Shana Graham was lucky. When the Seattle public relations exec was visiting India a few years ago, she hailed an auto rickshaw—one of those three-wheeled taxis lacking both doors and seat belts—and immediately found herself careening wildly through the streets. Her requests to slow down fell on deaf ears. “The driver was clearly drunk,” she recalls, “and retorted, ‘You Westerners, you have too much fear!’” As they sped into a traffic circle, he called back, “Don’t worry! Be happy!” just before the rickshaw flattened, like a pancake, into a car.
Luckily, Graham walked away from the accident with only a few bruises. But it’s a reminder of how a five-minute trip across town can either be a joyride or a descent into chaos.
Sure, every place has its share of scary cab drivers, but some places are worse than others. Bangkok, for instance, topped the “most dangerous” list of a recent Hotels.com taxi survey (though the city’s cabbies also ranked as the fourth-most friendly). But the level of fright isn’t always because of a rickety tuk-tuk. Depending on the location, there can be a risk of robbery, or the horror when you realize that your driver isn’t watching the road but rather an episode of a reality show.
Granted, most travelers who get in a cab upon landing at an airport or walking out of their hotel get nothing but an uneventful ride. And Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association, says that the industry is, for the most part, pretty consistent in the industrialized world.
He acknowledges, though, that there are some rough rides out there. “The variations come,” he says, “with the kinds of regulations that countries choose to implement.” Some countries have no regulations at all. In Lima, for instance, anyone with a car (or even a rental) can stick a taxi sign on the door and start picking up passengers—even if they have less of an idea where your hotel is than you do.
The scariest rides carry the threat of assault, robbery, or even murder. But usually the greatest threat one faces from a bad cab is getting taken for a ride in the financial sense. In almost every city around the world—including the U.S.—unlicensed cabs can try to gouge passengers with inflated fares. The risk isn’t just a high price, says LaGasse, but liability in an accident. “With an illegal vehicle you have no protection whatsoever. Even if the driver carries personal insurance, that won’t cover paying passengers.”
When in doubt about which cab to use, consider these tips from LaGasse. First, make sure the cab is licensed—“with a decal on the window or windshield and, generally speaking, a meter, though not always,” he says. To plan ahead, call your hotel before you start a trip, and ask them what to look for and what kind of fare to expect from the airport.
Other world travelers have their own survival tips. Greg Poschman, an Aspen-based director and photographer who travels a lot in the Third World, says he insists on seat belts and has even used nylon camera straps to rig his own. He also never sits in the front seat. “Behind the driver is safest,” he says, “as he will instinctively steer to save himself in a wreck.”
Sometimes, picking the right cabbie can actually bolster your security. When consultant Robert Longley was in Rio during the 1990s, he and his wife had a taxi driver take them to see the rainforest. “We got pulled over by a cop who wanted all of our money,” he recalls. “The taxi driver told him we were diplomats and that he would get into trouble if anything bad happened to us. The cop got on his motorcycle and left. We took our driver out for dinner that night.”
Sure, GPS units can help a driver from getting lost, but some cabbies have rigged the screens to broadcast television instead, which is no doubt a lot more fun to watch than the road. The city had declared this practice illegal last year, setting a fine of $500 on such drivers, but a higher court overturned the rule. Local police say watching these devices led to 200 accidents in 2008, injuring more than 350 people.
A Better Ride: At Seoul’s Westin Chosun, staffers recommend that guests avoid the cheaper white cabs and opt for the nicer black cabs that tend to wait outside hotels. Orange cabs, meanwhile, are less prevalent, but are more likely to have English-speaking drivers—all the better for asking that they not watch soap operas during your ride.
Hailing a cab here is the easy part. The problem? Locals are more than happy to offer cab services, without the fuss of a license or any organization backing them. Meanwhile, marshrutkas—brightly colored minivans—would seem like a more standardized mode of transport, except that these buslike cabs are consistently known for high speeds and reckless driving. One of them made news in late 2009 when it swerved out of its lane and caused an accident, killing eight.
A Better Ride: While legit cabs are most likely to be by the train stations or hotels, your best bet is to have your hotel call and order a cab from a reputable taxi company.
The capital for creepy taxi stories. Perhaps because they are so omnipresent, the green VW bug taxis would seem to be the standard ride. But the little bugs have a lethal bite—by some accounts, more than a fourth of them are illegal or “pirate” taxis. The classic “express kidnapping” involves taking passengers to an ATM and forcing them to withdraw their limit at gunpoint.
