I’ve lived in London for more than five years, and getting around is officially becoming exhausting.
Over the past few years I’ve become reliant on Uber for when I’ve been in a rush, carrying a lot of stuff, or just feeling too tired or lazy to get on public transport (which is almost always).
However, ever since Uber lost (and then regained) its licence in London – and drivers started protests demanding better treatment and an upgrade in employment status – the app seems to have turned a bit chaotic. Lately, Uber rides have rarely gone off without a hitch, whether it’s because of a long wait, a badly-planned route, or an unfriendly driver.
What’s more, when the company won its licence back in June, it was only for 15 months with clear conditions – so the future of the app in the capital remains uncertain.
Luxurious Russian chauffeur app Wheely launched in London and Moscow in 2012, but pulled out of the British capital when it failed to compete against then-giant minicab company Addison Lee.
The company relaunched in London last year with “plans to plough hundreds of thousands of pounds into attracting drivers away from Uber”, according to the Financial Times.
When I heard the news, having long wished for an Uber competitor, I decided to give it a go.
Wheely may not replace Uber like-for-like – it’s certainly more expensive than the standard UberX, and has fewer drivers in the capital.
However, after using the service twice – once in September from my flat in southeast London to Gatwick airport, and a second time in December from home to Heathrow – I had a glimpse at how money can buy happiness.
Here’s what riding with Wheely is like:
Wheely was founded by 29-year-old Swiss/Russian entrepreneur Anton Chirkunov in 2012. The premium ride hailing app is now available in London, Moscow, and other major Russian cities – and it plans to launch in Paris this year.
The FT reported last year that since Wheely’s launch, Chirkunov has spent US$13 million on the company, adding that the CEO is trying to raise US$20 million in investment to expand in London and attract drivers away from Uber.
In April, Wheely paid £150,000 (US$193,734) to renew its London licence until 2023, while Uber’s licence renewal in June only guaranteed it 15 months.
Here’s what the booking screen looks like – at the time of writing this, a journey from the Business Insider office to Heathrow would cost a flat rate of £80, and a car would be available within five minutes.
When I checked the same trip on Uber, a car was also just five minutes away, and the trip was estimated to cost £42-£56 for an UberX – or £78-£103 for an Exec “high-end” car, which would probably have been similar to Wheely’s offering.
As of April 2018, Wheely only had 150 drivers in London while Uber had 50,000, according to the FT.
Wheely’s drivers, however, are all professional chauffeurs.
As well as entering the pickup spot and destination, with Wheely you have the option to add comments, and change the passenger who is travelling. You can also choose the time you would like the car to arrive, even booking months in advance, which is what I did for both trips.
As with Uber, you can choose between levels of luxury when it comes to the cars. I opted for Exec, which is a Mercedes-Benz E-class, and comparable to Uber Exec.
There is also the option of the VIP S-class …
… or the V-class if you are travelling with a crowd.
Once you book, you receive an email confirmation as well as a record of your booking in the app. When the day in question arrives, you get a notification when your driver is on the way, and when they’ve arrived. On both trips I took, my driver was really early – but did not expect me to be ready. The company claims they do not get in contact with the customer until 20 minutes after the booking time – a contrast to Uber, which charges you if you take too long getting to the car when it finally arrives.
Here is the car and driver from my second trip. Both times, the chauffeurs were friendly and well-dressed, ready waiting outside the door to say hello, take my suitcases, and open the door to help me in.
The interior of the car – which is always either black or silver and no more than three years old, according to the company – was extremely spacious and luxurious, completely fitted out in black leather.
There was a seat divider in the middle – water bottles included, which is a lovely perk.
It was a little tricky to get a good photo of the interior without freaking the driver out, so here’s an official snap from the company of what another Wheely car might look like with a random man inside it.
When each journey started, the driver checked that the temperature was OK with me and asked whether I preferred radio or silence, and if I wanted music, what channel or type I would like. From then on, the driver was silent throughout the journey.
It’s part of Wheely’s code that drivers should not initiate conversations – or keep personal belongings in the vehicle.
I received a notification at the start of both trips that my account had been pre-authorised for payment – though the final amount wasn’t taken until the end of the journey.
Both journeys were pretty peaceful, and very smooth. There were no driving issues or concerns over directions. For the Heathrow trip, we made record time of an hour, never hitting any traffic.
According to Wheely, all chauffeurs must pass “a rigorous driver accreditation process with tests on London’s geography and venues, and chauffeur etiquette standards”.
It was nice to have time to relax in the airport for once – and easily the least stressful journey I’ve had to get there.
My Gatwick journey cost £75, and the Heathrow trip cost £70 – both pricey, yet cheaper than what an UberExec would have cost. The price was also guaranteed from the moment of booking, since Wheely does not have surge pricing.
While Wheely might not replace your weekly UberX rides to simply get around town, it’s worth the splurge for a longer journey – or if you are travelling with another passenger or two and can split the fare, especially when you consider that the Heathrow Express train costs at least £22 per person one way.
The company claims it is generating US$50 million in annual bookings, and is growing 100 per cent year-on-year since its 2012 launch.
CEO Chirkunov told the FT last year: “It’s not possible to run a service that’s cheap, good, and safe all at the same time. You have to pick two.”
I’m inclined to think he is right – and a luxurious, safe journey is the way to go, if you can afford it.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider.