There is no other way of saying it—Beirut has the most irritating, frustrating, and annoying taxi system of any other city in the world that I have visited, and that includes Cairo. Nowhere else have I seen a taxi system so unfriendly to tourists and so complicated that even locals are constantly frustrated by its inefficiency. That is why I have created this entry: to warn you of the absolute ridiculousness of the system and to give you the benefit of my Beirut knowledge so that you may come armed, and I do mean armed, since I actually have had a Beirut cabbie get violent with me.
On the surface, the system seems rather straightforward. When taking a taxi in Beirut, you have two options: service and taxi.
Service Taxis work like service taxis in other parts of the world. You flag down a taxi, tell him where you are going, and ask if he will take you there bi-servees (in Arabic). If he agrees, then you pay him 1,000 LL ($0.75), and he has the right to pick up other passengers going in the relative same direction as you.
Regular Taxis work like normal taxis. You pay for the whole car, and the driver takes you to the destination directly.
Simple, right? So you would think. There are about a hundred other factors that come into play here that make Beirut taxis veritable nightmares. We’ll start with the regular taxis. If you are in a hurry or are traveling with four or five people, you will want to take a regular taxi. You will have no problem finding a taxi to take you where you want to go, but the problem comes in when it is time to pay. Taxis in Beirut have no meters; thus, you are expected to know what the appropriate fare is, and if you pay too little, you will find out very quickly from the cabbie, who may fly into a violent rage—as has happened to me—and physically try to take money from you. The starting fare for a taxi is 5,000 LL. This will get you most places in the city, provided there is no traffic, but if there is traffic (as there almost always is), then you have to throw in a couple thousand more. But wait—it gets more complicated. The price you pay also depends on the state of your cab. The majority of cabs in Beirut are busted old Mercedes, but there are also nicer cabs. If you flag down one of these nicer cabs, usually a newer American car or Mercedes, then you had better be prepared to pay for it. If you hand them 5,000 LL, you will immediately be met with a whole slew of excuses as to why they need more cash: "But this isn’t an old car; this is new and comfortable!" is the plea you will invariably hear. For this reason, I stick only to the busted old Mercedes. Also, you have to be aware that, unless you speak perfect Lebanese Arabic, cabbies will recognize you as foreign, and when that happens, exploitation is just around the corner. They may try to tell you "10,000" for a five-block trip. If this is the case, you just have to throw the amount you think is right at them and walk away.
Because of all the problems surrounding taking regular taxis, I suggest that you take service taxis. They aren’t that much slower, and they are much easier. This still doesn’t mean that they are hassle-free, though. The way to do service taxis is to stand on the side of the road and wave down a taxi. When they pull up, you shout your destination and "bi-servees" at the driver. If he agrees, you get in and pay him 1,000 LL. Sometimes, though, if there is a lot of traffic or if it is late at night, the driver may ask you serveesayn?, meaning that he wants you to pay for two seats, or 2,000 LL. You can either chose to do this or wave the taxi away. The one good thing about Beirut is that there are so many taxis that you rarely have to wait too long, and you can almost always find someone to take you bi-servees.
That is not the end of it, though. Some cabbies still might try and pull out a few more tricks. For example, I once hailed a taxi, and he agreed to take me as a service taxi to the museum. When we arrived, I handed him the service fare, and he immediately started yelling. He said that since he didn’t pick up anyone else along the way, I had to pay the full fare. I told him that was ridiculous and that it isn’t my fault that he didn’t pick anyone else up, at which point I started getting out of the car. He then tried to pull me back into the car, but I shrugged him off. As I walked away, he got out of the car and started shouting all sorts of stuff about my mother.
Admittedly, that violent aggression only happened once, and I think it is rather rare, but that doesn’t mean that you still might not have other things to contend with, like the time I got a cabbie who didn’t know where he was going. I was going to the Charles Helou bus station, a huge landmark in Beirut that everyone knows—everyone except this cabbie, that is. Thus, I ended up having to give him directions. While giving him directions, I asked him where he was from. He replied "Tyre" (in the south). I then asked him how long he had been in Beirut. "Three days," he replied. The cabbie was actually very nice, and I didn’t mind at all, but if I had been any other tourist who didn’t speak Arabic or know his way around, I could see how it could be quite frustrating.
It is sad that the Beirut cab system is so horrid, because it really reflects so poorly on the city. Apart from the cabbies, the Beirutis are great people and extremely helpful to foreigners. In fact, I have seen cases of Beirutis sticking up for foreigners in cabs, making sure they don’t get ripped off. If you are in Beirut, though, taking a cab is unavoidable, and all I can really recommend is that you bring your patience and a sense of humor; otherwise, one bad cab experience could ruin your whole trip.
And since I don't have any pics of Beiruti cabs, just enjoy some more pics of Lebanon.