April 14, 2009

Happy cab rides are all alike; every unhappy cab ride, however, is unhappy in its own way.

In Prague I learned from expensive experience that meters can be set at different rates. The next time, I made sure the driver set the correct rate, but he sneakily changed it midway through. In Mexico City, I thought the Volkswagen Beetle taxis were quaint--until one driver tried to rip me off, then had me arrested at gunpoint. The policemen's automatic rifles convinced me not only to pay the driver an exorbitant fare but also to fork over a $100 "fine." I was lucky: last December an American was killed in a robbery while riding in a Beetle taxi. The murderer was caught, but the case was dismissed by a judge who called him "a modern Robin Hood."

There are general precautions you can take. Avoid unlicensed taxis. Find out the going rate. Make sure the driver uses the meter (if there is one), or agree on a price beforehand. Check to see that you're not going in circles. Keep your luggage with you so you won't have to negotiate with the driver to open the trunk if there's a problem. In places where drivers are unlikely to speak English, have someone write down your destination in the native language. Beyond that, each city has its own peculiar pitfalls. Here are 10 cities where a little inside knowledge can take you far.

Opt for cabs with the words taxi-meter (not just taxi) on the roof. Beware the driver who says he knows a better restaurant than the one you ask for (or that it's closed for a "Buddhist holiday"); the tourist trap he has in mind is filled with people who fell for the same ploy. Standard rate: 35 baht, plus 2 per kilometer (or minute, in traffic). Fare from the airport to downtown: 300- 500 baht ($1 = about 39 baht).

Keep small bills on hand, because drivers will say they don't have change and keep whatever you give them. Standard rate: Depends on the make of car--it should be on a window sticker. Rates start at 7- 14.4 yuan, plus 1.60- 2.40 per kilometer. Airport to downtown: 100- 150 yuan ($1 = about 8 yuan).

Because the meters are out of date, you have to multiply the figure that appears on the meter by 11 until midnight, and by 14 after that. Every driver has a tariff card that does the math for you, but yours may claim it's lost. Standard rate: 1 rupee, plus 10 paise every 100 meters; then multiply. Airport to downtown: 400 rupees; 500 at night ($1 = about 40 rupees).

Many drivers have problems finding addresses, so get someone to explain where you're going. Make sure the driver uses the meter and doesn't charge you the night rate during the day. Standard rate: 120,000 liras (day) or 180,000 (night), plus 135,000 per kilometer. Airport to downtown:3.5 million liras, 4 million after midnight ($1 = about 250,000 liras).

Registered taxis have a name and number on the door. If you have trouble hailing a cab, call a radio taxi. Standard rate: 2 rand, plus 3.50 per kilometer.Airport to downtown: 70- 100 rand ($1 = about 5 rand).

Licensed taxis have the company name on the door. Lock the doors: some drivers work with partners who will attempt to hop in and mug you. If the driver tries to pick up someone else (even if he just wants to give his "cousin" a lift), pay the fare and get out immediately. Standard rate: 20 pesos, plus 1 every 100 meters. Airport to downtown: 90- 100 pesos ($1 = about 40 pesos).

Mexico City
Forget about Herbie the Love Bug. Beetle taxis should be avoided, period. Use taxis from the taxi stands, or sitios, or have your hotel call one for you. Standard rate: 3.60 pesos, plus 4 per kilometer. Airport to downtown: 50- 70 pesos ($1 = about 9 pesos).

Never get into a cab with someone already inside--it may be a setup. Most taxis don't have meters, so the fare must be negotiated before your ride. And avoid the cheaper gypsy cabs; they're extremely risky. Standard rate: 3 rubles per kilometer. Airport to downtown: 300- 500 rubles ($1 = about 6 rubles).

The city has a deservedly ugly reputation when it comes to cabbies. Registered cabs say taxi on the roof and have prices posted on the door. Don't grab a taxi at Wenceslas Square or Old Town Square; they're notorious spots for drivers out to cheat tourists. Make sure the meter is set--and stays--at rate 1 (jedna in Czech). Standard rate: 20 koruny, plus 15 koruny per kilometer.Airport to downtown: About 600 koruny ($1 = about 33 koruny).

Rio de Janeiro
Yellow cabs are generally safe, but make sure the meter is on. Some drivers charge extra "taxes," which don't exist. Radio taxis are also available, but they are more expensive and dispatchers don't speak English. Standard rate: 2 reals, then 10 centavos every 100 meters. Airport to downtown: About 40 reals ($1 = about 1.5 reals).

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