Podcast #154 — Will We Still Love Uber When The Prices Go Up?

The moment of truth

Breaking out the mobile rig to record this episode in the Residence Inn in downtown Charlottesville, VA. Summer storms let me test Freebird’s re-booking service, I wrestle with AT&T so I can use my iPhone’s dual SIM capability on my trip to Krakow and Budapest, booking more relaxed flight itineraries lets me call an audible when Uber and Lyft prices surge into the stratosphere, which gets me thinking — will we still love those rideshare companies when they’re no longer cheaper than taxis?  All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.

Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #154:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • Coming to you today from the Residence Inn just off the Main St pedestrian mall in downtown Charlottesville, VA, leaving behind last episode’s multi-mic, big mixer board, sound-baffled podcast studio to go old-school, back to the TravelCommons roots with the mobile rig in a hotel room. I was thinking about going way back and recording it in the bathroom, but there’s a noisy exhaust fan that I can’t figure out how to turn off. There may be a bit of traffic noise in the background, and maybe even some thunder if the black clouds out my window live up to their potential. This episode will be one of the shorter ones. I’m trying to get it in before Irene and I head out to Krakow and Budapest Thursday night.
  • This is my fourth week back in Charlottesville in Chicago, IL. Not much has changed since my last commute back at the end of last year. American Eagle and United Express have a couple of direct regional jets a day from Chicago, and when weather knocks those flights out, Richmond is an hour-and-a-bit drive to the east, or Washington-Dulles is 2 hours north as a last resort. It’s still a 5-gate airport; the bar in the middle still has a surprisingly decent local craft beer selection. The bartender still recognizes me, though she still asks for my ID each time I sit at the bar. So not much has changed at CHO. 
  • However, my approach to flying there has a bit. I’ve talked about this in prior episodes; I’ve always planned my travel to maximize my time at home, with my family. Given a choice between flying out the night before or taking a 7am flight out the day of, I’d take the latter. The trade-off, though, is travel plans that don’t deal well with travel delays — a 2-hour flight delay the night before is annoying but won’t make me miss a meeting; that same delay the morning of my meeting may mean I won’t need to take that flight. And I’ve had all that happen with my flights to Charlottesville. So this time, with the kids graduated and moved out, and now that we’ve downsized from a house to a city apartment, my wife thinking I’m underfoot a bit too much, the need to maximize my time at home has… eased a bit. So I’m booking more… resilient itineraries — flying out the night before, staying over an extra day so I can fly out after lunch, before the summer humidity spools up the afternoon thunderstorms…. Which was paid off last week when thunderstorms in Chicago had my evening flight to CHO posting a 3 hour delay by noon. I had more than enough time to swing my endpoint from CHO to RIC (all done pretty seamlessly thru the United app, which I found pretty impressive). My travel plans may not be as optimized as before… or maybe they are, but for different things, like cutting down on stress and my need to bitch tweet.
  • Bridge Music — One for Me by SackJo22 (c) copyright 2009 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/SackJo22/21492 Ft: Haskel

