5 Frugal Reasons I Always Choose Uber (or Lyft) Over Taxis

5 Frugal Reasons I Always Choose Uber (or Lyft) Over Taxis
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I'm car-less in Chicago, and for the most part, this works for me. Chicago has a great public transit system which I utilize daily to go to work, run errands and meet up with friends. But sometimes taking the bus or the train is inconvenient (after grocery shopping) or impossible (late at night), and I have to decide whether to take a cab or use my phone to request a ride from an Uber or Lyft driver. 

To the untrained eye, these three options might not seem much different: after all, no matter what I choose, a car will pick me up and drive me home, and I will pay for the privilege. But there are actually a lot of factors to consider whenever I have to make this decision, and almost every time, the apps win the imaginary cat fight in my head.

And I'll be the first to admit I'm a bit conflicted about that, because as much as I love the convenience and low cost of an Uber or Lyft ride, I also know that these popular ride-sharing apps have brought about some hard times for cab drivers, whose once-steady incomes have plummeted as more and more would-be passengers look to their phones for a ride home.

But there's a reason why these apps are so popular: in addition to being significantly cheaper, they're often faster and almost always more convenient then hailing a cab on the street. For anyone who lives in a city serviced by Uber and Lyft, knowing the pros and cons of using these apps is key, so I pitted my experiences with Uber, Lyft and taxis against each other in five different categories and declared a winner for each to help you make the best decision the next time you need a ride.

Wait, how do Lyft and Uber even work?

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If you're new to ride-sharing apps, you might need a little bit of background on how exactly they work. Both are available for Android and iOS devices, and offer people who need to get somewhere the ability to call a car at the click of a button. Both also process their payments through the app, so no money is exchanged during your ride unless you want to tip your driver in cash. Each offer a tool that roughly estimates the amount of money you'll pay for your ride, although depending on traffic and route, the accuracy of this estimate can vary.

Uber has a few different options you can select, each with different pricing and specs:

  • Pool -- A driver will pick you up in their car and take you to your destination, but you might stop to pick someone else up who's going in the same direction. In order to use Uber Pool, there can only be two people or less in your party. This just launched in Chicago and is advertised as being up to 50 percent cheaper than Uber X, although I've found it to be on average around 30 percent cheaper--still cheaper though.
  • Uber X -- A driver will pick you up in their car and bring you to your destination. You and your party will be the only passengers.
  • UberXL -- Like Uber X, but for bigger groups. The base rate is a little bit more, but you'll get a van or SUV that can comfortably fit at least six people.
  • UberTAXI -- A normal city taxi will pick you up and bring you to your destination. Typical taxi rates plus an Uber charge apply, so it's actually cheaper to catch a cab on the street, but this is nice if you're not in an area where taxis often prowl.
  • Select -- Uber X but upscale. You'll only get new, high-end cars with leather seats, but it comes with a higher price tag.
  • UberBLACK -- One step up from Select, UberBlack cars are (you guessed it) black luxury vehicles with black leather interiors. This is the most expensive Uber option, as it is by definition a luxury service.

One thing to note about Uber is their surge pricing, which can get obscene on busy weekend nights or during big events. As a rule I don't take Uber when there's even a slight surge, because even a 1.5 percent increase means I'll be paying at least as much as I'd pay for a regular cab.

Lyft also has a few different service tiers, but nowhere near as many as Uber:

  • Line -- Line is Lyft's version of Uber Pool. It's cheap and will get you where you're going, but you may stop to pick someone up on the way.
  • Lyft -- The standard ride-share trip. Someone picks you up in their car and drives you t your destination with no stops in between and no additional riders. It's cheaper than a cab.
  • Plus -- Sends you cars that seat six comfortably, have leather interiors, and cost a little bit more.

One advantage Lyft has over Uber (at least for its drivers) is that it gives riders the ability to virtually tip through the app. While Lyft does have surge pricing, it doesn't get as crazy as Uber's, because Lyft's surges cap out at 3x. If there's no cab in sight and Uber's surge is 10x, taking a Lyft is better than nothing.

Best Price: Uber Pool (*when there's no surge)

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I work downtown, and I live about five miles north of my office. A cab from my office to my apartment typically runs me about $18-$20, depending on the traffic, while an Uber X or a Lyft is usually around $13-$14. But here's where it gets crazy: Lyft Line's flat rate from my office to my house is $11.38 -- a little more than half as much as I'd pay for a cab. And yet the clear winner for price is Uber Pool, which charged me an unbelievable $7.49 the last time I took it home from work. That is 63 percent less than I'd pay for a cab ride TO THE SAME PLACE. It is REALLY difficult to justify taking a cab when you break it down like this. At this point, the only time I take normal city cabs is when both Uber and Lyft have surge pricing.

