We’d been waiting for half an hour when the van pulled up at the meeting point. We were going to be travelling by car, though, so this slightly dilapidated vehicle couldn’t be the one we were waiting for, could it?
Two young men got out and one started towards us, a smile on his face. “Linda?” He asked. “I’m Moises, let’s go.” Moises? Who was this Moises? With a slight feeling of trepidation, I gave him my backpack to stow in the back of the van and found myself a seat in the middle row, next to two Argentinian sisters. Craig was in the front next to Moises and the driver, Juanmi, and our friend Alisa wedged herself into the back row with two more girls.
A slight smell of dog was soon overpowered by the odour of cigarette smoke, as Moises and Juanmi lit up and puffed away. A wound-down window let out the worst of the smell, but as the journey continued and the temperature dropped, we had to close it. A stop for petrol seemed interminable, as did the trip itself — Juanmi wanted to save money so he avoided the toll road and added half an hour to our drive.
All in all, it wasn’t the best introduction to ride-sharing.
In many parts of the world, ride-sharing is one of the most popular ways to travel. It’s easy: if you’re going somewhere and you have a spare seat or two in your car, you use a website like Blablacar or Carpooling.com to post your journey. Potential passengers can search for drivers going where they want to go and send a request over the website. Drivers then accept the passengers and arrange a pick-up spot. Drivers set a price based on distance, which is usually quite reasonable — the idea is to share costs, not make a profit.
At least, it usually is. In our case, our two drivers were definitely out to make money. After trawling through the listings on Blablacar, I found a journey on another site, Amovens, that looked perfect. A girl called Gemma had three spaces in her car at exactly the right time of day — we were heading to Barcelona straight after work so timing was important. Plus, it was €10 cheaper per person than the listings on Blablacar. I sent the request and she confirmed — so far so good. However, three days before the trip, she sent me a Whatsapp message to say that she couldn’t take me after all. After a frantic half-hour of looking for other options, she realized that she’d sent the message to the wrong person… Crisis averted. Then, four hours before we were due to leave, my phone rang. It was Juanmi, saying that Gemma couldn’t go after all, but that he was Gemma’s boyfriend and that he would take us in her place. I should have been suspicious at this point, but I wasn’t… At least we still had a ride.
It wasn’t until we were already on our way that I realised that these guys did this for a living. They packed their van full of people and drove between Madrid and Barcelona every day. To make sure they filled all the seats, they got other people to make fake listings and then told the passengers at the last minute that someone else would be driving.
Part of me has a lot of respect for Juanmi and Moises, as they have created a job for themselves in a country where youth unemployment is over 50%. But I’m never keen on being tricked, and that left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. The funny thing is, the price was so good that I would have travelled with them even if they’d been honest with us right from the beginning, and told us that we’d be getting seats in a van and not in a car. And the experience was not bad at all — we had a good chat with the other four passengers and arrived in Barcelona safely, if slightly later than we’d expected.
Alisa had organised our ride back from Barcelona, and had done a much better job in choosing than I had. For one thing, she’d used Blablacar rather than Amovens, which requires payment by card (not cash in hand, which is how we’d paid Juanmi and Moises). It was more expensive, but it was also exactly what the listing had said: a couple in their thirties, returning to Madrid after a weekend from Barcelona. Alisa and I had the backseat to ourselves, and we spent the first hour or so chatting with our hosts before lapsing into a companionable silence. They kindly offered to drop us wherever we wanted in Alcalá and we parted with the traditional Spanish two kisses.
So, what have I learned from my first ride-sharing experience?
1. It’s common and safe
We might have had a slightly sub-par experience the first time around, but that won’t put me off doing it again.
2. It’s good for last-minute travel
We looked at lots of options for getting to Barcelona: flights were expensive, a bus journey was almost twice as long as a car trip, and the train I’d had my eye on was cancelled. Prices for other forms of transport kept going up, but the cost of a seat in a shared car stayed the same. In fact, more options became available the closer we got to our travel date. Of course, this will only be true for popular routes, but chances are if you’re travelling at a weekend, other people are too.
Depending on how I’m travelling, I sometimes prefer to have transport organised as far in advance as possible, so I found the experience of waiting for listings, finding a suitable ride and booking it a little stressful. However, if your plans are flexible it could be a perfect option.
3. Choose people with reviews on their profile
My big mistake was booking with someone with no reviews. Gemma looked nice enough but she could have received bad reviews in the past and just deleted her profile and started again. A friend of mine had recommended Amovens to me, but I certainly prefer Blablacar… It’s just got added levels of security.
4. Be safety conscious
Speaking of safety, make sure you feel safe before getting in a car with a stranger. Travel with a companion if possible, and don’t get in the car if you feel uncomfortable when you meet the driver. You could also take a photo of the number plate and send it to a friend before you get in.
Have you ever tried ride-sharing? Would you like to?