Pop! Bang! Thwap thwap thwap. Our once-spirited ride, a bright yellow autorickshaw that had been racing through the streets of Chennai, India slowly limped to a stop, only two-thirds of the way to our destination.
The driver gamely tried to carry on, but it was no use, he’d gotten a puncture crossing a bridge over the extremely “fragrant” Koovam river which runs through the bustling capital of Tamil Nadu and out to the Bay of Bengal. We were pretty sure this not only meant trouble for the driver, who now had a flat tire to fix, but would also mean extra expense and hassle for us.
“Sorry, sorry,” our driver said in his clear English. “Just a minute.”
He hopped out of his rickshaw and, almost before we knew it, he had hailed another autorickshaw. “Pay 100 to me and 50 to him,” the driver said. This was the original negotiated rate, split evenly and fairly between the two drivers.
“OK! Nandri! Good luck,” we shouted over the din of the traffic as he hustled us into our new vehicle.
This is the experience of riding an autorickshaw in Chennai. Once you get the hang of it, it’s not difficult and it is the cheapest, most efficient way of getting around Chennai.
With that in mind, here’s…
A Traveler’s Guide To Using The Autorickshaws in Chennai
All over the bustling city, you’ll see the ubiquitous yellow three-wheeled vehicles. These motorized Indian versions of tuk-tuks are by far the best way to get around Chennai cheaply and quickly.
Middle-class Chennai locals are starting to use Uber and Ola (an Indian version of Uber) more these days, but we travel without a SIM card, making car-hailing apps almost useless to us.
Also, in the traffic-choked streets of Chennai, the much smaller autorickshaws can go faster than a car and I like that we are helping some of the poorer citizens of the city earn a living.
In the heat of mid-day, the breeze generated by the autorickshaw zipping along the streets is a great way to cool down, even if just a little.
Hailing an Autorickshaw in Chennai
Once you know where you want to go, I recommend mapping it (using Pocket Earth of course, because we love it – and no they don’t pay me to say that). By mapping the route in advance you know exactly how many kilometres you need to go and you can tell the driver this when you are negotiating the fare.
You can also use Pocket Earth to figure out which direction you’re going so you can start on the correct side of the street. A lot of roads in Chennai are divided, so it can add 500m or more to your journey, plus an extra massive roundabout to navigate if you hail the autorickshaw from the wrong side of the street.
If you happen to be on a smaller side street when you want a ride in Chennai, walking to the nearest roundabout or bigger street will give you dozens of options buzzing by every few minutes.
We read that you often get a better deal if you hail a driver who is already on the go, rather than picking up someone waiting at the side of the road, but we tried both and didn’t notice much of a difference.
To hail a driver, just flap your hand at them as they are approaching. If they’re looking for a fare, they’ll stop. It never took us more than a minute or so to find someone willing to drive us.
Where Do You Want To Go?
One of the hardest parts of using the Chennai autorickshaws was making ourselves understood when telling the driver where we were going. Even though the drivers speak varying amounts of English, even a slight mispronunciation of the destination could throw them off. Showing them the name written down didn’t mean much either, as they aren’t necessarily able to read English, or don’t recognize the destination name in English.
When this happened (as it did almost every time we tried to go somewhere), the driver would grab someone nearby who looked like they would be able to help. They usually could, and once the destination was said by an Indian person (even though it sounded exactly the same to us) the driver would totally understand. Go figure.
How Much to Pay for an Autorickshaw in Chennai
Initially, we tried to haggle with drivers by asking them how much they wanted to charge us, and using that as a starting price. One driver, however, asked me how much I wanted to pay and immediately agreed to our price.
That got us thinking, “Maybe that’s the way to get a price we’re happy with.”
From then on we always offered a price up front; we started paying much less for rides.
Yes, as tourists we will always pay more than locals do and almost everyone ends up paying far above the “official” meter rates, which the drivers are supposed to use but never do. As Western tourists in India, we can afford to pay a little more and it is universally expected that we will.
Don’t get upset about “foreigner rates”. They are everywhere and they are the tax you pay for growing up in a first-world country.
We could probably have negotiated harder to get lower prices – although a few drivers did say no and drive away when we tried to go too low – but a 50 Rp ride is still only costing us 90¢ so is it worth haggling for a 20¢ discount?
If you’re going less than 2km you should be able to get a ride for 50 Rp. Obviously, for longer journeys the price goes up. However, unless you cross the southern river (aka “go to the Indian side”) you’re unlikely to pay more than 150 Rp no matter how far you go.
Our trip from Pondy Bazaar to Mint Street – about 8 km across the city – was only 150 Rp (that’s less than $3 US). And we managed to pay that in the early evening on our return trip as well. That’s of note because, in Chennai, autorickshaw prices go up at night. We ended up paying 180 Rp to go from the Bay of Bengal all the way to Pondy Bazaar one night – a 6km trip.
If you are going somewhere and will be coming back from the same place in a couple of hours, it’s worth paying for a round trip. Since there are so many autorickshaw drivers in town, they are happy to have a guaranteed fare, even if it means waiting around for you.
When we went out to the King Institute to get Japanese Encephalitis shots (don’t make the same mistake we did… they don’t offer these shots, despite what they told us on the phone), we had our driver wait, and he spent his time at the hospital canteen. Because the Institute is on “the Indian side” it was the most expensive trip we took – 400 Rp return.
I am sure if we were locals we could have got it for a lot less, but we aren’t.
Tipping Autorickshaw Drivers
I had read online that it’s customary to tip your driver about 10%, but our experience shows that once you have negotiated your price, that is the price. Drivers seemed surprised when I tried to tip them and once I stopped tipping, there was no indication from them that they expected more.
Fare is fare as they say. Save those 10 and 20 Rp bills for the staff at the hotel or the restaurant where tipping is expected.
Rip-Offs and Scams in Chennai Autorickshaws
In other countries, tuk-tuk drivers, moto drivers, and taxi drivers can be pretty underhanded and sneaky, pulling all kinds of tricks to try to get more money out of you. Because of this, we usually walk if we can, and we tend to be cautious (paranoid?) when we have to get a driver.
In Chennai, we found that the drivers were honest, friendly, and fair in their dealing with us.
First, the pricing was pretty consistent no matter what journey we took.
Second, the drivers were extremely conscientious about getting us right to our destination, even if that meant they had to go down a crowded or difficult street. They took us right to the door every time, and if they weren’t sure where the door was, they asked people until they figured it out.
Finally, not once did a driver dispute a fair or ask for more money when we arrived, not once did they try to go a longer route or take us to the wrong place.
Because of that, we were happy to use their services all around the city. We’d love it if more taxi and tuk-tuk drivers around the world were as easy to use as the autorickshaws in Chennai – if people like your service they will use it more, meaning more fares for everyone.
♥ Happy adventures, Stephen & Jane