From Fantastic to Not-so-Good: Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

Lissette said it a couple of times this week “We may like Africa, but Africa doesn’t seem to like us”. It’s been an interesting 10 days of spectacular highs, a few lows, a near disaster, and some frustrations and difficulties. Here are some experiences and impressions over 10 days in Cape Town
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Let’s start with the Fantastic
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People

People are exceedingly friendly and helpful. From the first taxi that we hopped into at the airport, to the owner of our favorite Indian restaurant next door, to staff at any service establishment: I don’t think we’ve met friendlier people anywhere. Relaxed, easy to smile, courteous…just really, really nice.

Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

Above: We didn’t even ask these lovely ladies to pose, they just hammed it up for us.

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Food, wine, costs and convenience

South African wines have always been some of our favorites and we are in paradise. The grocery store next door has 3 aisles dedicated to wine, most ranging from 40 to 80 Rand. That’s $4 – $8 CAD for us Canadians (about 25% less in USD). Great wine at ridiculously good prices.

Below: South African wines, sauces, and chutneys. Love Peri-Peri, goes on anything.

south african wines and sauces

I never hear people mention South Africa as a foodie destination. But it should be. We’ve probably been eating out too much during our first 10 days here, mostly because the food – everywhere we’ve eaten – has been excellent as well as good value. If you love Indian food you’ll find yourself in heaven (there’s a huge Indian population in South Africa). We’ve gone to restaurants and have had fish & chips, Greek salads, and hamburgers and have not had even one average dish served to us. Fantastic.

Grocery stores have everything you could wish for including many particularities you’ll find only in South Africa.

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More than just scenery

Everyone comes to Cape Town for its spectacular beauty. So no surprise there. But it’s more than the combination of mountains, jagged peaks, and coastline – it’s also the lushness of the vegetation and the wildlife. We spent 4 hours last week in Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and saw an incredible range of colourful plant life as well as birds of every shape and size: Egyptian geese, Guiney Fowl, Hadada Ibis, Sugarbirds with their long tails…Walk through the Company Gardens in downtown Cape Town and you’ll see similar vegetal lushness with Table Mountain as a backdrop. You may think yourself in paradise.

Below: Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens

Kirstenbosch. Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape TownBelow: “Twelve Apostles” behind Camp’s Bay.

Twelve apostles. Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

Below: beautiful Jacaranda trees.

Jacaranda trees, Cape Town

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South Africa is civilized and ordered

We spent 6 months in South East Asia last year and if you signed up for something you never knew what you would get. Touts are always on the make, trying to scam you into an overpriced boat ride or tour or to whisk you away to stores owed by friends and relatives. It’s tiring, as a tourist you feel that you always have a target on your head. We haven’t seen that so far in South Africa where everything (except one major screw up to be described later) has been first class.

Below: the colourful Bo Kaap neighborhood.

Bo Kaap, Cape Town. Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

 

 

Tips
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Best Tip for getting around Cape Town.

The best thing that we’ve learned over our first 10 days here is that Uber is the way to go in Cape Town. I had previously heard of Uber but didn’t have any idea how it worked. It’s basically an informal taxi service. You sign up, enter your credit card details, and download the app to your phone. Rates are about 60% of taxi rates, there’s no haggling over money (you never have to take your wallet out), service is prompt (we’ve never waited more than 3 minutes for a ride), and drivers friendly. It takes the stress out of getting around.
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Where to stay in Cape Town.

Before coming here I wanted to stay in a central location and had the Green Market Square area in mind. Because of difficulties (see below) we ended up in the Oranjezicht district, just outside the center. I think that ended up as a blessing because the area is quieter, everything is nearby, and it feels much safer than the downtown core.

Below: Views from our apartment in Cape Town. That’s Table Mountain on the right, Devil’s Peak on the left.

apartment in Cape Town. Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

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First thing you should do to get orientated.

