Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Amazing Race 19, Episode 6

Bangkok (Thailand) - Lilongwe (Malawi)

I was in Europe for the last two weeks while The Amazing Race 19 made its way from Borobudur (Indonesia) through Phuket and Bangkok (Thailand) to this week’s destination of Lilongwe (Malawi).

The biggest issue for the racers in these places, however, was one they could have faced anywhere: how much and in what currency to pay for taxi rides.

Two of the last three episodes of The Amazing Race 19 were non-elimination legs, but the one team eliminated lost out because they ran out of money for taxi fare, and had to walk to the finish line at the “pit stop”.

If you’re not in the race, the best way to avoid overpaying for taxis is generally not to use them at all. Occasionally, especially for a family or small group of friends, a private taxi may be cheaper than individual fares for a shared airport transfer service. But most of the time, even three or four bus or subway fares add up to less than what a taxi would cost.

If you do take taxis, though — as at times we all must, either because we’re in a hurry or because we can’t find our way where we’re going on our own — how can you avoid ending up like the eliminated racers, who blew their whole budget for the day on taxi rides?

Here are some tips you can use anywhere:

What currency should you pay in?

With rare exceptions, you’ll get the best price if you pay in local currency. U.S. dollars are the most universally accepted currency, and the best way to carry a stash of emergency cash, but you’re better off changing them into local currency, if you can, before you try to spend them. Pay in dollars and, as a rule, you’ll have to pay more. That’s what happened to those of the racers who had no Thai Baht to pay their taxi drivers in Phuket.

That’s not unreasonable, and shouldn’t be a surprise. Most people in the USA recognize that the Canadian dollar is a reasonably stable and freely convertible currency. But even in border communities in the USA where Canadian currency is (grudgingly) accepted, it’s taken at a substantial discount from the interbank exchange rate you see in the newspaper or online. That doesn’t mean that all US merchants are out to rip off Canadian visitors (although some are). Rather, it reflects both the nuisance value and cost to business of keeping track of Canadian currency separately, and the substantial transaction costs of converting it to US dollars, especially in small amounts.

You’d be very lucky to get a cabbie to let you pay your fare in Canadian dollars even in a border city like Detroit, and you’d have pretty much no chance in Chicago or New York.

Since one of the places you’re most likely to need to take a cab (or to spend local currency for a bus or train ticket) is when you first arrive in the country, it’s best to try to have at least a small amount of local currency — enough for a taxi ride to your hotel, and for a meal if you can’t get local cash until the next day — in hand before you arrive. There’s usually an ATM at the airport or international train or bus station when you arrive in a new country, but there’s always a chance that it will be out of cash, out of order, or incompatible with your card (an increasingly common occurrence with machines that only take “chip and pin” cards and don’t accept chipless U.S.-issued “swipe and sign” cards).

If you travel to another country regularly, and the local currency is reasonably stable, it makes sense to keep some cash in that currency for your next trip, other than converting it all back to U.S.dollars (or whatever your local currency is) each time you come home. I keep envelopes in my safe deposit box with US$100 or so each of Canadian dollars, British pounds, and Euros, for example.

On the other hand, if the currency is unstable or you don’t expect to return, you are best off exchanging it for U.S. dollars or the currency of your next destination within the country. Weak currencies generally get harder to exchange and are discounted more heavily the further afield you go. The racers, for example, probably should have exchanged their Indonesian Rupiah for Thai Baht (or U.S. dollars) before leaving Indonesia, rather than waiting until they got to Thailand.

If you’re going somewhere new, especially if you’re arriving at a provincial airport or less busy border crossing and/or at an hour when currency exchanges might be closed, it’s worth trying to change at least a small amount of money with a fellow traveler before you arrive.

I’m not just being U.S.-centric when I speak of U.S. dollars. Whatever you think of the long term stability of the USD, you’ll almost always lose less changing money between other currencies by way of U.S. dollars than by way of any other intermediate currency. And even Euros, while they are accepted almost everywhere, still don’t retain as much of their value through multiple currency conversions in most of the world as do U.S. dollars. For an around the world trip, everyone from Australians to Japanese to Swiss to Brazilians carries some of their money in U.S. dollars.

How do you know how much to pay for a taxi ride?

It’s much easier said than done, but the obvious answer is that you should always agree in advance on what to pay, either agreeing that the charge will be according to the meter (or derived from it in an agreed-upon way, such as by a late-night percentage surcharge multiplier or the addition of a specified flat extra charge for luggage, late-night service, etc.) or agreeing on a specific price.

Meter surcharges are common, and the notice of them — if any — in the cab isn’t necessarily in English. There are many places where nobody goes by the meter, and some where it would be impossible for a taxi driver to survive if they charged according to the meter. So the mere existence of a meter, even if it’s working, isn’t a guarantee that the driver is willing to take you where you want to go for the price on the meter. You need to agree, in advance. Point to the meter, and get the driver to say “yes” (or make sure you understand whatever else it is they do say if it isn’t just “yes”) before you get in.

If you haven’t agreed on a price in advance, you can’t really object to whatever price is demanded of you when you get to where you’re going. A taxi driver isn’t bound by what some other driver charged you, or someone else, for the same or what you think is a similar ride, or by whatever your guidebook says such a ride “ought” to cost.

What if you and the driver don’t have any language in common? Get some intermediary to translate — again, before you get into the taxi. Sometimes a passer-by or fellow traveler will be able to help translate both your destination and the negotiation of a price. I’ve had an English-speaking good Samaritan on the street not only explain to a taxi driver where I wanted to go, but curse the driver in the local language, apologize for his greediness, and find me another taxi when the first driver wanted to overcharge me for being a foreigner.

