This is What It’s Really Like to Drive for Uber in Honolulu
Seven months on the road ferrying tourists, drunkards and worker bees—a former Uber driver tells all.
Illustrations: Pat Kinsella
Being an Uber driver is a lot more fun than most people might think. I signed up with the ride-hailing service in March 2016, as a way to make some extra cash. (The life of a young grad student and editorial intern can be a little lean.)
Like many jobs, it took some effort and learning to get started, but, once I found my groove, I enjoyed meeting and talking to many of the intriguing passengers I picked up over the months. From strippers to prominent businesspeople, and all the students, military and tourists in between, I never felt closer to the heartbeat of Honolulu than behind the wheel of my 2007 Mazda 3. Each passenger was a new adventure, and many introduced me to parts of the city I would have never been exposed to otherwise.
The grungy and the classy, the overly friendly and flirty, and even the slightly scary all piled into my car. Some pretend I’m not there and continue discussing intensely personal gossip with impunity. Others hop in hoping to leave the car with a story to tell about their Uber driver. I’d like to think I’m a couple of people’s Uber story told after a third glass of wine. I know I always had a story or two after a long, late weekend behind the wheel.
It didn’t take long to get into the habit of reading whoever got into my car. A uniform or nametag usually meant a little polite conversation to get started, followed by nothing but a low, mellow radio station. Groups piling in on their way to bars put me in the position of an entertainer/audience, most often as witness to their own antics (“Are we the craziest group you’ve ever driven?”). If I wasn’t ready to entertain, dubbing a person the DJ would usually divert the group’s attention.
I’ve driven sharply dressed financial advisers to tightly scheduled meetings one hour, and the next taken a middle-aged woman to Ke‘eaumoku Pawn Shop to raise money to help a friend pay her overdue rent.
I’ll admit the job did nothing to keep me humble. Drunk people impressed by my ability to drive a stick shift and the regular (OK, semiregular) invitation to join a group of girls at the next bar made sure I almost never went home feeling worse about myself than when I started. I even had a couple of job offers, including clipping freshly harvested buds at one of the processing facilities for the new marijuana dispensaries.
A Driver’s Perspective
The most common questions I get when people learn I’m an Uber driver all point toward the same thing. “Has any one ever (fill in the blank)?,” “What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?” and “Aren’t you worried someone might get sick in your car?” all beg the question: What’s it like to be in the driver’s seat?
To set the record straight, the answer is no, fortunately, no one has gotten sick in my car. But I know that’s not true for every driver. A passenger once told me she quit driving for Uber after someone ruined the upholstery on her backseat with regurgitated whipped-cream-flavor vodka. Each driver is going to have his or her own stories worth telling, ranging from the sketchy to the hilarious. I’ll start with one of my favorites.
It was Saturday on Halloween weekend, and demand was ridiculously high for rides throughout the night. I signed on around 10 p.m. and didn’t stop moving until 3 a.m. Early in the morning, I picked up a costume-clad group in Waikīkī heading to Kāne‘ohe for some late-night eats closer to home. It was a great trip to pick up at that hour; I knew I would make some decent money from such a long trip, and it pulled me out of the rat race long enough to allow myself to go home.
The group of four—which included skeletons, a vampire and Wonder Woman—blasted music and talked the entire trip over the Pali Highway. Full of energy, funny and hungry for pancakes. I decided to like them. As we pulled into the parking lot of Denny’s Kāne‘ohe, I turned around to thank the backseat passengers for the music recommendations. Wonder Woman, sitting in the middle, looked at me as she was about to climb out of the car. She took a double take and her eyes widened.
“You’re fine!” she says.
I must have smiled, because next thing I know she’s caressing the side of my face, repeatedly telling me in colorful ways how fine she thinks I am.
“Do you need a girl in your life?” Wonder Woman asks.
I’m putty. I pull my phone off the suction-cup hitch attached to my front windshield.
“I wouldn’t mind it,” I say, trying to come off cool and collected. “What’s your number?”
Her friend chimes in as I plug her number into my phone. “This is the second Uber driver you’ve given your number to,” he says.
“The last one doesn’t count!”
I deflate a little, but I’m a persistent optimist. Full speed ahead.
“You’re pretty cute yourself,” I say.
“Give me a call whenever you want,” she says, and kisses me on the cheek before following her friends into the diner.
I drove home covered in goosebumps.
I’ve often wondered if the art of delivering sharp, stinging one-liners is a requirement to get into the military, or if those skills are honed during basic training. While picking up a group of military guys at the end of a heavy night can lead to a few laughs, it takes the feng shui of overtly masculine cracks with feminine no-holds-barred retorts to split my sides.
The best of the military couples, of which there were many, started with a night cut short by a teething baby and an exasperated babysitter. I picked up two pairs in their late-20s or early-30s in front of the Sheraton Waikīkī Hotel around 10:30 p.m. The women wore revealing blouses while the men wore polo shirts and jeans.
They hopped in, and we were off. It wasn’t long before the guy in the back with a half-sleeve tattoo starts cracking jokes about his wife’s flirtatious demeanor on the dance floor.
“That poor kid had no idea what to do with that!” he says, to her repeated denial.
“I bet he used a fake ID to get in. You know what he’s doing when he gets home tonight!”
I can’t help laughing while she gently slaps his arm and says, “Oh, shut up. He was cute. Next time maybe you’ll dance with me when I ask you to.”
My laughing encouraged the couples. For the next 30 minutes, they regaled me with tales: the surprise breast implants one of the men came home to after seven months in Iraq, and the relationship trouble stemming from one woman’s alcohol-fueled lesbian infidelity while her husband was overseas years ago.
“I really didn’t think you would care,” she says, after they both swore it was completely in the past.
It was light-hearted and almost cute. Two couples reliving their party days, heading home early to relieve the babysitter, keeping the flame alive with edgy, flirty banter.
The Definitely-On-Drugs Guy
For the most part, the most stressful thing about Uber driving was picking up passengers on chaotic streets in Waikīkī. So when I scooped an extremely inebriated group of three from Moose McGillycuddy’s in Waikīkī, my defense system went into high gear. I had the sneaking suspicion the guy sitting directly behind me was on drugs. He moved a little too quickly, and his voice trailed off at the end of each sentence. But the other two, a couple, seemed friendly enough. When we got to their hotel, probably-on-drugs guy says, “Take me back.”
I should have said no. I was beginning to wonder if he might still have drugs on him. But prices were surging quite a bit, and I was only taking him halfway across Waikīkī, so I bit my tongue and told his friends that it was fine, I could take him back.
He didn’t hesitate to inform me that earlier that night he bought an eight-ball of cocaine and it was already gone. At least he was honest, and there was none in my car. I turn right, and immediately realize I should have turned left. Apprehensively, I tell definitely-on-drugs guy I took a wrong turn.
“I’m paying for this?” he says forcefully.
“No,” I cut him off. “Your friend I dropped off at the hotel is paying for it.”
“Where’s the bar?”
“It’s right behind us across Kūhiō Avenue,” I say as I pull over. “You can walk to it from here.”
Definitely-on-drugs guy jumped out. I went home.
It was about 2:30 a.m. and I was leaning toward driving home for the night when my phone started dinging a late-night ride request. I knew drivers were few and far between at that hour, and late-night requests often lead to big bucks. I pull up to a bar in Kaka‘ako, and five people pile into the four seats in my car. The one woman in the group lived right around the corner, and I wasn’t going to make her walk home that early in the morning.
I spent the next hour dropping off the rest of the crew—used car salesmen working at the same dealership—at their respective homes in Salt Lake and ‘Aiea. In between attempts to get me to trade in my Mazda at their dealership and a lively debate over the necessity of ultra-bright LED headlights, a couple of them admitted to being regular drunk drivers before Uber came to town.
“Every weekend,” one of them says. “We didn’t even think about it, really.”
“I got busted,” someone in the back says. “So now we take Uber.”
“You would take it a lot more if I didn’t pick you up for work every day,” says the front-seat passenger.
It wasn’t the first time I had heard a passenger confess to driving drunk. It makes sense that Uber is much better alternative, but it definitely opened my eyes to the number of intoxicated drivers on the roads late at night.
I drove for seven months, totaling a little under 200 trips. Some drivers would consider that as rookie status.
I’ve since sold the car, along with most of my belongings, to pursue an opportunity teaching English in Myanmar.
I had some fun and got the chance to meet a lot of captivating personalities. I would drive for Uber again if the circumstances seemed right, but then it’s not every day I have a nice enough car to fit Uber’s requirements, and a desperate enough need for cash to sacrifice my weekends and holidays.
Nevertheless, it’s a light-hearted way to earn some extra spending money. I would never consider using Uber as a primary source of income though; earnings are too unpredictable. But if I had the right car already and wanted to save for a vacation or a new surfboard, you might just catch me on the road again.
Riding the surge
Like a rat in a maze sniffing out cheese, my first weeks driving for Uber had me rushing into surge-pricing zones (areas where fares rise due to too much demand for rides without enough drivers in the area.) It didn’t take long to realize passengers played the game, too. Most regulars know that if you wait five to 10 minutes to request a ride, the fares have usually turned back into normal rates. I’ve been dead-center of the hottest zones at the hottest times only to be requested by a rider the moment prices cool off. I learned to just stay put whenever I can. If I wasn’t getting paid, I wasn’t burning gas. I even caught up on some reading during trip intermissions.
There was only one consistent pattern I found in surge-pricing: The odds of catching bigger bucks increase as the night wears on. Past midnight, I realized, a lot of drivers must sign off, because hot zones increase significantly. When the bars close at 2 a.m., I was nearly guaranteed at least one surge-priced ride, so long as I was near popular bars.
Perhaps not every driver feels this way, but solo passengers who chose to sit directly behind the driver’s seat always put me on edge. It’s the only seat where I can’t see you, so any strange noises or quick movements make me twitch. Please feel free to take a more comfortable seat.
In general, being friendly, even if it’s just a quick smile and a hello in the rearview mirror before returning to your Instagram feed, would make me more relaxed, which leads to a better ride for both of us. A little bit of eye contact goes a long way.
Believe it or not, my actual favorite seat for passengers is the front seat. It’s much easier to point out where you want to be dropped off, or if you know of a better route than I do. It’s also much easier to strike up a conversation, play your music on my speakers or adjust the air-conditioning to your liking. Think of it as an upgrade from old-school taxis.
To tip or not to tip
If you had a good time and enjoyed a few jokes, you can show your appreciation with a couple of dollars in cash. Yes, Uber tells you there’s no need to tip. But, if I could fill my gas tank with the tips I received through the week, my expenses-to-earnings ratio would make it a lot more likely that I would sign on during nonpeak hours when it can be hard to find a driver.
How much money does an Uber driver make?
I drove part-time, so my earnings didn’t match those of full-time drivers. But I began each night with a goal in mind. On Friday and Saturday nights, I shot for at least $100 a night before I allowed myself to drive home. As I got more experienced, I learned to be flexible, and started setting a weekly goal instead of nightly ones. Sometimes I’d drive for less than an hour, other times, more than 12 hours in a day. Weekdays after work never netted more than $40, mostly because adding rush-hour driving to my weekday schedule was extremely demoralizing.
My most lucrative night ever, on an hourly basis, was during the Hallowbaloo Music & Arts Festival in October, thanks to surge pricing. My first passenger’s trip started at 1:24 a.m. and my last passenger got out of the car at 4:10 a.m., meaning I spent less than three hours online, and drove just under 48 miles with a passenger in the car. My haul: $147 from eight separate trips. The base fares for the rides totaled $88. Surge pricing added a whopping $109. Uber took its cut of $49.
My least profitable shift was a Tuesday in September, when I drove for almost 10 hours and made just $109.25 from 17 trips.
Uber’s been controversial on the national level in recent months, with allegations of everything from sexual harassment of its employees to a heated encounter between CEO Travis Kalanick and one of his drivers. But Uber has remained popular enough to become its own verb. What do you think? Got any Uber tales of your own, good or bad? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.