Grab is one of the new breed of apps that offers ride sharing in countries around Asia. With the exit of Uber from many Asian markets, it is now one of the main players. In direct competition with the local taxi industry, Grab offers affordable travel by a private car or motorbike taxi and operates off essentially the same business model as the popular Uber service. In Vietnam it operates in Hanoi, Da Nang, Ho Chi Minh City and many smaller cities. You can also use Grab in many other Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Indonesia.
I’ve tested both Grab Bike and Grab car services over the last few months, and I will teach you how to use it along with a few tips on how to get the most out of the service. There’s also a promo code for you use so that you can get a free trip to try the service for yourself.
How Grab works
Using Grab is really easy.
First, you sign up for a user account. You’ll need an email address and a valid local phone number. (Your Grab driver will call you to verify the booking and if they can’t contact you, they’ll cancel the job. Tip: If you’ve got a Vietnam prepaid 3G or 4G SIM card with data that doesn’t allow incoming calls, you can send a message through messaging function in the app to the driver (you’ll have to translate it in Google Translate first) saying your phone doesn’t accept calls. Read my separate article about how to buy the best prepaid 3G or 4G SIM card with data in Vietnam for your specific needs.)
Next, you launch the Grab app. At the home screen you enter your pick-up and drop-off locations. You can type these addresses manually or choose from favourites, landmarks, or drop a pin on the map. Next you choose the type of transport you want. The most popular are car, taxi or motorbike. You can also enter any notes you want to send to the driver. For example, I once needed to alert the driver to the fact that my phone battery was almost dead. Thankfully, he got the message and was able to pick me up even though my phone had shut down.
If you have a promo code, you must enter it before you book the trip by tapping on the ‘Promo’ button. You can book your trip now, or schedule it to occur some time in the future. If you want to try Grab for free, my promo code (GRABT0A1F87A) will give you a free ride of up to 30,000 Vietnam Dong.
Grab then calculates the fare for the trip and you click ‘Book’. Nearby Grab drivers will then compete for your job and when one has accepted the job you’ll receive a notification of the driver’s basic details. That includes a photo and the composite star rating other customers have given him.
Your driver will then call you to confirm the details of the trip.
It is important you have a working SIM card, otherwise he will cancel the job. Also, its nearly always not necessary to be able to speak Vietnamese even if the driver can’t speak English. Its quite acceptable to have a ten-second conversation where you confirm you’re taking Grab and you’ll see them soon, thank you. At any time, you can contact your driver via (free) instant messaging inside the app or by phone.
Shortly thereafter, a driver will arrive at your pickup location and take you to your destination. When you arrive, you pay the driver directly with cash if you haven’t chosen to pay for your rides by credit card or prepaid credit inside of the app. Then you rate the driver based upon his service and you’re good to go.
Advantages of using Grab Bike
Price. The primary benefit of using Grab Bike is price. Simply stated, other motorbike drivers won’t work for the Grab Bike fare. (I actually tested this out. It took me asking four drivers to find one who would accept the fare. Then he pulled out my helmet… and it was the familiar green Grab Bike helmet!) While a local resident might be able to negotiate a fare similar to the Grab Bike fare, a foreigner will typically pay a premium to travel with an Xe Om driver. That premium is likely in the range of 50% to 150% more than the Grab Bike fare. Also, if the Grab fare was higher than an Xe Om fare, locals wouldn’t use the service. So Grab needs to continue to price competitively. As a traveler, you benefit from those lower prices without having to do any of the negotiation work. (If you’re taking an airport transfer from Ton San Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City downtown to an area like District 1, you’ll find Grab Car fares are around half the price of a traditional taxi.)
Fixed price. A related benefit – that can’t be understated – is that for most journeys you know up-front what the total cost will be. If the driver gets lost, takes an indirect route, or the weather turns bad, you know what the fare will be. With many traditional motorbike drivers you’ll have to negotiate hard upfront to get the best fare. Using a traditional Xe Om motorbike taxi, you’re going to be at a disadvantage because you typically won’t know what a reasonable fare should be.
Coupons. Grab offers loads of coupons to save money on your trips.
Rewards. Grab has a reward program where you earn points for each trip you take. While there are many different types of rewards on offer, the main one most people will be interested in is coupons for discounted rides.
Personal service. Sometimes individual drivers will go the extra mile to provide a better service. In my experience, extra benefits have included a free face mask, a loan of a rain jacket, and being addressed by my name. Most drivers will try to be polite, make conversation, and ensure you’re otherwise comfortable.
Scam-free airport transfers and travel. Using the Grab app, you don’t have to worry about overcharging, premium prices for airport transfers, meter scams, and so on. You don’t have to research local transport costs to know that you’re going to be paying fair fare. Also, when using Grab Bike, you know you’re not going to find yourself at the destination arguing with a driver claiming he said ‘fifty’ and not ‘fifteen’. All of this removes a lot of stress for the traveler in organising how to get around a foreign country.
