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Pretty much wherever you go in India, you'll come across 3 wheeled autos or auto rickshaws, which normally look like this:

From "A tea but no e" from www.flickr.com/photos/ateabutnoe/213708300

In some places where you want to get one, there's an office or cabin where you can go, pay a small fee, and get a fixed price for the trip. As long as you can successfully communicate where it is you want to go, this gives a known low price, and you're all set.

I'm told that almost all autos have a meter, and that's how most locals handle it for shorter journeys. However, since it's fairly obvious to anyone looking at me that I'm not a local, and I'm normally trying to get an auto outside of a hotel / bar / office, they never seem to want to use the meter for me....

That leaves two options. One that should be avoided - hop in, give a destination, negotiate a price on arrival. Seriously - never do this, you'll get massively ripped off! The other is to negotiate (haggle) for a fixed price before you set off. This can give a good deal, if you know what price to start at, and how to haggle. It can give a bad deal if you don't!

What strategies can you use to ensure you negotiate a decent price for your trip?

(As an example of variability, on my first trip I paid what I thought was a good price, but turned out to be about 10 times what it should've been. Yesterday I went from my hotel to meet some friends, mid evening, and paid twice what my friends negotiated for my return at the late-night rate!)

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I never heard them called "autos" before. I came here just to see what that meant (-: I guess it's about five years since I was there so I could've just missed what the locals called them and said "tuk tuk" or "rickshaw" all the time ... –  hippietrail Mar 14 at 17:45
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@hippietrail I've heard them called those names in other SE Asian countries, but everyone here (Bangalore) seems to just call them autos –  Gagravarr Mar 14 at 19:21
    
Hmm I wonder if that's an Indian English thing then. In Australia if you just said "auto" it would mean a car with an automatic gearbox. In some countries "auto" is another word for car, used mostly like an adjective (auto mechanic etc). –  hippietrail Mar 15 at 7:42
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I added this sense to Wiktionary (-: –  hippietrail Mar 15 at 8:16
    
I travel to India regularly, and hear them called "ricks" and "3-wheelers", but I've never heard them called "tuk tuks" or "autos" –  Cocowalla Mar 18 at 11:42

4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Other than a few general things, like making sure you have a fixed price before setting off, and that as a non-local you're unlikely to ever get a journey on the meter (which is used for locals in Bangalore at least), here's my experiences over a few trips.

Firstly, location matters. If you're stood outside of a nice hotel, then expect prices to be jacked up. Outside a very nice hotel, even it's just crazy! If you're staying somewhere like that, be aware that all the auto drivers will think you're immensely wealthy for being able to stay there, and they'll probably have inflated ideas about room costs too, so they'll charge a lot. Consider walking a few hundred meters away (but not to outside another hotel!) to get one.

Next up, trying to haggle with a few drivers who are all parked up together and are chatting will be a struggle. Especially outside of a nice hotel, they'll all agree with one-another on what a "reasonable" price is. In that situation, you'll probably have to walk away and flag down a passing auto, then you can play the two drivers off against each other to get a fair price. A cluster of autos outside somewhere popular will probably be different, and you can haggle between drivers there, but in cases where they're "staking out" a touristy spot, that won't work.

Direction matters. Both in terms of traffic, and in terms of availability of a return fare. Expect to pay more to go from a busy area out to your hotel, than you would from your hotel / office / etc into a busy shopping / eating area. Expect to pay more at rush hour, because of the waits, and expect to pay more if there's one way systems against you. For the latter, it can be worth a short walk against traffic to a junction to get an auto, to avoid having to ride the wrong way (and the cost!)

If you're getting local friends to haggle for you, make sure they let the driver know that you'll be the passenger. "How much for him to X" is fine. "How much to X" when you're not in sight can cause problems, with the driver then saying "that price was for your local friend, it's more for you".

Make sure you know the address of where you want to go, not just the name, along with the name or address of somewhere big nearby. Also, make sure you can pronounce these places like a local would (it can sometimes differ a lot). If you only know the name of the place, you'll probably be restricted to a small subset of drivers who normally work with tourists, at their associated markup. "Can you take me to Bar X" is tricky, while "Indiranagar, 100 foot road, at 12th main road, near the Sony World" will get you to the bars easier! If you can get close, most drivers will stop and ask for detailed directions, but you need to convince them to get close enough, which means a rough address at least.

Be aware of how low the price can go. If you've haggled hard to get somewhere for Rs. 100, and a different driver offers to take you back for Rs. 50 as an opening price, there's something dodgy going on. Probably they're planning to take you to visit to a tourist shop or two, so make sure you clarify that with them that the price is for a direct ride. If they start saying "oh, it's just one shop" or "I'll take you somewhere better", be firm and say no. Chances are, they'll then leave you alone when they realise you're not an easy mark, and they may even tell you where to go to get a normal auto so they can concentrate on less savvy travellers!

On your first few trips, expect to get ripped off. It's just a rite of passage, and you'll get better over time! Until you know the ballpark figure, you'll pay what seems fair to you based on your taxi experience elsewhere, and most likely way overpay.

Oh, and one final thing, work out beforehand what your personal "close enough" threshold is for negotiating. If you're a backpacker, that may well be rather different to someone well off who's on a work trip, going off somewhere on a weekend or evening. There's no point spending several minutes haggling over USD 0.10 if you've somewhere to be and can afford it, but the difference between $20 and $5 is probably worth arguing over for anyone. Know your own personal limit, and when it's close enough just hop in and get on your way!

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To start with, I don't think anyone uses the meters in the autos, at least not in New Delhi (based on my friends' observations, who has been living in New Delhi for 4 year now). Next, it is really critical to know what is the fair price for the given journey, otherwise you don't know what you are negotiating. It is related to distance, so as long as you know the distance, after a few days you will get a reasonable feel what the price should be. Also, the prices are usually quite low, so even is you overpay by 50% it is not a big deal (as long as it is not 900%).

Regarding negotiations, I get annoyed with dishonest driver very quickly. If someone is clearly trying to rip me off by more than 100% I just stop talking to them and try to find someone else. Of course this is rude, but it seems reasonably effective. And ripping people off is even more rude, so don't think there is a big ethical problem here. I usually start negotiations with a price about 30% lower than a really good price would, and are usually willing to accept double that amount (which is still a reasonable price). Often it is better to ask for the price first though, unless you are sure how much you want to pay (e.g. you made this route multiple times before).

For me personally, being used to fixed prices for everyone, this process is really frustrating.

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If no one uses the meters one has to wonder why they even have them on their autos to begin with.. –  neubert Apr 7 at 4:17

I have visited quite a few towns and cities of India, and from what I've seen, the customs vary quite a bit. I don't think one kind of advise is applicable across all of India.

Bangalore (the city I know best) has a few "pre-fixed" auto booths, where they issue a quote (either printed or hand-written) for your destination. Try to go to one of these, whenever possible. If there isn't one nearby, insist that the driver turn on the fare meter, and you'll pay what it says. If they refuse, find an auto driver who will. This may not always work, but you learn and adapt.

Mumbai drivers were mostly fair. They always used fare-meters. I never had to haggle with them, and they even returned the exact change, when paid.

New Delhi and Chennai drivers seemed to be the most difficult to deal with. I never got them to use fare-meters. The fares I paid were usually far too high for the distance I traveled. If you're staying at hotels or with friends, ask them for estimates for the trips you're likely to take. If the drivers know you're aware of the right prices, it's easier to haggle.

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In India, you have to know the approximate cost before you hop in. Then whatever the guy says, you stick to your price and you'll get something around that. Fortunately it is easy to know the cost beforehand with maps on your phone

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