A Better Ride: The St. Regis Mexico City usually arranges private car services for guests and otherwise recommends “radio taxis,” which a hotel can call for you. Just make sure to find out the number of the ordered car and then climb in only after you’ve checked for that number on the car.
Black-and-yellow Fiats, as well as auto rickshaws, are common cabs across India, and all are required to use a meter card to set fares. Trouble is, in Delhi, the drivers tend to ignore those cards and often refuse to use the meters. But the rickshaws pose the greater danger. These doorless, seat-belt-free vehicles have made news in the past year for incidents in which passengers were raped or had their bags robbed, or the vehicle just burst into flames.
A Better Ride: Pick up a meter card, free in most stores, so that you can know how much your length of ride will cost. Ask your hotel for referrals: two reputable cab companies (which operate in many cities around India) are Meru Cabs and Mega Cabs.
The history of the minibus started earnestly—as a way to transport workers during the days of apartheid—and today you can hail them anywhere along their routes. But the system of large, usually white vans has deteriorated over the years. The vehicles, meant to comfortably hold about a dozen people, often carry 20 for a claustrophobic, bumpy, and sometimes crazy ride. And there’s another problem: with the threat of a new bus system launched for 2010’s World Cup, some minibus drivers have been taking out their aggressions on said buses with gunfire.
Hailing a cab on the street is literally asking for trouble here—you could get robbed or become the victim of a violent crime. The U.S State Department reports that in 2007, even a U.S Embassy employee was robbed by an armed cab driver. The problem? There’s zero regulation for cabs, so anyone can buy (or even rent) a car, slap on a “taxi” sticker, and start driving. On the milder side, many just complain that the drivers—perhaps new arrivals from out of town themselves—have even less of an idea where your hotel is than you do.
The Thai city’s classic tuk-tuks, or auto rickshaws, are not for the faint of heart. The open-sided, three-wheeled vehicles—surely you didn’t expect seat belts?—have been described as death traps if driven on a highway. The drivers are also known for “recommending” different stops for you—such as dodgy restaurants, shops, or even brothels—where they get a commission for sending stooges.
A Better Ride: The Four Seasons Bangkok typically calls regular car cabs for its guests, relying mostly on the green-colored cabs that are known to have polite, multilingual drivers. “The most important thing is to insist on the meter being turned on at the beginning—or get out,” says a hotel spokesperson.
Sharing a cab with a stranger is often a bad idea anywhere, but especially so here. A fairly common crime in the capital of the Philippines is being robbed by someone who’s sitting in the back of the cab when a driver picks you up. The worst cabs, reportedly, are those parked along side streets. Another risk, this time to your sanity: nearly suffocating from the heat in a cab with no AC.
A Better Ride: At the Mandarin Oriental, staffers will arrange private car service for guests or call you a cab and then take down its license plate number as you drive away, in case you run into any problems. Also, since cabs are so plentiful, do a quick AC check before you take off—and excuse yourself for the next good cab if you don’t feel any cool blast.
Ever since the becaks, or bicycle rickshaws, were banned from the Indonesian city streets in the 1990s, ojeks, or motorcycle taxis, have proliferated. Not only is this mini-industry completely unregulated by the government, but many assume that the motorcycles themselves are often stolen. While the driver is supposed to wear a helmet—and offer one for the passenger—don’t expect it. Assuming you survive the trip without an accident or a panic attack, you’ll likely find the pricing wildly improvisational too.
A Better Ride: For starters, get a ride with four wheels. At the Grand Hyatt Jakarta, the concierge recommends two regional cab companies: the Blue Bird Taxi and its subsidiary, Silver Bird taxis.
This Venezuelan city has more than its fair share of dangers lurking about, and the cabs have become a hot venue for crime, with local gangs running their own gypsy cab services, especially from the airport. They specialize in what the U.S. State Department calls “express kidnapping,” where robbers drive you to an ATM (or multiple ATMs) and have you withdraw your cash limit.
A Better Ride: Get your hotel to call a taxi service for you; hotels like the JW Marriott Hotel Caracas will arrange to have a reputable taxi meet you at the airport. Otherwise, the hotel advises travelers coming to the airport to use only taxis waiting in the official taxi line. Anyone who approaches you offering his or her services is someone to avoid.