How I was ripped off by the Las Vegas taxi drivers mafia

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I arrived at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas at 5.30pm last Thursday, or 1.30am in the morning UK time.  My destination was the Mandalay Bay hotel which is the first property on the Las Vegas ‘strip’.  It is so close to the airport that it effectively backs onto it.

I jumped into a cab with a sensible-looking middle-aged female driver.  She asked me if I had any preferred route.

In London, taxi drivers often ask you if you have any preferred route.  It is just insurance for them, in case they end up caught in a massive traffic jam.  They gave you the chance to pick the way but you turned them down, so you can hardly blame the driver ….

What I didn’t realise is that, in Las Vegas, this phrase is actually a secret code.  There is only one direct route from the airport to the Strip.  However, there is a substantially longer alternative route which involves using the interstate (ie the motorway).  I didn’t know that at the time.

Being a good Londoner, I said that I did not have a preferred route and that she could use her judgement.  Off we went down the interstate for a long ride.  I was a little surprised, when we arrived at the hotel, to find that it was directly adjacent to the airport.

However, I paid the bill ($30 inc tip) and was on my way.

Las Vegas taxi price from airport

The next morning, I read this post from US blog One Mile At A Time.  Ben, the author, was at the conference with me and he was fully aware in advance of this scam.  I had learned my lesson.

Heading back to the airport on Sunday evening, the driver did not ask me for a preferred route.  He just set off.  Intriguingly, despite the fact that the airport is opposite the hotel, he set off in a different direction and 2 minutes later was easing onto the interstate.

At that point, I asked “Why are we taking the interstate?”.  He was startled but had no obvious answer.  I then said “Doesn’t the taxi commission state that there is no justification for taxi drivers taking passengers down the interstate?”.

The driver suddenly got very apologetic.  He clearly thought that I was planning to report him to the taxi commission and put his job on the line.  He told me not to worry about the meter reading and that he would ‘sort something out’.

When we got to McCarran, he asked for $16 instead of the $24 on the meter.  Amusingly, when I gave him a $20 bill, he thought that he would keep the change.  I soon set him right on that – although I did give him a $2 tip.

Do bear this in mind if you are travelling to Las Vegas soon ….

For the record, I took two other taxi trips in Vegas.  Down the Strip to their London Eye clone, and back up the strip to the hotel.  On both occasions, the taxi driver decided that driving straight down the Strip was not the best route to take …..

PS.  As regular Vegas visitors will know, there is a monorail which runs up and down the strip, connecting many of the hotels.  It would have been relatively cheap and incredibly easy to connect this to the airport.  Apparently the influence of the Las Vegas taxi drivers union is the reason that it does not.

PPS.  Don’t bother trying to call Uber either – they’re banned.  Guess why.

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  1. We are going to be arriving in Vegas Saturday lunchtime and as it’s our first time , when we get the taxi do we say no tunnel re the location of the hotel? Thanks!

    • If/when they ask ‘Have you been here before?’, say ‘Yes’!

      There’s no need to say anything else, they won’t prod, unless you want to say ‘several times’. 🙂

      Given the comments above, I’m sure ‘no tunnel’ helps if they ask.

      • The taxi authority are clamping down on the drivers taking people through the tunnel. They regularly set up roadblocks on the exit of the airport that leads to the tunnel and ask the passenger where they are going.

        If you suspect you have been a long haul when the taxi pulls up to your hotel just tell the driver you’re about to call the taxi authority they will soon cut your bill in half if not give you the right for free.

        But I agree with earlier posters that this is not just las Vegas taxis I find them the same the world over

      • Thank you!

    • No tunnel, no interstate …. they will understand!

      In some ways I do feel a tiny bit sorry for taxi drivers in Vegas because it is difficult to get a legitimate fare above $20 and you are waiting a long time for a trip. Compare to, say, Heathrow where people pay £70 for a cab into town.

      • Though of course the trip at Heathrow is much longer, petrol is multiple times the cost and the cost of living is much more in London.

        I can’t believe he gave a $2 tip to someone he caught blatantly ripping him off though. The perfect illustration of why I despise the tipping culture over there!

        • Totally agree. With taxes and “recommended” tips you could easily ending paying nearly 40% on top of your bill. 10-15% I give. I was in Vegas in August. Even when you buy a drink/food at the bar or counter you are given the opportunity of giving a gratuity. Some websites even suggest that you should give bar staff $1 per drink in tips. A bar worker could easily serve 200 plus drinks per night making $200 per night in tips on top of their wages. It is not right that the customer should feel obligated/pressurised to tip because the restaurants/bars pay their staff minimum wages and lower.

          • Tipping culture in the states is bonkers. I had 7 bags with me for a recent trip which I left with the hotel for the day as I had a late flight. That’s $7 to the bellboy to check them in, $7 to the bellboy to get them back, $9 to the guy who called me a cab and $7 to the skycap to take them to check-in (plus a healthy tip for the cabbie too).

            What really offends me is the sense of entitlement that waiters in particular have. They now see anything less than 20% as an insult. And hotel chains are actually asking their guests to tip [read: pay] the cleaning staff a few dollars a day too. It’s such a poor system. They need to get rid of the concept of a tipped wage. And don’t get me started on quoting prices before sales tax. I just mentally add 30% to pretty much any price I see in a restaurant menu – it’s just a cost of visiting the States now, and just makes me grateful that I live in the first world proper.

