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How to save money with Uber and Lyft

Knowledge is power when it comes to these ride-hailing apps.

lyft-vs-uber-1

Which ride-share titan is going to save you the most money?

Angela Lang/CNET

The Uber and Lyft ride-hailing apps have seemingly inscrutable ways for calculating how much you'll spend on a ride, and -- while convenient -- the prices do add up. When it comes to saving money with ride-hailing apps, is one of them better than the other? The answer is yes, but not like you think. 

Uber's far less transparent pricing system makes it harder to see how much it costs on certain rides compared to Lyft. And so much about the final price comes down to where you are on a certain date at a certain time and how many Uber or Lyft drivers are on the road nearby. That kind of calculation doesn't make it easier to understand which service will save you more bucks.  

But there are some good rules of thumb to follow that can help you get the best possible rate, especially if you're a frequent rider. It also helps to know how the services work, so you can be well informed when you pick a ride. Here's everything you need to know about Lyft's and Uber's ability to save you cash. (Skip to the end for the final breakdown.)

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Lyft and Uber go head to head for your business.

Lyft

How Uber and Lyft pricing works

Lyft and Uber both break down trip fees by the base fare, the distance, the duration of the drive and a fixed service or booking fee. Prices can change based on demand and traffic for both services, which makes it tough to nail down which is cheaper when. For example, if there are fewer drivers on the road during a busy time, either app might be pricier, even charging 1.5x the normal price during peak hours.

Best tip: Load both the Uber and Lyft apps on your phone and compare the price at the time you want a ride. It only takes a few extra seconds that can save you dollars. The farther you're going, the more you can save by comparing them at the same time.

As an example, Uber estimates an 8-minute, 2.9 mile trip in Louisville, Kentucky (where I live), on a Thursday at 2 p.m. would cost $7.20 minimum. It's important to know that the minimum cost for any Uber trip is a flat booking fee that's added to each trip. 

For a field test of the pricing, I took an Uber to lunch and a Lyft back to the office an hour and a half later. Traffic was equivalent and so was the duration of my ride. This isn't an apples-to-apples comparison by any means, but I did want to see if there was a big difference in pricing:

Uber versus Lyft: Field test ride


Uber Lyft
Base Fare $1.00 $1.00
Distance $2.97 $2.92
Time $1.08 $1.30
Booking fee $2.75 $2.75
Total $7.80 $7.97

For my trip, both Lyft's and Uber's base fares were $1. Uber's cost per minute was 22 cents higher than Lyft's, but Lyft's cost per mile was five cents less than Uber's. I tipped both drivers $2, as well. On a different day, those prices could easily be reversed depending on rider demand and driver availability at any given time in any given intersection.

The one concrete takeaway from this, is that the moment you hail an Uber or Lyft, you're in for $7.50 to $10, even if you only drive three blocks.

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Shared trips will save you money, but there's a catch 

Both Uber and Lyft offer shared rides, which pair you with another passenger with similar pickup locations and destinations. You can hail a carpool with up to two people, and essentially, you're splitting the cost of the ride, but based again on complicated algorithms that include the time of day and all that.

In some cases, a shared ride costs half the price of a private car; other times there's little difference.

Tip: Savvy riders will hail a shared ride if they're not in a rush. If the driver doesn't pick up an extra passenger, you've just had a solo ride for the price of a carpool.

Shared rides can take longer, and the time can add up if the driver picks up a passenger while you're en route, especially on long rides. You also have no control over your drop-off priority, so build in plenty of time if you're headed, say, to the airport.

For my field test, UberPool wasn't available when I went to lunch a second time specifically to test these services for myself. Google Maps calculated a trip from Union Square in California to San Francisco International Airport to be about 12.7 miles and 21 minutes on a Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. 

While a shared ride with Uber might be a bit cheaper or less complicated in theory, you'll still want to compare both services simultaneously to pick which one actually costs you less that day and that time.

Tipping: Uber wins on flexibility

Uber and Lyft both encourage driver tips with suggestions for either a cash amount (e.g. $1, $3) or a percentage (e.g. 15%, 18%), depending on the final price of the ride.

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Tipping immediately after my ride for Lyft (left) and Uber (right). 

Shelby Brown/ CNET

But Uber gives you much more flexibility over the extra you'll pay. Where Lyft only let us add tips in dollar increments in our many rides, Uber lets you pay any amount you want, from as little as a penny tip (but don't do that) to a specific target like $5.15, or, more likely, $5.50.

Uber also lets you split tips with another rider. These concessions give you more control over your total spending, which means you don't have to feel like you're overtipping if the right amount for you falls somewhere in between the dollar increment (especially for short rides). Lyft used to let you do this, but removed the option in 2018.

Both companies give drivers get 100% of the tip, and let you add extra cash up to 72 hours after the ride's complete.  

The moral of the tipping story is that if you want more control over tips, Uber will save you the most money if you want to thank your driver on your own terms.

UberPool photo
Uber

Subscriptions save you money if you ride a lot 

Uber and Lyft both have subscription plans for frequent riders, and trust us, it's worth looking at the fine print.

Uber's murky Ride Pass saves up to 15% on rides

Uber's Ride Pass subscription service for UberX and Uber Pool promises to "consistently" save you money on each ride, regardless of traffic, weather conditions or time of day. Uber said you can save up to 15%, but that number could vary, and it isn't clear if you'll mostly hover in the 10% savings range or closer to 15%. That's uncomfortably vague for our liking, especially since Ride Pass costs $25 per month.

One benefit, though, is that prices won't go up because of a traffic jam or a freak snowstorm, for example. If the ride costs $20 when you book it, that's how much you'll pay, no matter what.

Price protection, as Uber calls this benefit, is already available for platinum level Uber Rewards members, but it only covers two routes, like your morning commute and the ride home. Ride Pass price protects every ride for subscribers.

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Uber's demonstration of Ride Pass. 

Screenshot by Shelby Brown/CNET

The pass also gives you a 30-minute free use of Jump e-bikes and scooters if they're in your city. That's a nice bonus if you want to travel a short distance and don't want to go to the trouble of hailing a ride, but Uber does say it's a limited-time offer, without sharing what the limit is (the deal's still ongoing at the time of writing).

Lyft's subscription plans make savings crystal clear

Lyft has more subscription plans than Uber, which gives riders more options if they don't call a ride every day. The chart below shows Lyft's plan head to head. Full details below the chart.

Monthly Lyft plans


Lyft Smart Savings Lyft All Access (Entry-level) Lyft All Access (Premium)
Cost $15 per month $189 $299 per month
What you get 10% off each ride, unlimited 30 rides, up to $8 off per ride 30 rides, up to $15 off per ride
How much you spend or ride to break even $150 per month Average of $6.30 a ride per month Average of $10 a ride per month


Lyft Smart Savings Plan ($15 per month)

  • This is the cheapest Lyft subscription plan if you're taking fewer than 34 rides in a 30-day period. 
  • Unlimited rides.

Lyft All-Access Plan ($189)

  • $189 for 30 monthly rides
  • Up to $8 off per ride.
  • If your ride costs more than $8, you'll only pay the overage.  
  • If you use up your 30 rides before the month ends, Lyft will take 5% off any additional rides you take that month.
  • Better for short trips.

Lyft All-Access Plan ($299)

  • $299 for 30 monthly rides
  • Up to $15 off per ride.
  • If your ride costs more than $15, you'll only pay the overage.
  • If you use up your 30 rides before the month ends, Lyft will take 5% off any additional rides you take that month.
  • Best for longer trips.

Even more plans from Lyft

Lyft also offers a Commute Plan and a Personal Plan, which differ from the Smart Savings and All Access plans. The Commute Plan applies to the addresses you've saved as home and work. The Personal Plan applies to the designated pickup and dropoff points selected at the time of your ride purchase.

Either plan can cost between $2 and $10 depending on the route you've locked in, according to information from Lyft. The plans are also only available to select riders by invitation only. We didn't learn what qualifies a driver for this plan or who sends the invitations. 

Uber Cash Rewards Program can save money in points

Uber's free membership rewards program gives you points for rides and Uber Eats orders that'll add up to Uber Cash. You won't save money off your bill as you would with these other programs, but you can recoup some of your costs in other ways. Uber Cash can also get you 5% off on the money you add to your balance, and the funds never expire. 

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Angela Lang/CNET

You earn different points with different Uber fares:

  • UberPool, Express Pool, Uber Eats: 1 point per dollar
  • UberX, UberXL and select rides: 2 points per dollar
  • Uber Black and Black SUV: 3 points per dollar

For every 500 points, you get $5 in Uber Cash and you can use two of those rewards at once. Other rewards include price protection, complimentary upgrades, free delivery on three Uber Eats orders and more. 

You won't earn points for:

  • Tipping drivers or on deliveries
  • Paying cancellation fees
  • Portions of ride covered by a promotion
  • Portions of trips paid by another rider through split fare
  • Damage or cleaning fees
  • Purchasing Uber Cash, credits or Ride Passes directly
  • Taxi, bike, and scooter rides

Gift cards and referrals

Lyft has digital gift cards that you can email to friends and family for $10, $25, $50, $100 or a custom amount. The rideshare company offers promotions that reduce your fare by a certain percentage, fixed discounts and ways to pay a flat fare on your ride. You can turn on text alerts in your Notification Preferences to be alerted to these discounts and promotions. If you added your email address, Lyft should send the promos there too. The company also offers a free promo code for new users.

In addition, Lyft partnered with World Elite Mastercard. If you're an enrolled cardholder, you can earn $10 in credit monthly for taking five rides. The credits are valid for 30 days.

Frequent riders can make the most out of subscriptions while savvy riders can knock off a few bucks here and there by strategically using referrals.

Lyft: If a friend signs up with your special referral code, you'll get $10 in credit. If you refer a driver and they sign up with your referral code, you'll get $250 in credit after they give 165 rides in their first 60 days.

Uber: When a friend signs up to Uber using your referral code, you'll get $5 off a ride. If you sign up and use a friend's invite code, you'll get $2 off your first three rides.

Which saves you the most money overall?

On a ride-to-ride basis, Uber and Lyft are likely neck and neck for most urban places, and the true savings is often case by case based on factors outside of your control. In some areas, you may have your choice of one service or none at all. Our best tip to save cash on occasional solo and shared rides is to compare the price on both apps a few minutes before you want to catch your ride.

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Uber's trip progress shows the ability to split the fare if you're sharing a trip. 

Shelby Brown/CNET

If you're a frequent rider, Lyft's subscription plans have the potential to save you more money, because there are more, and more flexible, options. 

If you only ride Uber, its subscription ride service is still a no-brainer for daily riders. We also like the ability to split fares with another rider, and with Uber Cash, which puts savings back in your pocket, as long as you're spending them on Uber. But without more visibility into how much you actually save, it's hard to make a recommendation for people who are open to both services.

Originally posted June 9, 2019. Update, June 10, June 23 at 9 a.m. PT.