Why is hiring a car such a painful part of the travel experience?
Hiring a car is, 50% of the time, a must for me when I travel – I would say I hire one 15-20 times a year, at least, and it still remains my least favourite part of a travel experience. Obviously when I go to a city or the Maldives, I do not need a car!
I have tried all brands, I think and while most of the experiences have been uneventful and a car was provided in exchange for the money quoted, there is still a long way to go. Why? The customer service experience can make all the difference.
In my opinion, the whole point of having a large international network is to offer consistency – a brand name comes with a brand promise (this is not rocket science!) and that is obviously reflected on customer expectations.
Price is still key – and I find myself not being loyal to a particular brand, which I actually don’t like. In most areas of my life, I have preferred suppliers of goods and services – be that a drink, shoes, hotels or airlines. But in this industry, because there is so little service differentiation (sadly), I have found prices recently to be all over the place – and pretty much anywhere.
I have a thing for Avis (and I really like its Avis Preferred programme, where if you sign up for free, the car is actually there waiting for you, with the keys in and you are ready to go). This is brilliant (and I am pretty sure Hertz and others offer something similar), but it is only brilliant when it works. In the USA, it is a fact and when you board that dreaded ‘airport to car hire depot shuttle’, they usually say your name and the parking spot and that is it. In Europe, it means you have a different queue when you get to the airport desk – I have never had the keys ready to go and a smile. But I have had some very good experiences – so random and unexpected, I thought I would tweet the company showing my appreciation.
I also have a thing for Sixt – being a more European provider, it has a more limited coverage in terms of locations, but has recently launched in the US, for example. There are always less queues and cars are better. As an example, I hired a BMW X1 in Mallorca last year, and I liked it so much, I bought a similar car this year (and being an Audi girl, it says something). I also almost had tears in my eyes on a recent trip to Miami where I had to queue for 90 minutes (I kid you not) with Alamo to get the car I had pre booked and pre-paid, to see a newly-opened Sixt counter with no queues. It is not exactly what you need/want after a 16-hour journey.
This is the Alamo exchange, which sadly didn’t get us anywhere later on, but it was a timely response and I did appreciate it (start from bottom to the top).
On a recent trip to Italy, we hired a car through Firefly, which is a spin-off from Hertz. I mistakenly went to another company’s counter and asked where Firefly was as there was no signage (in Bordeaux, for example, where I also hired a car with Firefly, there was a separate counter next door to Hertz) and the lady turned to me and said ‘Good luck’. I was sure I misunderstood her and asked her to repeat. And the same words came out: ‘Good luck’. I found that most strange but obviously headed to the Hertz counter where we had 3 people ahead of us, which in a normal scenario would not be a problem. But there was one: it took 45 minutes for our turn. There were 2 people serving and one decided to close down (at this stage there were more people behind us in the queue). Interestingly, there were also 4 people behind the counter doing absolutely nothing. Did they care? Not a tiny bit.
With the help of a seasoned Italian lady car hirer (who was in the queue with us), we realised what happened: they didn’t have any cars. Did they tell us and manage expectations? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. Just make them wait in the queue. What would have cost them? Nothing. We would have understood. Then we had a little surprise, the car was filthy (inside and outside). I actually tweeted Hertz, who responded within 5 minutes, but they simply cut the conversation short. Frustrating? Yes.
On the return, we arrived at 8.01am, but the desks were not open yet, so with the help of another Hertz client who funnily enough had been on the pick-up queue with us, we simply left our cars around the Hertz area (not parked properly as there were no spaces) and headed to a safe box where you leave the keys. The Italian customer asked him why wasn’t the counter open at the set time, and the employee said ‘Please!’. I kid you not. Our car had marks everywhere and it wasn’t checked before or after, so we actually don’t know what we will be charged for the rental and prove that I didn’t add a scratch to the car. Fingers crossed it will be OK.
