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Interlude… Nov 08

Here’s a little interlude on traveling while you’re traveling. Specifically, in taxis.

Rule of thumb 1: Most drivers are competent, honest, and interesting people. Be friendly and don’t be afraid to carry on a conversation. They are typically good sources of “inside” info about their town. At least that has been my experience.

Rule of thumb 2: You don’t have to be paranoid, but not all of them are, that that’s what makes for this article.

Rule of thumb 3: (And this is a good business practice in general). Make sure everything is agreed on before you get into the vehicle. Once you’re inside, you’re committed to whatever you agreed on, and whatever you didn’t agree on, you’re stuck with whatever the driver decides: Is the fare for you only, or for you and your bags? Is the fare for the whole group or for each of you? Trust, but verify.

Rule of thumb 4: A word about the vehicle. Before you get in, make sure the meter works, and be sure he turns it on. If you put your luggage in the trunk, don’t pay him until everything is unloaded. In some areas taxis without meters are legal. If this is the case (common in the Caribbean, in my experience–not a lot of possible destinations, so they have standard rates for standard destinations), agree on a price for the whole trip before you get in.

Cute taxi in Indonesia

Rule of thumb 5: Unless you want him to take a round-about route, specify that he take the shortest (or fastest) route. This applies mainly to metered rides. When I was young and naive, I got the grand tour on my first visit to Nashville from a fellow who did an excellent job of distracting me by pointing out the sights as he tooled along.

Remember, people enjoy showing off their knowledge. Be an eager student of your teacher, your driver.

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Off the beaten path Dec 16

The cruise lines offer pricey shore excursions, generally of good quality, and with a vague assurance that you will be safer if you take one of their excursions. You do get something for what you pay—although the companies that provide the excursions are local businesses, they are checked by the cruise lines and held to fairly high standards of performance.

But ain’t competition a wonderful thing? The folks not retained by the cruise lines can offer essentially the same services, and often for noticeably less. The island governments tend to watch over their flocks of entrepeneurs fairly well—after all, you don’t want golden-egg-laying tourists to depart your island unhappy.

Rent for the business owner goes up the closer you get to the port, so a short walk can take you to where the taxis have lower overhead and can afford to take you down the same roads for less. Always negotiate the fare in advance, and don’t be afraid to walk away from a fare you don’t want to pay. Remember, though, most of the fairs are fairly standardized, even if informally, and if you lowball someone, you might get less of a tour than someone willing to pay the usual amount might get.

Another thing that works in your favor: tips are not negotiated in advance, so your driver is Highly Motivated to be personable, informative, and helpful. Actual horror stories are few and far between.

So how have you done on your own? Tell us your adventures or horror stories in the comments.

Taxi in St. Thomas Dec 07

St. Thomas, USVI, is one of the nicest place in the Caribbean. They use the dollar, and everyone speaks English. But you should be aware of a few things.
They drive on the wrong side of the road. Traffic is about as crowded as in New York City, if quieter, and everybody there is more used to dealing with it than you are. Unless you intend to scoot directly out of town and feel comfortable seeing vehicles coming at you from the right, don’t drive yourself.
St. Thomas is a safe place to visit, though—you don’t have to worry about crooks and muggers, or disease, or beggars. Cruises offer safe havens in their shore excursions, but St. Thomas is comfortable enough that you can save a little money by striking out on your own. Downtown is even walking distance from the pier, and you’ll find a lot of places to shop and visit, if that’s your thing.
However, you might want a taxi for the trip back to your ship, since you might be tired or laden with purchases. Or in a hurry. Do Not Miss Your Ship.
The first thing you see when you disembark is a taxi staging area. You go to the little building, and a nice person with a walkie=talkie directs your party to a suitable taxi. Taxis in St. Thomas are mainly minivans and open-air jitneys.

taxisTourism is about the only industry on the island, and you might find yourself traveling with total strangers if your group doesn’t fill the vehicle. However, a nice shopping center is right across the street, and if you walk there, you’ll find another taxi area at the far end of that series of shops. This taxi stand is much more informal. You can deal with anyone you want, and fares are negotiable. In advance. Taxis are similarly grouped in open areas all over town, and you can pick up a taxi pretty much wherever you want. These drivers all know each other, and they will likely have similar rates, but if you ask, you generally get a discount.
Because they compete for your business, the drivers are big on personality. They will tell you the sites as they go along, and engage in cheerful banter. One driver, who said she was a waitress by trade (specializing in rum and coke) said if I returned to the island she would put me up and do my laundry and cooking until I got tired of her.
Besides being personable, the drivers are agressive seeking your business. If you look the least bit lost, someone will offer to take you where you need to go. Looking lost includes sitting on a bench in the flea market while your womenfolk shop in the little stalls. Looking lost includes waiting at the curb looking for a break in the traffic so you can get across the street. You are wisest to tell everyone that you don’t want to decide—until you atually get ready to head out. Beware of telling more than one person that you’ll do business with them later. They remember you if you promise to ride with them, and when you get ready to leave you’ll have everyone you promised looking at you expectantly for your business. Besides, you don’t want to be a jerk, do you? When someone approaches you, smile, thank them for the offer, but you’re not ready to think about a taxi yet. No promises.
When you get to your destination, tipping is very acceptable.

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