Uber, Lyft, Grab, or a Local Taxi? Which is the Best Option for Travel?

Shawn Forno

Ridesharing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Grab have transformed the way we travel—for better or worse. Make sure that you crunch the numbers and use what’s best for you—and your driver—when you travel to get where you need to go safely and within your budget.

Whether you’re for or against ridesharing apps like Lyft, Uber, and Grab—it’s hard to argue with the convenience and ease of ordering a ride from your phone minutes after landing. Especially when you know exactly how much that ride is going to cost without any confusing or predatory haggling.

I firmly believe that the extra cost of taking a car or taxi is almost always worth it when you’re traveling—especially if your time is limited (like on vacation). Sure, you can look up the local bus or metro line from the airport and save a few bucks, but if you’re traveling with a friend or partner, it doesn’t cost that much more to take a car or taxi. In fact, in some countries it’s actually cheaper than getting a bus to the airport.

But there’s a right way and a wrong way to use Uber, Lyft, Grab, and even taxis when you travel.

Knowing the best options, a few common scams and red flags to avoid, and (approximately) what a car or taxi should cost in most places around the world so you can get where you’re going safely without blowing your budget is important.

Here’s a full breakdown of the costs of using ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft versus local taxis, and the pros and cons—for you and the drivers—of each service when you travel.

Uber vs Taxis: Which is Better?

Honestly, the question of whether ridesharing apps are better than taxis isn’t hard to answer anymore. Apps like Uber, Lyft, and Grab are better than taxis in almost every way. It’s actually not even close anymore.

Ride hailing apps are easy to use, often cheaper (more on that in a bit), safer (although far from perfect), and so much more convenient than taxis—especially when you’re in a new city or country where you don’t speak the language or know the “rules” of taxis.

For me, the ability to reserve a car the night before for your 5am flight, and also land anywhere and get a sense of how much a car to your destination will cost before you get in are two benefits of ridesharing apps that taxis just can’t beat.

Pros of Uber, Lyft, and Grab for Travel

Here are the four biggest reasons why apps are almost always better than taxis when you travel:

  1. Ease of use
  2. Upfront pricing
  3. Step-by-step GPS directions
  4. Trust and safety
  5. Accessibility options
  6. Reliability

Ease of Use

The ability to order a ride from your phone, confirm the price ahead of time, and pay on your card instead of worrying about getting cash from an ATM at the airport is nothing short of a superpower.

Like we already said, you don’t even have to give the driver directions when you get in—it’s all in the app. I’ve landed in a few countries where I don’t speak the language and I don’t know what’s a fair price for a taxi, but thanks to Uber or Grab, I’ve confidently gotten to my destination despite massive jet lag.

Oh and did you know you can easily split the price of an Uber with your friends via the app? No more, “I’ll get the next one,” free loaders, here pal. Just easy, effortless payment from everyone involved.

Upfront Pricing (aka “no haggling”)

I hate haggling. It’s not one of my skill sets, and even though I’m fine at it, I really don’t enjoy it. That’s why I like using Grab so much when I travel abroad. In Kuala Lumpur, I never had to barter for a ride somewhere. I just booked my ride, went outside and boom—I’m off.

KL is a huge city with a massive (and confusing) public transit system. If you’re only in town for a few days and don’t feel like mastering the metro, and your Malaysian language skills aren’t up for an economic showdown every time you want to get around, you can simply sidestep the whole hassle and download Grab.

Step-by-step GPS Directions

Visiting a new place, whether it’s a new city in the U.S. or a foreign country usually means you’re a little out of your element. You may not exactly how far you’re going, or how to get there—even with a nice offline map. LINK However, thanks to Uber, Lyft, and Grab, you don’t have to know anything other than your final destination.

The built-in map feature not only tells your driver exactly where you need to go, it optimizes the route for the fastest trip for any traffic conditions. If you’ve never stumbled through driving directions in a language you don’t speak, thank your lucky stars that GPS is everywhere now. It’s not fun.

I also love how GPS directions on the map within the app sets expectations for you and the driver for how long the ride should take. No surprises (usually), and no expensive detours. You still have to keep your eyes peeled for expensive toll roads (especially in Southeast Asia), but aside from the occasional extra charge, you won’t get taken on any lengthy (and costly) “sight-seeing tours” on the way to your hotel.

