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No Cash? What to Do When the Cab Won’t Take Credit

Welcome to Upright Position, SmarterTravel’s weekly series in which Caroline Costello discusses emotional and controversial travel topics. Join the debate by leaving a comment below!

You’ve been riding around under the justifiable assumption that your cab driver accepts credit cards. There’s a card processor in the car, and you’re in a city with a credit-card mandate for taxis. Things get hairy when you arrive at your destination and your driver demands cash—but your billfold is empty. What should you do?

Boston, New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Chicago are examples of major cities where taxis are required to accept credit cards. Such legislation is supposed to help people get around more easily, but the cash-free cab concept sometimes works better in theory than in application. In cities where taxis are supposed to accept plastic, cab drivers have been known to claim they don’t take credit cards. There may be a credit-card processing mechanism inches from your face. There may be city regulations that require drivers to accept credit. These things offer no relief for a cashless passenger who enters the cab under the assumption that credit-cards can be used, then learns—when it’s too late to turn back—that she has no means to pay for the ride. It’s an awkward situation that can quickly trigger a conflict.

I live in Boston; anecdotal evidence suggests that most longtime residents of this city have encountered at least one cabbie who demanded cash at the end of a ride, in spite of laws from 2009 mandating all cabs to have working credit-card processing equipment. According to the Boston Globe, “Drivers absorb a 5 or 6 percent processing fee on credit-card fares, while many also must pay $1.50 each time they withdraw cash from an account in which card payments are deposited.” Whether a cabbie hopes to avoid processing fees or just wants some fast cash, he might discourage passengers from paying with credit. He might take a hard line and claim his processing machine is broken. Or his machine might actually be broken.

Where does this leave the customer? I asked an officer from the Hackney Carriage Unit of the Boston Police Department for some advice. The officer told me that passengers should file a report whenever a cab driver refuses to accept cash. Similarly, New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) website advises passengers to “report the medallion number to the TLC by going to 311 Online.”

A report doesn’t solve the immediate problem of lack of payment. When the cabbie won’t accept cash, are we still obligated to pay? Must we run around the city searching for an ATM? “It’s still a service,” said the Boston police officer. “You have to pay.” The officer told me that some drivers find themselves in ‘dead spots’ wherein their credit-processing technology loses its connection and stops working. The cab driver just might, in truth, be experiencing a problem with technology.

Regardless of whether or not your driver is being honest, you have to keep up your end of the deal. You have to pay for the ride somehow. The takeaway here is multilayered. Carrying cash obviously allows one to dodge the problem in the first place. When that’s not an option, heed this advice:

  • Ask the cab driver if he or she accepts credit before you get in the car, even when traveling in a city in which cabs are supposed to accept credit-card payments. An upfront discussion of payment methods will likely uncover the driver’s attitude toward plastic. If the cabbie gives you a hard time, get in another taxi.
  • Ask the driver to go to an ATM. I don’t love this tip, but it might be your only out. I once found myself in a Boston cab with a supposedly broken credit-card processor, cashless, on a Sunday—and the door for the particular ATM I tried was locked. Eventually, the cab’s card processor started working, but only after a 20-minute argument about whether I was truly unable to access the ATM. The lesson: An ATM adventure with a cab driver isn’t fun; avoid it. Or at the very least make sure the meter isn’t running while you drive around searching.
  • Forget cabs. Use an alternative service like Uber or Lyft.

Has this happened to you? Discuss.

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