay, and called security when he refused. The big security guard intimidated my friend, who eventually decided that he did not need the hassle and paid up. Though the unjustified charges for the beer did not cost my friend more than USD16 / GBP10, the experience soured his opinion of Budapest, which he had been enjoying, and he left earlier than he had expected.