Filed under “Travel”

August 31, 2017

The Mystery of Why Uber Gave Me 77 Free Rides (or, How I Accidentally Gamed The System)

For about two and a half years, Uber kept sending me free ride credits. I just went through my receipts and counted 77 free rides in total, averaging one every couple weeks. Then they suddenly stopped. All that time, I never knew why I was getting them — why look a gift horse in the mouth? — but once they stopped I put on my detective hat and did a little digging. I’m pretty sure I’ve solved the mystery. Follow my story and see if you can figure it out.

When I joined Uber in 2011 I was given the opportunity to create any referral code I wanted as long as it started with the word “uber” (I think they still let you do that, actually) so I just added my initials to it and made the code UBERDF figuring that would be easy for me to remember. I might have given it out to a couple people, but then pretty much forgot about it.

Then in late 2013, the trickle of free rides started. I’d get an email saying I earned $10, $15, or $20 in credit because someone took their first ride using my referral code. At first I assumed someone I gave my code to in 2011 finally used it. Then when more free rides came in, I wondered if perhaps my code was on some list of Uber referral codes that may have been circulating. I didn’t really think more about it. I just accumulated my free rides in my account, ready to use when I needed them. It was great. Sometimes I even forced myself to use them instead of the subway, since they would eventually expire otherwise.

I casually looked into whether this was happening to anyone else. The closest thing I found was an article about a guy who placed online ads for Uber using his own referral code and got hundreds of free rides that way. Uber found out about his scheme and took them away. So I was glad that my trickle of free rides was a slow drip that was unlikely to get their attention.

Then, around January of 2016, they stopped. At their peak I was getting 2-3 free rides a week. And then nothing. I couldn’t be too upset that I had to start paying for something everyone else paid for, but I was curious what happened. And since I wasn’t getting any more free rides anyway, I was no longer afraid to look into it.

I started at the source. Each email about a free ride just told me that my “friend” rode with Uber so I was getting a free ride. It didn’t say who the “friend” was. But I discovered that if I logged into Uber’s website, I could see the first name of the person that took the ride that earned me each credit. They had names like Miguel, Juan, Antonio, Garbriela, Alejandro, Rosa Maria, etc. They were all Spanish names. That was a big clue. But what did it tell me?

Maybe whatever list my code was on circulated mainly on Spanish websites? That seemed unlikely. So I did what I probably should have done to begin with: I Googled “uberdf”. And that’s when I discovered that Uber in Mexico City is sometimes referred to as “Uber DF”.

It turns out that Mexico City isn’t called Mexico City in Mexico. They call it the Federal District, or in Spanish, the Distrito Federal. Uber in Mexico City launched in late 2013, around the time my free rides started. I assume that a lot of people simply tried the code UBERDF to see if it worked and lo and behold it did! In fact, when Uber launched in Mexico City their actual promo code was DFLAUNCH, so UBERDF was not that wild a guess. My conclusion is that, given the large number of people in Mexico City, enough people guessed that UBERDF might be valid, and I accidentally reaped the benefit.

So what happened in January 2016 that caused the well to dry up? Something happened that month that convinced me my theory is correct because the timing is just too coincidental. Mexico City officially changed its name from Distrito Federal to Mexico City (or in Spanish, Ciudad de Mexico — or CDMX for short). People stopped trying the code “UBERDF” and that was the end of my free ride. And perhaps it was the beginning of a similar mystery for whoever has the referral code UBERCDMX.

Afterthought: I should have made my referral code UBERNYC, and then maybe I’d still be getting free rides.

February 18, 2014

Idea: A sign at the top of Mt. Everest

[This post is part of an idea dump.]

Is anyone heading up Mt. Everest soon? I have an idea. Put a sign at the top for future travelers that says “Thank you Mario! But our princess is on another mountain!”

June 18, 2013

Julie Brown and Charlie Brown

Julie Brown (no, not that one or that one) is the latest inventor in my PBS Inventors series. But don’t watch this one for the invention, which is a simple little thing. Watch it for the inventor. She’s a former Navy electronics technician who later started a construction company where she worked until retirement; now she spends her golden years traveling in a motor home with her dog Charlie Brown (no, not that one). Take a look:

February 7, 2013

Idea: Purposely Mislabeled Bottles for Air Travel

[This post is part of an idea dump.]

