The Foreigner Tax is Colloquially Called the Gringo Tax in Latin America and Farang Tax in Thailand
¨There is different shopping in Paris than at a bazaar in Istanbul, but they’re all wonderful¨.
Paying More than Locals
One of the most critical unexpected causes of frustration for Fifty Plus Nomads is paying more than locals because you are a foreigner.
Merchants and workers take one look at you, and the price of their products or services increases because you are a foreigner. Tourists and expats alike will be expected to pay more than locals when they take taxis or rickshaws, visit a local market, or buy souvenirs from ambulatory vendors.
I call this differential pricing the Foreigner Tax. In local, mostly expat-oriented publications, they refer to the phenomenon as the local name plus the word tax. For example, it is called a Gringo Tax in Mexico, and in Thailand, a Farang Tax.
It is seldom officially a tax imposed by a government. Governments do, however, charge foreigners more than locals, on occasion, to visit tourist sites and attend cultural events. You will often see this when visiting tourist sites that attract many foreign visitors like the Taj Mahal, the Hermitage Museum, Angkor Wat, and Chichen Itza.
Foreigners will generally not encounter Foreigner Taxes in developed countries. However, I have had taxi drivers charge me more than locals in France and Italy.
My Strategy for Dealing with the Foreigner/Gringo Tax
When I was younger, I used to get upset by the Foreigner Tax. I would haggle aggressively with vendors and occasionally argue loudly and vociferously that the tax was unfair. Sometimes I did not visit sites because I did not want to pay more than locals. (Today, I regret not seeing some of these sites. I regret even more making an ugly scene).
Nowadays, my strategy for dealing with the Foreigner Tax involves:
- Avoiding places where I know that merchants will charge me more than locals. For example, to avoid the frustrations of being overcharged, I do a lot of my shopping in chain stores and use Uber rather than local taxis. Ironically, I still sometimes pay more than if I used more local merchants.
- Accepting the vendor’s price or haggling it down by a small percentage (usually between 10 and 20%).
- Paying the vendor what I think they deserve for the service. Frequently in Merida, I do not ask taxi drivers, for example, what they charge. I pay them what I think they are worth. (Usually about ten to fifteen percent more than they would charge locals). Interestingly they always seem happy with what I pay them. Only once did someone complain.
- Complaining only if the vendors increased the price before completing the transaction, provided me with lousy service, or acted like I was naïve. In these cases, I also usually do not use their services again.
- If you are buying something that is expensive, compare prices among many vendors before buying. If you can’t get a good deal, use a local to buy it for you. Even if you have to pay commission it will still be worthwhile.
In India, I found a different variation on the Foreigner tax: rickshaw drivers insisting on taking me to a souvenir shop. One time, I refused to go to a souvenir shop, and the driver told me that the store owner would give him a free liter of gas for bringing me into the store. If he did not take me to the shop, he would not have enough gas to get me to my destination. We decided that I would go to the store, walk around for five minutes, and then he would take me to my destination!
Why I Favor a More Relaxed Approach to the Foreigner/Gringo Tax
I have become more relaxed over time with the Foreigner Tax because:
Things are Better than in the Past
- Thirty years ago, a lot of vendors would attempt to charge two to three times what locals would pay. Sometimes, they asked for even more money than I would have paid in the US. They also often provided awful service or insisted on even more payment before finishing the transaction. I have not had this happen much lately. Generally, I end up paying around 20-40% more than locals in Latin America and 60% more in the Middle East and Asia.
Sometimes Paying More as a Foreigner is Justified
- I feel more empathy for locals than when I was younger. It is not easy to live on the wages they receive. Many times, they are incredibly skilled, educated, and underemployed. I can imagine how I would feel if I had their wages. The average Mexican, for example, makes between 20 and 25% for the same work that they would receive in the US. The average Indian earns 10 to 15% of the average Americans’ salary. Just being able to afford to travel indicates that we have more means than most locals.
- High admission prices for foreigners are often the primary means that the governments have to restore and maintain historical and cultural sites.
- Often the vendors try to provide better service to justify the additional fee and regardless you will pay less than at home. Even with the gringo tax, I generally pay around 50% of the US price in Latin America and 30% in Asia.
Other Reason to Pay More as a Foreigner
- Many well-off locals also are charged more for the same services than locals with fewer means. I have frequently had conversations with well-off locals who have told me that they have to pay more other locals.
- We bargain for several large purchases in our lives in the US or Canada, like cars and houses. Often the final price that we pay is also based on the sellers’ perception of what the buyer is willing/able to afford. In some industries, like travel, computer algorithms determine the price based on how much you want the service and what you are willing to pay.
- Arguing with locals about the Foreigner Tax reinforces the idea that I am an ugly foreigner. (I do not use the expression Ugly American because I have seen natives from many Developed Country argue with Third World (Emerging) Country locals over Foreigner Tax issues). Saving face and avoiding conflict is very important to most people in Emerging Countries. If you argue with locals, you will also get terrible service in the future and contribute to their negative stereotypes about your home country.
