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As a tourist, the primary form of transportation in Rio will be by taxi. There are several types. The standard taxi is the ever-present yellow (or common) taxi. In Rio, they are in great supply and are available to wave down at any time of the day or night in the primary tourist and business areas of the city. Throughout the city, there are numerous taxi stands where taxis queue to await passengers. It is preferrable to get a taxi from one of these stands as they are typically a bit more reliable as they are associated to that stand . These taxi stands also exist at or near to most hotels as well. The stands range from a formal service with logos (in other words, part of a cooperative). and contact by phone to just a regular group of "freelance" taxi drivers that have come together to serve the spot.
Generally, taxi drivers in Rio are quite knowledgeable when locating the usual destinations and hotels. However, it is advisable to write down the address of less familiar destinations on a piece of paper to show the driver before you go. This should include the neighborhood (Bairro) such as Ipanema or Copacana or Centro. This is an especially good idea for those who don't speak the language.
The cost of a yellow taxi is the same whether they are part of a stand or not. They operate by meter which is calibrated by the city once a year. A typical journey in a taxi will cost between R$15 and R$35. Depending on the day of the week and time of the day, there are two rates. Rate 1 applies from 6 A.M. to 9 P.M. Monday through Saturday. Rate 2 applies from 9 P.M. to 6 A.M. and all day Sunday. In December, taxis use rate 2 at all times. About once every two years, the rate is raised by the city. When this happens, all taxis will put a rate table on the window to convert the meter total to the updated rate. This is necessary as it generally takes about 9 months or so to get the thousands of taxis re-calibrated.
The second type of taxi in Rio are private cars. These are typically associated with hotels. They usually do not have identifying markings nor a light on top. As they are associated with hotels, the door man will ask whether you would like to use them. The door man will say they are safer and more comfortable than a regular yellow taxi off the street. However, these cars do not operate from a taxi meter but just quote a price for the journey. It is advisable to negotiate (or at least request) the price before starting out, however. As the drivers of private cars are not regulated or controlled by a meter, they can quote whatever price they think is reasonable or that they can get. A good deal would usually be about R$5 more than what a yellow taxi would cost by meter.
The last type of taxi in Rio is the Radio Taxi, generally blue, green or white. There are about four large services that serve all of Rio. Typically, these are organized by calling (or your hotel staff calling) their service by phone. They are very reputable and reliable and have the best/cleanest vehicles. They are also very knowledgeable of the city and directions. If travelling late at night, or in a less travelled area of town, they are the safest form of transportation. As they are very reliable, they are also the best option if you need to be picked up at an exact time (especially at night or early morning). However, they are also the most expensive form of transportation. When calling by phone, the price of the trip is given by the operator and is not negotiable. This prevents their drivers from overcharging. While they are more expensive to use, they have their advantages for certain situations.
Taxis from/to the international airport (named Tom Jobim or previously Galeao) is a special situation as it is a long trip. Unfortunately, it is also a situation where some taxis try to take advantage of foreign tourists that are not familiar with the pricing and options of the local transportation. This happens more during high tourism periods such as New Years and Carnaval (mid to late February).
Options from the airport include both yellow taxis and radio taxis. Immediately upon exiting the customs clearance area, there are various booths for each of the radio taxis. If you are keen to use a radio taxi, it is advisable to organize them through the attendants at these booths. Just after these booths (and exiting into the terminal reception area), a wide variety of people begin aggressively offering taxi services. If you haven’t already organized a radio taxi from one of the booths, the best option is to pass right through these people and exit the terminal (declining offers along the way). Immediately after exiting the terminal, there is a street where taxis are lined up along the entire stretch usually grouped together with their own service. Most of the taxis are radio taxis (various colors) but there is usually also a queue of yellow taxis. At this point, you can select which option or service you prefer and walk up to them to take the next in line. During busy times, there may be a queue at these points to wait in.
If you want to avoid being ripped off then it may be worthing taking a 'radio-taxi', particularly when arriving at the airport. Radio Taxis, such as Rio Airport Transfer and others are usually the blue, green, or white taxis and they do cost a little more than the typical yellow taxi. The advantage of a radio taxi is that you pay a fixed rate regardless of the time of day or if there's heavy traffic etc, this means that you do not risk the price increasing at the drivers discretion.
While many of these companies do have websites, they are generally in Portuguese and do not provide you with prices. One exception to this is Rio Airport Transfer, which allows you to choose your arrival and drop off points and will quote you a price, you can then pay for your transfer online from the comfort of your armchair. Other companies such as Green Path Transfers and Holiday Taxis also offer transfers in Rio, bookable online.
For those travelling to Rio for Carnival it's worth using a company that allows you to book and pay in advance, and to try and pay as much in advance as possible as prices tend to increase a few weeks before Carnival.
The least expensive option for transport is the yellow taxi. However, make sure that the driver turns on the meter and doesn’t quote an extravagant price. Typically, a trip (with normal traffic) from the airport to Zona Sul (Copacabana, Ipanema & Leblon) will cost approximately R$40 to R$50 on a yellow taxi meter. A trip to Barra da Tijuca will cost around R$60+ depending on the exact destination. In heavier traffic, this will go a bit higher. Radio taxis waiting on the street will quote a price depending on the destination. This price will be considerably higher than a yellow taxi and possibly higher yet in high tourism periods. It is highly advised to negotiate, however.
As a tourist in Rio, a rental car is not necessary. Taxis are cheap and plentiful and there are other good public transportation options. Renting a car is also somewhat expensive in Brazil. Parking can also be difficult. Most hotels do have parking but they charge an extra fee per night for it. With a car, you also have a bit more risk as car jacking is a significant portion of the crime statistic here.
To rent a car, there are several primary locations. Both airports (Tom Jobim International and Santos Dumont national airport) have this service available from a variety of major companies such as Avis and Hertz as well as Brazilian companies Unidas and Localiza. These companies also have stores in the beginning of Copacabana just off the beach. It is highly suggested to take the insurance option in case of damage.
A bit of warning about driving a car in Brazil for those that are determined to do it. By law in Brazil foreigners are allowed to drive temporarily with a home country valid drivers license. However most police officers require to have a color photocopy of your drivers license with all details translated into Portuguese and notarized. They don't pay much attention to an international license from AAA or the like. Also, it is advisable to keep your passport with you while driving outside of the city. These requirements may seem like technicalities but they should be considered seriously. Unfortunately, one sad fact about Brazil (and Rio state especially) is the corruption element in the police forces. At times police have road blocks out where they stop cars to check their documents are all in order. If you don't speak Portuguese, this may make things more difficult and frustrating. Not having a translation (and for any other road violation for that matter) they are allowed to confiscate your vehicle by law. The part about taking your vehicle is in the code primarily for them to pressure you to give them money. In more remote locations, some police are even more agressive about trying to pressure you for anything they think will get them money. You may be in the right, but the policeman with the full size automatic weapon telling you he will confiscate your car in the middle of nowhere can be very convincing.
Due to a number of reasons, it is highly recommended that tourists not drive in Rio or Brazil. Hotels and tour companies can set up transportation to places outside of the city and the higher costs of renting a car here make hired transport attractive as well. In addition, the city can be difficult to get around in for someone that does not know it. Signage is reasonable in zona sul but elsewhere is difficult even with a detailed map.