In the years since the TSA started imposing liquid restrictions, I’ve gotten pretty good about making sure I don’t run afoul of the rules. But I sometimes hear other people complain that TSA officers are still not empowered to use their judgment and let you bring an obviously small amount of liquid in a bottle past security if the bottle’s label says it once held more than 3.4 ounces.

For example, if a 12 ounce bottle of water is clearly 75% empty, it doesn’t matter that there’s probably about 3 ounces left. The label trumps all.

So then I got thinking: someone should sell bottles that hold more than 3.4 ounces of liquid but are labeled as 3.4 ounce bottles. Then when you really need to bring 5 ounces of some liquid on board, you can probably get away with it. I mean, the bottle says 3.4 ounces, so that must be all it holds, right? I wonder how big a bottle could be before it got ridiculously obvious that it contains more than 3.4 ounces.

Note: These bottle would, of course, only be sold for novelty purposes, like those fisherman’s rulers. I wouldn’t seriously suggest that anyone try to sneak any extra liquid onto an airplane.

October 21, 2010

This Hotel Has A Lot Of Rooms

Must be a really long hallway.

July 28, 2010

Stop Moose and Squirrel

Moose and Squirrel

I really hoped there would be some sort of statue or monument when I got there. But no.

November 11, 2008

At 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

As George Bush prepares to move out of the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, and Barack Obama prepares to move in, I thought I’d take a virtual trip around the country and see what’s going on at other locations with the same address.

The following photos come via Google Street View:

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Baltimore, MD

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Glendora, CA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Wilmington, DE

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Bremerton, WA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Savannah, GA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Terre Haute, IN

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in West Mifflin, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Los Angeles, CA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Croydon, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Brooklyn, NY

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Des Moines, IA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Oreland, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Prospect Park, PA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Colton, CA

1600 Pennsylvania Ave in Dallas, TX

Note: For my British readers, here’s where else you can find Number 10 Downing Street

July 30, 2008

Canada’s 1,968 foot wide movie

Forget IMAX with its puny 857 inch wide screen. I saw a move this weekend on a 23,622 inch screen. That’s 600 meters wide. More than a third of a mile. That’s also about how far back I stood to watch it.

Above is a photo of the Bunge Grain complex in Quebec City. The complex is made up of 81 individual silos 30 meters tall. In celebration of Quebec’s 400th Anniversary, artist Robert Lepage used the complex as a screen for an incredible site-specific motion picture called The Image Mill. The film tells the story of Quebec’s 400 years through video, pictures, and sound. I expected a cheesy patriotic movie. But what I saw was subtle and elegant.

The below video, which shows 10 minutes of the 40 minute film, gives a good idea of what the movie was like. It shows how Lepage made innovative use of the contours of the silos, turning them into bullets, candles, a printing press, cigarettes, etc, and how he turned the entire complex into other kinds of buildings completely, such as a factory and an airport.

You can also watch a behind-the-scenes video at Lepage’s website where he explains some of the technical issues that went into making the movie.

I would recommend that you fly to Quebec to see it, but unfortunately the movie’s 66-night run has just ended.

According to Lepage’s website, the movie is playing every night until August 24.

July 15, 2008

Idea: Palindrome road trip

It’s not unheard of for small American towns to change their name in order to get publicity. So here’s an idea for a large scale coordinated multi-state name changing scheme that’s sure to draw tourists: In every state where it’s phonetically possible, there should be a town that creates a palindrome when combined with the state name. Then the ultimate road trip would be to drive from Aksala, Alaska to Adirolf, Florida visiting every palindromic town in between… and then driving back in reverse.* So far, it looks like Saxet, Texas and Adaven, Nevada are the only ones that already exist (sorry, Zion, Illinois — close but no cigar). Visiting Apollo, PA gets you bonus points.

*I mean visiting every city in reverse order, not driving with the car in reverse.

October 4, 2007

Advertising on the overhead bin now a reality

Back in March 2006 I wrote a post suggesting that airlines could use the blank panels on the overhead bins as advertising space. I made a mock-up of what this ugliness might look like:

An alert leader pointed me to news that came out this summer: Ryanair — Europe’s largest low fare airline — has just put this into practice. Here’s a quote from their press release:

We are delighted to be the first Brand to market with this new advertising medium… The Aeropanel® offers a unique and exciting advertising format in an uncluttered, relaxed and comfortable environment

It was bound to happen.

