1. We love to overcharge...
CAB DRIVERS begin every day in the hole. In most cities they re independent contractors who pay to rent their cab, which in New York, for example, costs $150 to $180 a shift. Drivers may work four or five hours before breaking even.
So many have plenty of incentive to squeeze a few extra bucks from a fare. The easiest way: Take the long way to a destination. It s so common in Las Vegas that Gordon Walker, administrator of the Nevada Taxicab Authority, says they have a name for it: long-hauling. Creative cabbies can add $10 to a $15 fare by taking the highway from the airport to the strip, says Duane Hempel, who has been driving a Vegas cab (and never long-hauling, he says) for nine years. Another ploy: claiming not to have change when handed a $20 bill, says Anil Polat, a travel blogger at FoxNomad.com.
Indeed, overcharging is one of the top complaints filed with New York s Taxi and Limousine Commission, says Matthew Daus, the agency s commissioner. But the problem shouldn t be blown out of proportion, says Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. There are bad drivers, but the majority are very good.
2. ...but we want to avoid traffic as much as you do.
WHEN YOUR CAB gets stuck in traffic, it s hard not to wonder whether the driver sought out the most gridlocked route to boost the fare. But that s rarely the case. In most cities, taxi fares are determined by the meter: When the taxi moves, the meter runs; when it sits in traffic, the meter runs much slower. The whole nature of the business is to get you in and out of the cab as quickly as possible, says Melissa Plaut, a New York City cabbie and author of Hack, which chronicles her experiences. I d rather not sit in midtown traffic with someone getting all huffy and puffy in my backseat.
Usually, the more trips a driver takes, the more money he makes. In San Francisco, for example, taxi meters start at $3.10. The more short trips a driver completes, the more initial $3.10 fares he ll collect and the more tips he can bring in. Even in Vegas, where drivers share revenue with the cab company in addition to getting a small hourly wage, sitting in traffic is no way to earn money, says Hempel. When driving 60 miles per hour on the freeway, he says, his meter will ring up $2.40 per minute, while one minute in traffic nets him about 50 cents. No one likes traffic, he says.
3. We re pretty safe but you may not be.
GIVEN THE AMOUNT of time cabbies spend on the road, you d think they d rack up a number of accidents. But that s not the case. A study released in 2006 one of the few ever done found cabbies are less likely to be in accidents than other drivers in New York City. Great news. The problem is, taxi passengers are more likely to be seriously injured than those involved in a private-car crash. That s because they rarely buckle up in a cab. The study found only 23 percent of those involved in taxi accidents were wearing a seat belt, compared with 67 percent in private cars. Daus says New York cabs actively promote seat-belt use. You can avoid most injuries in most accidents if you do, he says.
If you re injured in a taxi, make sure to get a police report because you ll be in for a legal tangle. Though taxi companies carry hefty insurance, drivers may not have more than the legal minimum ($15,000 to $25,000 in bodily injury coverage in most states). That won t help much if you re seriously injured. If your lawyer goes after the taxi company, it can result in an expensive, time-consuming lawsuit, says Christopher Davis, a principal with the Davis Law Group in Seattle.
4. If I m not legit, you re really taking your chances.
IN MOST CITIES there are plenty of unlicensed cabs. It can be tempting to give one a try, but it s probably not worth the risk. Theo Brandt-Sarif, a Los Angeles based pharmaceutical consultant, discovered that in 2000, when he took one from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The driver took a long detour through side streets to Manhattan, says Brandt-Sarif, and when he finally got on the highway, he drove erratically and scraped another car. Brandt-Sarif vows never to take an unregulated taxi again. I was terrified, he says.
How to spot an illegal cab? They usually don t pull up to taxi stands at airports, and they aren t clearly marked. To stay legal, look for bold color schemes and lights atop the vehicle that say taxi. In most cities legit cabs have a company name printed on the car, a meter inside and a taxi license posted where the passenger can see it. If you don t see these things, don t take the cab, says Daus. You don t know whether these people are criminals, whether they are using drugs, even if they are insured or licensed, he says. And when things go wrong, as they did for Brandt-Sarif, you can t file a complaint.
5. You may be better off on the bus.
MOST BIG CITIES have an agency that licenses and regulates cabs. Among them, New York s rules are some of the most rigorous. The city does background checks and requires drivers take a course, pass a test and carry high levels of insurance. The city even inspects each cab every year. But few other cities have such tight regulations, and some don t have any.
In Phoenix taxis are regulated by the Arizona Department of Weights and Measures, which verifies that drivers have insurance and meters are accurate but that s about it. I d never put my mother in the backseat of a taxi here, says Tom Simplot, vice mayor of Phoenix, who has been trying to get taxis regulated in that city for years. In 2009 the department inspected 903 cabs and found more than 100 with inaccurate meters. More than 25 drivers lacked a valid license, and nearly 200 had inadequate insurance. Dennis Ehrhart, deputy director of the department, says things are improving. Your best bet: Stick with cabs you see at the airport. Most, including the airport in Phoenix, have tougher rules than the city or state they re in and allow only the best cab companies to operate on site.