Most Available: Uber (*if you're in a city)

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Uber is now available in 68 countries across the globe, but it's not everywhere. If you live in a smaller city or town that Uber hasn't gotten to yet, chances are you're gonna have to take a cab, which, in my experience, take far longer on average to arrive than either Uber or Lyft if you're not in a central part of town.

Lyft is only available in select cities in the U.S., so if you're anywhere abroad, it's not going to be an option for you. In cities like Chicago where Lyft and Uber compete, Uber has a slight edge in its number of drivers, but many drivers work for both apps simultaneously.

Most Convenient: Uber

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Uber wins over Lyft in this category simply because it's got more drivers. But both ride-sharing apps beat out taxis by a mile when it comes to convenience.

For one thing, both offer hassle-free payment systems that don't require any in-car exchange of money. Most cabs claim to take credit cards, but as anyone who takes taxis often can tell you, many cab drivers will refuse to take anything but cash. Before Uber and Lyft came around, this was something that happened to me on a weekly basis, so often, in fact, that I started making it a point to ask every cab I hailed whether or not they took credit cards. Despite the legal requirements, about 40 percent of them would drive off when they heard I could only pay with plastic. This was super frustrating, because like any good Brad's Deals employee I make most of my purchases with a rewards credit card, and rarely carry cash. One of the things I loved the most about Uber the first time I used it was the fact that I never had to so much as talk about my payment method--let alone get in an argument over it.

Another common taxi problem that both Lyft and Uber solve is the shady route tactic. If you're from out of town or are unfamiliar with the neighborhood, some cab drivers will try and take advantage of your ignorance and drive you way out of the way to hike up the fare. But both Uber and Lyft have GPS maps that show you exactly where your destination is, and automatically pick the best route to get there. If you suspect your driver is taking the long way, you can pull out your phone and check, even if you don't know the area.

Best Customer Service: Lyft

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I've had mostly positive customer service experiences with both Lyft and Uber, so it's hard to pick a clear winner between the two, but Lyft gets the edge from the very informal Facebook poll I took on this subject.

My boyfriend left his phone in a Lyft car one night, and didn't notice until the morning. We got in touch with the driver when we realized it was missing and he drove miles out of his way to give it back. When an Uber driver forgot to turn off the meter after he dropped me off, I emailed Uber and they refunded me the extra dollars within 24 hours. I've also had a few Uber drivers come back to bring me things I'd left in their cars, and all of these experiences have been totally seamless, despite the fact that it's almost impossible to talk to an actual Uber or Lyft rep over the phone. If you leave something in a car, you'll be prompted to call your driver directly, and if you want to dispute a charge, you have to send an email.

On the flip side, I've had quite a few run-ins with cab-company customer service, none of which have been good. When I left my phone in a cab in Minneapolis in 2010, it was gone forever despite the hour I spent on the phone with the dispatcher trying to track it down. When an erratic taxi driver pulled over on the HIGHWAY and told me to get out, the company he drove for refused to refund the money I paid to get him to drop me off on an actual street (still five miles away from my house). Even if you remember to take a picture of the driver's licence/cab number (which you always should), there is no guarantee this will do any good when you file a dispute. I even have a friend who was run over by a taxi driver here in Chicago and never saw a cent for all the time she spent trying to hold the driver accountable.

Safety: Lyft

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I've heard cab drivers accuse Uber and Lyft of being dangerous, because "strangers are picking you up," but I have to say I feel safer using the ride-sharing apps than I do in regular taxis. For one thing, both apps allow me to rate my driver on a scale of 1-5, which is an incentive for drivers to be careful and courteous, and I can see what other passengers have rated my driver before he or she picks me up. I can also see their name and a picture of their face, so I know for sure that the car I'm getting into is legit, and the apps' GPS tracking systems can help me make sure I'm being taken in the right direction, even if I don't know the area.

I declared Lyft the winner in safety over Uber from personal experience and word of mouth. Every Lyft driver I've ever had has been a professional and safe driver, and for some reason all the friends I asked said they felt safer in Lyft cars than Uber. This is probably because of the driver screening process, which is slightly more rigorous for Lyft drivers than it is for Uber drivers. While both companies require a good car, a clean driving record and in-depth background check, Lyft drivers have to go through a mentor session with a current driver. These mentor sessions include a car inspection, a formal interview and a test drive, which can weed out candidates who just don't live up to their on-paper reputation.

I love the low cost and convenience of Uber and Lyft so much I've pretty much stopped using traditional cabs, but I want to hear about your experiences. Have you ever used a ride-sharing app? Did you like it better than taking a normal taxi? Tell me your stories in the comments!