August 1, 2007

Photos from the Galapagos Islands

By now you may have seen my 60 Second Videos from the Galapagos Islands. As promised, here is a sample of photos from the trip. The rectangular photos were shot by me, and the beautiful ethereal square photos were shot by Ellen. I think several of her photos, which she shot with a $23 Holga camera, are far more beautiful than mine, which I shot with equipment that cost a hell of a lot more. You can see more of both our photos in slide-show form here.

Marine Iguana
Marine Iguana

Trees on North Seymour Island

Sea Lions
Sea Lions

Flightless Cormorant
Flightless Cormorant

Isabela Island
A Darwin Bush grows through the lava on Isabela Island

Marine Iguanas
More Marine Iguanas. I love these guys.

Santa Cruz Island
Scalesia trees on Santa Cruz Island

Soccer Break
The crew from our boat plays soccer on Floreana Island

Blue Footed Boobies
Blue Footed Boobies

Bartolome Island
Bartolome Island

Nazca Booby
Nazca Booby

Waved Albatrosses
Waved Albatrosses

Tuff Cone
A tuff cone lava formation

Giant Tortoise
Giant Tortoise

Back to the Beluga
Back to our boat, the Beluga

You can see more of both our photos in slide-show form here.

July 24, 2007

60 Seconds in the Life of the Galapagos Islands

Parts 22-28 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

I just got back from the Galapagos Islands. It was amazing. We went snorkeling with sea lions and sea turtles, saw all sorts of animals that don’t exist anywhere else, and learned a lot while we were doing it. But instead of going on and on about how great it was, I’m going to condense the experience into two simple posts. This one has videos, and this post has photos. None of them do the experience justice.

60 Seconds in the Life of the Waved Albatross

The Waved Albatross breeds only on Espanola Island. They mate for life, so when they first hook up they go through an elaborate dance to get to know each other, so they will recognize each other when they return to the Island to mate again after they go foraging off the coast of Peru. This is what their courtship dance looks like:

60 Seconds in the Life of Sally Lightfoot Crabs

These aren’t endemic to the Galapagos, but they’re fairly abundant. It wasn’t unusual to see several dozen at a time along the rocky shores. I’ve always thought crabs looked pretty cool, like little alien robots. But I had no idea crabs could jump. Watch the background and you’ll see.

60 Seconds in the Life of Blue Footed Boobies

They have a silly name, and they look kind of silly on land. But in flight and on the hunt, Blue Footed Boobies look like another creature altogether — bomber planes. They fly around looking for schools of fish, and then dive straight into the water to grab what they can, as seen in this video. It was shot from a dinghy in choppy water, so I apologize for the shakiness:

60 Seconds in the Life of Marine Iguanas

The Galapagos Islands have the only iguanas in the world that forage in the sea. They hold their breath and dive down to eat algae for minutes at a time, and then hang out en masse on shore when they’re done. I think they were my favorite animals on the whole trip. Charles Darwin wrote about them, “The black Lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large (2-3 ft) most disgusting clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl & seek their prey from the Sea. I call them ‘imps of darkness’.”

60 Seconds in the Life of Frigatebirds

Frigatebirds are the ones you may have seen photos of with the big red inflated pouches that look like balloons. They fly over water, but they never land on water. Instead, they steal from other birds like pirates in mid-air. In flight, they have incredible silhouettes, with their forked tails and pointed, angled wings. These birds were filmed flying over our boat, arriving as soon as they smelled food, presumably hoping for our scraps.

60 Seconds in the Life of Flightless Cormorants

The flightless cormorant is endemic to Galapagos, and it’s the only variety of cormorant that can’t fly. In cormorant families, both parents care for the child in the nest, but at some point the mother abandons the family to go mate with someone else. In this clip, a father cormorant watches over the baby cormorant while the mother is out getting food. Either that, or she’s out “getting food” nudge nudge wink wink.

60 Seconds in the Life of Giant Tortoises

Galapagos means “saddleback” and the islands were named for the giant tortoises that live there, some of which have shells that resemble saddles. When competing for territory, Giant Tortoises extend their necks upward, and whoever’s neck extends furthest wins. The following clip is cut short because my neck apparently doesn’t extend far enough.

