Are you traveling to Varanasi? Maybe you’re concerned about getting scammed on your trip?
In this post, I’ll share the most common Varanasi scams, including my own story about how I got scammed by a taxi driver.
Let’s take a look at how to best protect yourself from scams on your journey.
Read next: How to spend fantastic 2 days in Varanasi
This post contains referral links for products I love. Adventurous Miriam earns a small commission at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. Thank you for your support ♡ Learn more
Is Varanasi safe for tourists?
Yes, Varanasi is safe to visit if you take certain precautions.
While there are some standard safety travel tips to follow (as in any city), some specific tips apply to Varanasi. For instance:
Women should always dress conservatively, as this tends to be the norm in the area. Additionally, it is best to avoid going out at night as streets can become dangerous in parts of the city.
Something else to look out for are the Varanasi monkey! They tend to sometimes make their way onto hotel rooftops and steal from guests. To combat this problem, many hotels have wire mesh installed on their roofs as a form of protection against them.
Common Varanasi scams
Varanasi is a must-visit for anyone who wants to experience the heart and soul of India. However, amidst the beautiful temples, spiritual atmosphere and the stunning boat rides, you’ll also meet locals who want to trick you.
To avoid getting scammed in Varanasi, you should start by knowing the most common scams and how to avoid them.
Here are 7 of the most typical Varanasi scams:
1. Fake guides (lapkas)
Illegal guides (also known as lapkas) are on the prowl anywhere in Varanasi. Presenting themselves as a tour guide, they will try to gain your trust before taking advantage of you.
For instance, a lapka may offer to take you shopping. But once in the store, the owner will charge you exorbitant prices because they work with the scammer.
2. Boat ride
Another typical Varanasi scam is the overpriced boat rides.
There are no fixed price for a boat ride in Varanasi. So, from the most popular ghats (Manikarnika, Dashashwamedh and Assi ghat), the boatmen will demand an overprice or cite a price without disclosing whether it’s for the entire boat or per head.
To avoid this, find a boat ride from another ghat, and make sure to pay no more than 120-150 rupees ($2) per person.
3. The sob story scam
Be cautious when walking around Varanasi’s iconic Manikarnika Ghat. You may meet a seemingly friendly lapka who starts talking to you and give you some helpful information.
He might offer to show you the building overlooking the ghat and then lead you into an isolated space away from other visitors where his tone changes dramatically as he explains how costly it is for cremations of people without family or means in India. But the money is not going to people without family or means. They’re going straight into his pocket!
Don’t give him any.
4. Taxi scams in Varanasi
This one is kind of personal to me because I was tricked this way when we just landed in Varanasi. You can read the whole story at the end of this post, but first know that rickshaw and taxi scams are very common in Varanasi, so be prepared.
Whenever you need a taxi, rickshaw or tuktuk, make sure the meter is turned on or agree on a fixed price before the trip begins. Plan out your journey beforehand so you can ask your driver an approximate length of the trip versus relying just on the meter. This way, you can ensure that you don’t get overcharged.
One of the typical scams is when the driver tells you that the hotel that you wish to go to has burned down, is flooded, or closed. Do not believe him. Drivers receive commission from hotels for bringing in new guests, and this is one way to trick newcomers to going to these places.
5. Photo license at the burning ghats
At Manikarnika ghat, someone might come up to you and ask if you have a license to take a photo and then threaten to take you to an office or call the police if you refuse. Even if you’re not taking photos.
The best way to protect yourself from this scam is simply to refuse and walk away!
Please also note that this is someone’s funeral so don’t take photos. It’s disrespectful.
6. The bindi scam
Every night, the Dashashwamedh Ghat in Varanasi is transformed into a place of worship and awe with the spectacular Ganga Aarti ceremony. As you stroll around the area, you might see some priest-looking men that paint a red dot (a bindi) on people’s foreheads without asking for permission first.
Be aware that this could be a scam and these people are not necessarily priests; they will often try to guilt you into donating money regardless. Remember that you are not required or obligated to give anything and can simply say no or move on if you wish.
7. Blessing scams
Varanasi is a beautiful city full of spiritual history and culture. Unfortunately, some locals take advantage of tourists by imitating priests or spiritual teachers. Around Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple, blessing scams are fairly common.
The scam happens like this: A fake holy man will give you blessings to provide good luck in finding a wife, advancing your career, or bless your family. These people are tricky! They will first ask for your parents, kids or siblings’ names, then bless them and once you’re lured in, ask for money in return.
If anyone mentions the word “blessing” or offers you anything for free. Know that it’s never free. Never. They’re not even real holy men.
