Why Uber Has Changed The Latin American Travel Experience

When we decide where to travel to next, one of my top considerations is whether that location has Uber.  If you are a foreigner traveling in Latin America, it is hard for me to stress Uber’s advantages enough, and once you are used to it, the frustration of not having it available.  Uber, while very useful in the United States or your home country, is infinitely more useful once you are a traveler in Latin America.

First, if you are not a strong Spanish speaker, Uber is easier compared to a traditional taxi.  With Uber, you can type your destination into the app, and the app automatically informs your driver of where you want to go and gives them turn-by-turn directions.  With a taxi, you may not be familiar with the city, and you may have difficulty explaining where you want to go. It’s possible the taxi driver may not know where the address is exactly, and they may therefore reasonably expect you to provide some direction.  If you do not speak Spanish, or your Spanish skills are not very good, this can be very difficult and prone to error. Uber eliminates all of this.

Second, with Uber, you almost never have to worry about being stranded in a strange part of the city.  Uber employs “surge pricing,” which means as the demand for rides at a particular time of day starts to outsrip demand, the price increases.  While this means you may pay more during peak hours, you are almost guaranteed, if you are willing go pay a few dollars more, to get a ride. Taxis, on the other hand, do not use surge pricing.  So there will be times when there are simply no taxis available for long periods. This is true for taxi-hailing apps like “Easy Taxi.” Such apps, while better than no app, will often tell you that no taxis are available if you request during peak times.  If you are a foreigner who maybe is out late at night, or perhaps wandered into a questionable neighborhood, or maybe just needs to make sure to arrive at the airport at a particular time, the option of paying a little extra to ensure a ride is available can be not only convenient, it can be much safer.  The only exception to this that we experienced was in Cartagena. When we were there, Uber was very new, and it simply did not have enough drivers. So there were times when the app simply couldn’t match us with a driver, and we had to find a cab.

Third, with Uber, you know who you are getting into the car with, and there is a record that they gave you a ride.  This, in my opinion, makes Uber far safer than flagging a cab on the street.  We have all heard horror stories of foreigners being robbed or worse by taxi drivers.  This is especially true if you are a woman traveling alone.  I tend to think these fears are a little bit exaggerated and overblown.  The vast majority of cab drivers are perfect gentlemen, and there are Uber drivers that are not.  But if your cab driver decides to rob you, you probably won’t be able to identify the perpetrator to the police very well.  And if you do, how much trust can you place in the police to follow up appropriately? There have, of course, been examples of Uber drivers who have victimized their passengers.  No means of transportation is perfectly safe, and there is a lack of reliable statistics over whether a taxi or Uber is actually safer.  So use your own judgment. But I believe Uber is safer because, with Uber, there is a record in your Uber account of the specific driver who picked you up and a GPS record of exactly where the driver took you.  If anything happens to you, it would be easy to identify who had picked you up and where each of you went. The police can arrest them, and even if they don’t, Uber can deactivate their account, essentially firing the driver.  Uber drivers gone rogue, therefore, risk not only being easily identified to the police, they risk losing their job.  

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Fourth, Uber eliminates the need to haggle with cab drivers over the fare.  Many cabs (perhaps most) in Latin America simply do not even have meters. You must, instead, explain to the driver where you are going and negotiate the fare for every ride.  And many drivers that do have a meter simply do not use it, but instead insist on negotiating the rate. If you don’t negotiate with the driver and come to an agreement before he starts driving to your destination, you risk him asking for an outrageous amount when you arrive.  Having to negotiate like this for every taxi ride may be fun for some people, but for me, it’s just an annoyance. If your Spanish language skills are poor, it can be very frustrating. And, of course, the driver is going to know you are a foreigner, and may demand a much higher price than he would from a local.  If the driver sees, for example, that you have luggage and want to go to the airport, he’s going to know you need to catch a flight that you can’t afford to miss. Expect him to ask for more. If you refuse the inflated price, he may simply not take you. In Panama City, I once had to pay a taxi driver $20 for what would have been a $4 Uber ride simply because I had luggage, the driver knew I had to catch a flight, and he was the only driver around.  With Uber, you don’t have to deal with any of this.

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This is not to say that no Uber driver will try and cheat you.  In fact, this happened to us using Uber in Medellin. The Uber driver picked us up at the bus station late at night and drove us to our apartment.  When we arrived, the driver told us he had forgotten to hit the begin-ride button on the app when he picked us up and asked us to pay the equivalent of $10 cash.  Although I suspected that this was a scam, I relented because it was very late at night and all we wanted to do was check in to our apartment and go to bed. My suspicion was correct. First, I later learned the amount the driver asked for was about three times what the Uber rate would have been.  Second, after we paid him and he left, the Uber app did, in fact, charge my credit card for the ride. This was all resolved, however, through one message to Uber, which promptly refunded the amounts owed. (I can’t imagine the horror of trying to get a refund from a taxi cab company.) And I suspect that Uber either deactivated this driver or would do so if he repeated the scam again in the future.

Fifth, with Uber, there is no need for cash or change.  Cab drivers in Latin America expect to be paid in cash. Few accept credit cards.  And often, they don’t carry much change or pretend not to have change. If all you have are large bills, well, you’re just going to have to give him a large bill and not get any change.  With Uber, all payment can be automatically made through the app with stored credit card information. If you want to tip, you can in cash, though drivers in Latin America do not often expect a tip (and I have even had them refuse to take one).

I will give taxi drivers the advantage over Uber in most cities in one category:  experience. Uber is very new in many Latin American cities, and the drivers are therefore often much less experienced.  When you are connected with a driver through the app, it’s possible to look at his profile and see how many rides he’s given.  In some cities where Uber was very new (e.g., Quito and Guayaquil) many of our drivers had given less than a hundred rides. So they are not going to be as experienced using the app or knowing their way around as their counterparts in cities where Uber is more established.    

If you want to give Uber a try (I strongly recommend you do), then you get your first ride free by using our referral link.  Uber also gives us credits we can use for rides every time someone signs up using our link.  So you are simultaneously supporting our travels. Happy Ubering!

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