Why Taxis Suck and What You Can Do About It

First time in a city, with luggage, and after a long flight I’m not likely going to mess with figuring out public transit (and I won’t likely pre-research it, either). It may be cheaper. Sometimes it’s quicker (traffic-depending) and sometimes it takes much longer (with wait times and changing trains). But I was still much more often given to a cab.

Problem is that I hate taxicabs. Not so much for the price, they can well be worth it. But for the condition the vehicles are usually in. In most cities I’ll find myself sitting on uncomfortable vinyl seats. The driver is rarely using air conditioning, sometimes he will if I ask (and it’s usually a he). My biggest beef is that most of the time I get into a car with worn out shocks. Add in deteriorating roads and I’ll often find myself feeling sick by the end of the ride. A minute or so out of the cab and I’m fine, but it’s still not pleasant.

Add in that the driver may not really know where we’re going, and that the legroom in most cabs isn’t great (and cab drivers don’t proactively move the front seat forward, even in cities without plexiglass barriers that are going to continue to limit room even if he did), which isn’t just a comfort issue but I tend to try to be productive during these rides, pulling out my laptop and turning on my mifi internet device.

So I was using cabs, paying for it, and hating every minute of it.

Megan McArdle offers a nice history of taxis and their regulation in the May issue of the Atlantic. Price fixing began in the 30s, New York City’s limit on the number of cabs allowable was also fixed in the 30s and remains about the same today as it was then. The right to operate a single cab in New York sells for about a million dollars.

Almost all the everyday complaints about cabs trace back to this regulatory cocktail. Drivers won’t take you to the outer reaches of your metropolitan area? The regulated fares won’t let them charge you more to recover the cost of dead-heading back without a return customer. Cabs are poorly maintained? Blame restricted competition, and the inability to charge for better quality. Cabbies drive like maniacs? With high fixed costs for cars and gas, and no way to increase their earnings except by finding another fare, is it any wonder that they try to get from place to place as fast as possible?

(In DC, airport runs from Dulles are also a monopoly which is really environmentally unfriendly — cars drop people off at the airport but can’t pick up passengers, other cars take folks from the airport to town and then return to the airport mostly empty — that’s twice the number of trips than are needed.)

Funny thing, I was never a car service guy even though a car service solves most of those issues. I’m not sure if it was the perceived cost, the hassle of arranging it in advance (I only ever arranged cars in advance in unfamiliar countries where the service is low cost and I’m arranging much of my vacation travel planned out ahead of time anyway), or that I simply didn’t see myself as a car service kind of person. Mommy Points may call me “Mr. Fancy Pants” (because I can meet minimum spend requirements for credit card signup bonuses), but I come from pretty modest roots and it’s not the sort of thing that’s part of my life experience even if I travel the world in first class and manage to finagle pretty good suite upgrades.

But modern car services are overcoming the problems inherent to cabs. And modern technology is making those services easy to use, accessible, cheap, and efficient.

Back in January though Jetsetter was offering a flash sale on airport car service from Groundlink where, when combined with a $25 new member credit, you could pre-purchase an airport transfer for as little as $4. Since Jetsetter didn’t really intend to pay out $25 first time user bonuses and $25 referral bonuses on a $29 purchase the deal got a bit ‘complicated’ (here’s one piece of it from the referral credit side). But it worked out nicely for me, and I was introduced to the car service option.

I’ve continued to use Groundlink because I’ve often come across Groupons and such with them, and because there are frequently coupon codes available as well (which seem to work if you’re aren’t logged in, but not if you are).

They also have a functional mobile app, and on-demand service in Manhattan.

On demand service is actually pretty key. At least it is for me. In my Johnny Jet travel style interview I explained that ‘what I always seem to forget’ is making car reservations. And I hate to make reservations anyway because I never know quite when I’ll be ready to leave until I’m.. just about ready to leave.

Modern technology also allows for statistical aggregation and analysis, predicting accurately when cars will be needed and where.

Take Uber, an on demand service takes reservations by mobile website, by mobile app, and by text. They’re operating so far in Boston, Chicago, London, Los Angeles, New York City, Paris, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Washington DC.

You download an app, give them your credit card information, and when you want a car to show up, your phone tells them where you are. A few taps and you can track a car that’s on it’s way in 5 or 10 minutes. Payment is easy, gratuity is included, they just bill the credit card on file. Charges are by time and distance, and seem to me except for the shortest trips (where the minimum fare is higher) to be about 50% more than taxis.

