Taxis, Tuk Tuks & More

Arriving in a new country or city can initially be a stressful and disorienting process. Between adjusting to different currency, climate, language, time zone and culture, the last thing you want to worry about is how to deal with getting a ride to your final destination. However, knowing how to catch a taxicab ride can often be tricky.

Every country has different customs and unwritten laws to be aware of, and it’s easy to be tired, distracted, and less than alert if you have been traveling a long time.

Taxi Driver

On top of all this, cabbies have a reputation for being cheats always trying to find a way to deprive you of your money, or worse. There are plenty of fraudulent drivers posing as registered cabbies, and there are plenty of people looking to make some money off of someone who doesn’t know where they are going or what they’re doing.

When you get in the back of somebody’s cab, the scary reality is you are putting a lot of trust into the hands of someone you just met. They are in control of you and all your most valuable possessions. They have the ability to drive you anywhere, expose you to dangerous people, or hold your things hostage until you pay up.

While the vast majority of cab drivers intend you no harm, it’s still smart to be on guard and make the necessary precautions. After reading the following tips, you should be well prepared to enter any city and cruise around in the back of a cab as much as you like.

1. Catching a Cab (the basics)

  • Look for a cab stand with multiple taxis waiting in a queue.
  • Look for a cab with their top outside light on, indicating no one is inside.
  • If you are near a busy street, hold out your arm when a cab drives by. Some countries have different hand gestures or sounds that are interpreted as hailing a cab, but a hand in the air is generally universal.
  • Be careful to not walk out into the street too far.
  • The cab will pull over to the side of the street to pick you up.
Taxi Taxi

2. Before You Get in the Cab

  • If you are arriving at an airport, look for a taxi cab stand outside. In some countries, you tell the stand where you are going and pay up front. Most places have a flat rate from the airport. If you are going really far, a train or bus might be a better option.
  • Steer clear of people in some countries luring you to ‘limousine taxis,’ or just nicer cars for a lot more money.
  • If you are arriving from an airport, bus, train, ferry, etc., beware of the hordes of people trying to snare your business. Be firm with where you want to go and how much you are willing to pay. Don’t let anyone rush you into taking a ride you are not comfortable with. It’s sometimes better to walk further past these major hubs to find a cab.
  • If you are arriving in a new country, research ahead of time if there are any fake taxis that you need to be aware of. You can also observe a group of taxis and take into account their similarities so you can be wary of one that looks different. This can include things like: car color, any markings on them, the type of car, the color of the license plate, a certain cab company.
  • Ask if they have a meter. In the majority of countries, the presence of a meter in the taxi cab can provide immediate relief. First, it’s a good sign that the driver is part of a legitimate business and has been legally registered. Second, it means you don’t have to deal with the hassle of bargaining, estimating a fair price, and arguing with the cab driver.
  • Have a local emergency number quickly accessible, whether it’s the police or a friend in town. At the same time, don’t make it obvious that you have a phone, especially if it’s a smart phone. If it’s a legitimate taxi, the taxi identification and telephone number should also be visible.
Taxi stand

3. While in the Cab

  • Immediately upon entering, look around for signs of the driver’s credibility – a list of rates, a registration number, the name and number of the company he works for. Then take pictures or write down the information you can find.
  • If there is a meter, make sure it’s turned on, set at the base fare, and throughout the ride make sure it doesn’t increase too quickly.
  • Make sure the door handles are intact and functioning. Not having an escape is not a good sign.
  • Stow your bag as close to you as possible. If you are arriving from the airport with a big bag, it may be impossible for you to keep it with you in the back seat. That’s ok, allow the cabby to put it in the trunk, but make sure you keep all your valuables close to you – computer, camera, passport, money – as well as any directions you might need to go to your destination.
  • Even if you don’t feel confident, fake it. Act like you know where you are going and how much it should cost. Put up a strong front and the cabby will be less likely to try and take advantage of you.
  • If you aren’t to shy, and there isn’t too much of a language barrier, try and strike up a conversation with your driver. He has most likely lived in the area for years, making him much more of an expert than you are. He can suggest good restaurants, fun activities, and he might even agree to be your driver for a few days. Remember, he’s a person just like you, and would appreciate a friendly exchange.
  • Be aware of the direction you are headed in. As a traveler you’re not always going to know what the right direction is, but you can tell if you find yourself in a more isolated or sketchy looking area. If this happens, demand that the driver turn around and take you back, which is a safer option than just getting out of the car. However, if exiting as quick as possible becomes necessary, try to get out when you see another taxi, cab stand, or safe looking store.
passengers view

4. Exiting the Cab

  • If you know what the fare will be, have the money ready in your hand or an accessible pocket so you can easily hand it off without having to pull out your wallet, especially with all of you stuff already out on the street. This moment of distraction can be perilous. If you don’t know what the fare will be, still have a wad of cash accessible that’s separate from the rest of your wallet.
  • Don’t pay the cabby until you and all of your possessions are outside of the cab. Do your best to not leave anything inside when you do step out, as some may take this opportunity to speed off.
  • Know EXACTLY how much money you hand over to the cabby. That way if he claims that you shortchanged him, you can be confident enough to just walk away.
  • If all goes according to plan, smile, show appreciation, and say thank you, preferably in their language. If you trusted him, and you know you’ll be needing to get around a lot, ask for the cabby’s phone number. Even if you don’t have a local phone number, you can easily call from the hotel/hostel for a ride.