Get orientated with the Hop On/Hop Off sightseeing bus. They have 4 bus lines touring much of Cape Town and the Peninsula and you can do them all on 1 or 2 day passes. Excellent way of seeing many of the highlights in the area and (mostly) very well organized.

Below: Some of the views you’ll see along the way.

Hop On Hop off in Cape Town. Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town
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Surprises
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Cape Town can be surprisingly cold. Everyone imagines that Africa is all heat, all the time. It’s not and Cape Town is the extreme: we’ve had some wickedly cold days made worse by the Cape winds. Even now, in mid-November (early summer) locals are wearing hats and sweaters, even winter jackets. Even on a windless, sunny day, the heat is dry and you may find yourself needing a light sweater in the shade. Those days are actually perfect.

The crazy thing is that for the first time in 16 months of full-time travel we’ve gotten colds. In Africa.

 

 

The Difficult and frustrating
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Accommodation (for slow travellers) and Wifi.

I’ve read posts by other slow travellers on why they “would not slow travel in South Africa” citing in particular the lack of furnished apartments and wifi. It’s not true – there are furnished apartments and some do have wifi. But in both categories South Africa is behind. This is particularly true when it comes to accommodation in Cape Town.

We’ve spent the greater part of the last 6 months in Airbnb apartments. It’s usually very easy and in most places I’ll rent an apartment on very short notice for a month or two. Trying to book apartments in Cape Town though has been a lesson in frustration. A few reasons: 1) high demand, low supply = high prices. We’re paying more in Cape Town than we paid even in Montreal which seems almost incomprehensible based on the general cost of living and the value of the Rand. But this is Cape Town, the 2nd most visited city on the whole continent (the first is Johannesburg – but J’Burg is much bigger than Cape Town). 2) You may find an apartment but there is a good chance that it may not have internet. Why I’m not sure. But many apartments do not have internet. Or, sometimes it’s a big building where you have to buy internet vouchers from the office. We need reliable internet, period, we don’t want to be dealing with vouchers. It’s an issue and has meant crossing off a few apartments that might otherwise have met our needs. 3) Many of the Airbnb apartments you’ll see listed for Cape Town are represented by Management companies. They don’t always answer, are slow, or the apartment may be rented out and they haven’t bothered blocking the dates on Airbnb (because these companies also use other means to rent out their apartments). I would say they account for 30-40% of the listings that will show up on your Airbnb search.

Much of the last 10 days have been spent emailing back and forth with various Airbnb renters, contacting apartment buildings in the neighborhood that rent furnished apartments, and even visiting a few apartments. It wasn’t easy but we are now booked until mid-January, spread out among 3 different bookings averaging about $2300/mo CAD (that’s about $1730 US). Where in most places you can usually get an Airbnb apartment long-term at half the cost of a hotel room, prices here are almost at par*. So accommodation for the slow traveller is a challenge, particularly in Cape Town (I’ve researched a few other places in South Africa and it seems much easier).

*Note that our difficulties have been made worse by the upcoming Holiday season.

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Things to watch out for
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Crime

I’ve mentioned above how nice the people are. It would be easy to let your guard down. You can’t – there is some extremely shocking poverty and you’ll see a lot of beggars and vagrants, especially in the city center (another reason we like where we are staying). We were warned to keep an eye out when taking money out of an ATM as tourists have had money snatched out of their hands. We also make it a point not to be in the city center after dark. There are extreme contrasts: on the one hand Cape Town feels as modern and luxurious as any European city, on the other hand you see lots of people sleeping under overpasses or city parks.

 Below: Park off the highway that people have made home.

poverty in Cape Town

 

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Screw Ups and near-disasters
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Being left behind on Signal Hill

I’ve mentioned above the excellent Hop On/Hop Off sightseeing bus. They were anything but excellent when they left us and another couple stranded on a hill, quite far from the city center.

We were on their Sunset Tour, which takes tourists up Signal Hill for views of Cape Town as the sun is going down. As we arrived, a large cloud enveloped the hill. There was no sunset and nothing much to see (below).

