Taxi's in China are cheap compared to Europe and the US and sometimes offer excellent value for money when travelling small distances in a city area.
There are a few things to bear in mind though, to keep you away from trouble and not getting scammed. We haven't had an incident of being scammed yet, apart from it costing a lot on the first day we arrived in Shanghai and had to get from Pudong International Airport to the city centre and were forced into paying about 300 RMB as it was 2am and not a single other choice available.
How much do taxi's in China cost?
Taxi's all vary in price per km in every city, but you should expect to pay between 8 – 11 RMB for the first 2km's in many larger cities. This is metered rate and in terms of taxi safety and avoiding scams, insist on the meter being turned on, otherwise if they refuse, just get out – it's worth your while to avoid price problems at the end of your journey! After the first 2km's, the price per km goes down and these prices are regulated by the local provincial government.
A typical journey in Ningbo for example, travelling 10-15 minutes cost us about 16 RMB which is £2 ($2.70 ish). Another journey we took from the East Railway station in Chengdu, to our hotel on the outskirts of the city cost about 50 RMB with the journey taking 30 minutes at least and travelling a large distance. So you can see, taxi's are both cheap and affordable for most journey types. But of course local buses are much cheaper (providing you know the route in advance!), they generally cost between 1-5RMB for any journey.
How to avoid being scammed in China
Taxi's in China are generally a safe option and providing you stick solely to metered taxi drivers in the usual Green / Yellow beat down old VW's you won't get into too much trouble. The scams that run in China include black cab drivers, who will sit around major transport hubs such as Airports & Train stations. They are not licensed and WILL rip you off. You can tell the real taxi drivers to fake ones, real ones will not approach you trying to sell their services. A typical inflated fare of black cab drivers is 4x the cost of a metered taxi. Also, be careful as they are not aware of most roads / streets and may give up and drop you somewhere in the middle of no-where and demand payment. Hey, you may even end up being robbed! So simply stay away from them, there is not a situation that the answer should be using black cab drivers, stick with trying to get a metered taxi and it will definitely work out in the end.
You will also notice black cab drivers aren't always male, you see a lot of females and this doesn't make it any safer or better value. A lot of people are clearly just trying to make a second income and if a tourist destination is on their way to and from work, try their luck at giving people a ride into town. But again, simply avoid it.
The other scam is that real taxi drivers sometimes try and not put the meter on and then charge you a random amount at the end. You will know if they have the meter on, as when they set off they need to push the meter down, so it's not sitting vertical anymore, the receipt machine will start printing at this point. If all these things happen, you are in a metered taxi and all is good!
When we were in Beijing, we got lost and realised that the distance between our hostel and the metro station we exited were too great to walk. After spotting a regular looking taxi, I asked how much to get to our hostel and he quoted a price (I knew he was avoiding his meter, but at this point was too tired to care) and we negotiated it down further and got it. Then I realised he didn't have his ID badge at the window or any other equipment. So this might be an indication he was a black cab driver or recently had his license revoked. So as a further tip in avoiding scams, if the taxi driver has no ID on show and/or quotes a direct price, avoid as again it could land you in a bad situation.
The problems with taxi's in China
Taxi drivers are not the same in China as other developed parts of the world. For example, there is no real training to become a driver and they don't require knowledge of the local area and have to pass a test to show competence of local roads, streets and attractions. They also haven't caught onto GPS devices, so when they don't know where somewhere is, they will struggle to take you there. This is most prevalent when travelling into a new city expansion area or development (OK, so that is most of Chinese cities!).
You will also find that many taxi drivers only want to take fares short distances. Because that is where the profit is made, they would rather not take you on a journey out further than 15-20 minutes. They want guaranteed demand for their services between both journey points. Sometimes you will find showing them an address, they will simply say they do not know where the destination is and avoid you as a fare. I guarantee 99% of the time it's down to them not wanting you as a fare because your journey is not convenient for them. This goes against taxi's in the west, where the taxi driver takes you anywhere you want, without arguing. When we were in Ningbo, we decided to go into town one night and took the bus to Lao Wai Tan for drinks. When we wanted to come home, the buses were no longer running and even with the address in Chinese AND Pinyin, we got rejected by dozens of taxi drivers. We got one in the end after showing the place on Google Maps, but it took almost an hour to get home.
Top tips for taking a taxi in China
- Avoid black cab & unmetered taxi drivers
- Carry the address in Chinese & Pinyin (most can read Pinyin address)
- Have the destination loaded on Google Maps if they struggle with the address
- Double check they put the meter downwards before setting off
- Ensure they have an ID card (validity not expired) on show
- Use taxi's for shorter distances as costs can spiral after you get into fast lanes, out of the city.
- Tips are not expected, but if you want to, just round it up to maximum of 5 yuan. Otherwise it will come across very rude.
Great, now you are all set to travel by Taxi in China, oh and it goes without saying, don't get on the back of a scooter / motorcycle taxi – your chances of survival are a lot slimmer than crossing main roads unscathed.
Travelling to Beijing on a budget? Read our guide on Beijing (China) – A Backpackers Budget Guide & Travel Itinerary.