How to skip the scams in Prague
Exploring new cultures is a fantastic adventure that often leads to some of the best life experiences, but we have to admit: sometimes new places and cultures can make even the most seasoned traveller quake in their boots. Even those who love to travel are often afraid they’ll “get it wrong” and cause, at best, a bit of local confusion, or, at worst, a giant international incident that leads to a battle between Earth’s mightiest heroes with the whole of modern civilisation at stake (or maybe that’s just me).
At any rate, we felt that one way we could combat those travel butterflies is by helping you get the lay of the land here in Prague. As such, with the help of our expert local Prague tour guides, we’ve compiled this list of what not to do, what might be a bit different from home, and little things to keep in mind in order to make your Czech experience your Best. Trip. Ever. (At least until you come back and visit us again!)
Tip #1: Not all money is created equal
Money, of course, is a wonderful thing to have and one of the most stressful things to think about, especially when travelling abroad. To soothe your monetary woes, here’s an overview of some of the dos and do-nots of getting your well-earned cash changed into spendable Czech crowns, the currency of the Czech Republic.
While a lot of Europe is in the Eurozone and therefore uses the euro, here in the Czech Republic, we’re still relying on our faithful pre-EU currency: the crown, or koruna, as we say in Czech. There’s a popular belief among travellers that even though the Czechs have consciously put off switching over the EU’s currency, the euro can still be used here, interchangeable with Czech crowns. I’m here to tell you this is only partially true. In certain places, such as souvenir shops and big chain stores in downtown areas like Wenceslas Square, you can use euros if you have them. Typically, there will be signs saying as such, along with a listed conversion of Czech crowns to the euro.
However, there are a few things to be wary of in these stores. Firstly, the euro to Czech crown conversions displayed are often rough versions that don’t necessarily reflect the current value of the euro to the crown, and, as such, you might get a slightly more expensive deal because of it (on the other hand, it also might benefit you — it’s a game of chance, really).
The second concern is that smaller souvenir shops of the less reputable variety may let you pay in euros, US dollars, or the like, but not inform you that they also add on a charge for converting the money into the local price of your souvenir. Because of this, you may end up paying slightly more with another currency and, unless you’re up on your conversion rates and good at doing them in your head, you might not catch the difference before paying for the keychain or beer bottle-opener you’re bringing home to your nephew, your cousin Billy, your dog (hey, we don’t know what Fido likes).
The third issue, and probably the most important, is that it just doesn’t look cool. I know, I know, being cool is something that we were supposed to stop caring about after high school, but if you use euros here, it’s not only almost always annoying to the shop clerks, but it’s also a flashing neon sign announcing you as a foreigner. While it’s sometimes hard to seamlessly fit in with locals on trips abroad, it is nice to appear travel-savvy and have the correct currency on-hand. Your new Czech friends will applaud your travel know-how.
So how exactly should you go about getting Czech crowns? You can, of course, exchange your money at any number of exchange offices in the airport, train station, bus station, or around the city centre, but be warned that those places generally take a chunk out of your change for doing you the favour, even though they all advertise 0% commission. Still, depending on your situation and comfort level, they’re not a terrible choice for switching your currency — and besides, there’s something sort of spy-thriller-y about operating on a cash-only basis and changing your money whenever and wherever you need it… although people might look at you funny if you start humming the theme from Mission Impossible while doing so (even though large parts of the franchise were, in fact, filmed in Prague).
A better bet — though also one that requires a bit more navigation of the Czech Republic’s famously Kafkaesque bureaucracy — is to head to any larger-looking bank and change it there. While there will be some commission taken out of your sum, it’s usually a bit less steep than at the street kiosks. Banks are also a good option if you’re nervous about getting ripped off. Czech banks can be trusted and waiting for your number to be called isn’t quite so hardcore — hardly anyone gets turned into giant cockroaches anymore.
The other way to grab some cash is to rely on your banks back home. You can fill up your wallet before you come (you might have to order Czech crowns from your home bank ahead of time), or set up your debit and credit cards for use in the Czech Republic. Call the numbers on the back of your cards and/or stop into your bank to let them know you’ll be abroad before you travel, so they don’t think you’ve fled the country to pursue a life of crime. Using cards is still a newer thing here in Prague (it is catching on, though), so paying with plastic is still a bit hit or miss, but you can take out money at ATMs/cash machines — the only thing to be aware of is your transaction fee might be a bit higher than normal (around EUR 4 or USD 5).