Signal hill in fog. Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

We decided to take a walk but before doing so asked the customer service girl how long the bus would be up top. ‘An hour’ she said.

15 minutes later we come back to the parking lot – to see that the bus had left!  It was getting dark and the parking lot was almost deserted. The city is at least a 45 minute walk away (down a pitch black road). Another couple came up to us. They were a German mom and daughter from the same bus.

Uber came to the rescue. We’ve learned from this experience to always have a local SIM card with internet. About 15 minutes later a lone car pulled up to the parking lot in the dark. It was our ride. We felt quite relieved.

Citysightseeing apologized profusely for the mistake when I wrote them the next day. It ‘normally’ doesn’t happen, they are supposed to keep track of the number of passengers on board. How they lost 4 passengers is a mystery that they would look into. They reimbursed our Uber charge, but that’s it. Sorry, but that is bad marketing. I could be writing here, saying how they apologized and remedied a major screw up by giving us as well as the German couple free tickets as compensation. Instead they’ve just pissed off a bunch of people, including some very angry Germans who promise to leave some scathing Tripadvisor reviews.

Addendum: Citysightseeing read the above and have offered us free tickets when visiting Johannesburg in a few months. 

 

Near Disaster

At the best of times Lissette is clumsy. She’ll fall off sidewalks, trip on grass, or stumble over stairs.

We were on Signal Hill, just before getting left behind by the bus company, when she fell down a flight of cement stairs. The camera went flying and she fell heavily down the first stair, rolling down at least 7 stairs before I was able to stop her. As I lifted her up I feared she had bumped her head. She could easily have been knocked unconscious or broken some teeth.

It was actually really lucky that all she had were some big bruises on her leg and forearm. She was more embarrassed than hurt. The camera was fine.

The other lesson learned was to always have travel insurance. We were lucky.

 

So as Lissette says, we may like Africa but it doesn’t seem to like us much. At least not Signal Hill.
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Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

 

It took me about a month to say that I like Budapest. In contrast, I’m already blown away by Cape Town and the spectacular nature, people, food and wine. Lissette’s not quite there yet. She’s usually more into culture and it’ll take more of those kind of experiences for her to fall in love. One thing is for sure: after spending most of the last year in Europe and South East Asia, Africa seems really exotic and we are seeing geography and fauna different to anything we’ve seen (I haven’t been in Africa for 30 years so it all feels new).

South Africa is not as ready-made as Europe for independent travel. We’ll be doing things differently here as you’ll see on upcoming posts. But that will mean some incredible scenery and experiences that we are really excited about.

 

Related: 15 Things to Do in and around Cape Town

Related: The BIG Guide to South Africa

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We’ll be in Africa for the next 3 months. Lots of photo-heavy posts coming up!

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Experiences and Impressions over 10 days in Cape Town

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43 Comments

  1. Thanks! Reading this was a great recommendation! Aside from cage diving with the great whites, I haven’t planned much yet (as it’s part of a bigger around-the-world trip), but this is definitely good information/advice and I look forward to figuring out a plan and enjoying the wine!! 🙂

  2. Wow – Cannot stress the importance of a SIM card enough!

    I love to go hiking into nature or bicycling down back roads when I travel. Dozens of times I’ve found myself lost and so incredibly relieved to have a data plan for internet access in a no-Wi-Fi zone. Even if safety was no concern, it was always super nice to have access to some maps or other information to help me guide myself around more easily.

    This is a great post with tons of useful information. Super informative. I’m bookmarking it for when I plan my South African travels. Thanks, as always, BBQBoy!

    1. We ended up in South Africa for 3 months, one of my favorite places. I think you’d love it 🙂

  3. So happy Uber came to your service and Lissette is okay, both situations could have turned out way worse. Cape Town looks gorgeous, cannot wait for the upcoming post.