6. If you don t do your homework, you could be an easy mark.
EVER SHOW UP in an unfamiliar city uncertain of how to get to your destination or how much a ride should cost? If so, an unscrupulous cab driver could easily take advantage of you. To make that tougher, use sites like TaxiFareFinder.com or TaxiWiz.com to calculate the cost and route in dozens of cities. Another online service, TaxiMagic.com, lets you book a cab in major cities on your smartphone.
Another good idea: Try to start out on good terms with the driver. It can affect how well you ll be treated. I like having people who are polite, who say hello and thank you and goodbye in my cab, says Plaut. And that can make all the difference. But Polat, the travel blogger, warns that if you re overseas in an unfamiliar place, you shouldn t be too friendly. Many cabbies want to learn about your itinerary so they can divert you to a business run by a friend or relative, whether or not it s in your best interest. Treat a cab ride like a business transaction be polite but firm. At the first sign of a problem, Polat says, write down the taxi-complaint number and the driver s identification information posted inside the cab. And don t be afraid to call.
7. I m new in town and don t know where I m going.
EVER GET A cabbie who seems hopelessly lost? It s becoming less common in the GPS era, but it still happens. Las Vegas requires its drivers live there for just 30 days before hitting the street, while some other cities don t have any residency rules. Most cabbies learn their way around over time, but if you get in the wrong cab, you can get stuck paying for their training.
That s what happened to Jean Fox, a Minneapolis-based business consultant, when she arrived in Kansas City, Mo., in 2007. She says she hopped a cab and gave the driver the address of her meeting. According to Fox, he asked her for directions, and when she didn t have them, pulled out maps, called a friend and stopped at a gas station to ask directions. Eventually, Fox says, she saw her destination, had him pull over, and crossed a highway on-ramp and field to get to her meeting. I never expected a cabbie could get that lost, says Fox. It s unlikely to happen in London. Drivers there spend nearly three years memorizing the city s streets and points of interest before they can pass the rigorous licensing test. Researchers at the University College London even found that London cab drivers brains grew over time on the job.
8. We ll take you where we get the biggest kickback.
IT S TEMPTING TO take advice from your cab driver. He s local and usually friendly, and you ve got lots of time to talk. Plenty of cabbies have excellent tips. But some are being paid to offer opinions. It happens all the time in places like the Philippines, China, India, says Polat. He should know. Two years ago in New Delhi, he says, a driver talked him into switching hotels and dropped him at a knockoff of a brand-name hotel on the outskirts of town late at night. It was infested with roaches and cost a fortune. He suspects the driver received a kickback for stranding him there.
But it s not just overseas where drivers collect kickbacks. Las Vegas is in the midst of a controversy over the practice. Many Vegas strip clubs pay drivers to drop off patrons at their clubs allegedly as much as $100 per person. Drivers use high-pressure tactics to get tourists to those clubs that pay the most, says Al Marquis, a partner with law firm Marquis and Aurbach who is pushing to outlaw the practice. One strip-club owner who says he can t compete with the bounties is suing the others. We re troubled by the fact that tourists are being pressured to go to certain clubs, says Marquis.
9. We ll hang up if you ask us to.
MOST PEOPLE wouldn t think twice about taking a cab while the driver chats away on the phone. But you shouldn t do it, says Daus, of New York s Taxi and Limousine Commission. Talking on the phone while driving is equivalent to driving while intoxicated, he says. Since 1999 the commission has forbidden New York City cabbies from talking on the phone while driving even with hands-free headsets. And with more research detailing the perils of driving while on the phone, Boston banned the practice in 2008. Despite the rules, plenty have refused to hang up. For a lot of drivers that work 12 hours a day six or seven days a week, this is a very lonely and stressful job, says Plaut. Drivers do whatever they can do to stay sane. Nonetheless, New York is cracking down. The city will revoke a cabbie s license if he is caught on the phone three times in 15 months.
The taxi industry association supports the prohibition, says LaGasse. And some taxi companies prohibit drivers from talking on the phone with passengers in the car. That doesn t mean they won t do it, but most will hang up if you ask nicely, says Plaut. George Garner, who has driven a cab in Denver for six years, says he would gladly hang up if asked but in general isn t on the phone when he has a customer. We re in a service industry, and we have to be sensitive to what people want, he says.
10. Use the trunk with caution.
SUSAN ARAGON-LONG has traveled all over the world, so she thought she was doing the right thing when she negotiated a fare with a cab driver at the train station in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2007. The 50-year-old engineer from Austin, Texas, put her bags in the trunk and hopped in the cab, eager to get to her hotel. But when they arrived, she says the driver refused to open the trunk until she paid double. Aragon-Long was outraged. She agreed, but then handed the driver the original fare. When he opened the trunk she grabbed her bags and ran into the hotel as the driver chased after her. I was horrified, she says. I never expected that in a million years. Since then, she always keeps her bags on the seat next to her.
In this country, you re unlikely to have your bags held hostage in the trunk, but you may well forget them. I hear about people leaving their suitcases in the trunk every day, says Denver cabbie Garner. Commissioner Daus sees it all the time, too. You d be amazed at how many six- and seven-figure violins are left in the trunk of cabs, he says.