Last month I rented 3 cars in 3 countries on 2 continents. I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to about car rental companies. My top 4 lessons
1. Satnav is satnav is satnav. No matter the location, no matter the language, it’s the same; they’re all mad devices. Turn left now. Do a u-turn. Turn half left. Turn left then stay left then bear left. Attention: time variable traffic ahead (?!?!). At 70mph on a Swiss motorway by the time the sat nav has said “turn left in 200 metres” and then “turn left now”, I was already well past the turn – and I knew that, as I was travelling to Geneva and the motorway led straight to the town centre, I would have no need to come off the motorway and add an hour to my journey (why did I have satnav on? good question, seemed sensible en route out of Lucerne). Why did every satnav try and take me away from the obvious signs saying “airport” and take me a different route – do city planners decide to route you along the least optimum route when sending you home, hoping to catch a few dollars/euros/francs more on the way out? and somehow satnav devices know better? I ended up using maps.
2. You can have any car you want, except the one you want. Not quite Henry Ford, but little seems to have changed since. Whilst companies such as Easy have made a virtue of offering you just one kind of car, the others all aim to offer a wide range. Understanding the myriad categories, vehicle types, features and functions of each is no easy job. They’ll tell you about category A or even B and options all the way to H or J or even K. And once you’ve decided on the car you want, you’ll arrive at the rental station and they’ll spring the old “you qualify for an upgrade and so you can have this other car” gag. When you’ve specifically rented a convertible (because it’s 30C outside), getting an Audi A4 with a hard top is not an upgrade. Whether this means they never had a convertible, sold it to someone else who paid more before you got there, or just don’t quite get customer requirement matching, I don’t know. And I don’t think I’ll ever know – that’s their point.
3. Hide what you can, reveal only when necessary. On top of the “upgrade” gag there seem to be plenty of other adjustments. If you don’t return the tank full, a full tank will cost 300 euros (that’s some premium for the effort of popping to the local garage); if you want another driver, it will cost extra; you can decline various parts of insurance but not all of them, no matter how hard you try; if you drop the car off at a different place from where you picked it up, that costs extra. In Central London, picking up a car in the heart of Victoria, you’re liable to pay the congestion charge, even though there’s no way out of the car rental place without triggering the need to pay it – yet it’s not included (and you risk forgetting to pay it and so being penalised). You only find out all of this stuff as you’re asked for your signature on the rental agreement. Once you’re at the desk, your ability to do competitive analysis is long gone. And the car companies know this. And even when you’ve done everything right, a month later you get your credit card statement and find that there are additional, unexplained charges.
4.Pick your destination based on gas prices if you want cheap. Competition has driven down the cost of renting a car – and here I don’t just mean that there are more and more firms, but that immediate online comparison lets you find the cheapest option for your needs (subject to 3 above). But if you want cheap, worry about the cost of fuel; that was more expensive than the rental. When you fill up a tank and it costs you £100, it’s hard not to do a double take. Perhaps Dubai is the place to go?