Is this how UberPOOL is supposed to work?

On our return from Germany last month, we stayed overnight in New York City, flying into JFK on airberlin Saturday evening and out of LaGuardia on Delta the next morning. Traveling between the two airports and midtown Manhattan should be easy on public transportation, but when we boarded an E train Saturday evening in Jamaica, we discovered after 30 seconds of panic and 2 minutes of confusion that E trains were running on F tracks in Manhattan.

Unrelated: is there another city in the world that phrases their maintenance-related inconveniences in this way? On every other system I'm familiar with, if such a rerouting were required, they would announce that "this train is an F train between such-and-such stations." Why do New Yorkers insist on saying that it remains an E train while behaving in every way like an F train? Is it for union-related purposes, so E-train drivers can continue to operate what are obviously F trains?

Rather than try to figure out which E trains were E trains and which E trains were F trains, Sunday afternoon we decided to take a car to LaGuardia instead.

UberPOOL was strange, but cheap

This taxi fare guesser suggests a yellow cab would have cost $26.70, plus tip, for our Sunday trip to the airport, and the Uber app estimates an UberX would cost $32-$41. Then, since I'd never seen the UberPOOL icon in my Uber app before, I decided to check how much that would cost, and was offered a fixed price of $26.27.

This ended up feeling like an even better deal than those numbers suggest because Sunday was also the day of the New York City Pride march, and 5th Avenue was tied up with revelers. So instead the driver took what I guess you would call the scenic route under Central Park to avoid the parade. This longer route would have run up a higher UberX or yellow cab fare, so we benefited from locking in our UberPOOL rate in advance.

That's not the strange part. The strange part is that since the driver ignored the directions Uber was feeding him, he was forced to ignore all the other UberPOOL users trying to hail him. For Uber to add people to a pool they have to be able to predict where a driver will be, and when. But since our driver was never where he was supposed to be, he ignored all the additional UberPOOL requests he was given, and we enjoyed a private ride to the airport.


I will definitely use UberPOOL again, if I'm ever in a city where it's offered as an option. Their prices seem extremely competitive, and I consider being able to lock in prices in advance regardless of traffic and route to be a big convenience.

Now, I'm perfectly aware that having a fixed up-front price does not save anyone money, on average, and indeed allows Uber to apply "sneak" surge pricing and quiet rate increases. I'm totally fine with that — if the ride's too expensive, I'll take a different form of transportation. You should too.

This is what Uber's promise should be: identify the most annoying practices of the existing cab monopolies, and eliminate them. Then, some people will be willing to pay higher prices to avoid experiencing those inconveniences and some people won't. I consider the constantly-ticking taximeter and attendant fear that a driver is taking you on the long haul and deliberating missing traffic lights to be one such inconvenience, and I'll happily pay a premium to avoid it.

Uber is no longer selling gift credit (for now)

A few people have reached out to me on Twitter to tell me that Uber is no longer selling gift cards. Sure enough, my account (in which I had asked them to re-enable the "Gifts" option after it mysteriously disappeared) no longer showed the option of buying gifts, and this cached version of an Uber help page reads: "Please note that we are no longer offering gift cards for purchase on the Uber system."

As a reminder, Uber gift credit was useful because an individual Uber ride is often cheaper than the $25 minimum redemption of the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard. Buying Uber credit in bulk got around that restriction, and I probably would have continued to buy it $100 at a time even after today's Arrival+ devaluation.

Why the change?

It's always fun to speculate on why companies make sudden, unannounced changes like this. I have two pet theories to explain why Uber stopped selling gift credit.

The first theory is based on the possibility that whichever Uber city you originally sign up in is persistently linked to your account, even if you move. That being the case, it's possible that Uber gift credits were being improperly assigned as revenue to your home city, rather than the city you actually take your rides in, which may have been messing up some internal profit metric Uber uses.

The second theory is that since Uber is currently running an American Express Offer for $10 off $20 in rides, the last thing they want is for customers to buy thousands of dollars in Uber credit for 50% off! If this theory is true, gift credit may return after the American Express Offer expires on December 31, 2015.

Alternate Uber payment schemes

If you have an American Express card enrolled in Membership Rewards, you can use your Membership Rewards points for 1 cent each against Uber rides, or earn 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar. Since Membership Rewards points are relatively easy to earn and difficult to monetize, this is a straightforward way to redeem them for 1 cent per point.

You should be able to redeem Bank of America Travel Rewards points or Capital One Venture miles against Uber rides starting at $25, although I don't have either card so I don't know for sure.

While not exactly a payment scheme, also remember to link your Starwood Preferred Guest and Uber accounts, so you can earn 1 Starpoint per dollar spent on Uber rides (up to $10,000 per year, and only after your first qualifying Starwood Preferred Guest stay each calendar year).

Pro tip: Did Uber turn off "Gifts" in your account? Ask them to turn it back on!

Back in November I wrote about a trick I like to use now that the Barclaycard Arrival+ card allows Arrival+ miles to be redeemed against taxi purchases: buying Uber credit in "redeemable" $25 chunks, so that Arrival+ miles can be redeemed against Uber rides even when a single ride doesn't exceed $25 (which is fairly common in my experience).

A few weeks ago I noticed that the "Gifts" link had disappeared from the top-left corner of my Uber homepage. I remembered that back when American Express was offering $10 off any Uber purchase of $25 or more, many folks didn't have the option of buying gift cards, but that they were able to e-mail Uber to turn the feature on.

While I'd never heard of anyone losing the option to buy gift credit, I passed along that information to a curious reader, who reported back that Uber was able to re-enable the "Gifts" option in his account.

So yesterday I sent an e-mail to from the e-mail address linked to my account, writing:

"I used to have the option of buying electronic gift cards in my Uber account, but the option seems to have disappeared in the last week or so. Can that option be re-enabled?"

About 10 minutes later, I received the following reply:

"Thanks for writing in! I'm happy to set you up with gift card access so you can give the gift of Uber to someone special.

"If you log into your account on our website you will see a link at the top that says Gifts. From there you can purchase Uber credits in increments of of $25, $50, $100, and $250. You'll be able to purchase gift cards in USD that can be redeemed and used in the US. Please be careful to only hit the Place Orderbutton once."

So there you have it: if you're interested in buying Uber credit in "redeemable" chunks, but the option has disappeared from your account, just drop a line to and they seem more than willing to re-enable it.

I love Uber, but they are seriously terrible

The private ride-coordinating app Uber exists for a single reason. It’s not the ubiquity of smartphones and it’s not the rise of the freelance economy. It’s the fact that taking taxis is the worst, and always has been.

For me and most people I know, taking a cab thrusts me into a shadowy world I don’t like or understand: taximeters (which after the driver fidgets with the keys always end up $2-4 higher than the fare itself); “broken” credit card terminals; being assured that the driver has a “shortcut” to get wherever you’re going; and of course never being able to get one when you need it (Washington, DC, and Los Angeles — I’m looking at you). It’s all just so painful.

Uber neatly solves all these problems: no taximeter, no credit card terminals, a GPS map that makes it obvious if your driver is screwing with you, and even “surge pricing” to encourage drivers to come out at times of peak demand (and push notifications when surge pricing has ended).

But you don’t have to use Uber very many times to realize that it comes with its own slew of problems. It seems I can never take an Uber without running into one or more of these issues:

Drivers and cars don’t match the app

If an Uber driver’s car is in the shop, he’ll borrow a friend’s, and riders have no way of knowing whether that car is insured, whether it’s safe, or even whether it’s stolen. Always compare the license plate in your app to the one on the car: if they don’t match, don’t get in.

The same is true of drivers, although it’s not particularly easy or fun when your car shows up to make a split-second decision about whether the picture and the driver look “enough” alike.

Drivers accept a ride and then…go do something else

I once ordered a pickup in Brooklyn and the driver who accepted was driving the other direction on the Williamsburg Bridge. He at least had the good sense to call and ask if I wanted to wait for him to turn around.

