grab app review: how to use grab, the uber of South East Asia

Grab is the uber of South East Asia, offering ride hail services, food delivery and courier services in a growing number of cities across Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and other countries in the region. And while it was certainly inspired by uber, it has made adjustments to the local needs and using the service is a little different. Read the review of the grab ride hailing app to make sure you get the most out of grab in South East Asia.

Ever since grab acquired uber in South East Asia, it has become the dominant and sometimes only ride hailing service in the region. There are a number of slight differences, so check out my review and tips below, before you start your trip to South East Asia!

Download & Sign-up: The grab app can be slightly different in each country, so I’d recommend to download it in an English language country (like Singapore or the Philippines) unless you speak the local language! Signing up can be a bit of a hassle with a foreign phone number. While I never had any issues with local phone numbers, it took a number of tries to do so with a US number. If you are planning to get a local SIM card for your phone, I’d suggest to sign up once you have a local number. If you are sticking with your US or EU SIM, try signing up with an email address rather than the phone number, as delivering the needed validation code to foreign numbers seems to be problematic!

Payment: The default payment in grab is cash. While that’s necessary in the very much cash oriented societies of SE Asia, it’s less convenient. You can add a credit or debit card to make payments as well. This was no issue in Singapore or the Philippines, but in Indonesia grab would not allow me to store a credit card, instead forcing me to use their wallet service OVO – which you can load with a credit/debit card, but as a visitor you might end up loosing money that’s left over at the end of your trip. It’s best to download the app and entering a credit card before arriving in Indonesia to avoid that!
Grab will charge a small amount for each credit card you store, so you might want to only store 1 card for a short visit. You can identify a card as “primary” or default payment, but the app is very unreliable: It frequently will revert back to cash as payment option, leaving you in the awkward situation of having to pay in cash when you were not planning on it! Make sure to check before booking each ride!

Ride Booking: Booking a ride is similar to uber, your departure point will default based on your GPS location, but you need to verify the correct pick up spot. Grab utilizes multiple points for large buildings, so you want to make sure you have the right exit to avoid problems.
You can select your destination by typing or on a map, with some frequently used destinations showing up prior to typing in.
The next step is to select your car. grab offers regular GrabCar, which are supposed to fit 4 people, but can be tiny subcompacts with little trunk space. If you are a larger group or have multiple pieces of luggage, you can upgrade to a larger vehicle (usually a mini-van or SUV) or a GrabCar+.
Usually a little cheaper are GrabTaxi, which will result in a regular taxi arriving, or depending on the city, a regular GrabCar, or you can select GrabShare, for a shared ride with other riders.

Now, you should verify your payment choice (credit or cash?), enter any promotion code you might have or enter a note to the driver, for example “I’m waiting in hotel lobby”.
Similar to uber, grab will indicate higher fares due to high demand. Since the uber acquisition, that has become the norm: Every ride I’ve had in Manila since uber was eliminated has been surge pricing, with fares between 50-100% more expensive than before.
If you have an important ride coming up, you can schedule a booking for the needed time to ensure you have a ride and don’t have a long wait. My experience with this feature is mixed and I didn’t feel it was a “guaranteed” booking, so I stopped using it.

The Ride: grab will assign a driver and inform you of the driver name, car, license plate and driver rating. I recommend to take a screen shot of the assignment, so you have all that information. The grab app is very unreliable and will sometimes “loose” your assignment. While the driver is still on the way, the app will look like you haven’t made a booking yet. When that happens, check in the side panel under “History” and it will tell you whether the ride is still in progress or has been cancelled.

Also different from uber, grab drivers can cancel a certain number of rides each day without penalty, making it a much more common experience than in the US or Europe. Especially in Singapore, you can have multiple drivers accept the ride, just to cancel it a few minutes later, resulting in very long wait times for rides. In some countries, like Indonesia, your ride can fortunately only be cancelled once, something that should be implemented everywhere!

Once you arrive at your destination, the driver should end the ride and you’ll receive a receipt for the fare as well as a chance to rate the driver. If there was a problem with the ride, you can report it through the app. When I downloaded the app in Indonesia, all the text was in Bahasa Indonesia, making it difficult to report problems, hence my recommendation to download the app in an English speaking country!

Other Features: One feature grab offers that you won’t find on uber is Grab Rewards. For each ride you earn points that, similar to an airline or hotel loyalty program, will help you earn elite status with grab and points to redeem for rewards.
While Silver and Gold don’t make much of a difference, Platinum status will enable prioritized bookings! The status levels are depending on your spend, different by country.

You can redeem the rewards points for a growing number of rewards, from vouchers for grab rides to food or massage discounts. You can now even transfer your grab rewards points to Cebu Pacific’s GetGo rewards program and to Singapore Airlines’ KrisFlyer program. The value proposition isn’t great, but it’s better than nothing and can help to extend your miles on GetGo before they expire.

Bottomline: If you are familiar with uber ride hailing, grab will be easy to use as well. Look out for some of the local challenges, like default to cash payment or “disappearing” bookings and allow for extra time due to drivers cancelling rides they don’t like.
I will provide tips for using grab that are specific to each country, as both the grab app as well as the experience are different due to the local culture and customs.

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