          • We regularly tipped from 15-20% in restaurants in SF/LA over a couple of weeks without any issues at all. I know NY is renowned for higher tips being normal. Personally I don’t think it’s a case of waiters feeling ‘entitled’. Wages for serving staff in the US suck because it’s a cultural norm that customers are expected to effectively pay for it in tips. Obviously that’s very different from the UK for example, but that’s not the employees fault.

          • I agree it’s not their fault that they get paid less, however my problem with the way the US tipping culture has gone is that it has now shot too far in the other direction – if you look at what they’ll earn with each table giving 20% tips (probably on the vastly overpriced wine too, something that traditionally was excluded when calculating the tip) then in an average evening they’ll end up earning many times over the UK minimum wage, or indeed any decent living wage. Personally I prefer to tip good service, not as an automatic tax – I still chuckle at SuperShuttle asking how much tip you wanted to leave (with 15-30% suggestions) when BOOKING ONLINE, before you’d even experienced the service!!

          • Yes, I booked SuperShuttle once – just the once – and added a tip when booking online.

            The driver claimed not to know about the arrangement insisting that he wouldn’t see the tip. He didn’t see mine, either. 😉

  2. Talking of scams aimed at unsuspecting travellers, the involuntary application of Dynamic Currency Conversion (i.e. the conversion into your card home currency at a rate of the merchant or their bank’s choosing) really winds me up.

    Some business out there are creaming that bit extra off every foreign traveller who walks through the door, against Visa and MasterCard rules and they often claim not to understand or tell you you’re wrong when challenged.

  3. The monorail’s ok if you need to travel between two of the hotels it stops at.

    For any other journeys though – and particularly for hotels on the north side of the Strip, it’s rarely worth bothering with because the stations are right at the back of the casinos and can be a good 15 minute walk to the Strip.

    The SDX and Deuce buses are the best way to travel along the Strip itself if you don’t want to shell out for a cab, although the Deuce can be infuriatingly slow (often because Americans have no concept of how to use double decker buses).

    • Don’t start me off about the LV monorail, evidence of how NOT to supply public transport(ation)!

      The monorail was financed largely by the casinos to get punters from one casino to another. That’s why it serves the back of certain casino hotels on one side of the strip – the ones that helped fund the project – and few if any non-casino hotels. No likelihood of extension to LAS or downtown Las Vegas in my lifetime. All carefully designed not to offend the taxi mafia.

      Did I mention expensive? That’s compared with local bus fares and public transport in NYC, Los Angeles, etc etc. The monorail proudly proclaimed that it was built without public subsidy. Harrumph! It’s not public transport in the conventional sense, merely a scheme for getting gamblers from one casino to another.

      When I didn’t have a car, I used the Deuce on the strip and crosstown buses for other journeys. Oh yes, I walked, too. Las Vegas is generally safe for walkers.

  4. sandgrounder says:

    I think ‘taxi mafia’ is more accurate than ‘taxi driver mafia’. The medallions are in the hands of the operators- drivers are earning a fraction of the price on the meter. To become a taxi driver in Nevada requires a couple of multiple choice tests, a one day awareness course, a medical, English tests and a criminal records check. That’s the way the companies like it- a steady supply of cheap, unskilled labour who keep the real money rolling in- for them. It is not acceptable to overcharge, but most career drivers are probably honest. With such low barriers to entry you are going to get a lot of cowboys passing through, trying to make a fast buck.

    The best way to increase service standards is to scrap quantity controls and increase quality controls. It is then harder to become a taxi driver, but they know what they are doing and they can also buy their own cab. That’s how the London hackney trade are regulated, and it leads to better trained drivers with enough invested in the industry to discourage dishonest practices which threaten their hard-won licence.

  5. A bit tangentual, but for anyone looking for a very good read, the Las Vegas Cabbie Chronicles blog is excellent –

  6. This is one of my biggest bug bears in LV! From the airport to strip for me now is an automatic “Take Paradise”, even if they insist traffic is good on the interstate. To be fair, I was once running super late and needed to get from Caesar’s to airport with about 10 mins to spare, during daytime traffic. Taxi driver realised I was in a huge rush, took Frank Sinatra Dr (I was on the E Flamingo Exit of Caesar’s) and got to the airport with the meter reading $12! Cabbie got a big tip.

    In terms of threatening to report – why not actually go through with reporting? Just because they give you the back down and lower the fare doesn’t mean they will stop doing it to other tourists.

  7. Dan Brice says:

    I hate to say it but you probably brought this one on yourself. It’s nothing specific to Vegas, I’ve had this attempted on me in Canada, Asia, Europe… you should always request the most direct route (especially if asked!!), and have an idea what a trip should cost – a ten or fifteen second web search is all that is needed.

  8. George Kyriakos says:

    I haven’t been to Vegas for about 15 years now, but what happened to the coaches provided by the hotels?

    The taxis I took during my time weren’t to or from the airport and were all extremely courteous and professional. It feels like a lifetime ago now… Maybe it was a dream!

  9. Thywillbedone says:

    Just back from a west coast holiday which included LA, San Francisco and Vegas. I used Uber a lot in LA which made a very big city a lot more navigable – never had to wait for more than 5 mins (eg like you invariably do for hotel arranged cabs) – on the whole, very efficient and cost effective. I also used them a lot in San Francisco. I was surprised to find then that the service is banned in Vegas. Not only that but I have never seen dirtier/unsafe feeling cabs or shifter looking drivers anywhere on my travels – it needs to be sorted out as it sets a bad tone. I’m sure the cab owner mafia will eventually be cracked but the ride sharing companies are prioritising softer target cities to open in.

  10. I thought they were building the wheel opposite the mandalay?

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