  4. Wow Frank – how did you end up in Africa? What a jump! I dont know your plans – maybe you dont yet either. I recommend Ethiopia though as a unique and amazing African country.

    1. No, that’s why we rent Airbnb apartments instead of hotels (that would really be depressing).

      I had a beautiful condo in Montreal over 15 years and it’s rented out (pic of it in the header here). It’s always there if we decide we want to go back. But honestly the routine 9-5, day in/day out, same old faces and places, bored us to death and I dreamed of the day we could do something different.

      Travelling as we do is fun. We live in different (and very nice) places and just more stimulating. It’s only been 16 months but honestly I think I’d be so depressed living the routine I had before. I’m sure they’ll be a day when we want a more permanent base and maybe travel a bit less. But the way we travel is quite relaxing: we couldn’t be those people moving around all the time, 3 days here, 4 here…we’d get burnt out in a month. For us this is the perfect balance for now.

    1. Sorry? We’re full-time travellers and don’t want to go home (what is that?) so we’ll continue working and travelling as we go as long as we can.

      As far as South Africa goes, we’re hoping to be here 5 months: 3 months in the Cape Region (plenty to see) and then we’ll settle up north on the Johannesburg/Pretoria area for a couple month. The geography is spectacular. Hey, beats the dregs of winter in Montreal!! 🙂

  5. It looks really nice and colorful. The houses and green hills. It got me excited about South Africa as I’m planning to visit it as well as Namibia next year. I understand it’s not Europe and you’ll see some rough areas – it’s really sad. But the nature and the coast is extremely beautiful! Keep posting, good job 🙂

    1. Namibia?! I’d eventually like to do that too, don’t know if we’ll be able to do it on this trip.
      Thanks for taking time to comment Tom 🙂

  6. Really interesting and informative post! I’d LOVE to visit South Africa someday.

    Glad you all made it out of Signal Hill OK, I would have been fretting in that situation too!

    Have fun and I look forward to reading more!

  7. From one clumsy girl to another, I hope you’re ok, Lissette! I really loved South Africa, but we weren’t ‘living’ there when we visited. It was a vacation we took a few years back and we stayed on Camps Bay. So glad you enjoyed Kirstenbosch as much as we did! Stop by the 12 Apostles Hotel for sunset drinks in the Leopard Bar if you’re up for a fancy beverage one evening, and let me know if you want a referral for a spectacular guide. We hired a gentleman by the name of Steve Martin (no joke) who took us on a fabulous tour of the entire Cape Peninsula as well as through the winelands. Cheers guys!

    1. Thanks for the tips Andrea. I’ll write you privately about Steve Martin.

      Yes, we passed by the 12 Apostles Hotel. Will go there for a sunset drink sometime. Thanks!

  8. You know the most amazing part of this post for me??? That you got reimbursed for your Uber ride! I can’t believe that happened in Africa, yes l know S.A is fancy. Wow! There is hope yet. I love the hop on hop off bus for orientation to the cities, especially places like London and Budapest . The pictures are so lovely . I have a brother in law who disappeared to S. A like 20 years ago and still has not returned..Haha..my sister loves visiting him there and always speaks of it’s beauty and she enjoys her trips tremendously. Not sure how things are now right now, recently there was some dust up with S.A kicking out Nigerians and refusing them entry..which led to retaliation threats from the other side.. 🙁 . It’s always something. Slow internet sucks doesn’t it? I was surprised at this last visit, my sister’s wifi speed was super fast unlike before, l was pretty happy. I am looking forward to reading about your adventures, l’m like Spanky…l wouldn’t be in love yet :-), you are just so easy..hah hah..we landed in Houston yesterday, and it’s so weird after 2.5 years away traveling…

    1. Thanks Kemkem. I should add an addendum: the hop on/hop off paid me back the Uber and upon reading the above decided to give us free passes when we visit Johannesburg in a few months. They were in fact excellent is every other respect except for this one major screw up. Darn, now it sounds like I’m sucking up 🙁

      I think many people think “Africa” and 3rd world visions come to mind. South Africa is 1st world in many respects and more developed than most of the places we’ve been in Eastern Europe!! But then on the other hand it has a huge income disparity and poverty. It’s like the Gulf states: sure, there’s incredible wealth, but how about the 3rd world labor that supports that? Its like 2 different worlds in one. I think someone said it best, “Apartheid still exists, but at an economic level rather than a legal level”.

