Uber for travel: Use the service to save money & add luxury
There are very few places in the world where normal taxis are cheap, easy, safe, reliable, and predictable. You are normally lucky to get two of those five traits when using taxis in a new destination, and that makes them hard to count on for most trips. As a result, travelers are normally encouraged to stay in an central location to get the most out of a visit, and that can be expensive.
By now you probably know at least something about the “ride sharing” company known as Uber, but you may not have considered about how to use it as a way to save money AND add luxury to a trip to a new city. As of mid 2015, Uber is available in over 50 countries and over 300 cities around the world, and they all work with the same smartphone app that is remarkably easy to use once you give it a try. In other words, if you are headed to a larger city somewhere in the world, Uber is probably already there waiting for you.
How Uber works (if you haven't tried it yet)
- Download the free iPhone or Android app to your phone
- Launch it and set up an account with a credit card
- When you want a ride, launch the app and click “Set Pickup Location”
- You'll see a map of your current location and the various Uber cars that are nearby
- Click on the “Fare Estimate” button and enter your destination
- Assuming the price looks okay, click on “Request Uber”
- An Uber car will be on its way to where you are standing, and you'll see its progress on the map like a little video game.
- When the car gets close you'll get a notification that says the car is arriving and you'll see it pull up.
- Jump in, and as long as you've entered your destination in the Fare Estimate section, the driver will know exactly where you want to go and how to get there without a word being spoken.
Get your first ride free (of up to US$20) when you sign up with this link
Many of you are already using Uber so you know that they offer a first ride free for new users. If you haven't signed up yet you can do it with the link below for your free ride.
Full disclosure: I will also get a free ride if anyone uses the link to sign up, but that has nothing to do with why I recommend the service for travelers.
Why Uber is magic compared to normal taxi services
As long as you have a smartphone (iPhone or Android) and a credit card, the Uber system is a far superior experience compared to standard taxis, and it's usually cheaper as well.
Here are the things you can expect using Uber anywhere:
- Uber is usually cheaper than normal taxi services, even when taxis are being honest
- Chances are almost zero that you will be scammed in an Uber car
- You don't even need to speak the same language as the Uber driver
- Uber knows your exact starting point and you can enter your exact destination
- Uber drivers must offer good service or they are kicked out of the program
Why normal taxis are sub-optimal in cities you are new to
As mentioned above, depending on the city you are visiting, the taxis might be cheap or honest or simple or safe, but they are never ALL of these things (except perhaps in Singapore).
Common problems using taxis in foreign cities (to you)
- Can you hail taxis or do you have to call them or find them at a taxi-stand queue?
- Will you be scammed or overcharged when they realize you are from elsewhere?
- Will they even use the meter, or will they try for a high (rip-off) flat fee?
- Can you communicate your destination properly to the driver?
- If something happens, can you find the taxi driver again?
- Will the taxi driver be rude (such as texting or making phone calls during the whole ride)?
How to use Uber to save money on your next trip
Obviously you can just use Uber (or similar services such as Lyft) in place of normal taxi cabs whereever you go, but now that you have a cheap and reliable system you can do even better than that.
You can book a cheap and comfortable hotel away from the city center, and still get around quickly and cheaply
The key to this puzzle is that it's no longer critical to stay in the heart of the tourist or central business district in order to be within reach of everything you want to see and do. For all of my traveling life I've known that a central hotel location is worth a LOT more than one on the edge of town in order to maximize your visit.
Being within walking distance of the entertainment district has always been a huge advantage when on a holiday, and as a result the hotels in the center can and do charge MUCH more, even for a small room with few amenities. For example:
- 3-star room near the main square: US$200/night
- Larger 3-star room 3 to 5 km (2 to 3 miles) away: US$120/night
Until recently, many would recommend the central room because getting back and forth from a suburb to the center would be time consuming, a hassle, and sometimes even dangerous. Personally, I've always recommended to my friends and those who ask questions on this site that they pay more for a central hotel because the headaches of coming in and out of town just aren't worth it. Now, the headaches are gone, thanks to Uber.
Even going back and forth from hotel to city center 2 or 3 times per day is now cheap and easy
A typical situation for someone saving money by booking a semi-remote hotel is that they'd head into the center in the morning for sightseeing. Maybe they'd use the (usually confusing) public transportation system to save money, or call a normal taxi for convenience. After many hours of sightseeing most travelers get worn out and want to head back to their hotel to regroup.
The problem is, using normal options, they often don't want to go back into the city center again for the evening because it's so expensive and/or so much hassle. This has happened to me many times and almost always I end up giving up and just getting dinner at some random place that is close enough to my hotel. For this reason, I always have tried to book a central hotel because I end up seeing so much more of the city that way.
If you save US$50 to US$100 per night on your hotel, you can take Uber rides many times and still save a lot
In most larger cities that Uber covers you can get a 5 km (3 mile) ride for maybe US$5 to US$8 (with no extra tip necessary). If you set aside a budget of, say, US$30 per day for transportation, you can go in and out of the city center 2 or 3 times per day. For groups of 2 to 4 people this can often be cheaper than even taking public transportation, and it's far easier as well.
Even in cheaper cities you can do this because Uber rates are even lower
It's pretty easy to see how this strategy might work if you are going to, say, London or Paris or Berlin or New York City, but what about cheaper cities like Krakow or Bangkok? Well, the Uber cars there can cost only US$2 to US$3 for a 5 km (3 mile) ride, with no tip necessary, so you can use the same strategy and still come out way ahead.
Bottom line: Compare central hotels to nicer and cheaper hotels a bit out of the center and include a small transport budget
I'll always start my hotel search with places that are within walking distance of the attractions and restaurant districts that I want to spend my time in. But now I will always widen my search to also consider nicer and cheaper hotels that are outside of walking distance.
There is still something to be said for staying within a few blocks of where you'll probably be having dinner and perhaps a few drinks into the evening. However, those central places have always been able to charge MUCH more than similar places that are a bit remote because they know that many visitors are unwilling to go back and forth for sightseeing or entertainment. Now that going back and forth even 2 or 3 times per day is cheap, safe, and easy, I won't pay premium rates for tiny hotel rooms in the most central neighborhoods, and neither should you.