Unfortunately, all this video is low-res and only goes so far in doing the islands justice. Check out the photos for more.

May 29, 2007

New Delta ad campaign an in-joke for nerds?

Delta Delta Delta
Changes in Delta*
Earlier this month, Delta launched a new ad campaign called “Change,” along with a new logo. Even before the launch, I’d found myself recently appreciating the logo for features I’d never noticed before. Somehow it had never dawned on me that, in addition to being an abstraction of an airplane’s wings, the actual shape of the logo is a triangle — the Greek letter Delta. Maybe it’s not as brilliant as the FedEx arrow but I like it.

The new red version of the logo has been promoted with a new ad campaign by SS & K. The campaign highlights all the changes recently made at Delta. The ads say things like “CHANGE IS: TXTING U UR FLT STATUS” or “CHANGE IS: NEVER BEING BORED ON BOARD.” I saw one ad that summed up the campaign’s theme as simply “CHANGE IS: DELTA.”

And that’s when I realized: Delta really is change. In physics, the Greek letter Delta is used to indicate change. For example, a simple formula for calculating a change in velocity might look like this (taken from this article about deltas in physics):


This would be read as, “The change in velocity is equal to the second velocity measurement minus the first velocity measurement.”

So is this an intentional double entendre meant to be appreciated by science and math nerds only? Or is it just serendipitous that Delta really does mean change, and that happens to be the word they based their campaign around? I’m not sure. But I appreciate it either way.

* I almost captioned this image “Can I help ya help ya help ya?” but thought it might be too obscure.

November 30, 2006

Those wacky Canadians

avenuerd.jpgI’m in Toronto today, and I’m staying at a hotel near a street called Avenue Road. But the zaniness doesn’t stop there. According to local legend (and by that I mean Wikipedia’s entry on the subject), the road got its name when the Lieutenant Governor was surveying the town, and he came to a point where he stopped, pointed north, and said in his English accent, “Let’s ‘av a new road.” Oh, Canada.

October 10, 2006


The art in this airport food court reminded me of Super Mario Brothers:

Mario Cafeteria Mario Cafeteria

October 7, 2006

But they already have their own chairs

Seen yesterday at Dallas Fort Worth airport:


Yes, I know, it’s the universal sign for all sorts of various handicaps, but I still got a chuckle out of the notion that these chairs are reserved for people who pretty much bring their own chair with them wherever they go anyway. Perhaps there should be a different “handicapped” indication for those who aren’t wheelchair-bound. Maybe the same abstracted figure with a cane?

July 31, 2006

60 Seconds in the Life of Clouds

Part 15 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

July 6, 2006

Terrorism makes this ad special

IBM WTC adAm I the only person who looks at this IBM ad and sees a depiction of the World Trade Center after the first tower was hit on the morning of September 11, 2001? This explosive image that I guess is supposed to express creativity or something looks to me more like smoke and flames rising from the tower, just moments before the second tower was struck.

Is it as blatantly obvious as I think it is? Or is it just that I made the association because I saw this ad displayed poster-size and back-lit at my departing gate at the airport?

Update: Wow. Judging by the almost 50 comments so far today, I guess this isn’t going to go down in history as my most successful post ever. sent lots of people my way, and some Farkers can sure be vicious in the comments (welcome to my site, Fark readers — I hope you explore the rest of it while you’re here). Just to be clear, I’m not someone who sees 9/11 imagery everywhere I look (or faces on Mars, etc). And I certainly wasn’t offended by the ad. I too am bothered by people who confuse simply being reminded of a tragedy with actually being offended by whatever triggered that memory. I just thought this particular ad looked so obviously like the twin towers to me that its placement at the airport of all places could have been thought out a bit better. But people see all sorts of things in different ways, and I guess I’m not in the majority with this one. At any rate, you can read on in the comments to see lots and lots of people who disagree with me, and a few who agree. But be warned: Some of the less mature Farkers’ responses may not be suitable for (but perhaps were written by) young children.

