Category Archives: Car rental

Iceland Road Trip Basics

Island nation’s narrow but well-marked and well-signed routes.

IcelandHighway-mapYou might think that national highway #1 in a technically sophisticated nation is a wide divided roadway, but in Iceland, that’s not necessarily the case. Highway 1 is generally a two-lane road with one-lane bridges, minimalist shoulders and efficient highly visible markers that take long dark, damp winters into consideration.

The highway is lined on both sides with yellow reflective stakes every 50 or so meters apart. Bridge approaches are also well signed and have vehicle pull-outs on both ends to provide passing areas. Visitors who rent cars soon become accustomed to these markers, and locals know to depend on them in low visibility. Unless posted otherwise, the speed limit on the open road is 90 kilometers per hour.

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Highway signs alerting drivers to temperature, windspeed and avalanche conditions are updated in real time.
Highway signs alerting drivers to temperature, windspeed and avalanche conditions are updated in real time.
And at each periodic exit is a map diagramming the small roads and sites available. This one, from Flickr, shows a busy exit. Some exits access just one or two really little country roads and perhaps a guesthouse or farm that accommodates guests.
And at each periodic exit is a map diagramming the small roads and sites available. This one, from Flickr, shows a busy exit. Some exits access just one or two really little country roads and perhaps a guesthouse or farm that accommodates guests.

We just traveled from Reykjavik on the southwest coast to Hafn on the southeast and back — unable to fly  because the small commuter planes were grounded due to dense fog, intermittent rain and wind gusts. The landscape is a succession of grazing land (cattle and sheep), grassy meadows, occasional wetlands, rivers and views north toward mountains and south toward the sea.

Both sides present a captivating landscape, but the driver really needs to pay attention because Highway 1 is narrow and is used by every kind of wheeled conveyance including bicycles, motorcycles, passenger cars, buses and fast-moving trucks.

Car Rental Companies: Really Highway Robbers

Airlines aren’t alone in digging deep into customers’ wallets

Airlines have been getting a lot of static for unbundled air fares that make a bargain ticket no bargain at all when all the add-ons are, well, added on. This is especially irritating because many of them used to be included. But the arlines are pikers compared with car-rental companies, and it appears that locations at some airports are worse than others. My friend and fellow travel writer and blogger Hilary Nangle, with New England frugality running through her veins, got quite a travel shock when she rented a car in the Phoenix. She wrote on her Facebook page:

“Welcome to Phoenix: one-week car rental, $179 for a Toyota Camry PLUS taxes and fees, $195 (concession fee recovery 11.10%; county surcharge, $17.44; Customer facility charge, $42; Op/Maint/Bus/Recv and energ Srchg: $8.02; Tax-15.30, $82.10). By the time I added insurance, my $179 rental was $636.10.”

Nangle is not an inexperienced traveler, but car rental companies are cagy unbundlers and have been for quite some time.SmarterTravel.com warned of hidden fees back in 2004, well before airlines were affilicted with raging unbundling fever. And last year Chris Elliott, travel consumer advocate, wrote “Broadsided: 5 New Car Rental Fees to Avoid”  on his award-winning site.

The truth is that travelers are often in a rush, especially at airport locations, and don’t have time to read contracts or bills carefully — or are a bit embarrassed to do so. Additionally, since many car renters are business travelers who expense their vehicles, companies can institute policies that are not generally questioned by those who don’t pay the bill. But more and more, it pays to slow down, taking time to read and question suspicious add-ons to those lengthy contracts when picking up a car invoices when returning it.

Avis Uses Bait, Switch and Upsell Tactics

Car rental firms jack up rates when using AmEx points

I use frequent flyer miles for flights whenever possible, expedient and/or wise, but I’ve been hoarding American Express points for car rentals for a long time. We are soon going to Hawaii — first to Maui for a wedding and then to the Big Island for a vacation. Two rental car opportunities seemed like a good use of points. I started with the Big Island, because that will be the longer stay.

I spent a ridiculous amount of time on the Avis website trying to figure out what promotion/coupon codes I could use for Avis, so I finally phoned. The AmEx system is that I could redeem points for several coupons to be used toward (but not in full payment for) the rental, which for one week with Avis was going to be more than $450. I was too shocked to write down the exact quote, but it was high. The reservation agent told me that I would be better off not using the coupon at all. He quoted an economy car rate of $242 for seven days, with unlimited mileage and no extra charge for the second driver. Sold.

