I have a hate/love relationship with cab drivers. After hundreds of taxi rides, both in the U.S. and abroad, I have determined that 60% of cab rides leave you with some bad taste in your mouth, 35% are fairly neutral experiences and 5% are some of the most life-saving or otherwise great times of your life. I’d like to start this anti-cab rant by recognizing two of the best cabbies I’ve met in my life: the Uruguay savior and the Ethiopian fixer.
Since I find most cab rides pretty excruciating experiences, I thought it might be helpful, at least for the newer travelers out there, to go over some of the taxi cab basics, at least as I see them. As usual, feel free to add your comments, tips and suggestions.
Never get in without agreeing on a fare – Period. The merits of a number of these suggetions might be argued over by some (and I assume they will be down below), but number one on the list is the most important hard-and-fast rule in my book. Your fare is based on two, and only two, options: a metered fare or a negotiated rate. Like most people, I like hopping in a cab and seeing a working meter (although frankly, you can just as easily get ripped off that way through a variety of meter scams), but more often than not when you hop in a cab in a good number of places in the world, there isn’t going to be a meter.
Make sure you agree before you get in the cab – before you put your backpack or anything in the cab – on exactly how much the fare is going to be. I learned this lesson the hard way back in Prague, when on the fourth separate cab ride to and from the train station and my hotel (so I knew exactly what the fare should be), I got to the hotel and the cabbie quoted me a fare of about $40 for a $10 cab ride. I yelled and screamed, he pretended to not understand any English, though he did when he picked me up, and I told him to call the cops – we were going to have it out right there. He pointed to the trunk, where my suitcase and all my belongings were, including my camera, computer and passport, and said “$40,” with what I took to be a wry smile. I paid the ransom. Which leads to…..
Never put your backpack in the trunk – This is one that is probably over-paranoia on my part and since I only travel with a 70 liter backpack and a small day pack is pretty easy, but if it is just me in the cab, my backpacks go right in the backseat with me. When we arrive, I get out of the cab, get all my stuff out of the cab, and only then pay the cab driver. If I’m going to have a big dispute with a cabbie at that point (and you will, even if you agreed on a fare beforehand), I’m going to have all my stuff on me.
Have the proper change – It always amuses me when some cab driver quotes you a $15 fare somewhere, you get there and pull out a $20 and looks at you shocked that he is supposed to make change. You are a cabbie — you operate in a cash business — get and give cash all day — don’t B.S. me that you don’t have any change at all. I had a stare down with a cabbie near Victoria Falls for almost a half-hour over this and simply refused to hand over my money, until I saw he had change for me. Dumb on my part. The simple solution is to always carry lots and lots of small bills (which is a good idea for a number of reasons anyway) and give the exact amount to the cabbie.
No tipping – This follows from the former. Unless I get one of those few cabbies that fits into the “amazing” category, I don’t tip a penny. Most times, I’m getting ripped off for being a foreigner to start with; in my book, that is their tip. I’m sure I’ll get a number of “you are a ruthless and callous traveler” comments, but in my book, the fare is the fare. Not sure why I should tip you because you got me there alive.
Try not to look – I probably should occasionally tip for getting me there alive, because I have to say the getting there alive part isn’t always a given. Driving all over the world is horrendously frightening. Add to that a cab driver that wants to get you there as fast as they can, so they can rip off another customer and the driving can be downright scary. Do yourself a favor and look out the side windows and not the front – you don’t want to see what is happening.
Get directions in the local language – Your hostel should have a business card with the address, and hopefully a basic map, printed in the local language (or at least they should if they read my Hostel Owners’ Guide). Always grab one or two when you check in. After a night out drinking, being able to hand a cab driver a card with your hostel on it, in the local language, can be a savior. Additionally, if you are going anywhere by cab (or any transportation really), I always have the people at the hostel write out where I am going in the local language and keep it in my notebook. It should go without saying, but won’t here, that you obviously need to ask the people at the hostel what sort of fare price you should be expecting for the cab rides in order to properly negotiate.
Stick to licensed cabs – This isn’t a problem everywhere, but to be on the safe side, make sure to use a licensed cab. Some places you can tell by the license plate, others by the what’s printed on the cab – ask the people at your hostel what to look for.
Don’t be afraid to say no – Or otherwise be aggressive. Plenty of times when you arrive at your destination, after negotiating a fare, the cabbie will say “extra $5 for traffic” or something of the sort. Get your stuff out of the cab, make a small ball out of the proper amount of money you negotiated, hand it to the cabbie and walk away. Other times, cabbies will negotiate a fare with you and then try to pick up other passengers along the way to make more money. That’s fine if you are in a “collective taxi” or “service taxi,” as I actually was today, which operate more like little buses, but if you got a one person fare and he turns around and asks “OK to pick him up,” there is nothing wrong with saying no. A negotiating corollary here – I find saying no and walking away is pretty must the best negotiating strategy is almost all circumstances.
Love ‘em, hate ‘em, you aren’t going to be able to always avoid them. And since you are going to have to deal with them sometimes, deal with them from as much of a position of strength and knowledge as you can muster.