How I (Almost) Fell for the Belgrade Taxi Scam

Our Travel Safety Expert, Phil Sylvester, took a trip to Belgrade, where he very quickly learnt why you should always check the color of the taxi before hopping in.

So here I am in Belgrade – an exciting mix of old and not-so-modern. Huh? On one side of the river is Old Belgrade (dating back to the 3rd century) and on the other side is a 1970’s style model Soviet city, with wide boulevards (for the tanks), tower blocks in squares and brutalist architecture - courtesy of Yugoslavia’s dictator Tito. 

I’m eager to explore, but I’m the “safety guy” so I stop at the reception desk to ask a few questions.

“Any districts I shouldn’t go to? And how bad’s the petty crime around here?”

It turns out there’s nothing for me to worry about, except for the unlicensed taxis.

“Do not take the taxi with the plain white sign on top, sir.”

Legitimate taxis - look for the company logo on the sign.

Fast-forward to three nights later and a group of us are leaving a restaurant on the Belgrade waterfront. There are five of us, so we split up into two taxis.

I’m already in the back of the cab, siting in the middle seat when my friend says, “Hey Phil, these are white taxis!” but it’s too late, the doors are shut and the driver is moving.

He’s also turned the music up to ear-splitting volume so I shout, “Turn the music down and put the meter on!” The driver is dismissive, so I know we’re in deep doo-doo now.

All the way across the bridge over the Sava, I’m watching the meter and battling the sinking feeling of inevitability in my stomach. It’s only a short trip, and I’ve already done it about a dozen times, so I know the going rate is 500 Dinar (about $US4).

Pretty soon we’re at our hotel, but not at the front door, down a side road at the trades entrance… uh-oh!

As my boisterous companions spill out of the taxi I watch as the driver stops the meter and I see with my own eyes as it jumps from 700 Dinar to 20,000 Dinar!

The conversation goes like this:

Me: “Mate, I saw what happened! I was watching the meter when you did that!”

Driver: “Fare is 20,000, it’s there on the meter.”

Me: “I know what type of taxi we’re in, you know what type of taxi this is, and now you know I know. I also know the going fare is 500 Dinar, so take this.”

The driver looks at me and smirks because he knows he’s been busted.

Driver: “No, no. I don’t want it. You don’t pay.”

Me: (figuring not paying will result in police getting involved for fare evasion) “No way, here’s the 500.”

Meanwhile in the other taxi the same scenario is playing out. But this driver is telling my friend the fare is correct because then other taxi fare is the same. He gets out of the taxi.

He’s huge.

Keep in mind that Serbia was in the middle of a war until 2001, anyone over the age of 35 has probably killed a person, or seen people die. My companions now begin to back away and melt into the shadows.

Big driver to my driver (This is obviously part of a rehearsed routine): “Tell him how much they pay you?”

My driver: (sheepishly) “500.”

Big driver throws his arms in the air, and angrily stomps back to his car. My friend tries to pass him a 500 Dinar note, which the driver refuses. My friend drops the note through his open window. It flies back out onto the road and both taxis roar off.

We all look at each other, adrenaline racing through our blood, and burst into laughter. Maybe it’s because I’m Australian, I never considered the possibility that he might be armed – my American compatriots certainly had!

At what point would I have decided my life was worth more than 20,000 Dinar ($US170)?

Inside the hotel we celebrate our good luck with another Serbian rakia. Ziveli!

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7 Comments

  • Dalia said

    Great story!! Really liked it!

  • DG said

    First: Serbia wasn't in war until 2001.
    Second: It's terrible to say that everyone who is 35 or older committed murder or saw someone was killed. And here (in Belgrade) like everywhere in the world there are taxi drivers who work illegally but that's not a reason to talk about the Serbs as criminals. Keep in mind that Serbian guy on the reception desk warn you against illegal taxi drivers.
    Best regards from Belgrade.

  • You can call me Susan said

    Fair enough, as someone over the age of 35 there are few irregularities with this report but I dont think Phil was trying to be mischievous and harm the good name of Serbs although I have to stress that Aussie misconception about the country and its people mainly comes from stories abroad and never ending (at that time) propaganda against the past regime. Being someone who lived on both sides of the pond some Serbs abroad are not good ambassadors to their ex country, the overwhelming sense of Serbian machismo and calls for violence mainly over nothing does not help in making visiting Serbia a good experience. And as for criminal activity there is petty crime wherever you go, even here, someone will always try to make a quick buck, as long as we don't put all of the eggs in the same basket, happy days. Thank you for visiting

  • stupefied said

    This is a very angry article mate. Please don't generalise in the way you do, because you're causing damage to yourself (in the form of looking like an idiot) and to people who don't deserve the generalisations which you are spreading. I don't even care about the cab issue that's all fair and is the case in most impoverished countries - it's actually just one specific line which is particularly outrageous... and shows your true colours.

    This line "Keep in mind that Serbia was in the middle of a war until 2001, anyone over the age of 35 has probably killed a person, or seen people die." is absolutely disturbing aside from being completely false. I won't bother you with the history of wars Serbs were involved in but will simply remind you that Serbs have been living in an incredibly multicultural environment for thousands of years... the wars here which were instigated by various western countries (mind you, all of which stem from anglo-saxon/germanic roots) created a horrible situation in a country where all people lived in peace and prosperity with numerous religions and institutions for generations (divide and conquer has been going on here for hundreds of years).

    Australia, on the other hand, has seen an entire race nearly whiped out - crimes unimaginable to other cultures, as has the USA as have any other places colonised by "white" (I.e. ango saxon) folks (where they could manage it) where they couldn't they instilled a horribly exploitative colonial regime. Your entire race essentially exists due to murder and exploitation.

    Then, either totally ignorant of your past, or just being quite bitter about some poor experience you've had - you go to a foreign country which has suffered due to similar exploitative western regimes, where people have been robbed by the west for generations, and you complain about the fact that desperation has lead people to cheat you to some minimal degree for cab fair...

    I obviously think it's wrong for the cabbies to be cheating you - but what you just did with this article is so much worse... it's stupefying.

    Please don't come back to Serbia... it doesn't want you here!

  • Phil Sylvester said

    Geez you guys, lighten up, it was a humorous piece. I've used hyperbole as an effect.
    Maybe it lost some impact because we're not standing around in a bar holding beers while I tell it.
    And Stupified, I am not bitter about Serbia, I loved Belgrade and its people. But I'll keep your travel ban in mind.

  • Stupified said

    Hey Phil,

    Sorry mate, might have been a bit overdone on my part, particularly the race card I played which I regret to some degree. In terms of the joke, I'm sure you had decent intentions. Just remember that there is tons of unfounded anti Serb sentiment out there and I just don't like it being added to unnecessarily. Surely you understand.

    Travel ban officially lifted, welcome back whenever you like.

  • Stupified said

    Don't understand me to mean that all negative sentiment against Serbs is unfounded however... that last war certainly earns us a good degree of it, just not so much as we were given in a very bias media.

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