      Yes, I’ve been told they’ve had major issues with migrants coming from other countries, including Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

      Good luck with all the stuff at home Kemkem. We lived the same crap last summer in Montreal. Urggg…

  9. You sure have a nice view from your apartment! Too bad it was such a hassle trying to find one. But like you said, it probably was a blessing in disguise considering what you mentioned about downtown.

    We just tried Lyft (exactly like Uber) for the first time in San Francisco and loved it! We will definitely be using it again on our travels. Much better than cabs! I’m glad a driver came to your rescue when the bus left you behind!

    1. Yes, the taxi as we know it might be one of those businesses that’ll slowly disappear…like the video store…

  10. There is so much that we loved about Cape Town, but it certainly wasn’t the easiest place we’ve visited. We found an apartment on Airbnb that was in our price range, but far from the city center in Hout Bay. It acutally turned out to be quite a nice location, but not void of safety concerns (which unfortunately seems the case in all of Cape Town and the surrounding area). There was an internet connection, but it was slow, which, also seems to be the case in all of Cape Town. We had a great experience with the Hop On Hop Off bus, but we only used it as a means to get to the wineries (priorities!). Our tickets included the sunset tour, but there was no way for us to get back to Hout Bay without splurging for a cab from the city center. Not sure if Uber was in Cape Town when we visited, but we have long loved the service, using it in abundance in America before we started traveling.
    Sorry to hear you are both under the weather and Lisette suffered a fall. Hope you are both back up to speed soon 😉

    1. Thank you so much for the comment Sarah. Actually, we were in Hout Bay on Sunday and that whole stretch up to Camp’s Bay (with the Twelve Apostles soaring over everything) is I think the most dramatic stretch of coastline we’ve seen yet. Gorgeous. But yes, a little ways out.
      And just like you our internet here kind of weak. I don’t know why that is….
      Yes, we visited Groot Constantia (beautiful) and damn, ran out of time. We did wine tasting and had lunch (another great meal) but didn’t visit the manor or walk through the vineyards. Might try to make it back. The Sightseeing bus is great for that…

  11. Interesting read and very beautiful pictures. It seems you did see a lot during this first ten days. Isa and I are both really looking forward to your posts and we are curious where are you going to spend these five month in Africa.

    1. Thanks Natascha. We’ve spent a bit too much time doing admin stuff and feeling a bit under the weather. Don’t feel we’re really up and running yet even though we’ve seen a lot. Hopefully soon.
      Our base will be Cape Town for 3 months with trips to surrounding areas, a little vacation in Victoria Falls, then a new base in close to Johannesburg which we’ll use as a base for the northern part of the country. Hopefully we can convince you to come here one day:)

    1. Hi Michael,
      I’m not sure if we’ll make in to Namibia – we’ve got plans on going to Victoria Falls for a week as well as a road trip through the Garden Route and Little Karoo. Then more time off when we are in the J’Burg/Pretoria area. I think it’ll go by fast and we might not be able to fit it all in…Namibia from all accounts also means a lot of driving and is not cheap. But I’ve always wanted to go, so I won’t cross it off as a possibility. But unlikely.

  12. I guess the bad stuff makes you appreciate the good stuff even more! Poor Spanky for taking on the steps and losing, I feel for you, although a few war wounds always make a good story. Can’t believe you got left behind by the bus and then not offered any tangible apology, a definite no-no (especially when talking to a blogger). At least you survived to tell us all a good tale.