Then he told me about a service that Avis offers which would net me a $20 gas coupon and 5 percent cash back on the rental. I asked whether this happens automatically when renting, and instead of answering, he switched me to a fast-talking sales type who “upgraded” the service which I could try for a month for “only one dollar” and “cancel any time.” The carrot he dangled over the telephone was a $20 gas coupon plus that 5 percent rebate, but first, he said, I had to sign up. When I balked, he told me that he “has been authorized” to raise the gas coupon to $40. I told him my name, address, etc., but when he asked for my date of birth, I refused and said I wasn’t interested in providing personal information. He huffed, “I’m not asking for your Social Security number.” I said I didn’t want to provide any more personal information, so he hung up on me.

Avis indeed seems to be trying harder — trying harder to sell a “service” that I didn’t really want (although a $40 gas coupon would be nice). No matter what they tried, they succeeded in annoying me. Because I knew that the AmEx coupons would not make sense for Maui either, I simply made the reservation online and ignored the “offer” for the same service that the phone folks tried to force on me.

UK Car Rental Resource

A car rental comparison site for my next trip to England, Wales or elsewhere in the British Isles.

When I was in England last October, I confess to having done no advance planning for the rental car that I needed. Some travel writerm, huh! I showed up at Gatwick Airport, entered the car-rental building, walked up to the one with no line and asked for the smallest, cheapest car. I wrote posts about frustrating driving for an American without a navigator and my retrospective rembrances. My tales amused Emily Welch of Car Rentals U.K. who sent me the following message and gave me permission to post it here:

Dear Claire,
I have been browsing on your website and took particular interest your blogs about car rental. I was reading your blog about ‘A long day in the UK’ and saw you mentioned car rental and how you had got a good deal with Enterprise. As you said car rental prices can be very high and it can be very difficult to find the cheapest car rental deal amongst the many car rental suppliers. I work for http://www.carrentals.co.uk/ which is an online car hire comparison site, and we compare the prices of over 40 suppliers making it easy to shop around all the leading suppliers such as Hertz, Avis, Sixt and Alamo to find the best deal in over 4,000 locations world wide.

I feel carrentals.co.uk will be beneficial to your site readers, especially your American users looking to book a car in the UK or Europe, as we offer a top quality service which can save your users time and money.

I found your dialogue of the lost traveler very amusing and really enjoyed reading this blog. I live in Wales, which similar to Southeast England, is very beautiful and picturesque. Well worth a visit next time you come to the UK!

I would like to invite you to take a look at our site and see what you think; perhaps you would like one of our experienced travel writers to write you an unbiased review? Feel free to contact me with any questions or suggestions, and thank you for your time.

Emily Welch, http://www.carrentals.co.uk/

I took her up on her offer and played around on the site, which was quite sophisticated. The first questions it asked was where I was from (choices were the UK, the Euro zone, the US, Canada and Australia). Since I clicked on the Stars and Stripes, the rate quotes popped in dollars with pounds as “subtitles.” The site also defaulted to cars with automatic transmissions, I suppose because so many Americans can’t drive a stick shift. When I indicated that I would pick up my car at Heathrow, the main gateway for transatlantic flights, the quotes for different categories came up for EasyCar, HireCars.com, Holiday Autos, Sixt and its own CarRentalsUK.com. Perhaps it was because of the dates I selected, but no Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz or National appeared. Perhaps they do in some locations, but I’m guessing that travelers who favor those firms will probably book directly anyway.

If I can ever afford to travel to the UK in this lifetime (the dollar is at another new low against major currencies again), I’ll do some one-stop shopping on the site and see what I come up with. So thank you, Emily, for introducing yourself and your company.

A Long Post About a Long Day in the UK

UnionJackI haven’t dropped off the face of the Earth, but I’ve been traveling in England and to the Isle of Man. When I’ve had time to post, I haven’t had Internet access — and vice versa. So please bear with me, and don’t take this blog off your ‘favorites’ list.

The English countryside and the English seashore are lovely and make for a wonderful getaway. Flying to the UK – primarily London and Manchester – from numerous North American gateways is straightforward, albeit often delayed. I’ve been here for over a week, first at a convention in Manchester and then to a pre-arranged post-convention trip to the enchanting Isle of Man. Now, I’m planning to see something of southeast England over the next few days. My base of operations is Brantridge Park, a stately home turned into a timeshare complex for which I proudly scored a trade. That was the good news. The bad news is that I spent hours looking for the bloody place, which why I now know what my “next time” trip tactics will be.