When I was scammed
I’ve traveled for many years and I had led myself to believe that I was immune to scams. I never give money to beggars, I never get into a cab without an ID or permit, and I never ever trust a local vendor who speaks English too well. I know all the tricks in the book, all the dangers and signs. But India is a whole other league!
35 hours without sleep
When we arrived at Varanasi airport, we hadn’t slept for 35 hours. It was late, cold and it rained. Longing for a nice, warm bed at our hostel, we got our backpacks and quickly went to the arrival area to locate a taxi into town. Being a rather small airport, the choices were limited, but then I saw a young guy with sleek hair sitting behind a “TAXI” counter, so we went for him. Being under the impression that downtown was only 20 km away (and this being India), it couldn’t cost a fortune, right?
Not only did he demand $35 for a trip into town, but he left no room for discussion whatsoever. We were tired, hungry and jetlagged, so we let him win the argument.
That was mistake #1.
Having paid him a minor fortune in Indian standards, we expected no less than a nice car or at least a decent-looking driver. When we got to the parking lot, however, we were met by a dodgy taxi driver and three scruffy men with ragged clothes.
“This way, marm.”
Ehm, I don’t think so!
Desperate to find alternative transportation, we searched the lot, but no taxi was to be found. We were out of options and ended up following the men on the condition that only one of them would be in the car with us. After a huge argument, we settled on two.
The deal was simple
So, the deal was to get driven all the way to our hotel, but we had already given him the taxi voucher. Mistake #2.
Small tip: You should never give the driver the voucher before arriving at the agreed location. Why? Because then he won’t be able to pull a stunt like this:
When we got to the city, the driver stopped and told us to get out. It rained, and the streets were crowded with people to the extent that you had to jostle your way through the huge mass. “Is this… No it can’t be?” We looked around in puzzlement, as there was nothing obviously resembling a hotel in sight.
“Yes, yes. Hotel that way. 15 minutes,” the driver said and made a pointy movement with this index finger.
“Is he kidding?!” I mean, we’d paid for the whole trip there, and we had no idea where the hostel was at. But the driver was not kidding. All the way from the airport, he had been oh-so chatty, but at this point he just grunted and shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly before finally striking the deathblow:
“You pay us more. 500 rupees.”
Labyrinths, cow shit and slippery slaps
After arguing for another ten minutes and being on the verge of a mental breakdown, we reluctantly agreed on his terms. That was mistake #3.
To rub it in our already scammed faces, the driver then hollered at a random guy, said a few words in hindi and turned to us: “He show you.” Well, gee, thanks! We had kinda hoped that he would show us, since he actually knew where the hostel was and all. But at this point, we were so exhausted that we didn’t even bother to object.
Now, the stranger, aka our newly appointed guide, just started waking through the crowd, and we grabbed our bags and tried to keep up.
In an awful hurry, he led us into the narrow, dimly lit alleyways of the city, with beggars, cripples, dogs and cows around each corner. It was dust-raining, and the slabs were flooded with water puddles and cow shit which made them extremely slippery.
Between all the animals and beggars, we could only glimpse the back of our ‘guide’, which by no means was the patient type, and the faster he went, the more the both of us slipped in our attempt not to get left behind. Since he had already been paid, he could easily just run off and leave us stranded.
At first we called at him to slow down but he ignored us, so Pernille practically had to roar at him to “WAIT” before he stopped and slowly led us to the hotel. There is no way we would’ve found it on our own.
Do’s and don’ts with Indian taxi drivers
Rule #1: When asking you if this is your first time in India, say no. Tell them that you’re visiting friends or relatives.
Rule #2: Be persistent and insist on no.
Rule #3: Don’t give your pre-paid taxi voucher to the driver until you’re at the location. He requires this voucher to receive his payment from the taxi office.
Rule #4: If you find a good taxi driver, hang on to him! Get his mobile number and call him later on – he will be more than happy to come pick you up!
Got any questions about Varanasi scams? Ask me in the comments.
More posts from India you might like
- Varanasi (Banares) India – I see dead people
- I got scammed in India (and how you can avoid it)
- Why you should visit an ashram in India
- Jaipur itinerary: 10 things to do in Jaipur for 2 days
- Ranthambore tiger safari – is it worth going?
- How to plan an unforgettable camel safari in Pushkar
- 10 tips for an amazing Taj Mahal visit
- Sarnath temple: An important Buddhist pilgrimage site
- Why you should do a Varanasi boat ride
- Maha Kumbh Mela – Joining 110 Million People at the world’s largest festival
- 10 fun places to visit in Delhi in one day
- Getting blessed by a Naga Sadhu