Following Up

  • We’ve had a thread over a couple of episodes about Freebird, a flight rebooking service. Back in episode 151, TravelCommons listener Mika Pyyhkala sent in a note about his great experience with them, how they picked up a Southwest flight cancellation and rebooked him on Delta while he was still in the air on his first Southwest leg. Saved him a huge disruption; well worth, he said, the $19/leg fee. I mentioned in the last episode that Amex Travel has been offering free coverage for flights I book on their site with my Platinum card. So Freebird has been covering these last few trips to Charlottesville. I get a text the night before and the morning of my flights assuring me that Freebird is monitoring them. And when last week’s outbound 6pm flight started posting delays at noon, I got texts letting me know they were monitoring the delay, but it hadn’t yet tripped their 4-hour trigger.  But knowing that there weren’t going to be many alternative flights to RIC or IAD later in the evening, I didn’t feel comfortable waiting for United to push over 4 hours — and then cancel — and so moved myself to their 6pm Richmond flight — which was on-time — getting me into my hotel around 10pm after an hour Uber ride. And then, indulging in a bit of travel schadenfreude, I kept tracking the ORD-CHO flight on FlightAware. It finally took off at 11pm Central – 5 hrs late — arriving CHO at 2am Eastern. So it did eventually cross Freebird’s 4-hour threshold, but I’m not sure if it was in time to catch an alternative flight. So, I’m glad I switched it myself. I dunno, maybe tight connections rather than thinly traveled direct routes is the better use case for Freebird
  • Also back in episode 151, I talked about trying out the alpha version of augmented reality directions in Google Maps, where you hold up your phone and the display uses the camera to show the streetscape in front of you with the  directions — street names, arrows — overlaid on the real-time image. I thought it was kinda cool; Irene and the kids were less than impressed. But you can judge for yourself because Google announced last week that they’ve widened the feature to a public beta. Give it a try and let me know what you think
  • Fast forward one whole episode — from 151 in May to 152 in June — which really was a big jump because, right after recording episode 151, we moved from the big house in the suburbs to a 60% smaller high-rise apartment on the lakefront — but in episode 152, I talked about having to recalibrate how I’d get to the airport. I had my guy who’d pick me up for a 30-minute ride to ORD or MDW… But no more. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve started to get a feel for it — 45-50 minutes to ORD, but figure an hour for weird traffic. And in the morning, figure a 10-minute wait for an Uber or Lyft, and a tab with tip around $40-$45. So this Monday at 5am, I fire up Lyft and Uber while drinking my morning cup of tea to see what’s going on — $110 on Uber and $60 on Lyft. What the hell is going on? Well, maybe all the drivers are sleeping in, so I shower, get dressed, gather all my worldly belongings, and check again — $120 on Uber; $57 on Lyft. I hit the Lyft button and wait — and wait and wait. Then someone accepts the ride, and cancels. Guess he didn’t want to go to ORD. So I fire up Transit, my favorite mass transit app. It’s developed in Montreal and does mass transit routing in a huge number of cities in the US and Canada. And in Chicago, it also covers Divvy bike share and constructs Lyft-to-mass transit routing. I fired it up thinking that, if I couldn’t get a Lyft to ORD, then maybe I could get one to the nearest Blue Line L stop and take the subway the rest of the way. But even it couldn’t find a Lyft. But, it showed that, across the street from our flat, a bus will pick me up and, 18 stops later, drop me at the L stop. I got nothing else going — actually, I did but it would involve waking Irene up at  now 5:40am for a ride to ORD, truly a last resort. I wheel my luggage across the street. Four minutes later, the bus shows up. There’s me and another guy — no problem putting my luggage on the seat next to me. And we make pretty good time — not a lot of people waiting at bus stops at 6am, and the traffic is pretty clear too. All told, we stop maybe 6 times and have 8 people on the bus at its most crowded. I had to wait another 5 minutes for the L and, at 6:40, it was more crowded; almost everyone had an ORD badge around their neck — pilots, flight attendants, ground staff — except for a few passenger-looking folk like me. All told, it took me about an hour — maybe 10 minutes longer than Uber and Lyft were quoting. But at $2.50 vs. $60 or $120, it seemed like I made out on the deal.