One thing to NEVER EVER DO while in the Czech Republic (heck, when travelling anywhere) is change money on the street, from a random person. In some of the more touristy places, people may come up to you and act like a concerned citizen, trying to stop you from paying commission and offering to change money with you out of the goodness of their hearts (they also often conjure up a story that they’ll be travelling to whichever country your currency is from anyway, and that you’d be helping them as well). In most cases, the people on the street will, in fact, change your money for you — but rarely into the money of the corresponding value, or even into Czech crowns at all! I’m not saying that the world is out to get you, but just be aware.
Tip #2: The deal with bread
Ah, bread, one of the ancient staples of civilisation and source of delicious, carby goodness. It’s really hard for me to think poorly of bread, and, unless you have gluten allergies or an irrational fear, you hopefully feel the same — and also be wondering what I could possibly be warning you about. Fret not, my friend! Bread in the Czech Republic is still delicious and totally edible, I promise. But I do have to point out a cultural difference regarding the king of carbs and Czech restaurants.
In a lot of places, after you sit down to eat and place your drink orders, it’s not uncommon for the wait staff to bring out a delicious basket of bread and butter or cheese for your dining pleasure. In some establishments, this bread is complimentary, but here in Prague (and in fact, in many other cities, small towns, and villages all over the CZ) this isn’t always the case. Most of the time in the Czech Republic, when a restaurant sets bread on your table, you’re then charged for it if you start to dig in. No, the waiters haven’t spotted you as a non-local and aren’t trying to pull a fast one — it’s merely a little-known cultural difference that most people don’t expect. A lot of times, travellers feel cheated when they discover this unexpected charge on the bill, causing a sort of cultural clash at worst and bad feelings at best. As fans of neither one of these things, we’re here to ensure they don’t happen, hence this little “bread charge PSA.”
Lately, this once-standard practice is starting to change and some of our favourite places have done away with charging for bread, but still, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to fork over a few crowns for your share of carb-alicious, grainy deliciousness.
Tip #3: Tip like a local
Speaking of restaurants, one of the other most commonly asked questions travellers have when coming to Prague is how much and when should they tip? Tipping culture is different everywhere and no one wants to be seen as either entirely too cheap or cluelessly spending money, so we’ll lay it out for you. Here in the Czech Republic, tipping is a sign of appreciation for a job well done rather than something that the staff relies on for their bread and butter (see what I did there?) — that being said, it is still considered polite to tip at least 10% and even higher for exemplary service.
Now that you know what to tip, the next matter is when, which is a surprisingly confusing matter for people visiting our fine city. While in many other destinations, tips get discretely left on the table as a party leaves the restaurant, in the Czech Republic, we’re a bit more blunt about whether or not we enjoyed the service. Case in point, we always give the tip right after the waiter gives us the bill (which, here is something you always have to ask for, FYI). Here’s a hypothetical map for how the whole thing goes:
Tony Stark: Hey, is it cool if we get the bill?
Waiter: Yes, of course, sir! Will you and the rest of the Avengers be paying together or separately?
Tony Stark: This one’s on me — together, please.
Waiter: Great. You had six shawarma meals… so that’ll be 600 crowns.
Tony Stark: Here’s 700*… the change is for you!
Waiter: Thank you, sir! Nashledanou!
*Tony Stark, being a billionaire, tips pretty well.
Now, it’s not unheard of to leave the tip on the table — especially in places that give you the bill and then leave you with a few minutes of solitude to figure out payment methods. However, if you leave a stack of coins on the table after you’ve already paid (and it’s not in one of those nice, black money folder-things — an official term, trust us), you run the risk of your server overlooking your tip, or even a random stranger thinking Lady Luck is smiling down on them.
Tip #4: Shopping can be sensitive
If you plan on seeing the sites of Prague, then there’s no way that you can miss the traditional (and some not so traditional) vendors that dot the cityscape. These markets and streets stalls can be pretty exciting, especially since the offerings and themes of these semi-permanent markets tend to change depending on which holiday or season is approaching. All in all, they can be cool places to check out, especially if you’re looking for some unique handcrafted souvenirs that a family has lovingly made and brought all the way to the capital from their smaller cities or villages.