- Increasingly, expats and long-term travelers have come to accept the Foreigner Tax as a fact of life.
Some Foreigner Tax Like Situations that Expats Need to Address
One of the most challenging parts of living in Mexico (and most presumably most other Third World, Emerging Countries) is that you began to care for many of the people who work for you after a while, and you find yourself willing to do things that help the workers. In countries like Mexico, where there is not much governmental safety net, many employers (even locals) help their employees out of jams. Assisting employees in need helps build loyalty and is accepted behavior. However, sometimes, this can cause problems when people expect more help than you are willing to give.
In addition, vendors often request payment for services before delivery. Often, they spend the money on something else. As a result, the vendors often delay delivering the service until they have the money to pay for the materials to complete the job.
My Crazy Rickshaw Ride in Mysore, India
When I visited the Gandhi Museum in Mysore, India, a rickshaw driver asked me if I needed his services for my return to the hotel. I told him that I would probably spend a few hours at the museum and, therefore, did not want him to wait. (He probably thought I was brushing him off and would return in an hour or so). Three or so hours later, when I left the museum, the same rickshaw driver was waiting for me.
I agreed to use the rickshaw drivers’ service. Like most rickshaws, I thought he had a motorized rickshaw, and the ride would cost me around $3.
Instead, he pedaled me to my hotel on a glorified bike. The trip lasted an hour, and I was jostled on potholed cow paths. (A motorized rickshaw would have lasted a half an hour ride and been much more comfortable).
I offered to pay him the same $3 as a motorized rickshaw. When I saw how tired he looked, I give him around $8 instead. I later talked to an Indian who told me that he would have paid $1. Yet, I feel better being generous. At least, I have a cool story to tell at cocktail parties! He told me that I was his only customer of the day.
Some of the Lessons I’ve Learned After Traveling Around the World for Five Years
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- How To Avoid Loneliness During Your TravelsWhen I was traveling around the world as a young man, I frequently got lonely. When I was able to travel around the world again long term, I deliberately participated in group tours, cruises, volunteering, and learning vacations to avoid loneliness. It worked wonders for me.
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- Paying More than Locals As a Foreigner: How to Deal with and Avoid ProblemsWhen I was younger being charged more for things than locals used to piss me off. Now I simply acknowledge it as part of traveling in third-world countries. I find the less it bothers me the less I attract aggressive vendors, too.
- Culture Shock: The Greatest Challenge for Long-Term Travelers and Expats?By far the biggest issue I had while traveling around the world as a younger man was culture shock. It even resulted in me making some major decisions, most of which I regret in retrospect. In my experience, many people suffer from culture shock while traveling around the world or living abroad but most don’t even know they are suffering from culture shock.
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- Church Overload Syndrome: When You Just Can’t Stand Seeing Another ChurchDuring my five years traveling around the world. I occasionally suffered from mild travel burnout. Only once did I succumb to church overload syndrome because over time I have learned how to appreciate churches. However, church overland syndrome used to bother me frequently and it seems commonplace among other long-term travelers.
- Consider Resorts, Cruises, Festivals, and Amusement Parks in Your Long-Term Travel PlansWhile many travelers pooh-pooh resorts, cruises, festivals, and amusement parks, I enjoy them in small doses. It is fun to see the creativity of the developers and event planners. It is also a nice break from more serious and intellectual activities.
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- Independent Travel: Advantages and DisadvantagesDuring my five years traveling around the world, I spent about half my time traveling independently and the other half on group tours, cruises, volunteering, and learning vacations. I love the freedom to explore things in depth that comes with independent travel. However, I find exclusively traveling independently to get exhausting and lonely if done for months at a time. I also love the diversity of experiences.when I mix group and independent travel.
- Don’t Avoid Group Tours and Cruises During Your Round-the-World TravelOne of my biggest surprises in traveling around the world for five years was how much I enjoyed group tours and cruises. It is nice to have other people deal with arrangements. Many of the tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly. My fellow travelers were usually kind and interested in learning.
- Traveling in Developed Countries: Why it is a Myth that Traveling to Western Europe and Other Developed Countries is Boring and ExpensiveOne of my biggest surprises when I traveled around the world for five years was how much I loved traveling in the developed world (USA/Canada, Australia/New Zealand, Western Europe, Singapore, Japan, the UAE, etc). Until I began to travel around the world for a long term, I always thought the developed world was less interesting than in the third world. Now I find both equally interesting and enjoyable.
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- Round the World Travel: My Top 4 LessonsI learned four lessons from my five-year journey around the world: 1) Mix group and independent travel; 2) Travel to varied parts of the world; 3) Avoid travel burnout, and 4) Have a home base.