And of course, for female travelers, it’s a big deal that you’re able to track the progress of your ride to make sure you’re headed in the right direction at all times. Uber and Lyft even have a built-in feature where you can “Share Your Ride” with friends and family to track your ride in real time if you’re at all worried about your safety.

Trust and Safety

Along with GPS tracking, another huge benefit of using rideshare apps when you travel is the driver review system. The ability to set your minimum star rating and only accept rides from qualified drivers is a big deal for women, or people that just don’t want to deal with a smelly, sweaty ride in a dirty car. Plus, the ability to rate and review drivers—both good and bad—further enhances the system for you and other passengers.

Lyft and Uber also require background checks, vehicle maintenance reports, and minimal cleanliness standards from drivers, which greatly reduces the likelihood of dangerous or uncomfortable experiences. But that doesn’t mean that the system is perfect.

Newsweek found that more than 120 Uber and Lyft drivers have been accused of rape, sexual assault, or kidnapping over the past five years. And while that’s a horrifying statistic, there’s no evidence that taxi cabs are any safer.

Accessibility Options

Uber is far superior for people with disabilities or anyone who needs wheelchair access on the go. You can book either an UberXL or the new UberWAV service and know that your driver is equipped with the right access.

I also like the ability to preempt uncomfortable situations with info ahead of time, like if you or your driver are hard of hearing, it notifies the other party once a ride has been booked so there are no awkward misunderstandings.

Reliability

This is actually kind of a tricky one since Uber, Lyft, and Grab aren’t always 100% reliable. Uber, in particular has been involved in a ton of some pretty dicey scandals

Drivers cancel, sometimes it takes a while to book a ride, and not everyone has a 5-star rating. However, it’s a heck of a lot more reliable when you compare it to the crap shoot of just randomly holding your hand in the air until a taxi happens to drive past.

I’ve run into a few places where Uber and even Grab don’t operate, and you can’t always get a ride every time. And sure, surge pricing sucks when it’s late or it’s raining, but an expensive or slow ride every now and then is still better than wandering around looking for a cab when you really need it, or struggling with a foreign phone number on your limited international cell phone plan.

Remember just wandering outside and literally waving your arm at approaching headlights until someone picks you up? No? That’s because Uber and Lyft are amazing. Hailing a cab seems like something my great grandfather used to do. It’s mind-blowing how quickly Uber and Lyft have become the norm, but it’s easy to understand that for a lot of people, there’s no going back to the good old days of hailing a cab like a caveman.

And despite some of the hassles and hangups with ridesharing apps, it looks like most people agree. 

According to the New York Times, Uber ridership passed taxis in NYC as far back as 2017. And the reason for the shift is clear—Uber is just plain better than hailing a cab.

Is Uber Cheaper than a Taxi?

So, if Uber and Lyft are better than taxis, why do people still use taxis? The answer, of course, is all about price.

There are plenty of times when a taxi can be significantly cheaper than an Uber—and not just during surge pricing. According to Anastasios Noulas, a data scientist at Lancaster University, taxis are often cheaper than Uber in two (very) common circumstances.

When is a Taxi Cheaper than Uber? 

  • Trips below $35
  • Within large cities (like New York or London)

According to Noulas, these short urban taxi rides (under $35) account for “94% of taxi fares.” So, if you’re a New Yorker, you’re probably better off flagging down a yellow taxi for most rides. However, in a lot of other situations, an Uber is probably the cheaper option.

When is Uber Cheaper than a Taxi?

  • Going to the airport (except LaGuardia, JFK, and Logan in Boston)
  • Using UberPool to split the ride
  • Even UberX is often cheaper than a similar cab fare
  • Fares over $35
  • Longer trips
  • Regional service outside of urban centers

Understanding Surge Pricing

The biggest difference between a taxi and an Uber is surge pricing. Obviously. If you’re not aware, surge pricing is an increase in the base price of an Uber fare calculated by evaluating supply (the number of drivers in an area) and demand (the number of people who need a car). 

Uber’s surge pricing algorithm is proprietary, but surge pricing typically increases in intervals of .10. To put that into dollar amounts, a normal surge price is 1.5x the base fare. So at that surge pricing, a $30 fare would now cost $45.

Surge pricing can be super localized—literally within a few blocks—and subject to constant changes. Some price trackers have found that the Uber surge pricing model updates every 100 seconds (or faster). Surge pricing also peaks during commuting hours, Friday afternoons, and whenever the bars close in your state.

