Fast food restaurants can be safe havens in sticky travel situations, here’s how.
One of the biggest perks of traveling is trying exotic foods. However, the first thing I go for when arriving in an unknown place is a grease-soaked fast food cheeseburger.
Now, before you cringe and write me off as a charlatan, consider the following. If you are fairly spontaneous when traveling, at some point or another you will find yourself arriving in the darkness of night in a new city, possibly even a new country. Picture the situation: you buy a discounted last-minute ticket over the border and have to run to the station before properly researching your arrival. You turn up after midnight with no money, no knowledge of the language, no idea where to stay, and you haven’t the faintest clue about transportation.
You take your first tired step onto foreign soil and you’re instantly surrounded by sharks: the small but persistent minority, the taxi drivers who profit by ripping off tourists. You are the perfect mark, half asleep and lost. They are shouting and gesturing to you, “come here my friend! I give you special price!” You have no idea what the price should be — that’s a lot of trust to put in a stranger. The crowd is lousy, with pickpockets looking for an easy take and peppered with swindlers who want nothing more than to whisk you away to their run-down hotel, where you will be charged triple the normal rate and the management might pocket a little extra by skimming through your valuables when you are at breakfast.
You are in a bad situation. Obviously, you need to do something. This is where the cheeseburger comes into play.
First you briskly walk around the station until you find a bank machine. You make a point to stride with intent as to avoid looking lost or confused. When you find it, you scan for potential thieves and check the machine to see if it’s been altered or has a false front. Once you’ve determined everything is safe, you insert your card and then cover the keypad with your free hand while entering the PIN number. If you understand the exchange rate you take out what you need, but if it’s unknown you choose the third price option — not the tiniest or largest amount. Probably enough to cover transit, lodging and food for a few days.
You look around and see an international fast food chain — McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, whatever. When you go inside the security risk instantly drops. With all the cameras and the regular staff, this is not an ideal place for thieves and cons to operate. You go into the bathroom and stuff your card and passport into hidden pockets out of reach of sticky fingers. You buy a cheeseburger to fuel up and regain your wits. You pay with your largest bill — bank machines often give out big bills that small shops, kiosks and bus drivers won’t accept. Fast food chains, on the other hand, never seem to mind. An ordinary cheeseburger usually runs from one to three dollars, thus giving you a loose idea of the exchange rate.
Thanks to increased global internet access, most well-located fast food chains now offer free wifi. You get the password off of your food receipt and discreetly pull out a computer or smartphone to look up the exchange rate, as well as any common scams particular to this country, city and station. You shop around for hostel/hotel prices, calling a few via skype to check for availability and to work out the logistics of transportation. You book a bed and tell them when to expect you. Before logging off you scribble the directions and a few local phrases into a small notebook. You lock up your bag and throw the strap over your shoulder, striding out with newfound confidence.
Thanks to that gray slab of mystery meat, you have now drastically improved your circumstances. Your card and documents are safely stowed away, you have smaller bills to make purchases, you have directions to a bed in a place that’s expecting your arrival and the knowledge of how to get there safely without getting ripped off. Everything is ready; your bed awaits. Fast food restaurants are truly a godsend for travelers.
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