- Addison Chan
How to get the best taxi deal in Havana
There is no one size fits all situation but my approach is always to haggle for an acceptable solution for both parties. If we approach matters with a win/lose mentality then we start at a disadvantage IMHO.
Firstly it is important to understand the position of the "other guy". In the case of taxi drivers for example the driver of a government taxi does not own his car. He rents it from the government for around $55 CUC per day, the variables being the type of vehicle, the age of the vehicle and the location. Vans will be higher and older non-air conditioned vehicles will be slightly less. The driver is also expected to cover his own fuel and oil. Normally the government looks after most maintenance but drivers have often taken matters into their own hands because when the car is out of service so is their income stream. Most career drivers keep a reserve for contingencies or to save for the day when they can buy their own vehicle. So coming out of the gate every morning a government driver has around $100 CUC in costs before they make a penny for themselves. Their advantage is that they get to wait for fares in the best locations such as airports and hotels.
For private taxis there are 4-5 times as many drivers as there are vehicles in Cuba. There are a few vehicles that are owner operated but the vast majority of private taxis are rented out to drivers. The going rate for the typical mid-50's Chev Belair is around $500 CUC per month. The driver is usually responsible for all costs including capital maintenance. If word gets around that a driver does not look after his maintenance obligation he will find himself forced to change professions because nobody will rent him a car.
Almost all of the private taxis are diesel powered so a driver is faced with a direct cost of $50-60 per day before they earn any money. The difference in costs between the government and private taxis is usually reflected in a price difference but not always. Most private taxis will use the government rate card as a starting point but they will be much more flexible to reach an acceptable price. If you do not haggle you will put a big smile on his face!
A third element to consider is the presence of taxi-brokers. These are the guys that come up to you when you exit the terminal or approach you as you walk down the street. You will usually spot them by their designer sunglasses and brand name sneakers. Brokers are people that speak a foreign language and they use that ability to book fares for drivers that only speak Spanish. They are licensed by the government and carry an ID card. Brokers are paid a commission by the drivers at between 10-20%. Brokers will accept almost any price you suggest because they make their money by selling your trip to a driver. Often however you will get a great price and no taxi because the broker and the driver were unable to make a deal.
With a bit of knowledge of how the system works it is much easier to negotiate.
A general rule of thumb is that government taxis are usually the most expensive but the cars are more modern, in better condition and more comfortable. Private taxis are more flexible with their prices and if you can find an owner/operator you will usually get the best price.
I generally try to avoid brokers because their role is superfluous once you get more comfortable with Cuba. For somebody "fresh off the boat" however a broker will earn his keep by taking a bit of the spread between a government car and a private car. If you treat them with respect they will teach you a ton about the inner workings of the biz.