If your surge pricing ever gets ridiculous—like New Years Eve pricing—you can usually beat the algorithm by waiting a few minutes to reorder your ride or walking a few blocks away from whatever is causing the surge near you. That’s not always ideal, but if it means the difference of $50 bucks, it’s worth walking for a few minutes (or just hailing a cab!)

People are quick to point out that taxis don’t have surge pricing—and they don’t—at least not entirely. However, not many people know that taxis in cities all over the world adjust their base pricing throughout the day, in a model that vaguely resembles surge pricing.

Understanding Metered Taxi Fares

The average cost of a taxi ride varies across the country, but the base rates are easy to find and compare with your local Uber rates:

  • $2.50 initial charge
  • Plus 50 cents per 1/5 mile when traveling above 12mph or per 60 seconds in slow traffic or when the vehicle is stopped
  • Plus 50 cents MTA State Surcharge for all trips that end in New York City or Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange or Putnam Counties
  • Plus 30 cents Improvement Surcharge
  • Plus 50 cents overnight surcharge 8pm to 6am
  • Plus $1.00 rush hour surcharge from 4pm to 8pm on weekdays, excluding holidays
  • Plus New York State Congestion Surcharge of $2.50 (Yellow Taxi) or $2.75 (Green Taxi and FHV) or 75 cents (any shared ride) for all trips that begin, end or pass through Manhattan south of 96th Street
  • Plus tips and any tolls

That’s a lot of “surcharges” and extra. And yes, you are responsible for any tolls you go through. By comparison, an UberX in NYC a base fare of $2.55, a per minute charge of $0.35, and a per mile charge of $1.75.

The base rate is similar, it’s important to remember that you pay per minute and per mile in an Uber. Not everyone knows that.

  • $2.85 base fare
  • $0.30 for each additional 1/9 mile
  • $0.30 for every 37 seconds of wait time

UberX, doesn’t charge a base fare, and costs $0.15 per minute, and $0.96 per mile, so you’re probably better off in an Uber (as long as it’s not surging).

Honestly, it all comes down to how long your ride is, and when you call a car. Business Insider found that, on average, Uber was cheaper than a taxi across the country.

Here are a few more ways to save even more money on an Uber ride.

How to Save Money on an Uber or Lyft While Traveling

Use UberPool, Lyft Line, and UberX

The best way to save money on a car when you travel is to team up with other travelers. Airports are a great place to split the cost of a ride to the city with UberPool or LyftLine carpooling options.

I’ve used both, and I’ve found that Lyft is better at matching you with other riders headed in the same direction, but either option will get you where you need to go cheaper than a cab, if not always faster.

If you don’t have the patience for UberPool, make sure you select the base UberX fare to avoid massive surge pricing on luxury or oversized vehicles.

Use Discount Codes

If you stockpile a few codes on Google and refer a friend (who somehow isn’t already using Uber or Lyft) you can get a few free rides. Threatening to cancel your account is also a great way to get a few free promo codes. Just saying…

Sign Up for Loyalty Rewards Programs

Lyft has a particularly great partnership with Delta and JetBlue that lets you earn miles for every ride in a Lyft. You just have to link your Delta or JetBlue account and a participating credit card to your Lyft account and you’re good to go.

Track Your Receipts and Spending

If you’re traveling for business, using a ridesharing app is a great way to keep your expenses and per diem in one neat place so you can submit a comprehensive expense report when you’re back in the office. Trust me, you will lose those taxi receipts.

Avoid Pickups in Obvious Tourist Areas

Getting an Uber from in front of La Sagrada Familia is going to cost more than a that cafe a few blocks south. Use the money that you’ll save on the ride and enjoy a cappuccino as you wait for your car.

Avoid setting your location in obvious tourist traps to not only save money, but sidestep common scams like cancellation fees (that’s where the driver accepts the fare and never shows up waiting for you to cancel to collect his fee), as well as touts and other jitney scammers.

Which Countries Use Rideshare Apps?

So you’ve figured out which app you like the most, and you’ve mastered all the tricks and tips to save money on your next ride. Congrats. The only thing left is finding out if your favorite ridesharing app is even available at your destination.

Here’s every country where you can call an Uber, Lyft, or a Grab, and a few places where you’ll need to try a different ride hailing service.