What irritates you most when you rent a car? Here are some of my pet peeves:
1. Why does it take so long to get the keys?
Whenever I rent a car, I provide the driving licence details, my home address, my telephone number, flight number and whatever else is required – you say it, I will provide. But for some bizarre reason, 90% of time, I have to provide the exact same information at the rental counter. I would love to know why (and a UK address always makes people take longer to type and figure out that the post code has letters. It does and I told you before).
2. Hidden charges
On two recent rentals, on the contract, I spotted a ‘credit card fee’. I wasn’t told about it and thought it was most strange – when have you not paid a car rental without a credit card? Debit cards are usually not accepted because of the excess deposit, so I am not sure what gives here.
The best one? Cleaning Fee. In Bordeaux, France, I saw this sign at the counter and I thought ‘oh, this is starting well’. Cleaning is subjective anywhere in the world and it was one more thing to worry about when we returned the car. For the record, I always have my car very clean and use a rental car like my own. I understand that others may be pigs, but surely this isn’t the most welcoming way to greet a client.
Pre-paid fuel.. this is a relatively new one and oh God, can it get irritating. It always used to be pick-up full, return-full, but you never know now. Obviously reading the rental agreement is absolutely necessary. I have used some websites where I was told before that it could be the case, and that is absolutely fine (as it is my responsibility to read the contract), but was surprised by a recent rental in Cyprus, with Avis (done through British Airways) that I had to pre-pay a tank fuel for 100 Euros. In an island, where I wasn’t going to drive a lot. Apparently it is a policy for Malta and Cyprus. I actually wouldn’t expect this from Avis.
Oh my God, we could stay here for days. What should come with a basic rental?
I run a little experiment on a mainstream car hire company website (you can guess by the colour who it might be), using the UK and the USA website (stating in both we were UK residents – not sure why that makes a difference). I set the dates from 1-7th July at Los Angeles Airport, and requested an SUV, which is the type of car I always rent in the USA (road tripping of course and it has the room I need for my 6 suitcases. No judging, please).
On the UK website, the name is a ‘Station Wagon/Estate’, whereas on the USA website it is named as a ‘Intermediate SUV’ – they both list a Ford Escape as the ‘potential’ model and make. So we are comparing apples with apples. I have also selected the ‘Pay now’ option which is what I would do normally (and do understand why there is a price difference as risk element for the rental company is obviously different).
On the UK rental, it states that the ‘Basic price includes: All Mandatory Charges, Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), Additional Liability Insurance, Tax, Unlimited mileage’
Not sure why the Additional Driver cost is not made public (and why does this still need to happen? Shouldn’t the car be insured? With Avis we usually do not pay as they have a partnership with British Airways and the additional driver is free for all Executive Club members).
On the US version of the website, I have a lot more options insurance-wise. And the price, funnily enough is not the same – it is $15 cheaper for the exact same rental.
It seems that the insurance included on both is similar – the LDW and the ALI. But look at the other options – it is madness!
The best one I was offered at a counter: tyre insurance in case they burst. This has never happened to me all my life and I wouldn’t want that to happen on a nice California drive, no no. $20 a day?
And do you know about the e-tolls thingie? I quickly changed the rental to Miami as I know in Florida you must have it as most tolls are electronic, and both versions of the rental fail to mention anything about the daily $2-3 charge. Why?
Excess charges is always interesting.
The UK version says: ‘Vehicle Damage Cover Excess - USD 0.00 (approx. £0.00). Excl Vat. Vehicle Theft Cover Excess - USD 0.00 (approx. £0.00). Excl Vat. If you wish to reduce the excess you can purchase additional cover when you pickup your car’.
The USA version says: nothing.
I have heard that there are companies in Europe that let you buy a policy that covers all excess on rentals for 12 months and I also understand that US credit cards also offer a lot of car rental related insurance offers – if you could point me in the right direction, please do, as it would be interesting to know more about this.