June 14, 2006

Idea: Under-the-seat carry-on boarding first

A recent entry at the website 43 Folders highlights some tips on packing light when you travel, suggesting among other things that you pack only one carry-on item when you fly. It reminds me of an idea I had after reading a recent article in Wired about how airlines use computer models to figure out the fastest way to get people on airplanes. From the Wired article:

[Scientists] looked at interference resulting from passengers obstructing the aisle, as well as that caused by seated passengers blocking a window or middle seat. They applied the equation to eight different boarding scenarios, looking at both front-to-back and outside-in systems. “Ultimately, the issue America West needed to address was time… We figured a system that reduced interference between passengers would also cut boarding time.”

So I’ve been thinking. It seems to me that a lot of passenger interference is caused by people blocking aisles to put things in the overhead bins. So why didn’t they run computer models which factored in boarding people by whether or not they have anything for the overhead bin?

What if the check-in kiosk, which already asks you how many bags you have to check, also asks, “Do you have anything to go in the overhead bin, such as a bag or jacket?” and considers your answer when assigning you a boarding group?

I don’t know where in the order these people should go for fastest boarding (first? last? interspersed?) but the computer can figure that out. I expect that people with nothing for the overhead bin will get in their seats faster than people with large carry-ons, and the plane can get off the ground much sooner.

Related: Idea: Advertisements on the Overhead Bins

May 9, 2006

60 Seconds in the Life of Luggage

Part 11 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

April 27, 2006

Freaks stay at Marriott?


Am I the only person who can’t look at this Marriott advertisement without thinking of Johnny Eck?

Johnny EckJohnny Eck, of course, was the talented performer billed in circus sideshows as “The Only Living Half Boy.” An actor, magician, painter, and photographer, Eck is famously featured in the Tod Browning movie Freaks.

More information about Johnny Eck can be found at the excellent Johnny Eck Museum, an on-line tribute complete with biography, photos, answers to the usual questions, and more.

April 4, 2006

60 Seconds in the Life of Landing Gear

Part 7 in an ongoing series of (approximately) 60 second films.

If you only see one 60-second movie this year, see this one. Seriously. I think it’s my favorite. It actually gets my heart racing every time I watch it.

March 23, 2006

Idea: Advertisements on the overhead bins

The overhead bins

Look, I didn’t say it’s a good idea. I admit that it’s ugly as sin. Every bit of empty space in our lives is slowly being taken over by ads, so why would I want even more? Well, have you noticed how expensive your airplane tickets are getting? Airlines are filing for bankruptcy protection, seats are getting less comfortable, and you’re asked to pay $6 for a box of stale crackers on a flight.

I was on a plane yesterday, and I noticed that with all the ads they were showing us on the overhead TVs, and all the ads crammed into the in-flight magazine, there was all this prime advertising real estate overhead that wasn’t being used. You already see overhead ads on the subways, on buses, in taxis, and on trains. Sometimes you’re even glad it’s there so you have something to look at to avoid eye contact with the person sitting across from you. So what’s a little more advertising on another mode of transportation?

I’m not even sure I should file this under “Ideas.” Maybe I need a category called “Predictions.” This seems sort of inevitable to me.

March 21, 2006

Idea: A website for reviewing restaurants in airports

I do a fair amount of travelling, and I don’t always have time to eat before I leave for the airport. Sometimes I get stuck in terminals for hours due to layovers or delays. And one thing I’ve learned is that there is an enormous inconsistency in food quality at airport restaurants.

airport cafe
Photo: tspauld / flickr
Most of them are just awful. Everything’s greasy, undercooked, overcooked, or just plain tastes bad. There’s butter slathered on everything. But every now and then I eat at an airport restaurant that’s delicious. I might as well be eating at my favorite restaurant, that’s how delicious it is. I’ve been to airport restaurants that served as test kitchens for famous restaurants. And I never would have known about them if I hadn’t stumbled upon them.

So why doesn’t someone build a website that reviews restaurants in airports? That way when I’m taking advantage of the terminal’s wi-fi connection and I realize I’m getting hungry, I can hop on-line at and see what the best restaurant in my terminal is. Or if I know I’ll have a big layover in Chicago, I can look up the restaurants before I go and see what gets the best reviews?

Unfortunately, I really do have air travel to do this week, and I can predict I’ll be in a rush getting to the airport and won’t have time to eat first. Can anybody recommend a good restaurant at Miami International?