Our cars don't always go on vacation with us, but we may need some wheels along the way. Taxis and car hires are often a convenient way to travel, especially where local public transportation isn't available or safe for tourists.

But taking a cab in a foreign country isn't quite the same as hailing one at home. Customs, prices and safety concerns all differ from place to place. We've got some tips for a smoother ride.

Check out the local safety scene

Yes, it's troubling -- but knowing the potential crimes and safety risks you're up against can help you avoid getting caught. Travellers are targets for scams like overpricing or taking an extra long route -- but they're also at risk for robbery, express kidnapping and sexual assault.

The good news is you can learn about these risks before you even land -- and how to avoid them. Check out the guide book for your area (online or in print) and government travel advice (like the Canadian government's Travel Reports) to find out how to avoid common scams and criminal tactics -- or if you should hop the subway instead. (See How safe is your destination? for more details and resources.)

Use legal and reputable services

You can avoid a lot of the danger by sticking to reputable and legally-licensed companies, according to experts. Unlicensed cars haven't gone through required safety checks, and criminals often pose as drivers to lure victims.

To avoid questionable services and drivers, find out who the reputable companies are and how to recognize their vehicles -- like signage, phone numbers, markings and colours. Travel advice can point you in the right direction, but you can also find information on your airport's website or talk to the front desk at your hotel.

Knowing where, when and how to catch a cab is also key. In some places, it isn't safe to hail one on the street -- going to a taxi stand or having your hotel call one for you are better options.

Plan your route and pay attention

If you know your way around, you're less likely to get taken for a ride or get caught in a misunderstanding. Experts advise to write down the name and address of your destination -- and have an idea of the streets and landmarks you'll see along the way. You may want to pack a local map and keep track of where you're going, just in case there's a question. (No need to hide your actions -- they might deter dishonest drivers.)

Inspect before you get in

You're right to be wary if the taxi that pulls up looks like it's falling apart. (After all, vehicle accidents are a top cause of death world wide, and a top threat to travellers.) Before you get in, take a quick look at the vehicle first. Call another cab if:

- The vehicle doesn't look safe and shows signs of disrepair.

- Something is missing -- like door handles on the inside of the door, seat belts, properly displayed identification or signage on the car.

- If you think the driver is intoxicated.

- If the driver doesn't seem familiar with the area, or doesn't understand where you're going.

- There is already another passenger in the vehicle. (Only share with people you know and trust.)

Get a fair price

Are you paying a fair fare? It can be hard to tell. Drivers have been known to overcharge tourists, but many places do charge higher fees for certain times of day (like rush hour, evenings or weekends), for crossing certain zones or for additional passengers. In some countries, you have to negotiate the final price before you even put on your seat belt.

Again, it's a matter of knowing what the norm is for the area. Rates should be posted and explained if you ask. Make sure the driver uses the meter and that the price is set for the right time of day and area. You might even want to ask at your hotel or research online what a standard cab ride from set destinations (like the airport to the subway) will cost.

Be discreet

You've likely heard this safety advice before: Don't make it obvious that you're a tourist. Designer clothing, flashy jewellery and electronics can easily draw unwanted attention, so can flashing a wad of bills when you pay your tab.

While it's not a bad idea to let it be known that you're meeting someone at your destination (even if you aren't), there are other details you should keep to yourself. Avoid giving away any personal details -- like your future travel plans -- to avoid the information being used against you later on.

One piece of electronics you should show off: your cell phone. If you're feeling uncertain, use it to take a picture of the cab and the license plate before you get in (and send it to someone you know). Keep it on and keep it handy while you're on route, and place a call or engage in a texting conversation for added security.

Show your appreciation

Show your thanks -- and avoid potential disagreements about price -- by knowing the tipping customs at your destination. For instance, in most countries throughout Europe, North America and Africa a 10 per cent tip is expected. In some countries like Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, simply round the fare up to the next dollar amount. In India or China, you're not expected to pay a gratuity.

Naturally, these guidelines are approximate. Travel experts advise kicking in a little extra for exceptional service -- like hauling your heavy bags. (See a Global guide to tipping for more information.)

Know who to call for help

Emergency phone numbers are something we should always have regardless of where we travel. Tuck this list in your pocket or bag, or enter the phone numbers into your cell phone:

- Local police and emergency services.

- Tourist police services (if available).

- Your hotel and your destination (for the cab ride).

- Your travel provider and travel insurance company's emergency assistance lines.

- The emergency contact information for your local embassy.


For more advice on taxi safety, visit:

Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada Travel Reports

The Safe Traveler: Auto & Taxi Safety

UK DirectGov: Taxi Safety

Additional sources: U.S. Department of State Tips for Traveling Abroad, CNN.com, About.com: Student Travel

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Patrick Breig

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Elizabeth Rogers