cars at airport in shanghai china

New York City has an extensive public transit system, and budget-conscious, savvy travelers often avoid spendy taxis when they’re traveling to or from the airport. Taking the subway, after all, is much cheaper and often more reliable. Still, there are days when you might not want to jump on the train, whether you have an extremely early flight, are hauling a lot of luggage, or don’t want to deal with pesky transfers. Enter what are known as Chinatown car services — essentially Chinese-owned private car companies that save you a considerable amount on cab fares, and transport you in cars that are often much nicer than a basic taxi. Here’s what you need to know about booking one:

Affordability
Our editors have gone from Midtown East and the Upper East Side to JFK for $35 and $40 respectively. While the subway ride costs about $8, the taxi flat fee to and from that airport is $52. Of course, there are also shared door-to-door van services like the Super Shuttle for about $20, but the extra cost is worth it for the comfort, the set pick-up times, and time saved in not having to make multiple stops.


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The Language Barrier
Most dispatchers who you’ll connect with will speak at least some English. Emphasize that you need a pick-up to or from the airport. Then the most important things, of course, are the airport name, your address, and your phone number.


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Questions to Ask
Don’t get off the phone without confirming with the dispatcher without confirming the base rate, and the cost of the anticipated tolls, which will cost extra as they would with a taxi. We also like to ask for the driver to give us a five-minute heads up before he arrives, so we don’t have to scramble to get to the car at the last second.

Timing
Earlier is not always better when it comes to calling for a Chinatown car. For pick-ups to the airport, it’s typically best to call two or three hours ahead of when you want to leave. The dispatcher will have a better sense of which drivers will be around. If you’re leaving very early in the morning, you can get in touch the night before, but it’s not a bad idea to make a confirmation call when you wake up.

A couple of exceptions: You’ll want to call early on bad weather days and holidays. This way, you can stake your claim on a car before the other requests come pouring in, then follow up with a reminder about an hour ahead. If no cars are available, you’ll still have time to hatch a Plan B.

For pick-up from the airport, the dispatcher might ask you to collect your checked bags before making a reservation, since there’s no predicting how long this could take, and airports generally don’t have a lot of space for cars to idle by the terminals. With Jing Ma, the Flushing-based car service that we’ve used, this is always the case for JFK and La Guardia arrivals, since they’re nearby. It takes their cars longer to reach Newark, so you can call when you land.

Cash is Still King
Many companies will accept credit card payments, and while they’ll have a charge minimum, you’ll likely surpass that amount without much trouble. The bigger issue is the surcharge that might be required. Pay will bills to avoid the extra charges.

Troubleshooting
We can’t speak for all the Chinatown car services out there, but we’ve had good luck with Jing Ma. In our six times of using them, they’ve showed up early on each occasion save one, when highway construction and flooding from the rain made the driver late. (We still made our international flight.) The lesson we learned: Do make that confirmation call in the morning, and don’t wait for the driver to tell you he’s going to be late. You want to find out as soon as possible if a driver is running late, and by how much.

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