While these markets and the wares they sell are not inherently evil, there are some things to keep in mind so that you don’t come away from the experience feeling as if you’ve been duped. First off, here in Prague, bartering and bargaining is not really done. While in many other countries and cultures, it’s common to be able to argue the price down, here in the Czech capital it’s just not done. Most street vendors will merely politely refuse your offer of a lower price, but there is a chance that some may be offended by it. By attempting to argue the price down in a country that does not generally practice this form of commerce, you are essentially telling the vendors that you think their beloved handicrafts or products are not worth the determined value, or, to put it plainly, cheap. I’m sure you can see how someone who has toiled over these products might be offended. Plus, it makes you look like an arrogant foreigner and, let’s be honest, no one enjoys giving off that impression — we’re too cool for that (see Tip #1).
Tip #5: Hamming it up
The other thing to keep in mind when it comes to street stalls has to deal with perhaps the most fun (and delicious) part of travel: the food! Many of these markets and stalls are dedicated to cooking up seasonal treats and serving the appropriate beers and wines that go with them. Trust us, it’s hard not to stop at every new market and try something new when strolling through town. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that here in Prague, most of these foodstuffs are sold by weight and, in all of these stalls, if you look, you can see a sign declaring the price in grams.
At most of the stalls, you can usually ask for a portion of food in a certain weight, but this is not always the case — particularly when it comes to purchasing a slice of the aromatic and delicious-looking Prague ham that is typically roasted on spits in the Old Town Square. The ham, which is hard to resist by most carnivorous beings out there, is usually served with boiled potatoes and then sold at a price based on their combined weight. While it is undoubtedly delicious, it has come to our attention that at these fine stalls, it’s rather unusual for one to be able to specify which slice of ham they prefer, or even how much, which tends to lead to some dissatisfaction among customers and even some people paying for a much, much larger (and way more expensive) portion than they wanted.
Now, we’re not saying to not try the Prague ham! What we are telling you is to just be aware of how these sorts of transactions tend to go. If you’re dying for some of Prague’s famed pork products but don’t necessarily want to deal with the whole street vendor ordeal, many traditional Czech restaurants have the dish on their regular menus. If you desperately want to eat some street meat but don’t want to pay for it, may we recommend the sausages? They’re sold by the piece and are way more popular with locals. You know what they say, when in Rome — or, err, Prague!
Tip #6: Taxi trepidation
If you’ve ever looked at a guidebook for Prague, then you’ve almost certainly read that the taxi drivers are ruthless and looking to rip off any and all unsuspecting travellers. I really wish I could sit here and reassure you that this isn’t the case, but unfortunately, taxi scams in Prague are a well-known reality, even among locals. Things have gotten better since the 90s, though, and there have even been citywide regulations through which the government has tried to step in and say, “enough is enough!” Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, this has not been entirely enough. Taxi companies still like to overcharge when they get the chance, but hey, at least they do it to travellers and locals alike!
Most travellers are not here long enough to learn the savvy local ways to avoid being scammed, but, luckily for you, we’re here to help. One thing that we almost always do when we need a taxi in Prague is to call ahead. Flagging down a taxi in the middle of the street, while common in other places like New York, is almost a sure way to be overcharged. Need to get from the airport to your hotel? There are stands set up by taxi companies in the airport that will arrange transit for a fair price. Need a taxi to pick you up from your hostel or hotel? Ask the reception desk to either arrange a car for you or give you the number of their favourite company — locals in Prague are happy to share their faves (as we say, #localsknow).
Another, slightly newer, option of getting a car in Prague is to use the trusty Uber app. Uber, which has only come to Prague relatively recently, offers a series of different cars and since you’re always charged to your credit card through the company, there’s no chance for the driver to charge you more than the standard fare. If you’re trying to save your hard-earned travel fund, though, just be sure you don’t call during surge times, when the rates can jump up due to car demand.
If you’re walking around the city centre, you’ll also see spots where taxis congregate next to yellow and orange signs declaring “fair place taxi” with a thumbs-up. These spots cropped up years ago as safe spaces, thanks to government regulations designed to make hailing a fairly-priced cab less of an ordeal for non-locals. The taxis you get here are held to the rates set by the government, meaning you won’t get a nasty surprise when it comes time to pay up.
Still a bit scared of calling a cab in Prague? Don’t worry — much of the city is very easily walkable, which is how most locals prefer to get around. Even if you’re not feeling up to a stroll or the weather is a bit less than ideal, we have an excellent and easy-to-use public transit system consisting of subway lines, trams, buses, and even a few trains.
Inspired to see the sites of Prague with a local by your side? Hop on one of our tours that show you the real city, the real local way.
August 23, 2018