How to get the most out of ridesharing services

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Most of my ridesharing experiences have been uneventful, with the exception of a recent trip to the airport. On a rainy afternoon I was unable to connect with my driver which precipitated a soggy 20 minute delay. This got me thinking: Maybe I could benefit from some advice.

I asked the question to academics, travelers and carpooling experts. And just like the ridesharing industry itself, the responses I received were all over the map.

“The best strategy today is to have access to many services and use each one when it best suits your travel needs,” says Stan Caldwell, executive director of the Traffic21 Institute. Carnegie Mellon University, which focuses on transportation issues.

For example, he says savvy travelers should consider using Uber or Lyft to get from home to a transit hub. Or they should use ride-sharing services late at night when public transport isn’t running. On other journeys, a Zipcar rental or even a self-service bike or scooter might be more appropriate.

And me? Maybe I should have taken the train to the airport. Carpooling or the metro would have been cheaper, experts say. At the very least, I could have done some homework before summoning a car – like how to use the locator pin on the app.

How did I fail to communicate with my driver and end up soaking wet and a bit irritated? User error. I didn’t understand how to change my pick up location on the app. (Turns out you need to drag your pin to the right place.) When I tracked my driver down several blocks away, he said he hadn’t received a notification from the ride-sharing company.

The solution? I canceled the trip, made a new request and — bing! — my driver received his call. I was on my way to the airport, lesson learned.

Here’s what else I learned:

Look at the tariff before accepting it. Insiders say this is especially important for visitors to a new city. According to JB Shepard, a Baltimore-based photographer who has driven for both major ride-sharing services, charging peak prices, or charging higher if demand is higher, can make some rides less affordable. “For some reason, this seems to happen more to out-of-town visitors and those being picked up or traveling in hotels,” he says. Shepard recalls a $72 fare for an out-of-town passenger on a rideshare platform. Normally the same ride would have cost only $22. “I called the company, thinking they had charged the passenger by mistake,” he recalls. “But they assured me that it was not a bug and that since the fare was what the passenger agreed to pay, that was the bill.”

Pay a little more to get a lot more. Uber launched a service called Uber Comfort in 2019. It ensures you get a more spacious car for a little extra. And you also get a top notch driver. Top-tier options like Uber Black and Uber Select aren’t usually worth it for travelers who don’t really care what make and model of car takes them there. “But it’s always nice to have more space,” says Harry Campbell, author of the popular Rideshare Guy blog for riders. “I like to think it’s more flight economy.”

Yes, there is an app for that. It’s called Up Hail and compares prices for Uber, Lyft, a taxi, and an airport shuttle. It’s the brainchild of Avi Wilensky, a ride-sharing expert who’s made nearly 3,000 Uber rides since 2015. Wilensky’s insider tip for people looking to save money on ride-sharing: check out Waze Carpool. “Drivers can only charge to cover the cost of gas and tolls and are not allowed to make a profit,” he says. UberX Share and Lyft Shared also offer ride-sharing options, but they’re a bit more expensive.

Never hail a driver from the airport. According to experts, an airport pick-up can cost up to twice as much as from the airport hotel across the street. “Instead, take a free airport shuttle to a nearby hotel,” says Michael Alexis, who runs a team building company that coordinates flights and airport transfers each month. “Your journey will be significantly cheaper, sometimes as much as 25-50% less, and you’ll also save the driver the hassle of navigating the busy airport shuttle.” This is a useful tip even if the price is the same. On my last pickup in Lisbon, I spent about 15 minutes looking for my ride. In an airport hotel, I would have found it right away.

Sign up for a loyalty program. Uber Rewards offers frequent users upgraded rides, highly rated drivers and priority airport pickup. Lyft has Lyft Pink, a $9.99 per month program that offers rewards and other perks. “The higher you are in the program, the better cars and drivers you get,” says Logan Freedman, a regular at Uber and Lyft. Loyalty programs are generous and flexible, something you don’t usually find with airline loyalty programs.

Freedman, a researcher who works for a lawn care company in Austin, has a favorite pro tip: If you use Uber for work, create an Uber for Business account and activate it when your trips are work-related. “What this essentially does is give you double the number of points towards the next reward tier,” he says. You’ll spend less to earn higher loyalty status on Uber, he says.

Carpooling isn’t suitable for all trips, as Carnegie Mellon’s Caldwell says. Bicycles, scooters and Zipcars are available in many cities. Even Robert Farrington, who sold his car three years ago and rides his bike everywhere, doesn’t always take a Lyft or an Uber. Farrington, who runs an investment information site in San Diego, has every reason to use both services. His Chase card gives him five times the points for every Lyft, and he regularly receives bonuses and incentives from companies for his loyalty.

And yet, when he’s in a less urban area that isn’t conducive to carpooling, Farrington calls in a pro. “I spend a little more and book a car service,” he says.

I will definitely follow some of these expert tips on my next trip to the airport. You can too if you’re looking for a smoother, cheaper ride.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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