Your Private Driver: The Uber Traveller

This column provides tips, insights, and observations on TNCs like Uber and Lyft from a driver that’s worked with them for several years.

The consideration of whether or not to utilize a rental car on your next vacation isn’t anything new. For a few years now cost-conscious travelers have discovered that using a TNC service in lieu of renting a car can be cheaper for most visitors. Yes, that compact car from Enterprise says that it only costs $20 a day, but after insurance, taxes and fees, gasoline, and especially parking, that rental car can get significantly more expensive to deal with over the course of a trip. Business travelers have largely already realized this, and as a result Uber and Lyft have significantly eroded rental car companies’ share of the ground transportation market.

Earlier this month, my wife and I went on a week-long vacation to New Orleans. For the first time, we decided to forgo the rental car and use Uber for all of our ground transportation needs. Part of the reason was definitely cost; the rates for anything larger than a Smart Car were around 30 bucks per day, and that didn’t include gas or parking. After accounting for gas, insurance, and valet parking charges at our hotel, estimates for getting around via Uber came out to be about hundred dollars less than what the rental would have cost us.

The experience was a lot smoother than I was prepared for. Instead of hassling with paperwork at the rental car counter, we walked across the street from baggage claim at Louis Armstrong Airport where a driver welcomed us to the city and safely drove us to our hotel near the French Quarter (the Jung Hotel, which I actually recommend to anyone visiting the city). Thanks to our central location, we didn’t need to take as many Uber trips as we originally thought; walking or using the streetcar was fine for short trips. Our largest expense, other than going to or from the airport, were the three round trips to and from the Pontchartain Convention Center. Add on one more round trip to the UNO Arena and account for being hit with Surge pricing a few times, and our total Uber bill for the week (including tips) came to $276. Not as cheap as we originally calculated, but it still came out to significantly less than the total expenditure for a rental car: roughly $290 at the counter after taxes and fees, on top of about $25 to fill up the gas tank, $20 per day for hotel parking, extra parking charges at our various destinations, and the unneeded stress of navigating through an unfamiliar city. Not much of a contest for me.

Something interesting I noticed during my vacation was that ratings culture is a bit different in New Orleans. Every driver that we rode with that week had a rating of 4.9 stars or higher. In Southern California, drivers with ratings over 4.8 stars are like unicorns. The drivers out there weren’t doing business any differently than the ones back home; I’m not sure if their passengers have different expectations or if Angelenos are just jerks. Regardless, it’s something that I’d like to explore further if the opportunity presents itself.

Speaking of Angelenos, we also tried the experience of using Lyft as opposed to renting a car in Los Angeles. L.A. has some unique circumstances that can make renting a car more desirable than dealing with a TNCs, but knowing that you won’t be stressing out in traffic may make the experience worthwhile regardless.

For starters, getting picked up from LAX is a bit more of a pain in the butt than at other airports. From baggage claim, you have to haul your luggage back upstairs to the departures level, request a ride, then wait about 20-30 minutes as your driver fights through nightmarish traffic to pick you up… assuming he or she shows up at all. Drivers here will often call and ask where you’re going first, and if they decide that the destination isn’t far enough, they’ll make up some sad excuse about why they can’t pick you up so you’ll eat a five-dollar cancellation fee on their behalf. By the time you’ve gone through all of that madness, you may wish you had taken one of the rental car shuttles instead. For what it’s worth, the Uber experience is far smoother and less profile-y if you decide to use one of the other regional airports (Hollywood Burbank, John Wayne, Ontario, or Long Beach) instead.

The spread-out nature of Los Angeles also means that continued reliance on Lyft or Uber can add up quickly if you’re not familiar with how large the area is; Disneyland is a long way from Hollywood, which is itself pretty far away from the beach. We lowered our costs by using Metro Rail where it was available, but don’t expect getting from place to place to be cheap. Just a day of Lyfting around the west and central portions of the city came to over $50. That said, the extra expense may still be worth it to not deal with wearing your legs out in stop-and-go traffic or taking fifteen minutes circling the block to find a parking space on Third Street.

In fact, regardless of cost, the only times I’d recommend renting a car instead of taking an Uber or Lyft would be if you’re travelling with babies (TNC vehicles don’t have car seats, so you’d have to bring your own, which is a cumbersome affair) or if you expect to be conducting your business far away from the city center (or just visiting relatives out in the sticks). Yes, we got surged on our ride to the airport, but it was worth it not to have to worry about finding a cheap gas station to fill up the rental car before returning it.

Sekani Wright is an experienced TNC driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!