Uber for International Travelers

  • 7 min read

"Here’s why you want to consider Uber on your next trip"

It all started when I tweeted from Guadalajara, Mexico that every taxi driver there, to date, had tried to cheat me. Everyone except for the drunk guy.

The average speed in town is about 5 mph, so he was cool with me.  I minded the drunk part a lot less than persistent micro-scams. Surprisingly, I got a tweet from Uber that said something like, “Next time, try Uber.”.

Great idea. Til then, I didn’t know Uber was active in most major cities internationally.

I’m going to leave debate on US exports of the gig economy to others and get right to the point: When Uber is bad, it is the worst of quotidian taxi scams plus the failure of an urgent tech need. When it is good, it is great.

Braver souls might even put Uber rides on the back of a scooter in Ho Chi Minh City on your bucket list. No kidding. It is one of the app choices at half the price of a regular car.

Uber (and other ride shares) are active in most global cities

Uber’s service in international cities is, mostly, a boon for travelers who tire of taxi mini-scams and micro-aggressions.  Ride shares are uber-convenient if you don’t speak the local language. Imagine transcribing "W Hotel" into Thai. Conversely, you enter the location name on your phone, just exactly like you do at home....and you're whisked, magically, to where you want to go. India’s issues aside, women travelers, especially, should cheer.

To be clear, I'm describing Uber's international services out of my own experience, only. That said, Uber is far less than perfect. Frustratingly, with a few simple changes, the international service could move from meh to marvelous.

1) Driver Training

The cars are always nice but Uber does not seem to train their international drivers at western levels. Perhaps there is cross-cultural confusion. But, there are armies of cross-cultural experts who could help Uber sort this out.

One example: I signaled to be picked up at the Saigon airport. Guy shows up 20 minutes after my app says he’ll arrive (tech failure). So, he’s late and still tries to negotiate a cash payment (training failure) in addition to the payment that would be auto charged on my card (asshole scam) when I entered the ride. Either that or he is untrained and completely clueless about how Uber works. There are local variations. Many Asian airports charge a fee to pick up or drop-off passengers. More than one Uber driver did not understand that Uber's one-fee clause includes their toll reimbursements, (training failure).

Next, Driver #1 asks me to talk to his wife who will explain about how things are different in Vietnam and how I need to learn Uber’s customs in this exotic land, (asshole scam). I got out of the car and cancelled the reservation. Then, I requested a new driver.

For the next 15 minutes Driver #1 (after I requested the new car) kept trying to convince me that he, too, was my new ride (yet another asshole move). I’ll suggest a new complaint tic box: “driver was an asshole” seems like a good choice.

2) Scam.  Lie.  Make Wife Apologize.

It took Driver #1 so long to arrive, negotiate, scam, lie and call the wife that Uber charged me a cancellation fee. When I wrote back with some details about what had happened (using available tic-boxes), Uber reversed the cancellation charge.

But hold on, Uber had more inconvenience and humiliation in store. I got a scolding note back from customer service that I should cancel within 5 minutes if my plans changed. Yep. They scolded me (there is no other word for it) about how I should change my behavior to conform to Uber's policies. Gotta hand it to 'em for having the brass. However, the assumed bad faith on my part and the rebuke on Uber's part were galling.

Here is the exchange:

"Hi Scott Frankum,

Thanks for you respond (sic) and please accept our apolozy (sic) for late reply. We reviewed your request and refunded the cancellation fee to your Uber Credit.

Regarding the driver we will note him from similar situation that may cause inconvenience for the rider with our trips.

Cancellation fees are in place to ensure that drivers are fairly compensated for their time. If you do need to cancel a trip request, please do so within 5 minutes to avoid being charged.

Please reach out with any questions.

Uber Viet Nam.
Sent by Thuy P. on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 at 9:46:03 AM"

No apology. No…."We’re a new service and we’re really trying". No..."We’ll retrain the driver". Just suspicion about my behavior and a shiv in my moral center that added insult to injury. For those readers who are wondering, I just checked my Uber driver rating, which is 4.89 out of probably a hundred rides.

