Knowing how to use taxis in Asia the right way will save you energy, money, and a lot of headache. From arrival to departure, you'll inevitably be using taxis to get around on your trip to Asia.
Although there are an honest few still out there, taxi drivers are famously some of the fastest-talking tricksters encountered on the road. Fortunately, there are some easy ways to keep transactions positive and profitable for both parties.
How to Hail a Taxi in Asia
Getting a taxi to stop isn't difficult; most drivers will have already spotted you and will be vying or honking for your attention.
When hailing a moving taxi in Asia, stand somewhere that the driver can safely pull over to collect you. Don't risk causing an accident. Raise your right arm to get his attention, then point at the ground in front of you while wagging your hand, palm down and fingers together. The motion is more "patting" than "waving."
Pointing with a single finger is considered rude in Asia — so is the Western "come here" gesture with palm up and wiggling fingers. In Asia, use your whole hand with palm down when motioning or beckoning.
Quickly and clearly ask about your destination, then confirm that the meter works before you get into the backseat. If the driver refuses to use the meter or quotes a high price, simply wave him on and flag down the next taxi. One may already be queued behind the first to see if the transaction pans out.
Tip: Just because the sign on a taxi says "Taxi Meter," there is no guarantee the meter will be used!
Tips for Avoiding Taxi Scams
- Don't believe if a driver tells you that your choice of hotel or establishment is closed — it probably isn't.
- After arriving, ensure that the hotel is authentic and not a renamed copy of the popular one you booked. Yes, this happens in some countries!
- Go with official or certified taxis whenever available. This means waiting in the official taxi stand outside of airports and shopping malls rather than accepting offers from rogue drivers who approach you randomly. You may pay slightly more, but you'll avoid a lot of potential problems.
- If there is a meter, firmly ask the driver to use it. Don't believe claims of heavy traffic, distance, and "broken" meters.
- If using the meter is not an option, always agree upon a fare before getting inside or handing over your luggage. Your luggage could be held hostage if it's already in the trunk before you negotiate!
- Ask if any tolls or additional fees are included in the given price. Passengers are usually expected to pay any tolls, airport surcharges, and parking fees.
- Don't use drivers as concierges to learn out about a new city. You'll often be recommended a place that benefits the driver more than you. The bar or restaurant will either be far and obscure, resulting in a higher fare, or a place where the driver receives commission. If nothing else, the driver will bring you somewhere owned by a friend or relative just to receive favor.
- Pay attention — or at least feign attentiveness — while riding. Some drivers will agree to use the meter then drive you the long way, or perhaps even in circles. Turning on Google Maps can sometimes discourage this because they know you are paying attention.
- Don't try to give drivers large banknotes; they rarely have change. Some claim not to have enough small change in order to keep the difference.
- If you feel that a taxi driver may not be trustworthy, opt to keep your luggage with you on the backseat so that you can get out if needed. Some drivers have been known to ask for more money in the middle of the journey. If your luggage is in the trunk, you'll have no choice but to pay.
Step Away from Tourist Areas
The English-speaking drivers who loiter around tourist areas all day are often the most skilled at ripping off travelers. If you have to use one of these parked taxis, be prepared to potentially run a gauntlet of trickery.
Rather than choose one of the many stationary taxis, walk around the corner to flag down a passing one. Drivers already on the move will be pleasantly surprised at the good fortune of an unexpected customer. They are often more willing to turn on the meter for this "bonus" fare.
Another option is to jump into a taxi that has just dropped off passengers. The driver will have already made some money for the day and may be more willing to negotiate.
Choosing honest drivers who are providing transportation avoids supporting unscrupulous ones who actually do more selling than driving.
Confirm Your Destination
Sometimes getting taken to the wrong destination isn't an act of deceit; your driver simply may have not understood. Many drivers have yet to adopt GPS, and big Asian cities with ancient alleyways are often labyrinthine. The drivers in places such as Beijing may speak very limited English.
Your driver won't want to lose a customer just because he doesn't understand the destination. He may tell you he knows a place then stop later to ask for directions. Before heading out, have someone at your hotel reception write your destination in the local language on a card. You can show it to the driver, and you'll have the address of the hotel for getting back later!
Yes, they exist. In many places throughout Asia, a hierarchical ring or "mafia" actually enforces a pecking order among drivers. Honest drivers may barely be able to make ends meet; they have to pay fees to local police and senior drivers who have claimed territory.
Organized driver mafias often inflate prices and make negotiating fares more difficult for travelers. Honest drivers who break from the gouging by using their meters sometimes get punished. Be careful when discussing prices of previous trips with drivers. Avoid saying things such as "I only paid 100 to go there yesterday!" when asking the fare.
Sometimes taxi mafias shut down or put pressure on tourist transportation services such as shared minivans and airport transfers — they would rather each person get into a taxi.
You'll find thriving driver mafias in Bangkok, Luang Prabang, Boracay Island in the Philippines, and other popular tourist destinations.
Using Uber and Grab in Asia
For the reasons mentioned above, ridesharing services such as Uber and the Malaysia-based Grab face increasing pressure in Asia. They've been banned outright in many places, although services are still quietly offered. Rideshare drivers sometimes face threats of violence and have bricks thrown through their windows by taxi drivers.
Although ridesharing services are controversial, they do offer a friendly alternative for travelers who are tired of dealing with dishonest drivers. If you opt to use a ridesharing service, do so discreetly!
Should You Tip Drivers?
Tipping is generally not the norm in Asia, but rounding up your fare is considered good form. This is as much a tip as an act of convenience; it prevents both parties from having to sort out change.
You can leave a small, additional tip for polite, honest service. Drivers rarely if ever have change for large banknotes, so try to keep smaller denominations handy for such occasions.
Taxis Versus Tuk-Tuks in Thailand
Perhaps no other mode of transport in Asia is as iconic as the sputtering, three-wheeled tuk-tuks (and their many variations) found throughout Asia.
Although the sometimes-psychedelic decor in tuk-tuks varies based on driver personality, all share one thing in common: they don't have a meter. You'll have to negotiate for your ride — and potentially navigate through some hustle and up-selling as your driver navigates through the city.
Riding in a tuk-tuk and inhaling Bangkok's exhaust is certainly an authentic Thailand experience. Do it at least once. But know that fares often turn out to be higher than what you would have paid for a comfortable taxi with air conditioning! Tuk means "cheap" in Thai, but that isn't always the case.
Tuk-tuk drivers are famous for their up-sells and scams. Drivers lingering around tourist magnets such as Bangkok's Khao San Road may even refuse to take you somewhere in exchange for an honest fare. They would rather wait for a sucker willing buy into a scam — it's more profitable than actually providing transportation!
Tip: Never agree to let your tuk-tuk driver stop at shops or give you a "free tour."
Go ahead and enjoy a tuk-tuk ride — or a motorbike-taxi ride if you want a seriously hair-raising experience — then hail a metered taxi with honest driver for your next excursion across the city.