Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Car hire firms - you are the weakest link

Car hire remains the weakest link in the travel chain. Rental companies, it may be argued, have even more ways than airlines to alienate customers.

As we negotiated the tedious process of picking up a car at Thessaloniki aiport, in northern Greece, a French woman, at the desk of another company nearby,was arguing furiously about her booking. Apparently it had been changed - though she had not been notified - from kilometre inclusive to a per kilometre charge.

I say apparently because I had one ear on her conversation and one on the response of the man at Hertz, who was telling me the document I had given him was not a receipt and that they needed evidence I had paid in advance.

The car had been booked in London, on line, and the document was a cut and paste version of the receipt I had been emailed. In any case, I said, the booking would surely be in the system. His colleague found it. The car was due back at 10am, eight days later, she said. But my flight was at 2.35pm and I had booked to return the car at 12.30pm. The would, she said "extend" the return time until noon.

Would I like to pay up front for a full tank of petrol and return the car empty. I accept, though I wonder why rental firms can't simply top up when you take the car back and charge the going price for fuel. "There's always something left in the tank", says a woman tourist behind me. "It's just another way to make a bit more money."

She and her friend are complaining about a threatened charge for "a tiny scratch", even though there significantly greater damage, there when they collected the vehicle, which the company had not bothered to fix.

You might argue that this is the result of competition, the equivalent of airlines charging for checked bags, pre assigned seats etc. In my view, even if optional additional insurance is offered, rental companies should absorb the cost of very minor damage. Their current approach leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

I would not be writing this if my Thessaloniki expereince was isolated. Over many years of renting I have built up a dismal catalogue of such gripes.

Arriving in Calgary to collect a 4x4 I was told I had been assigned a much cheaper front wheel drive saloon. You will get me a 4X4, I retorted to my wife's embarassment, if you have to go out and steal one. They quickly discovered they had one after all, but it had not been washed. Fine, we were anxious to get away.

When we returned it we were told we might be charged for some tiny starburst marks, invisible to the naked eye, on the windscreen. We resisted, noting that the vehicle was so filthy when we drove off that we could not have known they were there even if we could have seen them. No charge was imposed.

In Namibia we suffered a spectacular blow out near the grteat dunes of Sossusvlei. The nearest garage did not have tyres suitable for our rented VW Polo. We could have hired an extra spare when we picked up the car, but the garage which supplied them was closed by the time our flight arrived. So we had no option but to drive some 80 miles to one which did. We later discovered that. although the Polo was a widely used hire car in Namibia, few garages stocked the relevent spare tyres.

When we returned to Windhoek an Avis inspector told us that the new tyre we had bought (at a cost of around £80) was not a brand used by the company - and we would have to pay for another. We refused. Avis staff gave in.

Collecting a car in Salzburg we were obliged to pay a supplement because the desk was not normally staffed on a Saturday.

I could cite other problems in other places, but by now you've got the picture. Rental companies beed to take a long hard look at the kind of service they provide - and sharpen up their acts.

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