Ease of use. The Grab app is simple and intuitive to use. There’s no learning curve to opening and using the app as soon as you’ve landed in the country (and have your Vietnam prepaid SIM card set up). There’s also no need to negotiate with motorbike drivers (who may speak limited English) each time you want to travel.
Cashless. If you want, you can debit the cost of all of your trips onto your credit card. That means you don’t have to worry about finding small change to pay for a trip. Alternatively, the recently introduced a GrabPay option, where you load (up to $50 into your account) and they deduct the cost of each trip from your account balance. Sometimes you can get bonus credit when topping up your GrabPay credits of up to 50% bonus credit. When you combine that with one of the coupon codes you might receive, you can be traveling at very deeply discounted prices. I’ve used GrabPay credits now for several months without any problems.
Innovation. One of the things I really like about Grab is their constant innovation. Grab seems to update their app every two week or so and quite often they add new features or services. In recent months they’ve added features like GrabShare (sharing a car ride with another passenger), GrabRewards (a points based loyalty scheme) and the ability to have packages delivered using a Grab driver. They’ve just introduced a new feature where you can walk up to a Grab driver in the street and agree to do an instant booking. Also, in your account on their website you can view (and download) a detailed trip history. I’ve seen few companies test outing services and features in the way Grab is, which makes me think they’re going to be around for a while.
Disadvantages of using Grab Bike
Given that Grab Bike is basically a collection of amateur independent drivers, it is not a service without shortcomings.
Market power. One of the things that’s top of my mind (particularly as I travel) is how I vote with my money. There’s definitely a part of me that is concerned about a few companies (owned by a very small number of people) that can dominate markets. I worry that many people end up becoming process workers where they have to take low-paying jobs with these companies in order to make ends meet. Companies like Uber have the power to radically upset or destroy certain markets (and affect many people’s lives)… and then fail, or just leave. If you look at the media around some of the giant companies that dominate the travel industry, their behaviour leaves a lot to be desired. Personally, I prefer to selectively spend my money with individuals that I like, that offer a great service, and that I want to support them and their families to stay in business. I don’t base my decisions solely upon price. To be specific, and brutally honest, I prefer not to support a company like Uber with my money. Booking.com is another.
Availability. Many times, it can be difficult to find an available Grab Bike driver. In these cases you may have to wait 5 to 10 minutes before a driver arrives to begin your journey. This is particularly the case when it starts raining, and many drivers will log-off the Grab system.
Waiting times. Sometimes you’ll wait a long time for a driver, even when he is nearby. Some drivers will take a booking and then continue chatting to their friends or stop somewhere on the way to pick you up. One driver I had even pulled up on the other side of the road from my pick-up to smoke a cigarette. Its also not uncommon for a driver to have serious difficulty finding the pick up location, even though he has access to your GPS pick-up location on a map. It can be a very frustrating experience to watch a driver navigate all of the side-streets around you (or even drive in the opposite direction) as he attempts to find the pickup point.
Recently, a new problem has emerged. The Grab driver accepts your booking (my understanding is they don’t know your destination until accepting the ride) and they decide the don’t want to take you. This is possibly because they don’t want to end up at the destination you’re traveling to. Because drivers are penalised if they cancel too many bookings, they won’t cancel your booking. Instead they will wait for you to cancel the booking. What this means is they may not come to you, or may even drive in the opposite direction until you give up and decide to cancel. The cancelation then goes on your record. Presumably, if you make too many cancellations (even if forced to), your bookings will receive less priority. If you have problems like this, or others, for example, the Grab driver arrives and asks you to pay more money, simply report them to Grab. They really need this feedback.
Rain. When it rains all bets are off. Whereas there might have been more than 20 motorbike drivers within meters from you, all of a sudden there are none, as drivers log off the system, en masse. Prices start increasing. The nearest car you can book might be a 10 minute drive from you. You wait ten minutes for them, anyway. And then, without warning, they cancel. The next three drivers do exactly the same thing. Each time you rebook the same trip, it is at a higher price. (I suspect some drivers cancel as the prices are increasing to get fares which can be 50% to 100% higher.)
Journey duration. Because the drivers are typically not professionals, they often won’t know the quickest way to your destination. For example, for one fixed journey I’ve regularly traveled, I’ve taken more than two dozen different routes there. Also, some drivers will take the longest route because it is the least complex to navigate. And on a few occasions, my driver has been so hopelessly lost, I’ve had to get off the bike, terminate the journey, and take another form of transport. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often.
Amateur drivers. While there are some professional drivers that treat their work as a job, others are just earning a few bucks on the side. This can cause potential issues including safety and navigation challenges.
Cancellations. Drivers can cancel on you for any reason. You might be unlucky enough to get a string of cancellations in a row or after waiting for several minutes for them to arrive.
Surge pricing. In times of high demand, the fare you pay is increased by a margin that can be as high as 100%. Typically, this occurs when it rains. Christmas is another time when there is an extra margin added to the fare. In the Vietnamese New Year (Tet), Grab doubled its GrabBike prices 24/7 for an entire week prior to that holiday week, regardless of the demand for its services.
