Getting around Rio by taxi can be more than a convenience. It's what most travelers need to do if they want to enjoy Rio's nightlife.
Most Rio locals trust taxis from the city's many cooperatives. They’re bright yellow and have the coop's name and phone number stamped on them. I've hailed taxi cabs in Rio, but always with friends, which feels safer and helps me save money because we split the fare.
The safest way to get around Rio by taxi is to obtain a recommendation for a radio taxi company from your hotel and stick with it. You can ask staff at a club to call the company for you.
As you gain confidence, learn some Portuguese and know your bearings, you may find it's OK to hail a passing taxi, especially if you have company. Follow the coop tip.
Watch the Taxi Meter
When you get a taxi in Rio, whether you hail it or call a radio taxi, make sure the meter is zeroed when you get into the car. You should only pay what the meter shows when you get to your destination. But expect to pay more between 9pm and 6am, when the rate is the so-called Bandeira 2, or Flag 2.
There are exceptions to the rule, though. Taxis leaving from the Bus Terminal and the International Airport follow a pre-defined price chart (see below).
English in Rio de Janeiro Taxis
I asked the drivers who took me around at night how they deal with foreigners. None of them could speak English, but they said they're able to recognize the names of most attractions even in heavy foreign accents.
They also said a lot of international travelers in Rio carry pieces of paper with the names of attractions and hotels to show taxi drivers.
Women Travelers and Rio Taxis
During my last visit to Rio de Janeiro, I did something I'd never done before: I took a taxi by myself at 10:30pm. I called a radio taxi from a company recommended by women friends (Rio Master, phone 21-3273-7332) so I could catch the 11:45p bus to São Paulo. The taxi picked me up at my friend's apartment building in less than 10 minutes and I had a safe ride to Rio's Bus Terminal.
I recommend that women traveling solo in Rio - and in all of Brazil, for that matter - choose a radio taxi from a referred company.
Several taxi co-ops serve Tom Jobim International Airport (about 12 miles from downtown Rio). In December 2007, the Rio de Janeiro City Administration changed rules for taxis leaving from Tom Jobim. Now there's a list of neighborhoods that must be displayed near the taxi ticket counters, with a fixed fare.
The idea would be protecting newly arrived travelers from being driven around uselessly by ill-meaning taxi drivers who want to increase the meter count.
Dan Babush, of Rent in Rio, recommends limos for newyly arrived international tourists.
The air-conditioned bus ride (about $4) on Real Auto Ônibus (www.realautoonibus.com.br) is one of the best options for budget travelers arriving at Tom Jobim. There are many lines with the air-conditioned bus in Rio, nicknamed frescão ("big fresh"). Sometimes the air-conditioning is freezing indeed. Have a cardigan or long-sleeved shirt at hand.
Line 2018 which leaves from the airport every 30 minutes, follows the Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon shoreline before going to Barra da Tijuca. It also takes travelers to Rio's Bus Terminal and Santos Dumont Airport.
With the stops, a bus ride takes longer than a taxi ride. But you can't beat frescão prices.
You may have read good reports about some private companies operating airport transfers, such as Rio Airport Transfer (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org - their website was under maintenance at the time of this writing).
Look into prices before you arrive in Rio. The convenience and comfort of a private airport transfer could be something worth your money.