Another time the driver who accepted my pickup was getting gas. After 5 minutes of watching his car sitting still on my iPhone screen, I canceled the ride and ordered another. And the same driver accepted! Which brings me to…

The driver selection process is completely opaque

As the story above shows, there’s no way to participate in the process of choosing your driver. After a ride you can provide feedback, but you can’t do something as simple as marking whether or not you want that driver to pick you up in the future. And if the ride doesn’t take place, there’s no way to provide feedback at all. If you or or driver cancels the call before the ride begins, you can’t indicate whether you canceled the call because the car or driver didn’t match, if you canceled it because your driver was busy getting gas, if you didn’t feel safe, or any other reason.

Uber doesn’t collect that information because it doesn’t want that information: if it were receiving reports in real time about unregistered drivers or vehicles, it would have a duty to act on that information immediately.

Likewise, every time someone borrows their friend’s Uber account to give a few rides, or uses a different car than the one they registered with Uber, Uber still gets their cut of the fare.

I am personally unconvinced, however, that their studied ignorance will protect them against the coming wave of lawsuits. Fortunately, settling out of court with Uber’s victims is their problem, not mine.

Uber operates as a semi-criminal enterprise

It’s no secret why Uber works this way: it’s because their business in many markets is in violation of applicable laws and regulations. While their customers may be hipsters, businesspeople, and travel hackers, the independent contractors who provide rides for those users are not: they’re by definition the kind of people who are willing, for whatever reason, to work as freelance contractors, using their personal vehicles and personal liability insurance to provide rides to strangers, all while operating in a legal grey area.


I don’t use Uber very much, for the same reason I don’t use cabs very much: I walk, bike, and take public transportation as much as possible.

But I do use Uber, because sometimes you need to get somewhere by car, but don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of renting one or trying to use a taxi (see above).

Still, I wish Uber weren’t a bunch of criminals, I wish the rider-driver matching mechanism was more transparent and that the rider had more control over it, and I wish it were possible to alert Uber to shady behavior that makes you cancel a ride before it begins.

But I’m not holding my breath.

If you haven’t experienced the joys of Uber for yourself yet, feel free to use my signup referral link. You’ll receive a free ride (worth up to $20 at the time of writing, although it periodically changes) in your account immediately and I’ll receive one as soon as you take your first ride. If you end up finding Uber useful, I’ve written before about prepaying for Uber rides by sending yourself gift credit $25 at a time; it counts as a redeemable travel purchase with the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, and you can spend it down over time – gift credit doesn’t expire (until Uber does!).

Buy Uber credit in "redeemable" chunks

Back in October, Uber and American Express were offering a $10 credit when you spent $10 or more on Uber using a linked American Express card. That was great if you were planning to take one (or many more) eligible Uber rides by December 31, but it was also possible to prepay future Uber rides at a steep discount by using linked American Express cards to buy Uber gift credit (and applying it to your own account).

The catch was that Uber only allows gift credit to be purchased in increments of $25. While that was enough to trigger the American Express statement credit, Uber doesn't let you split payment for gift credit, meaning you were still stuck paying $15 out of pocket for your $25 in Uber credit.

Last weekend in San Antonio I ended up taking quite a few Uber rides, and was glad that I had "overpaid" for my Uber credits. Why? Because my Uber rides in San Antonio were cheap:

Two of my rides fell under $10, and wouldn't have triggered the $10 statement credit if I'd paid with an American Express card. Interestingly, another fell below $25, meaning it wouldn't even have been eligible for redemption if I'd paid with my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard. As it turned out, my Uber balance (after referral credits) was applied dollar-for-dollar to those fares, and I was able to capture the entire 40% discount by prepaying.

Prepay your Uber rides, $25 at a time

By now readers can no doubt see where this is going. By pre-funding your Uber account with $25 gift credit, purchased with the Arrival+ MasterCard, you can guarantee that every ride you take – no matter how short – is eligible for Arrival+ redemption. Since each credit card transaction will be exactly $25, the minimum Arrival+ redemption, you can squeeze the maximum value from an Arrival+ balance of any size.


Before my faithful readers flood the comments to chastise me for passing over the myriad ways Uber has invited its service to be "gamed" by travel hackers willing to color outside the lines, let me assure you that I am fully aware of this. This post is not about those techniques: it's for folks who use Uber, pay for their rides, and want to do so in the most efficient method possible.

Oh, and here's the obligatory Uber referral link.