Countries with Uber Service (as of 2020)

Uber is available in 69 countries (as of 2020). However, several cities within those countries on that list have either restricted service or outright banned Uber, so it’s worth double checking if Uber is available at your destination.

Countries Where Uber is “Banned”

Uber is constantly changing its service map due to ongoing legal battles, protests, and buyouts from competitors like Grab (Southeast Asia) and Didi (China). However, it’s worth noting that Uber has been banned in at least part of these 11 countries:

  1. Bulgaria
  2. Denmark
  3. Italy
  4. Hungary
  5. Thailand 
  6. Austin, Texas (Yes, Texas counts as a separate country)
  7. Canada (patchy coverage nationwide with outright ban in British Columbia)
  8. Germany
  9. Romania
  10. Portugal
  11. Saudi Arabia
  12. China (not technically “banned” but literally no one uses Uber here since Didi bought them out)

Countries with Lyft Service

If you didn’t know, Lyft is only available in the U.S. and select parts of Canada. How select, you ask? Lyft is literally only available in Toronto and Ottawa (with Vancouver recently added). That’s good news for some Canadians as the list of hailing apps is limited in the Great White North due to stricter regulations, but it doesn’t really count as “nationwide coverage.”

There are “talks” to expand Lyft service internationally, but Lyft hasn’t announced anything, which means that Lyft isn’t heading overseas anytime soon.

The more interesting rideshare option for international travelers is Grab.

Countries with Grab Service

If you haven’t heard of Grab, you obviously haven’t been to Southeast Asia. In 2018, Grab actually bought out all of Uber’s operations to become the largest (and often only) ride sharing app in over 500 cities in these eight Southeast Asian countries:

  1. Cambodia
  2. Indonesia
  3. Malaysia
  4. Myanmar
  5. The Philippines
  6. Singapore
  7. Thailand
  8. Vietnam

But Grab is about more than just catching a ride. This startup came out of nowhere to quickly become the do-everything app for many people in these countries. Seriously, Grab is not only how you get from A to B, it’s also the dominant food delivery app, and even pay for stuff on the go.

Grab is accepted everywhere in these countries, although some rural locations can be a dead zone with few or no active drivers. But it’s refreshing to get a set rate for your taxi ride upfront without having to worry about the price changing once you get inside, or hit bad traffic. And, if you want to save some dough you can always order a Grab Bike and hang on for a ride that’s typically a lot faster and about half the price.

Taxi (and Uber Scams) to Avoid While Traveling

The final thing to keep an eye out for are some of the most common scams targeting tourists and travelers in both taxis and Ubers. No matter how safe your favorite app seems, there are always bad actors. Here’s how to protect yourself against some of the most common scams.

Avoid Taxis at Baggage Claim

Never, ever, never, never get into a car with someone offering you a taxi inside the airport. I honestly don’t know how these guys are still in business or who gets into these unmarked, unregulated “taxis,” but according to Uber this happened 2,300 times per week at LaGuardia, Newark, and JFK last year. Heck, my aunt fell for it when someone claimed to be her Uber driver.

Since they’re not real cabs, there’s nothing stopping them from charging you triple the normal price for a ride or just outright robbing you. Don’t ever get into an unregulated taxi, especially not one with an aggressive solicitous driver.

Always confirm the name of the driver, and make and model of the car before setting foot into a vehicle, and never follow someone to the parking lot. Taxis and rideshare drivers typically have to operate at marked, regulated taxi stands and pick-up areas.

Make Sure the Meter is Running

If you drive for a few minutes and notice that the driver hasn’t turned on the meter, you might think, “Score, free ride!” Sadly, the opposite is true. 

A taxi that doesn’t have a visible or “working” meter is illegal. And if a driver claims that the meter is broken, you have to get the heck out of that car immediately (not immediately immediately, but when it’s safe to exit), because you’re about to pay a lot of money for your ride.

Rideshares that Never End

Taxis aren’t the only rides that can scam you. You should always insist that your driver officially ends your ride before you get out.

People forget that rides don’t always magically just end. If you’re not paying attention, or you’re too drunk/sleepy to notice, unscrupulous drivers can keep the meter running for miles before they pick up their next fare. 

Too Many Tolls

Sometimes a toll road really is the fastest easiest way to get somewhere. You shouldn’t always panic if a driver says they know the best way to get you where you want to go. However, drivers can pad their fares with unnecessary tolls, especially when you don’t see the price for each toll.