Though you may pay more for a taxi booked for you by the staff at a hotel, you’re more likely to get where you want to go and less likely to be charged more than what was agreed to. On the street in a place where you don’t understand the language of all, it’s often worth going into a hotel or some other business where there’s likely to be someone who speaks English when you need a taxi. Be prepared, however, for the possibility that they might call a nondescript “gypsy” cab (or a friend with a car who could use the extra income) rather than a metered taxi.

At some airports and similar locations, there are taxi dispatching services to assist with translating directions and negotiating prices. At the airport in Phuket, for example, the racers all used a service that charges 100 Baht (a little more than US$3) more than the meter amount. The dispatch service also keeps a record of the run, which at least in theory keeps the driver from trying to rob or abduct the passengers without getting caught.

Similar services that I’ve used at the airports in New Delhi and New York charge a flat fee based on the zone of your destination, to prevent the driver from running up the meter by taking a circuitous route. In both those cities, the zone rate has often seemed to be less than than what the meter would have been, based on my experience with metered rides in the opposite direction to the airports.

A taxi dispatcher (or the help of some other translator at a hotel or on the street) is still no guarantee that the driver will correctly understand your desired destination. If you can, have the dispatcher or whoever is helping you arrange a cab write the destination down for you in the local language. That way you can show it to passers-by if you need help finding your way.

Sometimes you’ll have problems getting to your destination no matter what you do. In New Delhi, we kept having trouble getting to our hotel by taxi or auto-rickshaw even when we were dispatched from the airport or by someone who could translate from English. Eventually we figured out the sources of the problem: (1) We were staying at the smaller and less well-known of two nearby hotels with similar names (the YWCA International Guest House rather than the YWCA Family Hostel), and (2) our hotel gave its address (in English) as being on “Parliament Street”, but the official name of the street has been changed to “Samsad Marg” and the name “Parliament Street” remains in use only as the colloquial label for the police station that houses the New Delhi police headquarters, central booking, and holding cells down the block from our hotel. Since we didn’t look like people likely to be trying to get to the jail, taxi drivers tended to completely disregard our protestations that we really did want to go to Parliament Street, and took us instead to the other YWCA hostel where they thought we must really want to go.

Finally, although it’s hard to tell from the editing of what was broadcast (“The Amazing Race” isn’t an educational video, it’s a commercial entertainment show), it looked to me like some of the racers including those who were eliminated may have increased the price of their rides by chartering what were normally shared vehicles for exclusive use.

It’s an easy mistake to make, especially in places where there’s no clear dividing line between a “taxi” and a “bus”, where similar vehicles are used for both purposes, and/or where shared services where you pay per seat (what we think of as a “bus”) are referred to as “taxis”.

In Thailand, the racers were riding in pickup trucks fitted out with benches in the bed for passengers. As we’ve seen before on “The Amazing Race”, vehicles like this operate by a variety of names in many countries. Typically, they follow more-or-less fixed routes, with more-or-less fixed and locally well-known prices per passenger for specific journeys.

Sometimes — regardless of whether the vehicles in use are converted trucks, vans, minibuses, or sedans like those we think of as “taxis” — these are referred to locally as “taxis”.

Although they are often overloaded and dangerous, these shared-ride, fixed-price, fixed-route “taxis” are often the most common or only available mass transit. And they are usually so cheap that foreign tourists don’t need to worry too much about how much the price will turn out to be, and therefore often get in without asking the price for a specific route.

The problem is that it’s often possible to charter one of these vehicles to go to someplace that’s not on its regular route, to leave immediately even though it’s not yet full, and/or to carry only your party rather than as many passengers as could be crowded in.

It’s one thing to pay for an extra seat so that you can keep your luggage inside the vehicle rather than having it tied on the roof, or to pay for four fares instead of three so that your group can have the entire taxi to yourselves and leave right away. But if you don’t realize what you are doing, and ask the driver of the truck or van if they go to a particular place, you may find yourself having inadvertently agreed to a special off-route charter of the entire vehicle, for which you may be charged (quite legitimately) 15 or 20 fares if the truck or van would normally carry that many people.

It’s for this reason that I’ve occasionally seen phrasebooks or guidebooks that translate how to say that you don’t want a special charter. If your ability in the local language isn’t up to that, and there’s any possibility that the vehicle you are boarding might hold one more person or isn’t already going to where you want it to take you, it’s especially important to make sure you have a clear mutual understanding before you start out as to how much you will be expected to pay. If you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised if, like some of the racers, you are told that you “owe” US$150 for what you thought was a short ride in the back of an open truck that you thought was serving as a public bus. Maybe the driver is trying to rip you off, but maybe not.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 30 October 2011, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Note that agreeing on the meter doesn't always avoid problems. If I think it's likely the driver will try to go the long way round, or may have trouble finding my destination, and I don't have a good map, I'd rather agree on the price upfront.

Also, the meter may be rigged. Even though it shows the correct fare band, it may still be turning too fast. When I had that problem in Hanoi earlier this year I insisted that the driver stop, and I got out and refused to pay. He came close to hitting me (and I'm a 60+female) until I told him to call the police. Had another over-enthusiastic meter in Sofia last month.

Posted by: Kathy, 6 November 2011, 01:55 ( 1:55 AM)

I found in Vietnam that when I agreed on a price with a motorcycle taxi, I would write it down on a paper pad in local currency and and get him to look at the note and agree. Then when there was a dispute (very common in VN) by showing the paper, it usually ended.

Posted by: michael, 1 December 2011, 12:01 (12:01 PM)
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