I’ve long felt that taxis are underrated, scenic time savers that can zip you effortlessly from one sight to the next — except during rush-hour traffic, when they’re stuck like everyone else. In the past, cabs were expensive for a lone budget traveler, but a good deal for a group of three or four. Now with the advent of ride-sharing services like Uber, there are more deals than ever for getting around European cities.
One of my favorite cab experiences is to hire a taxi after dinner for a private, tailor-made tour of floodlit Paris. In my Paris guidebook I’ve included a hit list of the great floodlit monuments and a rip-out map for the cabbie to follow. Now, in the age of ride-sharing, the whole party just got a lot more fun — and about 30 percent less expensive.
The last time I was in Paris, I tried this “taxi tour” with Uber instead of a cab. It was a great little gig for our driver — who really got into the fun (and kept my guidebook’s map as a souvenir). I hopped out at each stop with my fellow travelers to shoot goofy selfies and celebrate the magnificent floodlit monuments — so emblematic of the City of Light. A highlight was singing Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Elysees” song with our driver (even without remembering most of the lyrics) as we approached the Paris Ferris wheel, all lit up and fancy. What a fine way to cap the day — and especially fun after a tasty dinner and a bottle of wine. The price for our Uber ride: about $40 for a 75-minute party all over Paris.
Uber is available in a number of European cities, including Amsterdam, London, Prague, Berlin, Rome, Athens, and Vienna, and rides can be cheaper than taxis. Like at home, you request a car via the Uber app on your mobile device, and the fare automatically gets charged to your credit card. You’ll need an Internet connection to request a car, so it’s best to do it when you’re on Wi-Fi (unless you have an international data-roaming plan). They can pick you up anywhere, and you can text them if you can’t find them. Keep in mind that some countries don’t allow traditional ride-sharing that uses private drivers, so you may find your Uber car is a licensed cab or from a limousine service — and can be more expensive.
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European taxi companies are not standing by and letting Uber take over. Several apps work like Uber but are for booking a regular cab. One popular European app is Hailo, which covers a number of cities, mostly in Great Britain and Ireland. Another is MyTaxi, which operates in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Poland, Spain, and Italy. For pricey limousine service and airport pickups, there’s Blacklane.
The “gig economy” has also changed the way you can pay for a taxi. European cab drivers still prefer cash, but many have started taking credit cards. London, for example, has required all its official “black cabs” to accept credit cards by October 2016. For convenience, you can’t beat a smartphone app: Uber, Blacklane, MyTaxi, and Hailo all use credit cards exclusively.
There are still plenty of times when taking a taxi makes sense, or is your only alternative. If you didn’t bring a smartphone or don’t have coverage, it’s easy to flag down a cab in some cities; otherwise, you can always find cabs at a taxi stand. These stands are often listed as prominently as subway stations on city maps; look for the little Ts (or ask a local to direct you to the nearest one). When hiring a cab, make sure it has a big, prominent taxi-company logo and telephone number. Avoid using unmarked beaters with makeshift taxi lights on top.
A taxi zipping you right to your hotel can be a relief after a long flight or train ride. But dishonest cabbies sometimes lurk at major transit points, ready to take advantage of travelers who are jet-lagged and travel-weary — and at their most susceptible to getting ripped off. To avoid problems at airports and train stations, head for the official taxi stand and join the queue, rather than flagging down a taxi. (If you don’t want to worry about getting conned the minute you arrive at a new destination — or to save money — skip the cab and link to the city center by public transportation.)
Shrink and tame big European cities by hopping into the occasional taxi or using a ride-sharing service. By knowing when a private ride is the best way to get somewhere, you’ll save time, money, and energy.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.