Pricing inconsistencies. As a regular Grab user, I’ve noticed many pricing anomalies. First, the Grab Bike app sometimes charges me more for exactly the same journey. For many trips, the quote is always 10-30% higher to take the same route in the opposite direction. Next, I can be offered surge prices even though there are several available bikes nearby. Also, small changes in any of the inputs (like pick-up location or time) can lead to a disproportionate change in price.
Safety. There doesn’t seem to be consistent standards for safety. On a few occasions, my Grab Bike driver has worn a bicycle helmet (with spikes in the back), without consideration as to where those spikes would end up if we had to stop suddenly. I’ve also been handed (non-official) helmets (not that the Grab helmet is of super high quality, anyway) that looked like they came from either a construction site, a bike store, and (sadly) even a toy store. (In these instances, you should definitely refuse the ride and report the driver to Grab.) With respect to insurance and accidents I’m not sure what the situation is. On its website, Grab mentions it has some kind of insurance scheme. I’m not sure its comparable to that held by a professional taxi company, and with some ride sharing services, users have found that they’re on their own. (Some of the ride sharing companies argue they’re not taxi companies but are technology companies that facilitate ride sharing.)
Customer service. Customer service isn’t always what you’d hope for. It typically takes several hours for a response to an email. The time taken for a reply to an email can extend to several weeks, or never. While there is English language call centre staff, on the occasions I’ve spoken with them, I’ve found they weren’t particularly empowered to solve my problems.
Grab Bike Pro-User Tips
Use coupons. Grab Bike seems to regularly issue coupons that typically provide discounts of 50% to 100% on your fare. You can find the coupons in the Notifications centre inside the Grab app. Many times you’ll also get them by email. You’ll need to translate them, though. Be aware that you typically need to enter your coupon code before you book your trip, or it won’t be valid. If you plan on using the service regularly, you should translate the messages that contain promo codes as they will save you a good deal of money on your trips. (These messages will sometimes come by pop-up message in the app, by email, or appear in the Notification section of the app.) I’ve included my promo code at the end of the article if you want to test the service for a free ride.
Carefully choose your pick up location. Its best to pick an easily recognisable landmark or somewhere obvious as your pick-up location to assist the driver in finding you. For example, you might choose a popular hotel, a street corner, a convenience store, or some other easily recognisable (and preferably unique) landmark.
Rewards. If you use the prepaid GrabPay top-up service, you’ll get bonus points for every trip you take. That means you’ll earn free trips earlier.
Pay by cash. While you can connect your credit card to the Grab Bike service and pay by automatic debit, it is probably advisable to pay by cash if you’re only using it for a few trips. If you need to cancel a booking, for example, because the driver is taking too long to reach you (or gets lost) you don’t want to be debited for a journey you haven’t completed.
Make sure you can receive phone calls. Make sure you have credit on your phone plan to receive phone calls. If the driver cannot call you, they will cancel the booking.
Add some buffer time. If you really need to be somewhere at a certain time, add in a lot of buffer time if you’re going to be using Grab Bike. Also, it makes sense to have a back-up transport plan. In many outlying areas of the cities you may find there are few drivers to service you. Likewise, when its raining, very early in the morning or a peak transport time, you might have trouble getting a ride.
Prices change. Depending upon the time of day, you can pay 20% to 30% more for exactly the same journey. While prices aren’t swinging wildly, all of the time, they do change, even where it is not a surge pricing scenario. My guess is that in peak transit times during the day, prices increase either slightly, or a lot.
Wear protective clothing. While it is unlikely you’re going to be traveling with motorbike gear, you can wear more layered clothes to protect your body in case of an accident. Also, there’s some other gear I describe in this post on gear for users of motorbike taxi services and ride sharing apps.
Grab Bike is a new service in Vietnam that is clearly disrupting the local motor taxi transit industry. It is very unpopular with traditional Xe Om drivers. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for these types of apps in Asia, particularly as they become more popular. I expect more and more drivers will enter the service which could lead to declining service standards and much lower incomes for existing drivers as the work is spread over a larger base of drivers. It is also possible that after local drivers and competitors are displaced (and the ride-sharing apps have a greater market dominance) that fares will start to rise.
While there are clearly some professional drivers, many are just normal people looking to make a few dollars ‘on the side’ to supplement their income. While this can lead to some shortcomings discussed above (including getting lost), for the most part you’ll find the driver is a genuinely good person looking to provide an honest service, at a fair price. For the traveler, you benefit from getting relatively hassle-free (and easy-to-organise) ride at a very competitive price. Personally, I know that I would have been paying (on average) 50% to 400% more for my motorbike trips if I hadn’t been using a ride-sharing app.
If you haven’t used Grab Bike, Grab Taxi, or Grab Car, you can get a free ride to test it with this promo code: GRABT0A1F87A.
Grab (free) – Download here.