For booking by test message, you text the address and city you’re at and a car shows up. (Your phone number is registered with them so they know who called the car and how to bill you.)

Uber is bringing out an even lower cost version of their service as well, though they’re facing opposition in some cities from taxi lobbies.

With this signup link, Uber will give you $10 off your first ride (the referrer, in this case me, will also earn a $10 credit — feel free to list your own referral link in the comments after you’ve signed up if you’d like).

It’s a pretty amazing world we live in, a few taps on a phone and a clean comfortable car turns up within minutes to take you where you want to go, there’s a modest price premium over taxis but over time that will be competed away unless the lobbyists for higher fares have their way.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I don’t mean to be a snarky correcter, I just think it’s a particularly amusing Freudian slip —

    “I come from pretty modest routes.”

    Like, say, BWI-ATL, LGA-BOS, LAX-SFO? 🙂

  2. @James hahah corrected. But yeah like BWI-ORD, BWI-IAD (sadly discontinued), SJC-SFO bus routes in order to drop transcon fares back in the day…

  3. Gary — fair points all but you omitted one which can be crucial, particularly in light of your remark about drivers often not really knowing where they’re going. And that is the language barrier which seems to be an issue with enough frequency to be a tangible risk. GPS can help to a degree, but you need to present a written full address before some of the drivers will bother to type it in, and even then they’re likely to “know better” and ignore the directions anyway. All the while keeping the meter running, of course.

  4. I agree with you, but I go further. I hate cabs. I hate them so much I will walk three miles in a foreign city where I don’t speak the language. The only time I take one is when Megan insists, and even then, we’ve both agreed the ones in NY are among the worst.

    I am warmer toward car service, but the extra cost makes me say “no” for now.

  5. Gary, you gotta love the London Black Cabs. A little pricey, sure, but great legroom, super professional drivers, always a pleasant ride.

  6. This is a GREAT idea but the pricing is shocking. Manhattan to LGA $55? Are you kidding me?

    @Scottrick – really? Sure NY cabbies are a PIA but cabs are so convenient and cheap in NYC. There is no city in the world I know of (major one at least) that has such cheap cabs (and shoeshine!) as NYC

    @Beachfan – yeah but the pricing in London is ridiculous. I lived most of my life in London and found the cabs crazily expensive. And not sure about super professional either, most of the time they try to take me on stupid routings. I happen to have “the knowledge” myself having spent many a year driving around London and know when I’m being “take on a ride” and it was all too frequent with London cabbies.

  7. Uber is great in NYC.

    I never wait more than 5ish minutes. Also, not having to exchange money at the end of the cab ride is convenient. I used it recently when I got out of a party at 3am, and boom, despite no yellow taxis around, a black car picked me up in no time. The small premium is definitely worth it.

    Here’s my link, in case anyone wants to spread the love:


  8. This post alone is a reason to call you Fancy Pants, most regular people in NYC take the subway and consider having the means to ride cabs everywhere a luxury.

  9. @Askia what does New York have to do with it? I’m talking about when you’re not traveling in your own city mostly.

  10. @Mommy Points iwait, was it my willingness to pay fuel surcharges on award tickets and say they can still be a value?

  11. Cabs are terrible but I am relatively content in a NYC cab. They are all required to take CCs and are tracked by satellite. There was a piece in the NYT about how some cabbies lost their medallions (ie their livelihoods) for swindling customers, as determined by the satellite tracking.

    Contrast that to Vegas. Before I wised up cabs were taking me on the “scenic route” all the time. I would say that the level of dishonesty is directly proportional to the tourist population, and by that measure Vegas is probably the worst city in the US for cab rides.

