UPDATE: Uber has launched UberX in Panama. You can find my review here.
UPDATE 2 1/20/16: Recently, Uber has both lowered the price of UberX, and raised the price of UberBlack (which is the service reviewed in this article.) UberX is now more than 50% cheaper than UberX. If you are interested in Uber, make sure to check out my review of UberX.
There is a good chance that if you follow the news, you have heard about Uber, the 40 billion dollar ride sharing company that operates across the globe. Uber has been the source of a lot of controversy, and has its share of ardent supporters and detractors. Uber has been operating in Panama for almost a year, a during that time, my wife and I have used it on many occasions, mixing it in with our use of street taxis as our primary method to get around in Panama. Over this time, I’ve had enough experience with the service to give a full and honest review, both the positives and the negatives.
First, before I can give my review, I want to explain how Uber operates for those who may not be familiar with it. Uber is a car service that you request using an app on your smartphone. The app uses your phones GPS to determine your location, and shows you how long it is to a car in your area will be available to pick you up. When you request a car, you get the name and picture of your driver and the car they are driving, and you can see where there car is on the map and how close it is to get to you. Once in the ride, Uber bills itself as a premium service, with clean new cars and professional drivers. Uber is also cashless. You do not pay the driver when you exit the ride, rather it bills to a credit card you keep on file with Uber. Uber fares are metered, so you are charged by the distance and time of your rides. Uber charges a $1.75 (UPDATE: now $1.85) base fare for starting the ride, then charges $0.43 a kilometer (UPDATE: now $0.47) and $0.20 per minute (UPDATE: now $0.21) of the ride. There is a $4 minimum fare (UPDATE: now $4.20) that you will be assessed if your meter does not equal at least 4 dollars. With all of the issues with taxis in Panama, you would think that Uber would be a slam dunk for expats in Panama to use as their go to service to get around. However, in my experience, I have not found that to be the case. While Uber is definitely preferred for certain circumstances, I still prefer street taxis for most of my trips.
First off, let me discuss what Uber does well. As promised, their cars are very nice. They are all clean, have working AC, working doors, windows, seats aren’t busted, etc. Some even have TVs in them. Compared to your average taxi, which usually seems like it’s a cardboard box on wheels, there is no comparison. Drivers also keep water bottles in their cars that you can drink or take with you to your destination, free of charge. Not every Uber car has them (they are supposed to), but most do. Also, Uber drivers can not turn down a fare. So that means no more having to find 4 taxis who are willing to take you where you want to go. While Uber will only pick you up from locations where they have a car in range, they are supposed to take you anywhere you want to go. While we’ve never personally taken them farther than Arrijan, drivers have told us that they would take a passenger to David if they wanted to.
And while most of the time Uber is a more expensive service than taxis, it is actually better priced for long trips. Anyone who has experience with taxis knows that it only takes a few kilometers for your taxi ride to go from $3 to $15. This is because while there is a set fare schedule by the government, taxi cabs really make up the fares as they go along. So if they are taking you within the city center, they will usually not charge more than a couple of dollars, but anywhere outside of that, they raise the price significantly. For example, when we have wanted to go the Miraflores Locks from our house, cabs that we talked to quoted us $15-$25 dollars. With Uber it is about $10. When we went to visit my wife’s mother in Arrijan, we paid about $15 for the fare with Uber. No way we could get a cab that cheap. So if you are going anywhere outside of the city center, Uber can often be cheaper than cabs. The exception to this rule is for their price fixed zones, where they charge you a set fare regardless of the price. These zones are the airport, Gamboa, Panama Pacifico, and Colon. It is $35 (plus tolls) to the airport, $40 to Gamboa, $20 to Panama Pacifico, and $80 to Colon. In some cases, these prices still may beat cabs, but other times it will be more expensive. Also, on holidays, Uber can be a better deal, since taxi drivers usually raise their fares significantly.
Uber is also an overall safer experience. Since Uber drivers work on a meter that includes time, and not a flat fare (which cabs are), they don’t have financial incentives to drive like maniacs, since if they are stuck in traffic or go slowly, they are not financially penalized like taxi drivers are. So they drive calmer, and obey more road rules than taxis. You wont find them running red lights, making hard turns, or changing lanes every second to try shave a few seconds off your ride. This has its downsides, since taxis do tend to get you places faster, and they always seem to have a shortcut. So Uber will be a slower, but more peaceful and safe ride. There is also the issue of personal safety in terms of robbery. Now I’ll start off by saying I think the threat of robbery in taxis is somewhat overblown. My wife and I combined have taken what I guess would be over 500 taxi rides since we moved to Panama a year ago, and we’ve never had a time where we we had an incident or felt unsafe In fact, in all the years my wife had lived in Panama growing up, she never had an incident with the taxis. However, that does not mean that they never happen. You will hear from some expats who have been robbed in the cabs, sometimes at knifepoint or gunpoint. The risk of this is greater at night and if you are a woman travelling alone. Overall the risk is low, but it is something to consider with taxis. With Uber, since you have their picture and name, it would be pretty stupid for them to try to rob you. So there is that added piece of mind.
The beginning part of my review may sound like we are people who love Uber. And in certain situations, that is true. However, Uber has a number of drawbacks compared to traditional taxis that I’ll share in this next section, and it limits our use of them.