General Observations & Next Trip Tactics

If at all feasible, I will take the train, especially if I am traveling alone. First off, I really like public transportation. British trains and buses go virtually everywhere. A BritRail card is convenient and not excessively priced for a trip that involves many train rides. Otherwise, pay-as-you go works. Furthermore, renting and driving are turn out to be both expensive and frustrating –and I’m not referring to the expected adjustments of driving on “wrong” side of the road and shifting with my left hand.

Car rental rates are very high. I got a “bargain” from Enterprise – £134 for five days. That’s nearly $240. Also, gas (“petrol”) prices at nearly £1 per liter comes awfully close to $6 per gallon. And in many places (such as the Best Western Gatwick Moat House to which I retreated after fruitlessly searching for the place in the country where I actually should have been staying when I arrived), parking is extra. This motor inn at an airport, not a luxury center-city hotel, charges £6 ($12) a day for parking, even for overnight guests. And yes, guests also must pay extra for shuttle service to and from the nearby airport, and for local phone calls, and for Internet access. How do you say “nickel and dime” in a country that does not have nickels or dimes?

Highway Nomenclature

From here on in, I will only rent a car if there are two or more of us. Signage is by and large not terribly enlightening. Once off the limited-access highways (“motorways”), most intersections are roundabouts, driven clockwise and often at fairly high speeds. Advance warning is non-existent. It isn’t until you about to enter a roundabout that you find out how many degrees around it you must travel to the road on which you want to proceed. Sometimes route numbers are also painted on the pavement just before or in a roundabout, but in heavy traffic, that might be too late. Even motorway on- and off-ramps (called “slip roads”) are not marked much better. On this lush island, where everything grows lavishly, trees and bushes obscure many signs.

Traffic in a roundabout, rightly, has the right of way, but merging in can be tricky and merging outward is even worse. Usually four but up to six and even seven roads converge on a single roundabout. Anywhere from one to three lanes of traffic merge in. Drivers usually move into toward the center if they are going 180 or 270 degrees and usually stay on (or move to) the outside when they are exiting. Usually. Signaling a change of lanes seems strictly optional, and most drivers don’t bother. Other drivers roar into each roundabout. These drivers know were they are going, and they seemingly don’t care whether other drivers are similarly enlightened.

The British, usually quite polite in person, are as aggressive as anyone else behind the wheel. Tailgating is a way of driving life. When a stranger slows down a tad to try to get oriented, a sharp blast of a very loud horn is common. I’ve been forced out of the circle and ended up heading who-knows-where, because once out of a roundabout, there are no signs indicating what road you are actually on until you reach the next roundabout. That means once you have committed, by choice or by vehicular coercion, you can’t rectify a mistake quickly, and if the next roundabout is also a complicated one, you are toast. The Brits’ secret to all this is: they know where they are going.

My Automotive Odyssey — or Vehicular Labor of Sisyphus

Being without a navigator, or not being the navigator while my husband or someone else drove, I made some hopeless mistakes. I asked for directions from several very nice people, each of whom sent me a different way in roughly the same area. “How far?” ask I, the befuddled foreigner. “Not too far” or “Just a little way,” is the usual answer. Following written directions is not an assurance of reaching your destination either – or at least, they didn’t help me.

When I was trying to find my lodging in the afternoon, I was told to start on the M23, which becomes the A23. The M23 motorway does spill into the A23, but the A23 also passes near Gatwick Airport, which was the root of my initial problems.

Asking for directions can be less than helpful. At one point, early on, having been derailed into a residential neighborhood and asking where the M23 motorway was, a nice young man, gesturing vaguely, said, “Go left and then go straight over and then go left and there it is.” My efforts to find out whether these opportunities to “go left” were at roundabouts or regular intersections were fruitless. “Just keep going left,” he said in the way of clarification. I went left twice, and never found the hint of a motorway.

Later, when I reached Handcross in the fast-waning light, a T-intersection was described to me as a fork in the road (one direction sign had a couple of villages on it, the other didn’t). The very helpful, very pleasant young man had told me to bear right at the fork, so I turned right at the intersection, which got me very close to my destination.

True Dialogue Lost Foreigner Driving Around the Countryside in the Dark (Me): Which way is to Brantridge Park?
Pleasant Local in a Village Pub (He): Go back the way you came and take your first left and then take your first right and a little way from the end of the road, it’s there. It’s all got signs.
Me: Is that left at a roundabout?
He: It’s your first left.
Me: How far is it?
He: Not far.
Me: Does the road have a name?He: I don’t know, but it’s not far.
Me: Once I get to the road it’s on, how far is it to the end?
He: It’s not far.

