A French girl emerges from Sofia Airport and, before she even looks round for a taxi, she is bombarded with offers of a ride into the city. Some even reach for the luggage in her hands and inform her insistently in broken English that they will give her the best possible price. The flustered girl picks one of the men in dingy track suits and lets him lead her to the yellow car, not suspecting that she is about to be ripped off to the tune of tens of euro for the short trip to the city centre. This scenario unfolds several times a day. For too many foreigners, the first few hours of their stay in Sofia are a painful memory, full of frustration and the feeling of having been conned. The cheerful mood born of arriving at your destination quickly evaporates when the taxi driver charges the outrageous sum of 50 euros for 15 kilometres and, when you try to protest, looks ready to beat you into submission for daring to argue.
This state of affairs has persisted for many years, unaffected by the feeble attempts of governments and institutions to regulate the taxi business. In many towns and smaller cities it is normal for drivers to negotiate the rate without even turning on their taximeter, but Sofia is where truly ingenious scams are rampant. They are concentrated especially around Sofia Airport and the Central Railway Station, where crooked drivers ensnare clients off almost all arrivals. Despite regular checks for unregistered vehicles, many still manage to compete on the front line. Under current legislation there is no ceiling for taxi fares, although the introduction of one was promised more than two years ago, and drivers continue to charge rates as high as 7 leva per km. Corruption and protection by officials at the Automobile Inspection Agency, which is responsible for taxis, have delayed and negated necessary interventions to protect both law-abiding firms, which do exist, and clients.
Travellers are often unprepared for the flagrantly fraudulent methods that drivers apply. If you have arrived by plane and are not familiar with the Bulgarian currency, be aware that you might be given old Bulgarian bank notes as change, especially when you are paying in euro. They look very different and their use was discontinued in 1999, but the scam is still popular. Taxi drivers prey off the ignorance of visitors to Bulgaria in other ways, too – taking the longest route to the destination you requested is an old and time-worn trick. It takes just a small effort to protect yourself from this. Get hold of a map of the city beforehand, or look up the shortest route on your smartphone GPS and tell the driver which way you want to go.
Since taxi drivers can not rely on getting foreign clients every day, they are content to practise their tricks on Bulgarian clients. Nearly everyone who has ever taken a taxi in Sofia has heard the driver's excuse "No change!" This is a particularly regular feature early in the morning and late at night, which adds credibility to the claim that the driver has just started his shift. Thus the client, who is usually in a hurry, may have to give up the idea of getting back their five leva worth of change and vent their frustration by slamming the door on the way out.
Another trick of the trade is rolling down the window just far enough to hide the obligatory price sticker. Drivers sometimes go to extreme lengths to obscure the rates, relying on the fact that most clients just give a cursory glance to the markings of the car company before they jump in – only to regret their haste bitterly at the end of the trip.
Imitating the competition is a classic swindle. Taxi drivers capitalise on the good reputation of certain firms and use close approximations of their logos in an attempt to pass themselves off as the real thing, but with greatly inflated rates. This scam is all the more maddening because such taxis are usually carefully registered according to the rules, and it is the client's fault for not checking out the price sticker before getting into the car.
Night-time rides offer a whole other range of opportunities, such as tinkering with the taximeter or the price stickers. Drivers use "pumps" to rack up the kilometres by pressing a secret button or a remote in their pockets. The deception depends on the length of the journey and the driver's assessment of how much they can get away with. Institutional checks at the beginning of the year showed that every fourth taxi is equipped with these devices.
In the dark it is also more difficult to read the prices on the sticker, which should indicate the day rate per km, the night rate per km, and call out and initial charges, with the last two not exceeding one and a half times the day or night rate. Finally comes the idle time rate per minute, which should be, at most, half the appropriate rate. Drivers sometimes rack it up to 4 or 5 leva per minute, using the permanent traffic jams in Sofia to inflate the bill.
New schemes are being hatched all the time, making it hard to stay ahead and adding a certain edge of excitement to your taxi ride. A good rule of thumb is to make yourself acquainted with the usual fares and show your knowledge in front of the driver. A trip from the airport to the centre should cost about 13 leva at night and up to 10 leva in daytime, while the ride from a central hotel to the National Museum of History in Boyana on the outskirts may set you back 10 leva – but not much more.
Complaining will not usually get you very far with the driver, and there is no centralised phone line you can use, but should you happen to be cheated on a trip, arguing can sometimes be effective and limit the financial damage. If you would rather not challenge a dangerouslooking type verbally, switch to a different company in the future – or take your chances with the public transport to the airport, which might turn out to be a better option after all. Not completely, as there are tricks employed by eagle-eyed ticket checkers out to relieve you of a fiver, but almost.
Approximate daytime fares in Sofia
- Airport to Central Sofia – 10 leva
- Central Sofia to National Museum of History – 10 leva
- Railway Station into Central Sofia – 3-7 leva
- Mladost to Lyulin crosstown – 10-20 leva, depending on traffic
THINGS TO WATCH OUT FOR
- - Know your way. OK, this happens in New York as well, but cabbies seem to be genetically prone to taking the longest instead of the shortest possible route.
- - Watch out for bogus change. Bulgaria does not use the euro. If you pay in euros you run all kinds of risks, including the risk of being given your change in old instead of current leva.
- - Mind the dots. Some cowboy companies imitate their more scrupulous competition by copying their logos and placing just a dot at a different place. Perfectly legal in Bulgarian standards.
- - Watch the meter. Not much you can do here, but if you notice the meter clicks too quickly, ask the driver to stop and threaten to call the police.
- - If the worst comes to the worst, call 112. They are more likely to speak English than the cops. Better, call a local friend.