Not long ago, I took a Juno, one of New York City’s many ride-hail services, from my Brooklyn apartment to John F. Kennedy airport.
The Juno ride I booked was a “Bliss,” the lowest-cost option the company offers. The fare I was quoted and agreed to pay at the time of booking was around $37, significantly cheaper than the prices Uber and Lyft were offering at the time.
This system of quoting a final price when a ride is requested has come to be known as “upfront” pricing. The idea is to eliminate surprises for the rider. You are shown the price before deciding whether to order the car, and don’t need to spend your trip anxious about the cost.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I received my receipt for this particular trip and saw Juno had charged me not the promised $37, but $54.75, a difference of more than 40%. After clearing security and settling in at my gate, I sent a note to Juno’s customer support line, calling the fare increase inappropriate and requesting a refund to reflect the upfront price I was quoted.
Within five minutes, a support rep wrote me back. Juno was sorry my final fare was different from the upfront price and issued me a refund, said the rep, identified as “Ron A.” He went on to explain:
The upfront fare price may be altered in cases where the destination is changed during the ride cycle, or if the time/distance of the ride has significantly exceeded the predicted amount. After reviewing your ride we can see that the reason your final fare altered is due to the route taken being longer in both time and mileage than the upfront fare anticipated.
This was certainly the case with my ride. The company had projected my fare assuming a route through Brooklyn to the airport that was more or less a straight line. My driver, however, opted to take a different and significantly longer route recommended by his navigation system that looped around the southern edge of Brooklyn and back up and over to JFK.
Ride-hail apps tend to give drivers route guidance but also let them pick their own route. Uber, for instance, lets drivers set a third-party navigation app like Waze as their default for directions within the Uber driver. The companies generally rely on feedback from passengers—via complaints and bad ratings—to suss out any unnecessarily circuitous routes a driver might take in hopes of getting a higher fare.
Unpredictable routing turns out to be the key hitch in the presumptive upfront-ness of upfront pricing. “The rider upfront price may change if a rider adds stops, updates their destination, or the route changes significantly,” Uber explains on its website. “When this happens, a rider’s final price is calculated based on the actual time and distance of the trip.”
Uber will absorb small estimation errors that can either earn or lose it money. An analysis of 165 trips one driver made over five weeks in New York City last year found that Uber came out $85.54 ahead on upfront pricing, bolstered by a small number of discrepancies that broke in its favor to the tune of $20 or more.
A Lyft spokesman said the company adheres to upfront prices in most cases, but in rare circumstances might change the price for a rider if the driver took a route that was significantly longer (in minutes or miles) than anticipated. Lyft said it reverts to simple time and distance pricing if a rider does something to change the route, like requesting a friend be picked up or changing their destination.
It would probably be overkill to screenshot your upfront price every time you take a ride-hail service. But if you find yourself on a longer trip with multiple possible route options, it might not be a bad idea.