Relying on ride-hailing services: How to work the system so you aren’t left without a ride

May 22, 2022

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Ride-hailing services have made our lives a lot easier in many ways. When I lived in New York City on the West Side over a decade ago, I found it nearly impossible to hail a cab without first walking several blocks east. Just a year later, there was a dramatic shift as I could then order an Uber easily from my iPhone.

Traveling to and from airports also seemed easier back then, and maybe even more affordable. Instead of renting a car in certain cities, you could rely on Uber to take you practically anywhere. Normally when traveling to Los Angeles I’d rent a car, but with parking expensive and often hard to find, I decided instead to use a ride-hailing service on my last trip.

I found it more affordable and a timesaver since I no longer had to drive around searching for a parking space. For reasons like this, I will continue to rely on these alternative transportation options on my travels. However, a few recent incidents have caused me to re-evaluate whether we can fully count on ride-hailing services, especially in certain areas and at certain times of the day.

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In one case, I had a 6:15 a.m. flight from Gainesville, Florida (GNV) to LaGuardia Airport in New York City (LGA) that first went through Charlotte, North Carolina. The driver that picked me up around 4:30 a.m. told me I was lucky to get a driver that early in the morning as normally no one is on the road at that time.

On a trip the next month to Anaheim, I was flying out of LAX, also around 6 a.m., and was concerned it might be a similar situation. Since Anaheim is 50 minutes from LAX on the rare LA day without traffic, I decided to switch hotels to be right next to LAX. Luckily the Marriott I was staying at let me make the switch the night before, and I had no issue getting to the airport on time.

Why we missed our flight

Fast forward to a recent trip to Paso Robles, California. Since we were taking a 6:30 a.m. flight out of San Luis Obispo Airport, which is 25 minutes away, I was again concerned. I attempted to change hotels, but this time the Marriott we were staying at wouldn’t let me make the switch (because it was prepaid and a franchise).

(Photo by shutter_o/Shutterstock)

The front desk clerk suggested I use one of the schedule-a-ride services that Uber and Lyft offer. I scheduled an Uber for 4:30 the next morning. It showed the ride was confirmed and it still showed that when we woke up the next morning. Then at 4:30 a.m., exactly when the ride was supposed to show up, I got a notification that it was canceled. My husband and I then tried for the next 90 minutes to get another car on both the Uber and Lyft apps, but we had no luck. Both showed no cars in the area.

There were no car services, no rental cars, and no taxi options either at this time of the day, so we missed our flight. To their credit, Uber sufficiently apologized. This did lead me on the path, however, to figure out how to make sure this doesn’t happen to other travelers. It was a helpless feeling, sitting in the hotel lobby watching the time go by and knowing we were not going to make our flight. Needless to say, it was complicated to get another flight out that day (which required getting a lift from a friend to LAX). I’ve since learned my experience is far from an isolated one.

Passengers sound off

Lily Augustadt from Knoxville, Tennessee, told TPG, “I had an Uber scheduled from my house to the airport several days in advance, and morning of, all I got was ‘no drivers in the area.’ I had to drive to the airport and pay to park last minute to avoid missing my flight.”

Stephanie Hardiman Simon was attempting to fly out of Memphis last year for a 6:30 a.m. flight and said she tried in real-time to get an Uber around 4 a.m. She says hotel staff assured her she shouldn’t have an issue because “people are out late coming back from the clubs.” But things didn’t go as planned. “No Ubers, Lyfts, etc. were to be found the next morning. And neither was the hotel staff when I left. I had to randomly look up livery services on Yelp and found a wonderful guy that came to get me within 15 minutes. Thankful I was up early enough to account for the madness and my constant need to be at the airport early.”

No guarantees

I reached out to both Uber and Lyft to get some insight into all of this.

Uber pointed out their Reserve and new Travel options may be best for those looking to schedule rides in advance. Through my research, I learned that the old schedule feature on Uber doesn’t match a driver with a rider ahead of time, but the newer “Reserve” option attempts to do just that. According to Uber.com, “An Uber Reserve trip is reserved, and a driver assigned in advance of the trip time. Once a driver has been assigned to the trip, the fare is then locked and will not change.” Even when using this option, the ride isn’t confirmed until you get alerted that you have been matched with a driver. This still isn’t a guarantee.

However, if you reserve one of Uber’s Premium options, Premier Black or Premium Black SUV at least 2 hours in advance, you will get $50 in Uber Cash if the driver cancels or is more than 5 minutes late. On the flip side, note that with the Reserve option, if you cancel less than an hour before pickup you will face a fee for canceling, which could be equivalent to the full fare (depending on which class you booked).

screenshot of an Uber trip from JFk to Manhattan
(Screenshot courtesy of Uber)

Lyft has a schedule option as well, but the company’s website makes it clear, “We can’t guarantee a driver will be available in your area at the specific time the ride is being requested for.” The company does, however, tell us they leverage current marketplace conditions and historical patterns to try to incentivize drivers to come online during times of high demand, including early mornings and late nights.

What to do when a ride isn’t available

If you are relying on a ride-hailing service early in the morning or late at night, and don’t want to risk a scheduled ride, you may want to seek other options that you can set up and confirm in advance. Christine Parfitt Schwartz says when she flies out of Medford, Oregon (MFR) and tries to order an Uber, she always gets “not available.” She says she now goes old school and calls a cab.

CF Gilberg adds that on two occasions he has had to pivot from getting a ride at an airport to spontaneously renting a car. He recalls on one trip into Denver, he tried to get an Uber/Lyft to go downtown. “I couldn’t get one to arrive in under 45 minutes, and costs ranged from $125-$150 when one became available. I ended up getting an Avis car … a brand-new Escalade. $35 for the night, plus $4 in gas, and free street parking overnight. I dropped it off at the downtown site the next day.”

There are also black car services that can be pre-ordered. When using these services, just remember to read reviews and book ahead of time. These services often have cancellation fees and, in some cases may be significantly more expensive than ride-hailing services or cabs.

If you need a ride to the airport in your hometown and have a car, it’s also a good idea to do some math.

It may be worth it to drive your own car to the airport and park. In Miami, I will park at Miami International Airport if the trip is 4 days or less. It’s $17 a day in MIA’s main garages, so four days comes out to $68. That would be the equivalent of a round-trip Uber or Lyft for me. If you are gone for a week or more, however, that could prove to be cost-prohibitive. A 10-day trip would be $170. Many airports do also have park-and-ride lots that offer lower prices, so if time isn’t an issue, you may also want to explore that option.

LAX’s parking lots fill up quickly. (Photo via Getty Images Steve Whiston – Fallen Log Photography)

To be fair though, I’ve never had an issue getting an Uber in Miami. Also, there have been issues lately with finding parking spaces at MIA. In fact, many airports around the country are experiencing parking issues due to more travelers driving themselves to the airport. If your local airport has similar issues, just make sure to add extra time for parking.

Related: Airport parking crisis? How to save money while securing a space

Bottom line

There are a lot of factors to consider when arranging a ride to an airport. The key to it all is planning ahead and doing your research. If you are in a big city like Chicago, Miami, or NYC, ride-hailing options may still be the easiest (and potentially the most affordable way to go). If you are in a smaller city or a significant distance from the airport, depending on the time of your flight, this is when you may want to explore other options.

Featured photo by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

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