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Taxi trips are always a bit of a gamble when you’re travelling. How do you find cabs in an unfamiliar part of town? What if the taxi you book doesn’t arrive on time? How do you know if you’re getting an accurate fare?
Happily, new taxi apps aim to eliminate these worries by enabling travellers to book a cab through their smartphone, track the movements of a cab until it arrives and even pay for the ride. Some apps are also adding safety-related features, such as text messages with clear information about the car's license number and driver's name.
Taxi apps have a promising future, but they are not perfect tools yet. Cab companies aren't always as high-tech as travellers are, and not all cabbies are participating in these app-based services, so no app’s listings are entirely comprehensive. Cabbies also tend to be self-owned or operated by a local company, which means that regional technological solutions are more common than standardized national or international ones. So there is no app with a global database for ordering taxis in any major city. Travellers have to download the taxi app that is most relevant to each destination they visit.
Here's a sampling of the most promising taxi apps. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a selection of ones that are appealing in their design, cover popular destinations and are representative of the broader trend.
This app is the gold standard at the moment. Book a cab, track the driver's progress on a map, check out information about the driver (including ratings received from previous customers), learn the cab's colour and license plate number to know precisely which stranger's vehicle you should be stepping into, and pay your fare wirelessly. This app launched in Israel, debuted in London in August, and is set to expand to other countries, such as France, Italy, Spain, and Russia. (Free; Android, iPhone/iPad, Blackberry, Symbian; gettaxi.com)
Available in Germany since 2010, this app lets you order and pay for taxis in major German cities like Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg, plus additional coverage in Vienna. One major perk is that the app lets you check out which cabs are near you in real-time. Book one, and track its arrival live on a map while reviewing information about the driver and the vehicle, including ratings from past patrons. The app has a fare estimator (for double-checking the cab's meter quote, not for getting a third-party verified calculation of what you should pay), and you can pay the fare by credit or debit card. (Free; iPhone/iPad, Android; mytaxi.net)
This app stands out for having the most comprehensive listings for US cabs, making it possible to order taxis in more than 25 major American cities. The app uses your smartphone’s geo-location feature to determine which taxi service is closest to you for faster paging. While the app doesn't let you track a vehicle live on a map, it does notify your device when the taxi is about to arrive. You can also pay the fare through the app. (Free; iPhone/iPad, Android, Blackberry, Palm; taximagic.com)
Technically meant for hiring private cars instead of taxis, this service is especially relevant for travellers heading to airports in its areas of coverage: San Francisco, parts of New York City, Seattle and parts of Chicago. When you use the app to book a sedan, you receive a text message with the vehicle's estimated arrival time. Uber calculates the fare based on a GPS-device in the vehicle and you can pay the fare, tolls and tip with your credit card. (You enter your credit card information in advance via the app or the company's website, and your card is charged automatically on arrival.) After information like your home address and credit card are used once, it is recorded on Uber's database, which makes ordering sedans in the future fairly quick. The app doesn't offer map-based tracking of a vehicle or driver ratings at this time. (Free; Android and iPhone/iPad; uber.com)
New this summer, this app is aimed at Australians who want to outsmart cabbies who try to scam passengers with a higher fare. It calculates the estimated fare for your trip in major cities, like Sydney, Perth and Melbourne. But it doesn't let you book, track or pay for the taxi, and it doesn't provide safety-related information. While not as impressive as some of the other apps we've mentioned, it can offer a check on what the driver claims is your rate and is especially helpful for visitors who are confused by local fare systems. ($2, iPhone/iPad, worldcabmeter.prasannag.com)
Sean O'Neill is travel tech columnist for BBC Travel