Incorrect Change

You are liable for tolls in a taxi, Grab, and yes, even an Uber, but the price should be discussed before your driver takes you on an expensive tour of New Jersey publically funded roads. And often, if your route includes a toll, the app will tell you.

If you opt to pay in cash (especially useful with a Grab since it’s a pain to add your debit card in countries like Malaysia), it can be…challenging to get the correct change. Many drivers will claim they don’t have the right change, especially if you only have large bills. Don’t buy it.

Ask to get correct change when you arrive at your destination. When the driver has to wait for you to get change, they’ll magically find a few extra bills in their fanny pack.

Also, count the change slowly and carefully. A 2000 Rupiah bill looks super similar to a 20000 Rupiah note. They’re even both green. Make sure you get the right amount.

International Alternatives to Uber (and Taxis)

You have plenty of options for a ride when you travel internationally, aside from Uber and Grab. Here are some of the best ride hailing apps around the world.

  • GoJek – Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines
  • Didi – China
  • Ola – India
  • Gett – Operating in 25 major UK cities including London, Edinburgh, Manchester, Glasgow and Newcastle
  • Bolt – Operating in 150 cities across Europe, Africa, Mexico and Australia, Bolt aims to offer the lowest-price rides in its markets
  • Cabify: 90 cities in 12 countries across Latin and South America

Public Transportation Alternatives While Traveling

You don’t have to use Uber, Grab, or even a taxi to get around when you travel. In fact, public transit can often be not only the cheapest, but the quickest way to get around town. Here are some of the best public transit apps and taxi alternatives when you travel:

Citymapper

Citymapper might just be the best public transit app I’ve ever used. No, let’s go all in. Citymapper is the best public transit app ever. 

It can give you step by step directions with real-time GPS tracking on public transit all over the world, including busses, trains, subways, and even ferries. The app is free and easy to use, and you should download it if you’re traveling anywhere Citymapper is live.

The only downside is that Citymapper isn’t available everywhere. Citymapper is currently available in 39 urban areas across the world including major cities in:

  • Singapore
  • UK
  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Netherlands
  • Germany
  • Italy
  • Denmark
  • Sweden
  • Spain
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • Turkey
  • And other major cities like: Paris, Amsterdam, Boston, New York, L.A., Philadelphia, DC, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico City, São Paulo, Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong

Rome2Rio

Rome2Rio is my go-to starting point for figuring out the best way to get somewhere. If I don’t know how the heck to get from Bangkok to Saigon, Rome2Rio will show me the price and time required to get there. And it will show me every single option from rideshares and public transit to flights.

It’s a great way to plan your trip and interstitial travel (often rural overland travel) before you make any big non-refundable reservations. Basically, I use it as an assumption tester to make sure I have some idea how long it will take to get from A to B, and how much it will cost. It’s also great for showing me when public transit is a good (and a terrible) idea.

Super useful.

Google Maps

An oldie, but a goodie for a reason. Google maps (while far from perfect) can give you pretty solid directions for public transit in a lot of places around the world. And it’s getting better all the time. 

Tweak your direction settings and arrival times when using the public transit option, but always double check that public transit is still running, especially late at night.

Uber and Lyft

Yeah, you heard that right. Uber recently announced an update that will show users public transit options, prices, and real-time train and bus info (like estimated arrival times) right in the app. Lyft quickly followed suit with a similar feature.

In a recent CNBC interview, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said that point of the redesign is to “make Uber the operating system for your everyday life.” And while that sounds scary as hell, it’s also a step in the right direction.

Providing viable public transportation alternatives to (often) steep prices for Ubers is a great way to ensure that travelers get where they want to go anywhere on any budget. I’m all for it.

TL;DR: Should You Use an Uber, Lyft, or Taxi When You Travel?

Ridesharing apps like Uber, Lyft, and Grab have transformed the way we travel—for better or worse. Gone are the days of cluelessly bargaining for a taxi in a foreign country, but just because it’s easier, doesn’t always mean that an Uber is your best option while traveling.

Plenty of factors like the length of the ride, time of day, and regional availability can affect the price and ease of using an Uber on the go. Surge pricing is real, people. Make sure that you crunch the numbers and use what’s best for you—and your driver—when you travel to get where you need to go safely and within your budget.

 

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