The rideshare app enjoys wide popularity as a travel tool, and why not? Anyone with a mobile device can arrange a quick pick-up, and the rides frequently (but not always) come in at a lower price than the expense of a taxi trip. However, it's easy to make mistakes that eat into those benefits of savings and convenience.
Whether you prefer Lyft, Uber, or some other service, it pays to wring top value out of each expenditure. Three ways to get that done: avoid surge pricing, use pool pricing when possible, and take advantage of promotions.
Avoid Surge Pricing
It's a classic supply-and-demand situation, and consumer complaints are unlikely to slay these charges. We're stuck with them, much like the hated airline baggage fees. Don't get angry. Just avoid the surge.
Be certain you understand that at surge time, a standard taxi fare might prove cheaper. Don't assume Uber and Lyft are always your best choices.
In order to sidestep surges, you must first understand how the systems work. When demand for drivers exceeds availability, prices climb. Once enough cars are available to meet the demand in a given area, surge pricing will taper off and normal levels will return.
Companies usually notify potential customers of a surge when prices exceed twice the normal rate. You'll have to confirm that you understand the rate, usually by approving a multiplier. That's where it gets tricky. Many novices don't understand this concept, nor do they have regular prices memorized for a given trip.
Remember: a lack of experience with these settings will not necessarily garner much sympathy during an appeal to the company. You could be stuck with a huge surge fare. Many of the riders who complain about outrageous surge-related charges probably weren't paying enough attention at the outset.
The obvious advice is to sit down, relax, and wait for the surge to end. But that isn't always possible.
Mitigating policies do exist. Uber, for example, grants a 25 percent credit for future rides to first-time surge victims. But if you have a $640 fare, will that ease your distress?
One key strategy is to reserve a ride well in advance and lock in a rate that's acceptable. This is especially important when you know you'll be traveling at a time when demand could surge. The risk is locking in a higher rate, and then seeing no surge actually occurred. At rush hour, that's often an acceptable risk.
On Uber, simply tap the "schedule a ride" button above the vehicle option slider. You'll be given date options and a time selection in 15-minute increments.
For Lyft, tap "set pickup" and follow the prompts. This option is available only in selected Lyft markets, but the company claims "more are coming soon."
- On Uber, be certain to start with UberX rather than the other ride options. Although there are times when large groups benefit from UberGroup, the X setting provides the best chance for a lower price. Caution: there are times when going to UberSelect might produce a lower surge rate, but the starting price is higher because the quality of vehicle is better.
- You can also tap a "fare estimate" button. It will give you a range of costs for the upcoming ride. Both Uber and Lyft provide this service on their websites.
- There is a smartphone app for this situation, appropriately named SurgeProtector. Download it for iOS devices and then take a look at nearby areas where pricing might be more favorable.
- Catch a ride with companies that do not impose surge pricing. For example, Juno is a service operating in New York that does not charge riders more for peak travel periods. It merged recently with Israel-based Gett. Another example is Wingz, which operates mostly in Texas and the West Coast.
- One final thought on avoiding the surge: take a walk. Sometimes, a few blocks in a big city such as New York will take you out of the surge zone.
Use the Pool Option when Practical
UberPool requires riders to share their trips with strangers. Not exactly the most enticing marketing sentence ever written, is it?
But using that setting for your impending Uber ride can save significant money, and sometimes there is no stranger.
That's because by agreeing to UberPool, you're only saying it's fine to pick up someone else or become a part of someone else's ride. Who gets dropped off first? It's usually based on the most efficient route between the multiple geographic points in the equation. You must agree to abide by that decision. In exchange, the savings can add up over several rides.
Lyft's Plus option allows up to six passengers to travel for one fare. Keep in mind that Lyft Plus fares vary by location, so it's best to use the "Estimate Trip Cost" widget to explore prices prior to booking.
If you're splitting the costs among riders, it often makes much more sense to call for a group option.
Uber will allow employees to use 14 commuter benefits cards when paying for UberPool rides. These benefits amount to pre-tax income, so if your employer offers one of these cards, take advantage of this offer.
Take Advantage of Promotions
First-time Uber riders in the United States can get that initial trip at no cost (up to $15) by entering promotional code HIFREERIDE. Lyft displays a series of coupon codes that can add up to $20 in savings.
Note that these offers are focused on attracting new riders rather than rewarding the loyalty of existing customers. But sites such as ridely.com keep track of Uber and Lyft promo codes that will save money after your initial ride.
Another opportunity: rideshare travelers can accumulate award points for airfare discounts and hotel deals.
For example, Lyft offers the chance to earn Delta Skymiles. Standard rides earn a mile-per-dollar spent, but airport runs triple that reward. You link your two accounts with a few clicks on a sign-up webpage. Note that tolls, tips, and taxes/fees do not count toward Skymiles.
Uber has a similar deal with the Starwood Preferred Guest Program. Earn one Starpoint for every $2 spent with Uber, and double that reward for Uber runs purchased during the course of a Starwood hotel stay.
If you're a member of the IHG Rewards Club and new to Uber, sign up for the service using promotional code IHG to get the first ride for free (up to $20) and 2,000 club points.
Uber will provide a $5 credit for members who refer non-members to the service. The new member gets $5 off each of their first four rides within a 90-day period. They must use a unique "invite code" that is your Uber identity.
Finally, check your Uber home page for a list of local "Uber credits" that can be earned at local businesses. In a recent month, Uber offered 10 percent back on purchases at Walgreens, Dunkin' Donuts, and Regal Cinemas. You must join Visa Local Offers to qualify.