  • Also in episode 152, I talked about “earning and burning” frequent traveler points rather than saving them because airlines and hotels keep playing with redemption levels and rules that reduce the value of the points. Jim McDonough tweeted me with a contra view –
    • Regarding frequent flyer miles and how they don’t appreciate over time – I still like to keep some around in case we need to travel for family emergency situations. The walk-up fare does not compete with the $25 charge to book a frequent flyer mile ticket last minute.
  • Jim, that’s a good point, but I wonder if that strategy still works as more airlines move from fixed awards schedules to dynamic point pricing — Southwest, Delta, and soon United — where point price for a flight climes as remaining ticket prices do. Does it still make sense to pay with points?
  • As I said earlier, Irene and I are heading out Thursday night for a weekend in Krakow, Poland and then heading down to Budapest for a mix of touring and visits with Irene’s family. So, I thought this was as good a time as any to try out my iPhone’s dual SIM capability. Up to now, my usual procedure is to transfer my US AT&T SIM to an old HTC One phone and then put my UK EE SIM in my iPhone Xs (usually sometime in flight in that panic drill between them clearing the breakfast tray and packing everything up for final descent) if I’m going to an EU country or when I pick one up after we land. I do this because local data is hugely cheaper than an AT&T international plan – the EE pay-as-you-go plan I got is £10, or $12 with this week’s Brexit exchange rate discount, for 3 GB of data, 100 minutes of voice, and unlimited texts. But I still want my US number to ring thru in case someone back home needs to reach me and doesn’t know I’m out of the country. I don’t carry both phones with me, though. I have the iPhone with me during the day, using the local SIM to run Google Maps and the like. The HTC stays in the hotel room and I check it for messages when we get back at night.
  • But with its dual SIM capabilities, I should be able to do this with just my iPhone. However, the iPhone has only one physical SIM slot; the second is an internal eSIM, like the ones Apple uses in their cellular Apple Watch. So to make this work, I had to get AT&T to transfer my US number from its physical SIM to the eSIM in the phone. My first stop was the local AT&T store. I explained to the store guy what I wanted to do. He looked at me for a moment and said, “Uh, I’m new; I don’t know how to do that. But I can give you an eSIM card if you want.” OK, that’s a start. He riffled around his desk drawer. “I don’t have one here. I’ll have to go in the back. But I’m the only one here today, so you’ll have to go outside so I can lock up while I’m in the back.” Interesting. I walked down the street to grab a bite rather than idle outside the door. I came back. He handed me the card, “Here you go, but I don’t know if this will work…” I went home and hit the AT&T web site. I spelunked around the site until I found the chat link and fired it up. The person on the other end knew what needed to be done. I gave her a few numbers off the card, then pointed the camera at the card’s QR code and it added to plan to my iPhone. Now, the chat agent said that they’ll have to do a bit of provisioning at the back end. She’d text me when it was done. Irene and I went out to dinner; no text and no activation. So the next morning, I hit chat again and this time stuck with the guy until the provisioning was complete. Then I pulled out the AT&T SIM and put in the EE SIM, and immediately got a text from EE telling me their US roaming charges. I also got a whole new set of selections under the Cellular section under Settings. Which line did I want to use for voice, for data, for iMessage and FaceTime. I spent some time on Apple’s FAQ pages trying to figure out which scenario works for me. My guess is that it’ll take me a bit of trial and error — and self-inflected AT&T international charges — to really figure this out.
  • And if you have any travel stories, questions, comments, tips, rants – the voice of the traveler, send ’em along — text or audio comment to comments@travelcommons.com — you can send a Twitter message to mpeacock, post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page or our Instagram account at travelcommons — or you can post comments on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music —   Fall to pieces – Silence by mika (c) copyright 2010 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/mika/24945 Ft: Colab

Will We Still Love Uber When The Prices Go Up?

  • Lyft’s chief financial officer Brian Roberts said, during last week’s earnings call, that pricing was becoming “more rational.” “Rational pricing” is CFO-speak for “more predictably higher.” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, during his earnings call, said, “We and Lyft are big-time competitors here and have been for some period of time, but for now we’re seeing, generally, category positions that are stable. We are focused on improving profitability in this market.”  Which is CEO-speak for “we’re no longer going to slash prices to buy market share.”
  • We all knew this time would come — at least the rational ones. Uber lost $5.2 billion in the second quarter while the smaller Lyft lost a mere $644 million last quarter. Investors are going to let you torch large piles of cash for only so long. Hence the topic question — will we stay with Uber and Lyft even when they’re not a bargain anymore?
  • I’ve been talking about this with frequent travelers I know, or sit next to at bars, or bump into waiting for an Uber at O’Hare. One school of thought is that the Uber/Lyft experience is better than your typical cab, so even at the same price, you’d still order an Uber. You can order it on your phone rather than running into the street, trying to flag down a passing cab. Indeed, I’ve always said that, for me, Uber’s prime use case is getting a ride from midtown Manhattan to LGA at the end of the day a somewhat sane experience. Before Uber, I’d be practically dancing into 5th Ave, hiding my luggage behind a trash can because if a cabbie saw you wanted to go to LGA, they’d accelerate by you. I tried the cab company’s iPhone app last time I was in New York. It failed miserably.
  • Adding Uber and Lyft drivers to the transit mix means you can get a car ride from somewhere outside the usual downtown and tourist spots. I remember pre-Uber New Orleans, getting a cab anywhere other than between the airport and the French Quarter was near impossible. One night for dinner, we decided to go to a Mid-City restaurant, Toups Meatery. Phenomenal place. The owner, Isaac Toups, later made it to the finals of the Top Chef cooking show. He didn’t win, but was voted “fan favorite”. And his food was our favorite too. The only problem — getting a cab back to the Sheraton on Canal St from his Mid-City location. The hostess called 3 cab companies and we waited 20 minutes for a 15-minute ride. And that driver told us, “Yup, all most cab drivers want to do is make the easy money, driving between the airport and the hotels”
  • There’s also fare predictability — you see the price to get from, say, downtown Chicago to O’Hare before committing to the ride. No more meter anxiety, watching the number run up in traffic. And the accompanying “Will I have enough cash to pay” or “Will this guy’s credit card machine work?” anxiety. With Uber and Lyft drivers following GPS apps, there’s no more “am I being taken the long way around to run up the meter” anxiety, or depending on your cab driver’s knowledge to take the fast way, or having them punt it to you with the “bridge or tunnel” question I often get from LGA cabs. The technology helps avoid a lot of the bad experiences we’ve had with taxi cab rides.
  • I used to say that Uber and Lyft cars are nicer, but their bar has slipped as they’re scrambling for drivers in a full-employment economy. An Uber I took last week was missing the door armrest; a Lyft that Irene took had the front right quarter-panel held on with duct tape. These are exceptions, though a bit more common that a couple of years ago. But they’re still a damn sight better than the beat-to-hell Baltimore cabs that would sit at the cab ranks in the Inner Harbor. I only did that once, because the cab rank was right outside the client’s building and I was late leaving for the airport. The back seat was full of old newspapers and other crap, and there was no air conditioning — on a July afternoon. After that, I’d stand there, looking at the cabs, while waiting 5 minutes for an Uber to show up.
  • The place I most often take a cab rather than waiting for an Uber is the airport. And here, it’s not really about price, it’s convenience. The cab ranks are usually right at the terminal exit, while the rideshare pickup spot can be an Easter Egg hunt (Vegas), a 15-minute walk to the back 40 (Atlanta) or a confusing scrum of screaming traffic cops (Chicago Midway). Vegas and LGA especially — catching a cab is so much easier than a rideshare. Here at CHO also — it’s a flat rate into town that’s about the same as Uber and Lyft and the cabs are in decent shape, so if one’s there, there’s no reason to wait.
  • And I could be wrong, but it feels like the pricing discussion is mostly a US thing. In Paris last Spring, none of the Ubers were “rideshares”; they were all black car livery companies with professional drivers. Near as I could tell, Uber was just another dispatch system for them. In Lisbon a few years back, I couldn’t tell if they were true rideshares, but the pricing was the same as taxis, and there were more taxis so less wait. We took the path of least resistance and hailed cabs.
  • The rough consensus of my completely unrepresentative polling was – ride sharing got traction because it was cheaper, but now the technology gives such a better experience that I’d even pay a premium over a taxi — but I wouldn’t want to tell Lyft or Uber that. But what they said on those earnings calls, I think they already know that.

Closing

  • Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #154
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
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