The first issue is the price. While there are certain circumstances, as I mentioned above, where the price of Uber is cheaper or comparable to taxis, that is the exception, rather than the rule. I’ve found for your average in town taxi ride, Uber’s are usually on average about twice the price. As I mentioned before, no matter how short a, Uber ride is, it’s always at least 4 bucks. Cabs, but comparison, have a minimum fare of $1.50. It may seem like a fare you would never get, but my wife pays it to work every day, and I pay it often home from the grocery store. In fact, getting a $4 fare on Uber is rarer than getting a $1.50 taxi fare. Usually, even on short in town rides, especially with traffic, Uber runs about $5-$6, sometimes more. Compare this to cabs, where comparable fares would be $2-$3. For example, yesterday because of traffic, I paid $8.60 with Uber to get to San Francisco. That’s normally a $3 fare, maybe I would’ve paid $3.50 or $4 because of the traffic, but not more than that. You may be thinking “oh, whats a couple of extra dollars.” And if you are just taking one ride, that is true. But for those who live car free like we do, it adds up. We probably take 50-100 cab or Uber rides a month, so using all Uber vs. all cabs is several hundred dollars more a month. That definitely adds up. UPDATE: Uber has solved much of this pricing issue by implementing UberX in Panama, which is their low cost service. It is about 40% cheaper (UPDATE: now more than 50% cheaper) than regular Uber (Uber Black), and it’s much closer to price parity with taxis. You can read more about the UberX service here.
Uber has made the price differential worse by implementing “surge pricing,” which they implement during periods of high demand and low supply of drivers. This is allegedly because they think surge pricing will bring more drivers online to work, but honestly, I haven’t seen that to be the case, and it just ends up being a frustration to the users. Surge pricing is where they raise fares by a certain multiplier (I’ve seen anywhere between 1.3 to 2.7 times), where everything, from base fare to distance and mileage to minimum fare gets multiplied by that amount. If Uber is in surge pricing, there will be a little lightning bolt sign on your screen, and you will be asked to confirm surge pricing before you order. I have noticed less and less cars available lately, and more surge pricing. So it creates a poor choice for the user between paying outrageous fares or waiting a long time for a car.
Another issue for expats is that you actually seem to need to be able to speak more Spanish when using Uber than when using cabs. This may seem counter intuitive, since Uber finds your location directly from your GPS and you can enter your destination in the Uber app, but it ends up being the case. The reason being is that Uber drivers almost always call to confirm the pick up point. I understand why they do this, because sometimes the GPS isn’t 100% accurate, but this leads to a lot of having to explain where you located in Spanish to your driver so that he can pick you up, or else he will likely get lost. If you are hailing a cab off the street, you don’t need to explain your location to them. All you have to do is explain your destination to them. Which takes a lot less words usually than it does with Uber drivers, which brings me to my next issue with Uber.
Uber drivers just don’t know the city as well as taxi drivers. Often, it’s not even close. So when you tell them your destination, you’ll get a lot more blank stares from Uber drivers than taxi drivers. So that means a lot more explaining, and sometimes Uber drivers getting lost on their way there, which incurs higher fares that you are on the hook for. Even though Uber gives you the option to put your destination in the GPS which is supposed to give the drivers turn by turn directions, I’ve noticed that this often doesn’t help. Drivers still get lost or take long routes, which leave you on the hook for extra fares. Taxi drivers on the other hand, seem to almost always know your destination, or at least landmarks close to it. And if they get lost, you are not on the hook for any extra fare, since you pay a flat fare based off of your destination.
This goes to a bigger issue with Uber drivers. The service is often not as good as advertised. People often like to dump on the service of taxi drivers here, and I honestly think some of it is unfair. They may not always be the most friendly people, but a lot of them are actually very nice, friendly, helpful, etc, especially if you speak some Spanish. When I go home from the grocery store, most of them get out of the car and help me unload groceries. Some like to make conversation and just be generally friendly. There are a few bad apples, but overall I find them pretty good. I don’t, on a whole, find Uber service much better. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve had some truly fantastic Uber drivers, but most are just okay. They get you from where you’re at to where you are going, same as a taxi. And we’ve had some truly horrible service with Uber drivers. It’s not frequent, but it’s happened enough that it has left somewhat of a bad impression of Uber drivers as a whole. Some service has been worse than even bad service we get with taxis. Uber allows you a sytem to rate drivers 1-5 and leave comments, but I’ve found that the rating system doesn’t do much. Out of 5 stars, the vast majority of the drivers are between 4.5 and 4.8, and I haven’t found a service difference between the 4.5 and 4.8 driver. Sometimes the 4.5’s are better than the 4.8’s. Since you have to rate Uber drivers, unless people have a really bad experience, most just put 5 as their default. Overall Uber does have a slight service advantage on taxis, but it’s not as large as one would think.
Uber has a customer service department you can write to to address complaints and try to dispute fares if you feel you have been taken on a bad route, but honestly, more often than not, they are not very helpful. So when drivers make mistakes, you are stuck with the consequences of their errors.
I know this is a wordy article, so I’m going to wrap it up. In our experience, Uber is worth it for rides late at night (after 10pm), during public holidays, to far destinations or destinations cabs may not want to take you, or when traveling with valuables (we do professional photography, and always take Uber when we are travelling with our gear). Other than that, we use street taxis to get around. Uber has some definitely advantages, but a lot of negatives that weigh on it. I would recommend it to car-less expats for some situations, but not to replace taxis for every day transit. UPDATE: With UberX we use it a lot more now, and it’s replaced taxis in most situations.
If you would like to try Uber for yourself, the one good thing is you can do so pretty much for free. Use our code 2zh9a and you’ll get $10 credit free when you first sign up, which can be used towards one or more fares (we get $10 too).