I had one more bad experience with the cab cartel this week. It was the final straw that sent me searching for a better way to get around without getting the run around. All the cool kids are using Uber these days. I gave it a whirl in Chicago this week. Despite one big uber gotcha that almost cost me 100 bucks (yeah, $100), it worked like a charm.
Here’s how I wiggled into and back out of that hundred-dollar Uber mistake — and a few other lessons I learned as an Uber n00b.
The Cab Cartel
I was on a turn-around trip to Chicago Wednesday for an afternoon meeting. Flew out of DFW at 6:30a. Flew back just after midnight. My game plan was to land at O’Hare and score a cab to the meeting location. Then, if I had some extra time, maybe I’d grab another cab and wander down to the lake shore for a few hours then catch my flight back to big D.
I rolled up to the taxi stand O’Hare. It was a muggy morning — in more ways than one. The August morning weather was humid. Also, I was about to experience a near robbery. I had done my research and knew that the cab fare to the Chicago suburb I needed to reach should cost about $45-50. When I informed the taxi maitre d of my destination, he laughed. “These are city taxis. If they leave the city limits, they’ll charge you double time. It will be at least $120.” One way? One way. It was my turn to laugh.
The taxi stand man stepped around the corner of his booth. “I know a guy.” He pulled up a number on his phone. “It’s ringing.” He hands me the phone. I’m pretty sure we’re skirting some rules at this point. But, anything to save a few bucks.
Long story short, a Middle Eastern man in a black suv picks me up about 100 yards from the taxi stand. The taxi maitre d pretends not to see as I slip into the back seat. At this point, I’m guessing there’s about a 20% chance I’m in chapter one of an international spy thriller novel — the chapter where the sympathetic but stupid murder victim makes a fateful decision that puts him in the middle of a plot that’s far larger and more sinister than he could imagine. The bad news is that my body will wash up on the shores of Lake Michigan tomorrow morning. The good news is that Jack Ryan will be the one to discover my corpse and he will disrupt the global terrorist network’s plot before it’s too late. You’re welcome, America.
Well, turns out that I did not get murdered. But, I did get robbed. The fee for this 40 minute ride from the airport? $89. Ridiculous. But, in the process I did discover:
Uber Lesson One: Most people are not murderers. They are normal, hardworking people trying to make a living. In this world of fear and hyper-cynicism, I forget that.
But still, there’s no way in the world I’m going through that taxi / limo robbery scenario again.
So, when my meeting ends and I’m ready to go downtown to check out the sights, I do what all the cool kids are doing and download the uber app. And, I’m shocked. My John Grisham inspired ride from the airport to this hotel in the western ‘burbs cost me $89. Uber says it can take me all the way back past O’Hare to the Field Museum on Lakeshore for… $43. And the car can be there in 2 minutes.
My first instinct is that this low price is somehow a trap. But, I’m trying to be a little less cynical (see lesson one). With a few taps, the car is on it’s way. I see the driver’s name and picture and the car’s license plate number. A late model Honda pulls up and checks out. In about 2 minutes, I’m in my first Uber.
We glide down the freeway as I calmly search the back seat for signs of criminal intent. It’s clean. Then, I slip into my trademark interview mode with driver Jose and pepper him with questions about my first Uber ride.
O: How long have you been driving?
J: “About 6 months. I’m leasing this car and trying to pay for it with rides.”
O: Why Uber?
J: “We men have our pride,” he says. “I got tired of asking my wife for cigarette money.”
O: What do you consider a successful week of Uber driving?
J: “We’re from the Philippines,” Jose says. “I drove big trucks with cargo for 5 years to pay my wife’s way through nursing school. Now, she works and I’m at home. I get bored and I want to buy stuff.” “Like cigarettes?” I chuckle. “Cigarettes…beer…maybe a new TV. But I don’t like stress. I only drive a couple of days a week. When I feel calm. I want to stay calm and get out of the house.”
O: Any lessons learned as a driver you’d pass along to other drivers?
