In a strange, unfamiliar city, a taxicab ride can often be a distinctly unnerving experience. The foreign taxi ritual is grimly familiar: You make bizarre guttural attempts at the local argot, paw your way through exotic multi-colored bills, and wonder all the while if, rather than being taken for a ride, you're being "taken for a ride." And should you tip? And if so, how much? Quelle horreur!
But maybe it's time to reconsider the taxi, to embrace it rather than dread it, to make your taxi-riding experiences both home and abroad part of the adventure, not simply a means of getting around. Of course, sometimes a taxi ride is just a taxi ride, as anyone who's been driven from LAX to downtown Los Angeles can tell you. But the world's best taxi rides can deliver both a decent dose of travel excitement and a great feel for the place you're visiting. Whether you find yourself in a red-and-white Toyota in Hong Kong or a stately black behemoth in London, the following can make the ride a memorable experience: an open attitude, a friendly driver, an interesting route, a clean window and yes, the correct fare.
Naturally, taxis express the nature of their city. In New York, for example, it's all business, with 11,344 yellow Ford Crown Victorias (plus an interesting recent mix of SUVs, minivans and hybrids) racing from point A to point B as fast as possible. Just hang on, experience the rush, and don't forget to tip.
In Hong Kong, it's much the same, but without the tipping. Dan Heyler, an investment analyst based there, says drivers there reflect the capitalistic chaos of the city perfectly. "They're incredibly focused on getting the next fare," he says. "They always take the shortest route, never break the law, and save time by simply rounding up the fare to tip themselves." Heyler's one warning: "Be careful where and when you say 'stop here.' The driver will do just that by slamming on the brakes and dumping you without even pulling all the way over to the sidewalk. It's all about making the next buck."
In Tokyo, as in all of Japan, the experience is more polite. The taxi door opens automatically (touching it is a breach of etiquette), and you can't help but notice the driver's white gloves and the lacy doilies that sometimes decorate the seats.
London is a city where a taxi ride is more than just transportation, it's a tourist attraction unto itself. The world's greatest taxi city, it has a proud taxi history going back to 1588 (the last horse cab wasn't retired until 1947). Sitting in the back of a big black London cab is like resting on your living room sofa, and you can be sure you'll get where you're going. London's 19,000 taxis are driven only by those who have taken "The Knowledge," the dreaded test that forces aspiring drivers to memorize hundreds of routes, landmarks and buildings in central London. You can often see young men zipping around town on motorbikes with maps affixed to their handlebars. That's how they study, and it can take up to three years to pass the test.
Teck Tjuan Yap, an international banking consultant whose work takes him to cities in Europe and Asia, makes his taxi rides interesting by always taking an initial stab at communicating with the driver. "You never know what he may have to say, and if you hit it off you can always start pumping for knowledge, whether it's local gossip or restaurant picks." Yap notes, however, that this strategy can backfire. "Whenever I'm in Bangkok, drivers will invariably offer me a guided tour, a new suit and an escort, and not necessarily in that order."
Even if there's a language barrier, you should at a minimum be able to communicate your destination (get it written down ahead of time or have your guide book turned to the appropriate map page), and make sure you know the local tipping customs. Those two small steps alone will help ensure that your ride is stress-free and that you can sit back and make the ride an enjoyable part of your travel experience.
From the charms of old Havana to the bustle of downtown Istanbul, we've compiled a list of the 10 best fares on the planet (check in next month to hail our "Worst Drives in the World"). Enjoy.