I used Uber for the first time during a recent visit to Boston. We were staying downtown and going to the suburbs for a few family events.
On a Saturday evening, we took a taxi to Newton, Mass., and paid $31 (U.S.) on the metre. The ride back with Uber cost $20. Such savings are hard to resist.
I found other benefits of our Boston trips with the Uber app. Drivers were friendly and came quickly, often before we finished saying goodbye. Cars were clean and comfortable and no tips were required. You give your credit card number to Uber, allowing the driver to enter an amount into the app after your ride ends.
But this can create surprises when you check your receipt. For instance, after a trip to Logan Airport, I saw an $8.75 (U.S.) “Uber driver-partner incentive fee” on my bill. What was that?
Uber’s website in Boston said the fee was put in place to offset the cost and time of serving the airport, including returning from the airport without a passenger. If I had been told about the fee in advance by the company or the driver, I’d have considered taking a shuttle bus instead.
This is a minor quibble compared to a story I heard from Caroline in Toronto, who prefers to go only by her first name.
She uses Uber to set up rides for her 80-year-old mother-in-law, whose home is 17 kilometres away from Caroline’s. That’s about a 20-minute trip.
Many Uber drivers own their own cars, and don’t work for taxi companies. They are part of the UberX division of the company, based in San Francisco.
But on one occasion, Caroline sent her mother-in-law home with a driver who worked for a taxi company, but who had partnered with Uber to earn more money between company rides. This driver charged an eye-popping $534 for the trip and added an $89 tip.
Caroline worried that fraud was involved. “Uber finally admitted to me that the driver keyed the information into their system incorrectly,” she says. “But there appeared to be no recourse.”
Geoff at the help desk said he understood Caroline’s frustration, but UberTaxi (the service through which this cab ride was booked) was a separate product from UberX.
“UberTaxi simply allows you to hail a regular taxi through the app and use our platform for payment,” he told her. “The driver is responsible for entering the fare. Please contact the taxi company to resolve this issue.”
When she asked about which taxi company was used (her mother-in-law couldn’t remember), Caroline learned that Uber did not give out the name for security purposes. As for the driver, only a first name was available.
“Usually, you would go to your city website to find that information,” said Kissan at the help desk, while not giving any links to guide her search.
Uber finally waived the fare and gave Caroline an $80 credit — but only after she spent time and energy fighting back.
“In all, Uber had me on the hook for $534 for about 24 to 28 painful hours. I had to call my credit card company to signal a possible fraudulent charge. It took a lot of time and was really, really stressful,” she said.
Susie Heath, a spokeswoman for Uber Canada, said UberTaxi drivers charge standard taxi meter rates set by the City of Toronto. There is a 20 per cent tip in the app, which can be adjusted by the rider.
Every ride on the platform is tracked by GPS. So if there is a discrepancy with fares, Uber’s customer support team can look at the trip, see where the ride began and ended and adjust the fare accordingly.
Uber can also take drivers off its platform if they make mistakes or act badly. An UberX driver in Guelph was removed permanently last month after close to a dozen students complained of being harassed.
• Customer service can be an issue with Uber. Technology companies often prefer to answer questions with stock responses online than take your calls or emails.
Uber may give you a goodwill credit if you complain. But persistence may be required to get a refund.
• The Better Business Bureau in Canada has no listing for Uber. The BBB in San Francisco closed 512 complaints in the past 12 months and gives Uber a C- minus rating on a scale of A+ (highest) to F (lowest).
• Finally, read the fine print. On its Toronto website, Uber says it’s not a transportation provider, so there’s no need to tip. Rates may change at times of intense demand to keep vehicles available. And there is an additional surcharge of $15 on Pearson Airport pickups, which is required by the airport authority.