4. Car types and models
Sometimes I am not sure what car I am getting. Back in the day, there used to be ‘classes’ – and you kind of knew, class A was the cheapest (possibly a car with no air conditioning and where the reverse gear would be an optional extra) and worked your way up. I honestly don’t want a car where I need to move my body to make it go a little bit faster on the motorway. But oh do I get surprised.
Looking at the example I used before, it is quite clear: look at the names, and the options.
In the UK version I have 14 options, whereas in the US version I have 15 options. But the names are so different and confusing – or is it just me?
I am not having a go at a particular company – I actually used the website of the one I use the most. I have tested this on 2 other companies and results are very similar.
It is all over the place and this is why one needs to shop around. Sometimes it takes me a good morning to work around a rental – by comparing prices and obviously what I save sometimes costs me more than half of my professional consultant daily rate. But it adds a lot of frustration to the ‘car rental experience’.
To get things started, I usually go to Expedia, which gives me a good idea of prices. For the same rental as above, it looks something like this.
Interestingly, there are no Avis results on this search – the price on its website is £249 which would be the second cheapest on this particular search – but you can see the differences above, technically for the same thing.
I then go to a website I have been using for years – a good 5-6. Argus Car Hire, which compares all of the providers and 90% of the time, it gets me savings of 40-50%. I only have an issue with it: I do not know who the provider is until I complete the booking (hence the Dollar, Alamo, Firefly and other experiences that I had, which weren’t necessarily bad).
Argus has real people behind and outstanding customer service and I cannot recommend it enough. An important thing to keep an eye on: location (on or off airport as it also brings some not so mainstream providers. I had a huge problem in Gibraltar/Spanish border as it wasn’t clear).
On this LA search, there are some interesting results, for the exact same car:
The rental in this case is actually cheaper (20%) and if you look at the rental conditions, you get more insurance ‘stuff’, and breakdown assistance.
Argus is a good option in this case, but you still need to shop around. I probably book 50% of my rentals with them, and the other 50% direct with car hire companies as it *always* depends.
With this, I have lost possibly 2 hours for a car rental, but I still have another website to show you, which I recently found, when search results for Lisbon airport, in Portugal (in July, when I am going) looked like this:
I was a little bit worried about this rental – and we need a proper car as we will be driving south. A ‘mid-size’ would be OK, but we could not have an ‘economy’ one as we are going to Alentejo and roads can be interesting. So I found this company (who had been following me on twitter, but never tried to sell me anything, to be fair): Vipcars.com. Argus Car Hire results were very similar to the Expedia ones (I do understand that there is a clear supply/demand issue . We rent every year at a cost of £300-400/week, which seems reasonable. £1000, not so much for a ‘compact special’, which you know it will not be a VW Golf as shown on the image).
My actual car is not coming up on search results anymore, and I contacted the company to check if everything would be OK with the local agent. I was told it would be a Meet and Greet service and that they would be available for any support via twitter or email. I have just done 1 rental with VipCars and did not have a problem. Also, with Vipcars, you know who the provider is before booking.
I also don’t understand (and would love if someone from the industry could clarify and enlighten me) – why is a car rental cheaper if provided by a third party where the main company has to pay them a commission?
But the problem is.. I have to do this all over again every time I book a car. It takes hours – and I just wished it was less painful. And then, it is always a roulette when you arrive at the rental counter. Because it is, without a doubt, the worst part of a travel experience and it is such a shame, as it is relatively simple and could be vastly improved if the companies really had a good grasp about their operations around the world. McDonald’s can do it. It isn’t easy, but it is not impossible. The challenges of a global operation indeed.
So my next rental is with Sixt, the one after with VipCars and the following one with Argus. Does this make any sense to you? Or does it not matter?
I would love to hear from you: what have been your best and worst car hire experiences? Do you also feel some frustration in dealing with these companies? Have you used third-party websites to book? Did you have any nasty surprises? Are you loyal to a particular company? And is there a country where an experience was so bad it may put you off for life? Tell all!
Which UK, the consumer-rights group has also launched a car hire campaign, and they have contacted me to join – and oh, yes I have and will. Find out more on their website.