  12. I’m with you Scottrick. 2 out of the 4 cabs I’ve taken in Europe ripped (or tried to rip) me off. Accordingly, I’ll either walk or take public transportation even w/ kids in strollers and car seats . . . Ahhh, nothing like walking (literally) from one side of Paris to the other at 2:00 a.m. in the drizzle w/ a baby stroller . . . Good times. or walking from Centraal Train Station in Amsterdam to the Marriott hotel — not knowing exactly where it is — only that it is on one of the outer concentric rings — in the rain, w/ a preggers, sick spouse and baby stroller at 12:00 a.m. . . . (fortunately, she was a good sport about it) or the time we took a public bus from BWI to Columbia, MD Hilton Hotel. When I got on the bus, it was like the scene from Animal House when they entered the bar and all the music stopped. There were only only two seats (not together), and 4 of us, (2 in diapers), 2 car seats, 2 strollers, 2 carry-on bags, a diaper bag or two, and a couple of regular suitcases. I told the driver that we’d wait for the next bus. She insisted, however, that there was room. So, we got on. Our belongings were passed overhead towards the back of the bus. One of our kiddos was sitting w/ a stranger, while my wife had another kiddo on her lap in a car seat, while I stood in the aisle, wondering if we’d ever see our bags again. Anyhow, we proceeded to the next stop, where two prospective passengers were intending, in vain, to board our now overcrowded bus. So, our newly safety conscious bus driver decided to pass them by. Our fellow bus riders quickly determined that the driver’s decision not to stop for the 2 prospective passengers (who were undoubtedly going to be late for work and lose their jobs) was racially motivated. So, they angrily denounced the driver, pulled out their cell phones, and complained to the driver’s superiors. Meanwhile, our helpful (at least to us) driver inquired as to our destination, and then proceeded to broadcast it over the open radio to all the other bus drivers, who seemed rather incredulous (and angry) that someone was trying to reach the Hilton via public bus. Eventually, the initial ride ended without further incident. I even tried to offer the driver a tip, but she declined, explaining that it was against policy. We managed to transfer buses, almost without incident. However, a man offered to help my wife with the bags, but when she hesitated because she didn’t hear what he said, he loudly accused her of being a racist and stormed off. The second bus was almost empty, and dropped us off at the closest point on the route to the hotel (about a mile away). I offered this driver a tip too, and apparently he wasn’t familiar w/ the no-tip policy. Then, my wife and I loaded all of the aforementioned gear and kiddos into the strollers (incidentally one of the car seats was the heavy-duty kind, so it wouldn’t fit in the stroller). We had bags attached to other bags, and I think I balanced the extra car seat on top. We trudged through the snow (it was December) to the hotel. Needless to say, I was happy when we made it!! So take that, all you fancy-pant cab and car service-takers!

  13. #FirstWorldProblems

    I try to walk or take public transport, even when cabs are cheap. The only time I take a cab is when I get in late at night and public transit has stopped or the stop is in a dangerous area. I actually like waiting for the bus to show up. You also see things on buses and trains that you would never see while you are being whisked away in your car service ride.

    I guess to each his own.

  14. Bill, you deserve congratulations for continuing to be married. Here I thought taking transit from BWI to Alexandria, VA was a hardship. B30-Green Line-Yellow Line btw.

  15. I was thinkking about using this service for CDG to Place Vendome area. Normal taxi charges 60/70, this service charges 120. no thanks.

  16. I agree that taxis in many markets are also crap shoot. For this reason in fact I recently went through Gary’s old blog posts and found his discussion of car services in bkk. I’m happy to report Image Car Service worked just fine example for us – just as Gary had reported.

  17. Ride a taxi in Japan, be astonished that it has none of the problems you mention. The only issue is that it costs more than ‘car service’ anywhere else in the world including the US.

  18. I book car service through super shuttle. When I’m by myself I’ll do the hotel tour method with other single riders. When I’m with others, like my family we book a car or private van with them and it is very competitive with cabs in many cities plus I earn miles using them. Bad side is they don’t operate everywhere so I fall back on public trains or cabs, etc. What I hate most about cabs is the cabbie smoking or stopped smoking during the ride but the cab is filled with smoke and they ask me if I mind if they light up. Not a great situation for me.

  19. Gary,

    We hardly ever take a taxi on arrival for many of the reasons you wrote about. What I find hard to believe is that after all your horrible taxi rides, you still go back for more. This sounds like an abused husband/wife that won’t leave their spouse.
    Color me confused.

    Over the years, we’ve used http://www.toandfromtheairport.com to get from the airport to the city. Some may say the site isn’t perfect. All I know is that it works.

    Corrected for spelling.

  20. I’m primarily an international traveler and I NEVER pay for those silly airport transfers to/from hotel, since for me getting there is part of the experience. 10 minutes looking up the transit online is all I the time I spend finding out the route. Last month we took a nice coach from SAW Istanbul to the ferry port, boat across the Bosphorus, then a 5 minute walk to our hotel. Total per passenger was, oh, $4, and we got to see parts of Istanbul those of you taking that airport transfer deal for $70 never had the opportunity to see 🙂 But hey, if you want to pay that it’s your (or your employer’s) money 🙂

  21. I have been reading your blog since day one. I still chuckle when you insist you are from “modest roots” and you do not deserve the honorary title “Mr. Fancy Pants”!

