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Uber vs Lyft: 9 things to consider before your first ride

Ride-sharing is rapidly edging out taxis in major cities, and here's everything you should know about these apps that are shaking up transportation.

Gone are the days of standing on a street corner and thrusting out your hand to get the attention of a cab. For many urban city dwellers, hitching a ride is as simple as whipping out your phone, tapping in an app, and waiting for a black town car or pink-mustache-flaunting Prius to arrive.

Look around any major city and you'll see that ride-sharing services Uber, Lyft and others are nearly as ubiquitous as taxis, if not overshadowing them altogether. These services have established themselves in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and are rapidly making their way into new parts of the US and the world.

Throughout their speedy expansion, these companies have attracted their fair share of bad press, which I'll address below. However this guide seeks to put that corporate drama aside to explain the hows and whys of using Lyft and Uber, especially for those who haven't yet taken their first ride.

What is ride-sharing?

Ride-sharing services were born out of a desire to create an alternative to taxis. In San Francisco, where several of the top services launched, cabs are difficult to hail, especially away from the city center. Services like Lyft and Uber sought to change that.

These days, ride-sharing is a bit of misnomer, indicating that you are sharing a ride with someone else in a carpool situation, arriving at the same destination together. Instead, these apps are better described as ride-hailing services, where you request a ride for hire from your phone and pay the driver for their services. Once they drop you off, they'll look for their next passenger, much like a taxi does. Going forward in this guide, I'll refer to Lyft and Uber as ride-hailing services or apps.

Who are the big players?

There are two ride-hailing apps that dominate the scene: Uber and Lyft. Both have been around for the last several years, with Uber starting around 2009 and Lyft launching in 2012. Both have apps for Android and iOS, while only Uber has an app for Windows Phone as well.

Started in 2012, Sidecar has become the third-most-popular ride-hailing option, but the company's CEO has said that it will soon stop carrying passengers and start focusing solely on delivery. For that reason, I won't cover it here.

These apps are different than those that hail a professional taxicab, like Flywheel, Hailo or Gett (though Uber also offers a cab-hailing option in a handful of cities). Those apps connect you to a licensed taxi that you would otherwise simply hail on the street.

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Josh Miller/CNET

What's it like to ride with Uber or Lyft?

When you need a ride, you'll open one of these apps and follow the on-screen prompts to get started. With each app, you'll see a map of your current location, as determined by your phone, and visualization of available cars nearby. The cars you see moving on the map may or may not actually represent cars that are ready to give you a ride.

Once you request a ride, and optionally enter your destination, the app will contact nearby available drivers. When a driver in the company's system accepts the ride, you'll see their profile, which includes their name, a headshot, the make and model of their car, a photo of the car, and their approximate ETA in minutes. Drivers will often call or text you when they arrive and once you spot the car, simply hop in.

During the ride, you can see your journey in the app, but you won't see a meter like a traditional cab. In most cases, you won't see the final cost until the trip ends. Then you'll use the app to give the driver feedback, add an optional tip (Lyft only), and submit your payment. If you don't pay right away, the app will still charge after a set amount of time, usually several hours or a day. Uber also lets you split the cost of ride between several people, for 25-cent fee.

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Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

The entire transaction, from summoning a car, tracking the driver's location and paying for your ride are handled in the app, so you never need to pay the driver with cash or card. This makes a ride-hailing service convenient and less of hassle than riding in a cab, where you have to fumble with the payment at the end. You can, as I often do, hop out of the car at your destination, bid farewell to the driver, and submit payment after they've driven off.

Uber and Lyft rate pricing

Rates for Uber and Lyft vary greatly by city, the time of day you ride, and the type of service you pick (more on that in the next section).

Fares for each company's cheapest ride option in San Francisco are in the chart below, according to each service's website as of August 2015 (UberX is Uber's lowest-cost fare option; more on that below.) Rates are subject to change. Check out each company's website for more details on what they charge in your area for their services.

UberX Lyft
Base price $2.20 $2.25
Rate per mile $1.30 $1.35
Minimum ride fee $5.00 $5.00
Cancellation fee $5.00 $5.00
Safety fee* $1 $1.55

*The safety fees Uber and Lyft charge go toward driver background checks, vehicle inspections and other safety initiatives.

During high-demand times, rates for ride shares can go sky-high. Uber calls it surge pricing, and Lyft calls it prime time. The morning commute, post-work rush hour or late on a Saturday night can all be popular times to summon a car, and can mean that you'll pay higher-than-average rates per mile or minute. After a big event in your city, like a sporting event or concert, expect to pay a premium around the venue too.

Lyft and Uber will let you know when prime-time or surge pricing is in effect, alerting you of additional fees, tips or rate increases you'll encounter when you begin to book a ride. Keep in mind that during these times, your ride could end up costing far more than a taxi, depending on your area.

One last factor that can affect the cost of your ride is where you're going. Like many taxi companies, ride-hailing apps can charge a flat rate for airport service, which varies by region. In San Francisco, it costs a flat $65 with UberBlack to get from anywhere in the city to San Francisco's airport, while Lyft merely charges a $3.85 surcharge on top of the trip cost.

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Uber's surge pricing can increase fares during busy times of day. Josh Miller/CNET

What kind of ride do you want?

Each service offers a different ride experience, ranging from casual to luxurious. Depending on your budget, the number of people riding together, and your personal preferences, you can pick what kind of vehicle to request.

Uber's most popular ride options are: UberX, UberXL and UberBlack

UberX and XL rides are executed by ordinary drivers who use their eligible privately-owned cars to shuttle people around. These are causal rides, where you'll often chat with the driver and likely sit in the front seat. The XL option simply means you'll get a larger car that can accommodate more riders.

UberBlack is the "classic" Uber ride, with a professional chauffeur in a livery-registered black luxury sedan. These rides tend to be more business-like, where you sit in the back seat like you would in a limo. With UberBlack you can also request a luxury SUV to fit extra passengers. Every Uber car has an glowing company logo emblem on the windshield to help you spot your ride.

In some cities, Uber also offers additional ride choices. UberLux, which is only available in Los Angeles, is just like UberX, but with high-end automobiles, including Mercedes, Rolls Royce and Tesla. UberAssist is available in select cities and serves seniors and people with disabilities who either need extra assistance during the ride or a car that can accommodate a wheelchair.

Lyft has two car options: Lyft and Lyft Plus

Like UberX, with both choices you'll be riding with an everyday driver in their privately owned qualified car, which lends itself to more laid-back experience. I've found that in nearly all of my Lyft rides, I sit up front and talk with the driver during the duration of the ride, though you can always sit in back and stay quiet.

Lyft Plus is for rides with up to six passengers. You may or may not get a specially branded Lyft Plus Ford Explorer SUV, but you're guaranteed to see a pink mustache affixed to the dashboard with all Lyft rides, which helps riders find their ride.

All three apps also offer a carpool option -- called Lyft Line or Uberpool -- where you share your ride with a passenger you don't know. Each passenger is dropped off at their set destination, so the ride may take longer than a private ride. The reason you'd want to use this is that it cuts the cost of the trip, so you'll save a couple of bucks or more, depending on your city and route. The best part of this system is that if you request a carpool ride and no one else joins, you'll still get the discounted fare.

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Lyft Plus summons a car with extra room so you and your friends can ride together. Josh Miller/CNET

What's with the ratings?

At the end of every ride, you'll rate the person who gave you the ride and often give feedback on their performance as a safe, capable and courteous driver. The rating systems vary by service, but are all designed to match you with the best possible drivers, keep bad eggs out of the system, and incentivize drivers to stay safe and deliver superior service. With Lyft, for example, if you rate a driver three stars or lower, they'll never pick you up again.

You can see a driver's rating when you're matched with them, giving you some insight into who's picking you up. Unlike taxi drivers, whose driving behavior won't necessarily affect their ability to continue to pick up passengers, low ratings on Lyft and Uber can cause drivers to lose opportunities to get business or even face penalties from the companies.

Your driver will also rate you as their passenger. A low rating -- perhaps because you trashed their car, were rude, or worst of all, puked during the ride -- can mean that fewer drivers will accept your requests for a ride. With Uber and Lyft, only drivers can see your rating, though Lyft occasionally lets you know when you've had a five-star (the highest rating) ride. In my years of using ride shares, I've found that as long as you're polite, friendly and respectful of the driver and their car, you won't end up with a bad rating.

Are ride-hailing services available where you live?

Uber and Lyft have steadily spread across the US and into major metro areas around the world. Currently, all three are available in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington D.C. and Boston. Uber has the widest availability, with service in 58 countries, including the UK and Australia. Lyft comes in second, available in more than 65 US cities.

Chances are, at least one service is available in your area, or will be soon. But before you sign up, check out each company's website to see where they operate.

Open Uber to hail a ride anywhere you need to go. Josh Miller/CNET

What are the safety concerns?

Just like taking a taxi, you're riding in a car with a stranger when using Uber or Lyft, so there is an inherent risk involved. Each company takes precautions to screen their drivers and promote safety, but there are safety risks nonetheless.

Uber has come under fire for serious incidents, including a ride where a driver attacked a passenger with a hammer and an accident where a driver hit and killed a young girl, both in San Francisco. There have also been several allegations of sexual violence and assault by Uber drivers, which has prompted scrutiny of the company's background checks. Lyft isn't immune to these issues either; past reports have accused drivers of violent attacks and sexual assault. But before you point a finger at these new services, remember that taxis aren't always safe either.

This isn't meant to scare you, just encourage you to be cautious when riding with any stranger, Lyft, Uber or taxi alike. For a more comprehensive look at safety issues with Uber and Lyft, check out CNET's post on ride-hailing safety.

Why do you keep reading about these companies in the news?

Over the last three years, Uber and Lyft have frequently dominated headlines. That's largely because of the safety concerns I outline above, but there are a few other reasons these companies frequently make the news. Here are the top three.

1.Disrupting the taxi industry

Uber and Lyft have shaken up the established taxi and car service industries. These companies are the first to make big enough waves that they actually pulled business away from local taxi companies. Once they launched, they took off like a rocket, quickly gaining popularity with young professionals who never go anywhere without a smartphone.

That's led taxi and car service companies to fight back against these ride-hailing services, urging local governments to bar them from operating and protesting to demand more regulation. In nearly every new city that Lyft or Uber has tried to set up shop, the companies are met with opposition, including cease-and-desist orders and suspensions of their ability to operate.

2. Unsavory business tactics

Ride-hailing apps are the darlings of the modern startup world, fetching mountains of cash from investors. Because of their meteoric rise, the stakes and competition are high, leading these companies to do whatever it takes to stay on top. That's garnered them a lot of attention, especially focused on how they conduct their business.

Uber specifically has come under fire for its business tactics, from aggressive recruiting strategies to sign up new drivers to lobbing accusations of sabotage at Lyft. Additionally, an Uber exec made a controversial remark in 2014 about the possibility of hiring a team of researchers to " dig up dirt on its critics in the media," sparking outrage.

3. Driver lawsuits over employment rights

The final big reason Lyft and Uber have made headlines is about how the two companies classify the employment of their drivers. Both Lyft and Uber are facing lawsuits from drivers who want to be classified as employees, not independent contractors, and be able to obtain the benefits, such as health insurance and overtime, the come with that designation. These lawsuits are currently active in San Francisco, and their outcomes could change how Lyft and Uber operate in the future.

The take-away

Armed with all of this information, you'll hopefully be able to make a more informed decision on whether Uber or Lyft are right for you, and how to have a successful experience hailing a ride from your phone.