Gas prices up ahead of Thanksgiving holiday
High gas prices are chipping away at consumer budgets just as the busy holiday travel season is underway. (Nov. 23)
- As travel picks back up, riders across the country have noticed higher costs from ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
- RideGuru’s CEO said travelers can also expect longer wait times and “possibly many cancellations” over the holiday season.
- Analyst Mark Mahaney said rising fares mean drivers are able to make “materially more” than they did before the pandemic.
As a woman in New York City, Shweta Garg used to prefer using Ubers or Lyfts to get around town.
“I felt safer, especially at night or going to the airport with my stuff,” she told USA TODAY. “I was always the Uber Pool person.”
But now, Garg said rides are far too expensive for ride-hailing services to be an option. During a July trip from her home in the financial district to John F. Kennedy International Airport (about 20 miles), Garg was stunned to find Lyft asking for more than $250 for the 45-minute trip that used to cost her less than $70. Uber wasn’t much better, pricing out the trip at over $100.
She opted to take the AirTrain tram to the airport (which cost her less than $15) and a taxi ride back home when she returned (which cost about $90 including tip). Garg said Uber and Lyft fares have gotten bad enough that she can’t remember the last time she used their apps.
“It’s a joke between (my friends) now. If someone’s like, ‘I’m going to come in an Uber or Lyft,’ it’s like, ‘OK, you’re boujee,’ ” she said. “It’s really frustrating because it’s something I felt safer doing, but it’s also something I can’t afford, and I’m sure a lot of other women can’t afford. It’s really just a shame.”
Garg isn’t alone. As travel picks back up, riders across the country have noticed higher costs from ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. While company heads say they expect prices to drop as the pandemic ebbs, industry experts say costs will remain elevated throughout the holiday travel season.
Fares could ‘get worse’ over the holidays
Mark Mahaney, an analyst with investment banking advisory firm Evercore ISI, said there’s “no question” ride-hailing prices have spiked over the past year, with costs double pre-pandemic rates in some areas.
“Riders should be prepared for elevated pricing,” he told USA TODAY.
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said earlier this month that average U.S. Uber prices were up 20% year-over-year, with the price hike largely driven by a shortage of drivers.
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“This has been, to some extent, a giant pricing experiment that no one wanted to get into,” Khosrowshahi told investors during a Nov. 4 earnings call.
Ippei Takahashi, CEO of travel search engine RideGuru, said ride hailing is a “driver’s market” these days, with travel demand outpacing the supply of available drivers. Along with higher fares, he said travelers can expect longer wait times and “possibly many cancellations” over the holiday season.
“It might even get worse over the holiday season as the travel demand explodes,” Takahashi said. At busy locations like airports, “it’s not uncommon to see 2x, 3x or 4x prices. … We’re talking about a ride that usually costs $50 costing $200. So those definitely hit consumers’ pockets directly.”
When will Uber and Lyft prices drop?
Khosrowshahi of Uber believes “pricing will ease a bit” now that more drivers are signing on to work. He said the number of active drivers at Uber is up more than 65% since January, allowing both wait times and surge pricing incidents to drop.
Lyft CEO Logan Green said earlier this month that the company has also seen a “material improvement” in driver supply, with the number of active drivers in the third quarter up 45% compared to the same period the year prior.
But the ratio between travelers and drivers is still too wide, according to Takahashi of RideGuru. He said many gig workers he’s spoken with switched to food delivery apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash during lockdowns when travel was low and have yet to return.
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With Uber and Lyft, “you’re locked up in a small vehicle literally all day with multiple people. So their level of contact is much, much higher, and these are people who may or may not be vaccinated,” Takahashi said. “They consider (food delivery) to be safer, more reliable.”
Not all have steered clear of ride-hailing gigs. Mahaney said rising fares mean drivers are able to make “materially more” than they did before the pandemic, which is helping boost the number of drivers and lower rates.
But riders shouldn’t hold out hope that they’ll see pre-pandemic rates return any time soon. Lyft Chief Financial officer Brian Roberts said he expects Lyft prices will drop as “we fully emerge (from) the pandemic.”
“I think the marketplace will rebalance itself,” Mahaney told USA TODAY. “(But) that level of elevation will continue to moderate as we go over the next three to six months.”
Tips for keeping costs down
Uber and Lyft prices and wait times can vary, especially during busy travel periods. Here are some tips ahead of the holiday travel season that can help riders get to destinations quickly and without breaking the bank.
► Share a ride: Uber relaunched a revamped Uber Pool – now called UberX Share – earlier this month. The ride sharing feature, which was suspended during the pandemic, lets riders save 5% on their fare and get Uber Cash if they’re paired with a co-rider. The updated riding option asks riders to take a selfie to verify that they’re wearing a mask when requesting a shared ride and limits two co-riders per trip.
Lyft’s lowest-priced option, shared rides, is back in a single market, Philadelphia, and “coming soon” to Chicago and Denver, according to a company spokesperson.
► Wait and save: Uber says riders who aren’t in a rush can save money by waiting a few minutes to request a ride to see if prices go down.
Lyft riders also have the option to use the “wait & save” feature, which lets riders opt for a longer wait time with a lower fare.
► Compare options: Takahashi said now more than ever, travelers should do their research and compare options before booking a ride. That means not only comparing Uber and Lyft, he said, but factoring in public transportation or taxi prices, which can be cheaper at times in certain markets since their prices are regulated and don’t surge.
“Taxi is definitely making a comeback,” Takahashi said.
► Book in advance: Uber riders can book their ride in advance through Uber Reserve. Reservations made at least two hours in advance are backed by an on-time pickup guarantee; if a ride is more than five minutes past the scheduled pick up time, riders will get up to $50 in Uber Cash. The feature is also available at airports and lets users have a ride ready upon arrival, even if their flight is early or delayed.
Lyft riders in select regions can also schedule their rides up to seven days in advance. The company does not guarantee a driver will be available in the area at the requested pickup time.
Takahashi said scheduling a ride in advance is “very smart,” but warned that it doesn’t let riders to avoid surge pricing during busy travel times.
► Split the fare: Uber riders can automatically split the fare equally with a friend who is sharing the ride. Lyft also lets riders split costs through Venmo.
► Use priority pickup: Lyft riders worried about running late can pay extra for priority pickup in select areas. Uber also lets platinum and diamond members access faster pickups at select locations based on driver availability.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter: @bailey_schulz.