By Josh March 9, 2018
As I documented in Part 1 of this series, my main side-hustle is being an UberX driver on nights and weekends. At the time of this writing, I have completed 2,538 trips on the Uber platform, and maintain a 4.92 driver rating. I used to drive a 2007 BMW 525i, and nearly half of my passengers first comments were always something like “I can’t believe we got a BMW” or “Is this thing new?” I’m sure that at least some of the tips I have received are due to having a nicer ride than some Honda or Kia (sorry Honda and Kia Uber drivers, but nobody gets excited about your car when you show up). I now drive a 2015 Toyota Camry Hybrid SE that qualifies for Uber Select, but half of people cancel the Select requests when they see Camry, not knowing it’s actually quite nice.
A major downside of driving for Uber is clearly the expense to maintain my car. The BMW ran on premium fuel, so even though gas prices are in the $2.40/gallon range locally, I was be paying $2.90 per gallon. Expensive maintenance and rapid depreciation were also discussed in Part 2.
I neglected to mention the “grand prize” that some drivers would talk about when we’d sit together at the airport waiting on rides. I use quotation marks on that prize, because it is definitely not the kind of thing you want to win, because it’s the “sick passenger” award. Usually some 20-something, intoxicated passenger, late on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, would come stumbling to your car and you decide to chance it. Most times you get lucky, but sometimes you win the opportunity to clean up a mess left by a complete stranger. Don’t forget to take pictures first, because those can be worth up to $200 when you send them to Uber to assess a cleaning fee. I was awarded the $200 cleaning fee 3 times in my BMW, but avoided those situations in year 3 with the Camry.
As I mentioned, I drive in Southwest Florida. This is a busy tourist destination from Thanksgiving to Easter, with our warm sunny beaches providing respite from cold Northern winters for millions of visitors each year. Between shuttling people to and from the airport, many trips are completed taking our tourist friends to area shopping and dining establishments, and the occasional bar or concert. Unfortunately, with the passing of Easter each Spring, the roads begin to clear up, fewer flights arrive each day, and our rainy season arrives on schedule each June. Fewer tourists mean fewer paid rides, meanwhile Uber continued to sign up new drivers as the demand waned. It was not uncommon to see hundreds of cars online, waiting for ride requests, on a Friday or Saturday night.
In addition to fewer rides, Uber also undercut the pay for its own drivers by 21% in the Fall of 2015. Just as the busy tourist season was about to begin, the per-mile rate in my market went from $1.20 to $0.95. They didn’t bother to consider that UberX rates were already 50% of the local taxi fares, Uber wanted to cut the rate further. Remember that every mile spent driving back from a drop-off is wasted fuel and time for the driver. The only way for these prices to make any sense would be for trips to be so bountiful that a driver could pick up another passenger soon after dropping off the previous one, and preferably near the same spot.
Before the two items listed above took place, I used to be able to make $500-700 per week (on the side) and $100-150 in tips. Later on, I would earn $100-175 a week and $20 in tips, if I was lucky. It’s hard to continue to pay for regular car washes, detailing, air fresheners, etc. when those costs remained constant, but my fare income had dropped by 80%.
It became difficult to rely on driving for Uber as a reliable side income, let alone sole income for many of my Uber buddies who took it on as a full-time gig. There were drivers in my area driving 2 hours north every day to drive in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area and then driving 2 hours back to Fort Myers/Naples in order to make a living. That seems like an awful lot of unnecessary wear and tear and fuel spent to get up there and back each day. To make things worse, there were drivers from Miami and Fort Lauderdale who would drive to our area, because our fares were slightly higher and they found Fort Myers/Naples to be more plentiful in rides. So much waste involved in all of this!
I probably don’t even need to mention all of the terrible headlines that Uber (corporate) made in 2017. Things got so bad that the founder and CEO got tossed. I received constant questions from passengers about what was going on in the company, and all I could say was that “I don’t really know, we’re all just independent contractors” and try to change the subject. Those fools in corporate were making millions of dollars, while us chumps who actually bring in the revenue were making $100s. I was not a happy camper.
With all of these Uber headaches, I shut it down for good on December 12, 2017. Despite not driving for Uber any longer, I have continued to drive my private clientele who contact me directly, or private car service for other drivers when they are double-booked. I’ve also continued to receive Referral fees from Uber, $5 at a time, three times so far this year. So I’ve still made $547 so far this year and have spent considerably less than that in gas and maintenance. But I only do it when my schedule is free, instead of allowing Uber to become my default option for any and all spare time. I’m happy to be in a position of owning a paid-off car with 55,000 miles and many, many years of life left. I don’t want to push this thing too hard and have to jump back into the car-buying business anytime soon.