J: “I learned this hauling for the fashion industry in LA — always carry snacks. You never know how bad traffic will be.” He pops the glovebox open to reveal his stash. “You want a cracker? They’re from the Philippines. They are amazing.”
(TLDR: My driver is nice, gives me some Uber tips, and offers me a pack of Pilipino crackers.)
I take the pack of SkyFlakes crackers he hands me. Minutes later, we arrive at the Field Museum and he drops me at the door. No money changes hands. The Uber app charges my card automatically when the ride is over. Clean and classy.
Uber Lesson Two: Unlike the Cab Cartel, Uber is straight forward, you know the cost ahead of time, and the pick-up and drop-off system is infinitely more human and convenient than going by cab.
Uber’s Secret Dark Side: The Surge
I do my thing in Chicago for a few hours. Then, a storm starts to roll in across the lake. The light’s perfect. I snap a few photos. Fat drops of rain slam into me. I pull on my rain jacket and scramble down Michigan Ave. where I take refuge in a coffee shop as the rain drops turn into slanted sheets of water rippling down the windows.
It’s all good. I’m feeling confident. Uber confident. I’ll pop open the app, dial up a ride, and get back to the airport with time to spare.
I pinpoint my location in the Uber app. I type in the O’Hare airport address and wait with soggy smugness as Uber calculates the fare…….. $158. Say what? I check again. Yup. Just hours ago, I took an Uber for twice the distance than I want to go now. That ride cost me $43. Now, I want to go half that distance. And Uber is quoting me a price 4 times higher. And my blood pressure goes 4 times higher. I quickly imagine several ways I can explain to Sarah why I spent $200 on cab fare for one day in Chicago. Every way results in an ER visit. Uber, what’s the deal?!
Turns out I’m a victim of something Uber calls “surge pricing.” Apparently, when Obama authorized the Surge in Afghanistan in 2009, there was something in the fine print that allowed Uber to jack up their rates in areas and times of day that are in high demand.
What that means for me is: 1. I have 2 hours to get to the airport. 2. It’s pouring rain. 3. And I’m beginning to wonder if Uber a double agent of the Cab Cartel. They’re shaking me down for an extra $100. What to do?
I begin scouring the web to research this surge pricing model and how to work around it. Here’s what I learn:
- Uber surge pricing is only for limited times when demand increases. They say their motive is to lure more drivers into these temporarily lucrative areas.
- Uber divides the cities where they operate into smaller geographical areas. Surge pricing is only applied to these smaller areas, not to the city as a whole.
- According to driver forums, many Uber drivers don’t like surge pricing either. It often slows business because no one in their right mind pays $158 for a ride to the airport. Drivers will actually leave the area under surge pricing and head for nearby areas with less expensive fares.
- You can use your feet to beat surge pricing. Use your Uber app map to see where drivers are clustering up for a clue where lower fares can be had. Or, you can download one of a handful of free apps that will show you the shortest route out of the surge affected area where you’re standing. (I used this one.)
And that’s just what I do. Thanks to the app, I see that if I walk about a mile south, I’ll cross out of the Uber surge zone. Sure enough, I see about 4 Uber cars on the map in that general area. So, off I go.
It’s about a 10 minute walk in the rain, but the further I get away from my first location, the lower the Uber fare becomes. Soon, I’m standing on a street corner in a random neighborhood across the street from a small college and Uber says they can give me a lift to O’Hare for $52. I’ll take it.
Uber Lesson 3: If you’re a Uber noober, be prepared for Uber surge pricing. When Uber tries to take you for a surge fueled ride, let your feet do the talking.
Surge pricing isn’t the end of the world for short rides, but getting slapped for 4x the normal fare on a 30 mile ride is no bueno.
Thankfully, I was picked up by a fascinating guy. An immigrant from Guatemala who is so proud that his son is going to college. As it turns out, it’s the college where I was just picked up. He has helped his son with his homework every night since first grade. He learned so much with his son that my driver decided to take his GED at the same time his son was graduating high school. So, they both got their diplomas this spring together.
Which brings me back to: