Like most 26-year-olds, Gabrielle Wathen, a waitress and writer, had a pretty crazy Halloween. Unlike most 26-year-olds, her Uber ride home cost $362 dollars, thanks to some pretty ridiculous Uber surge pricing. According to Wathen, who was also celebrating her birthday that night, it was completely her fault for approving the 9x fare increase. (Yes, NINE times!)
For those of you who are not familiar with how this specific app works during surge pricing hours, a user must manually enter what the fare will be (in this case, “9.0”) on their smartphone and press “I accept this fare.”
How did she rack up such a high expense? For one, it didn’t help that she was celebrating her birthday on a day notorious for drinking and debauchery. Anyone could’ve expected that Uber would be surge pricing their service, days in advance; the company always hikes fares during high-demand hours. Also, she got a little too drunk and didn’t pay attention when agreeing to the increase. It happens. When you drink, your focus is lowered and your logical thinking disappears. Not only did Wathen agree to the 9x fare increase, but she also chose the pricier Uber Black because it was the only car available.
GoFundMe to the rescue
When Wathen realized her mistake the next morning, she understandably freaked out. At the suggestion of friends and family, Wathen created a GoFundMe page titled, “Uber Stole My 26th Birthday.” Thanks to the bizarre world of the Internet, Wathen’s story went viral. Unfortunately, Gabby was vilified by the media and soon a non-story turned into a vicious attack on a young woman who did a dumb thing on her birthday.
Wathen isn’t the first one to experience a crazy bill due to Uber’s surge pricing. Jessica Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld’s wife, made headlines last year when she was saddled with a $415 bill after using the ride share app during a snowstorm. It seems like this should be illegal, BUT surge pricing is completely legal if the customer knows it’s happening. That’s why these apps are specifically designed to inform the customer of the increase in pricing and the customer must agree before using the service.
Uber and Lyft are two main rideshare apps that both have dynamic pricing. Lyft calls their higher fares “prime time” pricing, but also offers discounts during “happy hour,” or when demand is light. Uber calls their higher fares “surge pricing.” According to an Uber representative who spoke with E!Online, they offer dynamic pricing to “remain the reliable choice, even on the busiest nights of the year.” The app itself states, “Fares have increased to get more Ubers on the road.”
Gabby Wathen has since responded to all of the press via an eloquent essay called, “I’m the girl who crowd funded her $362 Uber ride. A nice gesture by friends and family has me hated across the internet.” We don’t hate you, Gabby! But we are going to use your story as a teachable moment. Here are steps you can take to make sure you never end up with a ridiculous fare from these ridesharing cabs during their peak demand times.
1. Compare the fare
A couple of geniuses named Jonathan and Matt, recently launched a fare comparison app called What’s the fare. It compares cost and wait times for Lyft, Sidecar, UberX and taxis. They also recently released some interesting figures about which services provide the best deal overall. I’d keep an eye on these guys.
2. Consider public transit
Much like Wathen, I too was out on Halloween. I expected Uber’s surge pricing to be a pain, so I made alternative plans. I kept an eye on the bus schedule and strategically planned out my night via public transportation lines.
3. Refresh the app and be patient
I didn’t end up using public transit because I found a window of time when the Uber surge pricing was not in effect. Gabby mentioned that she used Uber Black because there were no UberX cars. If she just waited a bit, while refreshing the app, I am sure she would’ve found the cheaper options; UberX or Uber Plus.
4. Invest in good transit apps
You shouldn’t only rely on Uber. There are other ridesharing apps and solid transit apps in general. If bus and train schedules are at your finger tips, you’ll be more likely to use them. Download these apps before you plan on going out.
In Wathen’s case, she was going home around 3 a.m. in Baltimore, so taking a car was pretty unavoidable, but she still she had plenty of other options to safely arrive home had she planned the night a bit more carefully. She probably should not have stayed out so late. Yes, it was her 26th birthday bash, but was it really worth it to pay $362 for a 20-minute ride home?
5. Call a cab
Remember those? They were these yellow things we all used to take in 2012. Even if you know you’re never going to let yourself get so drunk that you’d accept a 9x fare increase, you should still have the number to a cab service in your phone.
Finally, if you do make a $362 mistake, it’s probably best not to start a public campaign to make the money back.
Marina is a staff writer for MyBankTracker.com. She is an expert in college finances, consumer spending and banking.