Last weekend I was in New York City for some business. I’ll be honest. Getting around New York was a little intimidating for this Oklahoma yokel. Growing up in the expanses of suburbia where everyone drives their own car left me with little preparation for navigating the mean streets of the Big Apple using public transportation.
My first night in Manhattan I wanted to stop by Katz’s Deli for one of their famous pastrami sandwiches. It was about 3 miles from my hotel, so I decided to take a cab. My first attempt at hailing a taxi was a complete failure. I stood at a corner, saw a cab headed my way, and lifted my hand like I’ve seen in countless numbers of movies based in New York.
Zoom! The cabbie drove right by me.
“Alright, maybe he didn’t see me…” I thought.
Undaunted, I saw another cab headed my way. This time I stuck out my hand with more gusto. Same thing. Taxi kept right on going, leaving me with my hand in the air like a chump.
Realizing I was looking more and more like a dopey tourist, I gave up and decided just to walk to Katz’s. (The pastrami sandwich was amazing, by the way. Expensive, but delicious.)
Luckily, most of the places I had to be during my two day stay were within walking distance, so I was able to avoid the cabs. But my inability to properly hail a cab definitely limited the places I could visit while I was in the city. Yeah, I could have taken the subway, but they’re fraught with their own complexities for the uninitiated.
On my last night in New York City, I met up with an old friend from high school who has been living in NYC for the past few years. I shared with him my failed attempt at hailing a taxi. He chuckled, but as an Okie transplant to the Big Apple, he completely empathized with me on how confusing public transportation can be. He was kind enough to give me a quick rundown on how to hail a taxi cab and a short primer on some basic cab etiquette.
Below I share what my friend taught me. While this article is primarily geared towards hailing a taxi in New York City, most of the info is applicable in other major cities with taxi transportation.
Finding an Available Taxi
The first trick to successfully hailing a taxi is to find one that’s available and on duty. My problem was I was hailing cabs that were either occupied or off duty. That’s why they didn’t stop for me. So how can you tell which taxis are available? It’s all in the lights.
On the top of every cab in New York City, you’ll find a roof light. They’re hard not to spot. What you want to look for is a number, with the words “Off Duty” bookending that number. To figure out which cab is available, pay attention to how they’re lit up.
- Available Cab: Just the center number is lit and nothing else. Hail away!
- Occupied Cab: None of the lights are lit. This cab is already running a fare, so don’t hail it.
- Off Duty Cab: Both the center number and the “off duty” lights are lit. Though, sometimes I saw cabs that just had the “off duty” lights on without the center light on and they were still off duty. This cab isn’t picking anybody up. Don’t hail.
Here’s a nice graphic showcasing the possible light combos and their meanings regarding availability:
Hailing the Cab
Stand on the side of the street that has traffic going in the direction you’re headed. If you’re going downtown, stand on the side of the street that has traffic going downtown already. It’s not necessary, but it will save you time and a bit of money as the driver doesn’t have to turn around and go the other way.
Find an ideal spot. Street corners are the best places to hail a cab. If you’ll be hailing cabs in New York City, download the Cabsense App  to your smartphone. The CabSense app uses data from the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission to help you find the best nearby street corners to hail an open cab based on the day of the week, the time, and your current location.
Step off the sidewalk and into the street a bit. This makes it easier for drivers to notice you from the rest of the sidewalk traffic. Now don’t step out too far into the street. You don’t want the NYC Sanitation Department scraping pieces of you off the pavement. But a foot or two off the sidewalk will keep you safe and make you noticeable.
Stick your arm out like you mean it. No time for timidity or half-assing. Lift your arm up and out like a man who knows where he’s going in life.
Don’t whistle or yell “Taxi!” They only do that in the movies, and it makes you look like a tourist.
Look the driver in the eyes. No, you’re not trying to stare him down like a predator stares down prey. Well, maybe a little. Getting eye contact with a driver makes it easier to know if he’s going to stop for you. He’ll usually give you a nod if he’s going to pull over.
Basic Taxi Cab Know-How
You don’t hail taxis at the airport. When you arrive to New York City at an airport you have to wait in line at the taxi stand to get a taxi. You’ll get the stink eye if you try to hail one.
Give an address, not a name of a place. For well-known places in town, like the Empire State Building or something, you can just tell the driver the name of the place. But for hotels, friends’ apartments, or restaurants, give the address or at least a nearby intersection of the place you’re going.
Tell the taxi driver from the get go if you need to make multiple stops. You are allowed to make multiple-stops when you a hail a cab. For example, stopping to pick up a friend at his place before arriving at your final destination. It’s just a courtesy to let the driver know beforehand.
No more than 4 people in a cab at a time. In New York City (and many other cities), it’s against the law for more than 4 passengers to ride in a taxi at one time. If you’re with a large group, don’t ask the driver if he’ll take an extra person just so you can save money.
Exit curbside. Safety first.
You can pay with a credit card. I didn’t know this before arriving in New York City, so I stockpiled cash. Since 2008, all New York City Yellow Cabs are equipped with a credit card reader. Cabbies made a big stink about the credit card readers , and a few drivers will still put up some resistance if you try to pay by plastic. But know that, by law, drivers are required to accept credit cards (other major cities have similar laws). Don’t let them tell you otherwise.
Firsties. The unspoken rule is that the person or group of people waiting for a cab first gets the cab that pulls up. First come, first serve and all that. However, if you display any sort of apprehension or hesitation in getting in a cab that stops for you, don’t be surprised if someone else takes it.
Tip. 15% of the total fare is customary. If the driver helps with your luggage, give him an extra $1-$2 per bag .
Help a lady in and out of the cab. If you’re with a woman, especially if you’re on a date, it’s good manners to open the door for her and hold her hand for support as she slides into the car. When you arrive at your destination, get out and offer your hand to the lady and help her out of the cab.
Okay you New York City natives, share your taxi tips with us. And those from other cities, and other countries as well, fill us in on important taxi know-how in your neck of the woods.