Getting around Chennai is not easy, unless you know what you’re doing. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about Chennai transport for a hassle-free visit to this fascinating city.
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Pop! Bang! Thwap thwap thwap. Our once-spirited ride — a bright yellow auto rickshaw that had been racing through the streets of Chennai — slowly limped to a stop. We were 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 pungent Koovam river. 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 auto rickshaw and, almost before we knew it, had hailed another.
“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 ride.
This is the experience of riding an auto rickshaw 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 our guide to…
Chennai Transport – Everything You Need to Know for a Hassle-Free Visit
Taking a Taxi in Chennai
The only time you’ll probably need to use regular cabs in Chennai is to get into town from the airport. There’s a prepaid taxi counter at the airport where you can easily arrange your ride into town.
The taxi fare from Chennai airport to the city centre is 400–500 Rs.
Recently Ola Cab and Uber set up kiosks in Chennai airport, so there are more options for getting into Chennai from the airport.
You may end up taking a taxi from your hotel (which your hotel can call for you), too. The one time we did this, everything worked exactly as it should, the driver used his metre and took us directly to our destination.
There is recent news that several taxi companies in Chennai are banding together to create an app which will help them combat the rise of Uber and Ola in Chennai.
Photo by aaronarun
Using Ola Cabs and Uber in Chennai
If you get a SIM card for India, and you don’t want to fuss with auto rickshaw negotiations, then Ola or Uber will become your new best friend. They have taken over the Chennai Public Transport market and are used widely by locals and expats.
Uber seems to be the preferred choice for many people in Chennai, who say they have more cars, more reliable drivers, and are usually cheaper when hiring a standard car.
One advantage with Ola Cabs, is that they have a wider range of vehicles, including auto rickshaws, electric auto rickshaws, and motorbikes. This can help you get through the thick Chennai traffic much more quickly than in a car.
Ola auto rates start at 29Rs for the first 4kms, so using Ola auto rickshaws might be the fastest, cheapest and most hassle-free way to get around Chennai.
Ola also offers long-distance rides for when you want to make short trips from Chennai, and you can even rent your own Ola Car for a weekend getaway from Chennai.
If you need a guidebook for Chennai, we suggest one of these:
Chennai Bus Routes
You probably won’t need to use the bus service during your Chennai travels — unless you’re on a minuscule budget or really want to immerse yourself in the local culture. Busses can get very crowded and uncomfortable, especially at busy times. The bus routes are pretty tough to figure out, too. But if you want to experiment with busses in Chennai, use the MTC website’s bus route info.
Busses are more useful for when you want to take a weekend getaway from Chennai or continue your travels in Tamil Nadu.
(Don’t miss our guide to using the busses in Tamil Nadu for more info) →
Chennai Train Services
There are four main train lines in Chennai, which radiate out from the Central Station heading north, south, east, and west. They are more useful for commuters than tourists but can be a good way to get the Chennai Beach or Chennai Fort.
By Arian Zwegers, Flickr
Chennai Auto Rickshaws
All over the bustling city, you’ll see these ubiquitous yellow three-wheeled vehicles. These motorized Indian versions of tuk tuks are by far the most exciting mode of Chennai transport, and will get you around the city cheaply and quickly.
In the traffic-choked streets of Chennai, the small auto rickshaws can go faster than a car and much faster than a bus. Also, in the heat of mid-day, the breeze generated by the auto rickshaw zipping along the streets is a great way to cool down, even if just a little.
But, they can involve a little hassle, so here are our tips on how to hail a Chennai auto rickshaw, how to negotiate, and how much you can expect to pay.
Hailing an Auto Rickshaw in Chennai
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.
A few tips for hailing a Chennai auto:
Map your route in advance. Use PocketEarth, Maps.me or another offline mapping tool to map your route in advance. This will help you decide which side of the street you should be on. A lot of roads in Chennai are divided by a big barrier, so it can add 500m or more to your journey, plus an extra massive roundabout if you hail the auto rickshaw from the wrong side of the street.
Walk to a bigger street. If you happen to be on a small side street when you want a ride, walk to the nearest roundabout or bigger street where you’ll see dozens of auto rickshaws zipping by.
Hail a driver on the go. 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. However, we tried both and didn’t notice much of a difference.
Explaining Where You Want to Go
If you don’t speak any of the local languages, this is one of the hardest parts of using Chennai auto rickshaws. Though most drivers speak some English, even a slight mispronunciation of the destination will probably not be understood. Many don’t read English, so showing them your map doesn’t help either.
This communication difficulty happened almost every time we tried to go somewhere. Usually, the driver would grab a local 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.
Negotiating a Fair Price for a Chennai Auto Rickshaw
Though many auto rickshaws in Chennai are equipped with metres, we never saw one that was actually on, so you’ll have to negotiate your fare before you set off.
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 asking 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.
So here’s what you need to know to offer a good price:
- Map the route first so you now exactly how many kilometres you need to go. Prices are usually set by distance, so you’ll need to know how far your destination is.
- 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 — the most we paid was 150 Rp for an 8km ride between Pondy Bazaar and Mint Street.
- At night, the price also goes up, so expect to pay a little more. We paid 180 Rp to go from the Bay of Bengal all the way to Pondy Bazaar one night — a 6km trip.
- If you cross the southern river (aka “go to the Indian side”), the driver will definitely want extra money.
- There are thousands of auto rickshaws, so if you don’t get your price or the driver is rude, walk away and hail someone else.
- If you negotiate harder you can probably get lower prices — although a few drivers said no and drove away when we tried to go too low. A 50 Rp ride is only 90¢ so we never found it worth haggling for a 20¢ discount!
- 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 auto rickshaw drivers in town, they are happy to have a guaranteed fare, even if it means waiting around for you
Yes, as tourists we will always pay more than locals do and almost everyone (locals included) 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.
Tipping Auto Rickshaw Drivers in Chennai
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.
- The pricing was consistent no matter what journey we took.
- 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.
- Not once did a driver dispute a fare or ask for more money when we arrived. They never tried to go a longer route or take us to the wrong place.
So, that’s everything you need to know about Chennai transport (we hope). But if you have more questions about getting around Chennai, let us know or comment below!
♥ Happy mindful adventures, Jane & Stephen
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