    1. That poor Spanky, I expected the worst when I picked her off the ground. Really lucky.

      About the bus: yes, isn’t it really bad?? I think they just wanted to knock off early. But you don’t do it without accounting for all the people OR knowingly do it when you know you’re leaving people behind. Stuff happens in the hills around Cape Town and I felt especially bad for the German mom and daughter.

  13. Very good, colourful and interesting post Frank. Amazing to see everything that has gone down in 10 days … Its always interesting – fascinating – for me to see a place I know, through the eyes of first-time ‘visitors’ (residents !) – and then find out their feelings and impressions are not so different from your own . You’ already seem to hv a pretty good fix on things. Its always a bit of a bummer to hv to face and experience the downside of things like the poverty and homelessness . Unfortunately it is a real problem (inegalities) in S Africa .- as it is (and a growing one), in so many places these days – even in so many richer countries, including Canada . Your post made me feel ‘homesick’ ..Can’t wait for the next chapter – by which time hopefully, Africa would have started to like (love ?) you too .

    1. Thanks Tony. On our last visit to Montreal it struck us more than ever the number of bums on the street. And also like in Montreal we notice that many have mental issues which is very sad. We saw a guy in our neighborhood (here in CT) sitting on the pavement, fixing the seran wrap that he had around his feet (as shoes). Yet there is also some crazy riches, as you see it along some of the communities of Camp’s Bay and Clifton Bay. Who are these people? Yes, so much inequality.

  14. Great amazing photos. Love that you captured the beauty of Cape Town. Such a shame that those bad stuff hasn’t been resolve yet considering that Cape Town is one of the major tourist destinations of today.

    1. Thank you for the comment! Things happen, I can’t blame Cape Town for Lissette’s fall. And being left behind on Signal Hill is hopefully just an aberration and they put controls in place so it doesn’t happen to others.
      As far as accommodation, as I said to Tom above, it is just a subsector of the accommodation market that is not fully developed. There are hotels in all ranges including quite a lot of backpacker hostels on Long St. in the city center.
      Hope you get here, it is a beautiful region 🙂

    1. HA! No f*ing way!! I’m not a fan of water and I don’t really appreciate sealife so much except on my plate.
      But I will do an extreme activity while here which I’ll capture on video 🙂

    1. Everyone drinks wine and there are so many wine producers around the region that easy to keep costs down. Rooms expensive because a) a lot of tourists, b) Cape Town is actually pretty small, c) I talk about Airbnb which is a subsector of the accommodation market which hasn’t fully developed. Maybe with more competition in the future costs will go down. Hotels not so bad, I saw signs for places in the 80 USD range…but there are some ritzy places too.
      Overall though, excepting accommodation, all is quite reasonable.

  15. Wow! 3 months in Africa, that should make for an incredible journey. I’m looking forward to reading, especially since South Africa is not currently on our radar. Uber is becoming very popular here in the states, especially in Washington, D.C. which we are just north of the city. Our son has the app on his phone, but I’m a bit more cautious about whose car I hop in to. I love the on/off bus, it’s a great way to get a feel for the city and usually worth the value if you ride the entire route once through, before jumping on/off. So sorry about Lisette’s tumble down the stairs, that had to hurt. Safe travels and I look forward to reading more.

    1. Thank you so much Patti! You’ll get to see Africa through our eyes and hopefully it convinces you to come here one day. It’s definitely beautiful.
      We had the same feelings about Uber. But so far our experience much better than taxi. We decided to get Uber when on one of our first visits downtown the taxi driver told us the meter wasn’t working when I asked him why he wasn’t putting it on. Yeah, sure. I’m so damn sick of taxi drivers trying to screw me over, we had to deal with so much of that shit in Romania. Uber has been great. Drivers are polite and you give him/her a ranking after your ride which I guess determines if they are suitable Uber drivers. And you never have to pull out your wallet, the tip is predetermined by the settings on your profile (we give 10% for example). In the end so much better, at least here in CT, than taking the taxi.

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