5. Tipping

Tipping customs vary drastically from place to place. Being informed about the country you are traveling in is your responsibility and you don’t want to create a negative stereotype for your home country. It is important to not offend those offering you a service by not tipping or tipping too little.

People often rely on tips to support themselves and being deprived of a good tip can be frustrating. On the other hand, tipping too much can cause you to waste your money unnecessarily or even encourage people to take advantage of you. With the internet and the plethora of traveling abroad information available, there is really no excuse to claim ignorance on what the norm is.

If you don’t figure it out ahead of time, ask other travelers you see, or the hostel/hotel workers, or even locals if you can communicate with them, though many countries have a local price different from a foreigner price for taxis. Some countries don’t require a tip at all, but the best way to be prepared is to research ahead of time.

Hong Kong Taxi

6. Sharing a Cab

Anyone who has seen the movie Taken understands that sharing a cab with a stranger can be terribly dangerous. Someone posing as a friend can be someone who wants to find out where you live so he can come back later to rob you, or he can be in cahoots with the taxi driver so both of them can rob you. Sharing a cab with a total stranger, no matter what your destination, is not recommended.

On the reverse side, sharing an expensive fare can be hugely convenient. It’s common to meet other travelers on the road, in hostels/hotels, or on other forms of public transportation. Having a travel companion can significantly cut costs, but allow yourself some time to analyze this person before immediately agreeing to share a cab.

7. Informal Taxis – Tuk Tuks and more…

Around the world, the taxicab has taken on many different forms. Tuk Tuks, Bemos, Piki Pikis, Rickshaws, Cyclos the list goes on and on but the principle idea remains constant. These informal (somewhat structured yet mostly unregulated) taxi services are there to get you from point A to point B cheaper than a regular cab… hopefully!

Tuk tuk mayhem

As far as these other modes of informal transportation go, the rules can be a little different. These are often smaller vehicles, which could potentially mean more dangerous, and you must ride at your own risk. The benefit to their smaller size, however, is that they can easily maneuver around other cars and get through traffic jams quicker. They are also usually significantly cheaper than taking a taxi.

For a traveler new to an area, stick to taking a taxi, especially if it has a meter until you gain an understanding from locals and other travelers how much it costs to get around. Having an idea of the appropriate cost of getting from the bus station to your hotel, for example, is nearly impossible to do without having been in the country for a while.

There are two main ways to make payments, each with their own pros and cons.

Settling the price ahead of time

When you approach an informal transportation driver, it’s best to know where you want to go and have a clear idea how to get there (look it up on a map, smartphone, or google maps ahead of time) so that you know how much money is a fair first offer. (Another reason for doing this is informal drivers haven’t been trained and might not have any idea where you want to go.) The driver will likely respond with a higher price, and the bargaining commences. Depending on how much time you have, or how much money you have, this can last as long or as short as you like. If the driver refuses to budge on what you know is an unfair price, just walk away. There will always be more options around. This method avoids confusion or arguments at the end of the ride, but may also force you to accept a high price up front by allowing the driver to haggle.

Paying at the end of the ride

Another option is to tell the driver where you want to go and hop in without even mentioning a price. Then when you get out and have grabbed all of your things, hand him the amount you think is fair and quickly walk away before he objects. This will only work if you have a good idea of what’s fair, because otherwise the driver could yell or even chase after you. Even if it is a fair payment, the driver could demand more, but this way you are already outside of the vehicle and at where you need to be. You can run or yell for help if things get out of hand.

Tuk tuk driver in Bangkok

8. Important Things to be Aware of

  1. Sometimes cabbies have the ability to sneakily select the pricier rate on their meters reserved for nights and weekends when it is not appropriate. A traveler would rarely be able to tell the difference.
  2. Somebody lurking near the cabby as you negotiate a price, or entering a taxi without your consent, is highly suspicious.
  3. Sometimes cabbies will claim they don’t have any change, forcing you to give them a bigger bill. Always try to have smaller bills with you to prevent this from happening.
  4. Some drivers in certain countries will take you around to a shop belonging to a family or friend and force you to look around. You have to judge the situation. If you feel threatened, either refuse to leave the car or get out and find another cab.

9. Additional Resources

List of websites specific to areas around the world

Other helpful sites