"Hold on, Uber had more inconvenience and humiliation in store for me"

3) Lost in Translation

II wrote back and expressed my dismay in stronger terms and asked for a manager who responded by squeezing out what might have been an apology, if I read it charitably.

Not feeling charitable, it was hard to tell. Otherwise, it reads as corporate CYA. Uber badgers customers for feedback way too frequently and then treats respondents like this? The word "insincere" comes to mind.

4) Make a Real Apology

Tip: If your driver messes up this badly, would it kill you to make a real apology? I would not be writing this post if Uber had done the human thing and simply apologized the first time around. Instead, I feel like potential shareholders need to know what looks like real, easy-to-solve problems, that could complicate or delay a liquidity event. These same issues appear to break the assurances of raising transparency, skills and training in every emerging economy the company goes into. No wonder some big cities are opting out.

5) Do the Easy Things

Here’s another tip. I know Uber relies on AI for lots of things. However, could you start hand entering the top 10 or 20 tourist highlights on your maps?  I was in Lima and wanted to go to the Museo Larco, an awesome museum and top attraction. It didn’t exist in the Uber app in English or Spanish and wasn't a daily run for most local folks. (Technology failure).

What’s a tourist to do? Uber's PR department referred me to their mapping plans (although my way sounds a whole lot faster, easier and cheaper for the limited needs of international travelers).

My solution was to sit in the front seat as the driver drove all the way across Lima with me saying “left” or “right”. The excitement didn’t stop there because I think he hit the brakes fewer than five times. The whole way. Across half of Lima. (Training failure).

Got there, but the ride was highly dangerous and not even close to a consistent Uber experience. Anticipating tourist highlights and reminding drivers about normal safety rules would really help out most customers.

6) When Its Good, It is Pretty Darn Good

Other times Uber is a joy. Just this past week I was in Vietnam (after my airport debaucle) where Uber works in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and in Hanoi. I chatted-up the crisp young guys in their clean cars because they like practicing their English. They also want to know what I think cool music is even though they’re pretty attached to K-Pop power ballads.

One young guy in Lima played “Take it Easy” and all the other greatest hits of the band, America, because the band was his dad’s favorite. Others have PLENTY of questions about Trump. I ask about their lives. Events coming up that week. About living in countries so young and vividly alive. Total pleasure.

7) Lost in Translation

If you think Uber isn’t international-travel-useful because of your phone service, you might be mistaken. In many developing countries, actually all of them I have been to, mobile data rates are high. To keep local customers happy, almost every establishment has free Wi-Fi. You might have to buy a cup of coffee and you'll miss some trip details when you're out of range, but you get the main service of transportation. Problem solved without blowing out your roaming charges.

8) Cheaper.  Safer.  More Transparent.

Uber is still at least 30% cheaper than regular taxi services (and more like 50% less) in most places.

When Uber is Bad

When Uber is bad it combines the worst of taxi scams and personal peril with the inconvenience of a wobbly GPS and technology that can fail when customers are most vulnerable. On the whole, I’m grateful Uber is most places I want to be. That said. Hey Uber, please spend an hour or two training new drivers in international cities. And, please hand-enter the top 20 tourist attractions together with a handful of interesting restaurants.

Otherwise you risk destroying the trust and ease-of-use you have worked so hard to develop other places. This is just one person’s view, but I have an MBA and know first hand that you have real operational issues with your international services.

If you don't have a real, international expansion plan, I think it will be obvious soon that you open the door for even more competitors. More, you also won't maximize the value of your offering share price if the extent of these problems becomes well known. Over the last two years I have been in a lot of countries where you operate. The issue is a broad one and isolated to no country in particular.

Uber is so close to good. I really hope the company doesn't blow it on fixable things. For one thing, I travel a lot and I'm starting to need you.

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