    Posts like this: “Charges are by time and distance, and seem to me except for the shortest trips (where the minimum fare is higher) to be about 50% more than taxis.”

    Perhaps you should rename your blog “View from the wing of Mr. Fancy Pants”? We who come from true modest roots will always prefer to save the 50% and suffer the unimaginable hardships of “vinyl seats, no air conditioning, no shocks and not great legroom” (oh no, the horrors!!!

    Nevertheless, I always enjoy your posts (other than the TSA rants!).

  22. Lost interest at the comments about public transportation and no desire to preresearch it – a 5 minute task. You are certainly not a snob but some of the things you write give the impression you are.

  23. Both the car service and public transport sides of this discussion seem a bit #firstworldproblems to me. How many of those advocating public transit would be prepared to use the transit options on arrival at ADD, PNH, PTY or even CAI? Taxis are a crazy luxury in the high-labour-cost first world, but can make good sense in the third world on all but the tightest of budgets. Of course, the taxis you’ll get at those airports will have all the problems Gary complains about and more, and it’s not as though Uber will help you there either.

    @Phil: “Sure NY cabbies are a PIA but cabs are so convenient and cheap in NYC.” I am going to ignore the total absurdity of the second half of this sentence, and simply note my amusement at the thought “NY Cabbies == Pakistan International Airlines”. 🙂

  24. Hate to say it but more right wing rant, those of us to travel in the third world know that unregulated taxis are the worst. Oh who looks forward to the fight after a good 18 hour flight, usually in economy for me, with a poor often illiterate driver who cant even read a map of the roads in his own country? This was/is a real problem in rural Syria which is one of the better educated third world countries and it in other nations too. For those who know taxi regimes all over the world and not from some junk right wing ideological rose colored glasses NYC taxis are the bargains for the world=safe,regulated,comfortable, reliable. However in NYC I use the 24hr NYC subway system and why not? I rather take public transit and do, yes it can be a bit more time consuming but in (safe) places like France it is really good and very reliable. Have you ever tried the night N buses of Paris? Some routes run every 15-20 minutes on weekend nights. Oh and then the attacks on the TSA, ie working class people of color oy vey… good blog but you are determined on ruining it.

  25. Oh and taking a car service in BKK, why would you want to avoid the whole street experience there? The steaming heat, street food, the ladyboys(transgender culture), the friendly people and aggressive hawkers… its kinda the whole point of leaving suburban USA, like isn’t that the point of traveling? Its starting to sound more like Marie Antoinette on a biz trip here my friend.

  26. I am with @scottrick…I will walk a good distance if at all possible, but I like the exercise.

    I am also obliged to concur with @mommypoints…Mr. Fancypants! (I prefer car service myself…so perhaps my slacks are a bit pretty as well!)

  27. I never realized why I only seem to get car sick is in taxis. Über is a fabulous alternative.

  28. And what exactly is wrong with public transport?

    I would argue that not only it is cheaper, but often it’s faster. Yes you might have to look up the best route or starting point..but great phone apps exist to do just that.

    So instead of waiting 5 minutes for your $50+ car ride, lookup the best public transport route and be on your way in 5 minutes as well. For less than $5 most probably.

  29. I find taxis way too expensive, I’d rather use public transportation, above all in big cities.

  30. I used GroundLink when they ran that promo via Jetsetter. I like it because you can pre-arange the transportation for when you land. The only thing I don’t like about Uber is that they don’t really tell you the price when you book.

  31. I signed up using your link. Looks like a great and user friendly service.

    Thanks Gary!


  32. @Bill: Your wife must really love you. If I made my better half ride a crowded city bus with two kids, strollers, and luggage, *and* there was a bus change, AND we still had to walk a mile at the destination, I’d be sleeping on the sidewalk. Next time, pry open the wallet and at least pay for a cab, if not a prearranged car service.

  33. The problem with cabs is the mix of sanctioned price gouging combined with toothless consumer protections. Car services solve absolutely nothing in my view. Unless you have more money than sense.

  34. If anyone wants to use my Uber link for their $10 referal credit:

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