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Taxis around the world – expect the unexpected

An old Mercedes in Rabat, Morocco
An old Mercedes in Rabat, Morocco
Taxi in El Salvador
Taxi in El Salvador
Call for a taxi in Monaco
Call for a taxi in Monaco
Chaos on the streets of Ouagadougou
Chaos on the streets of Ouagadougou
Cracked windscreen in Djibouti
Cracked windscreen in Djibouti
Dented taxi in Yerevan, Armenia
Dented taxi in Yerevan, Armenia
Gambian taxis with go faster stripes
Gambian taxis with go faster stripes
In the back of a Cuban taxi
In the back of a Cuban taxi
Kolkata taxis
Kolkata taxis
Lining up in Kolkata, India
Lining up in Kolkata, India
Mumbai streets
Mumbai streets
One of Djibouti's green cabs
One of Djibouti's green cabs
Outside the market in Dakar, Senegal
Outside the market in Dakar, Senegal
Snow in Sapporo, Japan
Snow in Sapporo, Japan
This taxi hasn't had a fare in a while
This taxi hasn't had a fare in a while
Toyota taxi in Bujumbura, Burundi
Toyota taxi in Bujumbura, Burundi
Traffic jam in Mumbai
Traffic jam in Mumbai
Waiting for a fare in Bujumbura, Burundi
Waiting for a fare in Bujumbura, Burundi
Yellow cab in Taiwan's capital, Taipei
Yellow cab in Taiwan's capital, Taipei

I have recently completed five years in the International Data Researcher role at ECA International. Whilst the landmark anniversary went completely unnoticed by my colleagues, it did get me thinking about some of the more interesting experiences I have encountered during my time in the position. Upon reflection, I realised that many of these memories were from events that occurred when taking taxis in different locations around the world. I thought I would share some of my experiences to help readers avoid some of the more unpleasant situations that I have faced.

Kolkata taxi rankAfter landing in any new destination, more often than not your first meaningful interaction with a local will be with your taxi driver - based on the assumption that the immigration officer you are dealing with is not the most sociable individual! For better or for worse, this can help form your early impressions of a country and set the tone for the rest of the trip.

One particularly memorable story from my first trip to India seems like an apt example. I had landed in Mumbai in the middle of the night and after pre-paying for the taxi, the taxi controller briefly explained to my driver the location of my hotel and we were on our way. From previous research, I knew the journey should take around 30 minutes, so after 45 minutes when the driver had stopped to ask someone directions it started to become clear that he did not know where he was going.

One hour later, we were still driving around aimlessly and then my driver spotted a group of men still awake Traffic in Mumbaiand got out to ask for directions. Much to my bemusement, after a few minutes of talking with the men my driver then sat down to have a drink with his newfound friends! I began to wonder if something like this could ever happen back in the UK - a taxi driver driving loops of the M25 and then giving up and stopping at a nearby service station for a coffee. Eventually, I arrived at my hotel, three hours after setting off from the airport. Upon arrival, the driver demanded double the fare as the journey had taken him so long. After I had looked at nearby hotel staff in utter disbelief, I vividly remember the receptionist saying, “You should pay, sir.” From that moment on, I knew that in India I should expect the unexpected!

Of the common challenges that one faces when taking taxis in unfamiliar locations, by far the most prevalent is being overcharged by the driver. This is particularly tricky in locations where taxis do not typically have meters. Although, I have found that even if taxis are fitted with a meter, sometimes getting drivers to switch them on can be a struggle. In Russia, for example, I found the drivers were very reluctant to use the meter once they realised you were not a local. I remember one driver in Kaluga telling me his meter had just broken, and proceded to offer me a swig of vodka as a consolation!

Ensuring the meter is switched on, however, is no guarantee of getting charged the correct fare. Common tricks that I’ve experienced taxi drivers using to unfairly increase the fare include setting the meter to a premium rate (e.g. bank holiday), adding unnecessary ‘extras’ and taking the ‘scenic’ route to your destination. In Bahrain, so endemic was the problem of taxi drivers overcharging, all taxis were plastered with signs telling the customer the tariffs and rules regarding the fare. From my experience, it did little to deter them from trying their luck.

Whilst it is possible to be ripped off by taxi drivers at any time, travellers who have just landed in a new country are particularly vulnerable targets. Taxi drivers may want to take advantage of the fact that you might not be accustomed to the rules or be knowledgeable of the city. For business travellers, it can be the norm to have a driver pre-arranged at the airport through either their company or hotel. This helps mitigate against many of the potential problems but is not without potential complications itself. There is always a chance your driver will not show up, which has happened to me on more than one occasion. This occurred most notably in Guinea, leading to one of my more unpleasant experiences during my time in the role – documented in the rather ominously titled ‘At Gunpoint in Guinea’. I’ve learnt that having a Plan B if your driver does not show up can pay dividends, and you should always have a number you can call for a reliable alternative.

Whilst being overcharged for taxis is often a frustrating experience, the most concerning aspect I have Cracked taxi windscreenencountered is the wildly differing levels of road safety and driving standards around the world. In the Middle East, in particular Kuwait, I was shocked by how fast many of the locals drive. I resorted to approaching the oldest driver I could see, going by the logic that they would be the most sensible. This technique was going well until I approached a man that must have been well into his seventies, who seemed to take pleasure in watching me squirm when undertaking cars at 120mph on the hard shoulder.

Sometimes difficulties can occur from simply being unable to communicate your intended destination to the driver. In China, I found drivers in general to be very honest and relatively safe. During my first trip, however, I quickly learnt that if you did not have the name or address of your location written in Chinese, the driver would not have a clue where to take you – even if you were heading to the most famous landmark in the city.

To alleviate many of the issues mentioned in this blog, many business travellers and long-term assignees will use a dedicated driver, particularly in more challenging locations. From my experience, having a reliable driver that you trust and can communicate effectively with will be invaluable. Perhaps most importantly, the driver is more likely to adhere to the driving standards that you are typically used to back home, in a vehicle that is equipped with the essential safety features. Although it is likely that by using a regular/trustworthy driver you will miss out on some of the more ‘authentic’ taxi experiences - for many this will be a small price to pay!

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