But once I reached Handcross and Balcombe, the villages nearest to Brantridge Park, things did not improve. The written directions and reality do not match. According to he RCI resort information sheet and Brantridge Park’s own directions, “…exit at Handcross Turning. Take the B2110 signposted Turners Hill. After a mile bear right just after the Victorian brick water tower, then turn right again into Brantridge Lane signposted Staplefield. After 200 yards, turn left into Brantridge Park entrance.”

In reality, the brick water tower is set back from the road, difficult to see in twilight and impossible to see at night. I was looking for a Brantridge Lane or Brantridge Park sign. What I saw and passed several times was a bright yellow sign on a signpost pointing to Ditton Place. The scarred white wooden signpost barely visible at that intersection is not signed Staplefield at all, but Balcombe and Worth. And, as the lady at reception acknowledged when I finally checked in the next morning, “Our sign is broken. So sorry.”

In daylight, I saw that there is indeed a Brantridge Lane sign, down near the ground and placed at the wrong angle to be visible in the headlights coming from the direction I had, having overshot it because I never saw the water tower. I now know that I did pass it several times. How silly of me not to know that I should have been looking for “Ditton Place” instead of “Brantridge Lane,” and “Balcombe” and/or “Worth” not “Staplefield.” And while Brantridge Park is sort of between Balcombe and Handcross, Brantridge School is in Staplefield.

In any case, I knew when I was defeated. I was becoming increasingly uneasy to be driving at night down unfamiliar narrow, winding lanes lined with tall hedgerows and punctuated with periodic deer crossing warning signs, so I eventually hightailed it back to the airport area, checked into an overpriced Best Western and tried again in daylight.

I finally understand why England hasn’t been invaded since William the Conqueror in 1066.

Car Rental: Beware of Early Returns Fine Print

We are tooling around Kaua’i in an Alamo rental car. I sure hope that we have no unanticipated reason to return it early. In the most recent Tripso travel report, consumer columnist Christopher Elliott shared the plight of a couple who had to return their car three days early due to a death in the family and were charged a whopping $513, which they discovered when receiving their credit card statement. They had booked their car on Alamo’s website, and understandably were shocked at the differential.

“The early-return policy on Alamo’s Web site says something about a fee of $15 per day for early returns, but our weekly rate was raised from $152 to $513. My husband and I were not made aware of the higher charge when we returned the car. We did not authorize it or sign a receipt agreeing to pay that amount. Alamo claims that we broke our contract when we returned the car early, but I feel this is a classic case of bait and switch,” the aggrieved traveler from Michigan wrote to Elliott.

Elliott replied along that vein that I would have if I were an ombudsman, “Raising your weekly rate by $361 because you returned your car three days early makes no sense. If anything, Alamo should be offering you a refund for bringing one of its vehicles back early, thereby allowing the company to rent the car to someone else.”

He investigated and discovered that a couple of years ago, Alamo “made a small but significant change to its return policy.” In addition to the a $15-per-day early-return fee, which most travelers would probably find acceptable, Alamo now recalculates the rental rate and charges the usurious rate that they impose on walk-up customers who rent without prior reservation. “In other words,” Elliott explained to the travelers, “you would owe Alamo the penalty plus the rate difference, which in your case is an extra $361.”

He likened the policy to airlines whose discounted, advance-purchase fares carry a hefty rebooking fee and the likelihood of a substantially higher fare for changed tickets. He noted that, “You could have prevented this excessive surcharge by carefully reading the terms of your rental contract and asking about the early-return fee when you made plans to go home early. If you had asked, you might have been able to explain your situation to a manager, who would almost certainly have adjusted your rate in a more compassionate way.”

When contacted by Elliott, who writes a nationally syndicate columnist and also is the ombudsman for National Geogrphic Traveler magazine, Alamo agreed to honor the original weekly rate and issued a refund. The moral of the story. Yes, read all that 4-point type if you can (but who ever does?). Yes, explain any such unexpected situation to the highest-ranking manager at any airport or car rental location and hope that they will accommodate your needs on the spot. Also, if you have travel insurance, check whether it will cover a situation like this and let the insurance company and the car rental firm duke it out. If all else fails, turn to an influential ombudsman who can cut through the red tape.

The aggrieved and astonished traveler did not indicate where this stealth overcharge took place, but I sure hope it wasn’t on this Hawaiian island, where if anything, Alamo is short of some categories of cars.