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Weaselwatch - Car Rental

The first in what may turn out to be a series about the world's biggest weasels. This week - car rental companies.

It shouldn't be so hard, should it? You make a booking (by phone or over the Internet), you turn up at the appointed time, they take your credit card details, check your driving licence and ask you to sign the rental agreement. Then they give you the keys and tell you where the car is parked. 5-10 minutes, and off you go.

So how come it so rarely works out like that?

When I go back to the UK I usually rent a car, sometimes from the airport and sometimes locally where I am staying. I have used several different companies, all of whom seems to have their own weasely ways.

I was a reasonably satisfied customer of Avis for a couple of years until one time I got a bill that was considerably higher than I had expected. I complained, but it was all in vain and so I stopped using them. The explanation was that I had upgraded to a higher group of car (because only some cars in the group I'd booked had aircon, and naturally none were available when I turned up) and I also ended up paying a lot of money for insurance I didn't need.

Yes, I'd ticked all the relevant boxes when I picked up the car, but after a 13 hour flight and with wife and small child in tow, I'd have agreed to almost anything. So, yes, Avis were correct that it was my mistake, but I felt like I had been ripped-off. I am convinced that car rental companies make most of their profits from persuading you to buy insurance you don't need by putting crosses in the right (or wrong) boxes. Oh, it's only a few pounds a day, Sir. Yes, but this can add up to hundreds of pounds more than you expected during the rental period, most of it sheer profit for the company.

My view is that if the insurance is really necessary it should be included in the rental price, and if it is truly optional they shouldn't be trying to talk you into it when you just want to get in the car and drive away. No details of the cost of the insurance extras are shown on their website, so the first you know about it is when you arrive to collect the car. The truth is that if you thought about it you wouldn't buy it (who in their right minds would pay GBP100 to eliminate a GBP500 excess - unless you really think you have a 20% chance of having an accident).

Obviously f you choose to upgrade to a more expensive group you you expect to pay for the privilege. but again it can be deceptive if they quote you a price per day. However, my main objection is when they don't have the car you want and give you little choice except to upgrade. To be fair, not everyone does this - I was quite impressed when Europcar provided a better car but didn't charge any extra (I'd have felt even better if I hadn't been caught by the re-fuelling charge when I returned the car, but there you go).

Yes, the re-fuelling charge. Most companies send out their vehicles with a full tank, and offer you two options. Pay for the fuel upfront and return the car empty, or fill it up before returning the car and pay nothing.

Take the first option and the chances are that you will lose part of a tank of petrol (that you have paid for) unless you (1) use at least a full tank of fuel, and (2) carefully plan your journeys and re-fuelling so that you return the car with an empty tank.

Take the second option and forget to fill the car up and you will be heavily penalised - they charge you for the petrol at a special (high) rate, and add a hefty service change for the onerous and difficult task of putting petrol in the car! I got caught on this renting a car in Europe in an unfamiliar city, and I was not happy. Given that they don't charge for the 'service' of putting fuel in the car if you buy the tank of petrol upfront, this is really a penalty by another name.

OK, so apart from getting ripped off, what else can go wrong?

Well, my first bad experience was when I booked through Woods (who I believed to be a reputable company) at fairly short notice because their prices were the most competitive. Unfortunately they "didn't have any cars" (allegedly because of a severe cash flow problem) so they passed my booking on to another company based just outside the airport. OK, I could have lived with the inconvenience, except that I had booked the car for 6 a.m. and this outfit didn't open till 7 a.m. The last thing you want at the end of a 13 hour flight is to be hanging around the airport for an hour and then to get caught up in rush-hour traffic. I was not happy, but fortunately I didn't have my family in tow, so it wasn't too traumatic. I'm afraid it has put me off booking with Woods (at least if I am arriving early in the morning).

On the credit side, the boss of the company picked me up personally from Terminal 3 and gave me his colourful views on the car rental industry as he drove me to their office. No complaints about this company, just about their opening hours.

Another time I booked with Europcar through the Internet to pick up a car locally (rather than the airport). When I turned up, they knew nothing about my booking (made the previous day) and didn't have any cars available. Eventually they found one, but it was a horrible Rover and it had not been checked or prepared properly and various (relatively minor) things didn't work properly. Not a good experience.

However, my worst experience was with EasyCar (again locally, not at Heathrow). I had hired cars from them before, and not had any real complaints about their service (especially given the low prices). In fact I had recommended them as being comparatively weasel-free and quite cheap. They only have one model of car available at each location - normally the Mercedes 'A' Class (good) or the Vauxhall Corsa (OK), so at least you know what you are getting, and they don't try to sell you extra insurance!!

When I arrived shortly after 9 a.m., there was a lady sitting outside the Easycar office, and I naively assumed she was a member of staff. Not so, and in fact she was a customer waiting for them to open in order to pick up a car. At first I was just annoyed that they were late opening and that I would be second in the queue, but little did I know what the morning had in store.

More people arrived, but no sign of any EasyCar staff. So the only option was to call their so-called 'customer service' line and wait. A long time. Worse, once they put you "on hold" you start paying for the call, and you can easily wait 45 minutes before you can speak to anyone (if you don't get cut off first). Unsurprisingly, tempers were becoming a little frayed by this style of customer service. Eventually, sometime after 10 o'clock, someone did get through to a real person, who said that they knew of the problem, and that honestly someone was on their way and would be there within 20 minutes.

By this time, some of the customers had to leave, and at least one left the car they were returning outside the office, locked, with a note asking EasyCar to contact them for the keys (I wonder how that one worked out!).

The 20 minutes passed, and then 11 o'clock came and went. We had several false alarms whenever people with any orange-coloured clothing were sighted or EasyCar vehicles arrived, but unfortunately they all contained customers rather than staff. Then someone else managed to speak to a real person at EasyCar. This time the story was different - no-one was going to turn up, and so the office would be closed for the day. At this point they did at least try to be helpful, and offered to pay for a taxi to take customers to another of their locations to pick up a car.

However, there was a more convenient (if slightly riskier) alternative, which was for the customers who were returning cars to hand them over to the customers who had come to pick them up. As EasyCar only have a single model of car at each location, this was not a complex thing to arrange, and thankfully they did agree. As a Natural Born Worrier, I then had visions of a big argument ensuing if there were too many or too few cars, but fortunately it seemed to work out OK and after a few minutes on the phone providing details I was finally able to leave with a car (which had aircon and worked fine).

I was lucky in that I didn't absolutely need to have the car at the booked time (or anytime that day, in fact), but other people had complicated arrangements and needed to be in certain places at certain times. Whilst waiting I heard a few horror stories about customers having waited several hours for cars to be available, and it seems that this is a widespread problem. As with the budget airlines, the business model means that there is limited margin for error, and if something goes wrong then it is difficult for them to recover. However, if you rent a car it is normally because you want to be somewhere at a particular time, so sadly I can no longer recommend Easycar.

Considering that I have probably hired cars rather less than 20 times over the last few years, that's an awful lot of bad experiences for one person. Is it really asking too much to get decent service at a fair price?


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I have had some silmilar experiences - especially when it comes to the surprise in your credit card bill a couple of weeks late. I always used Europcar at Heathrow - always got what I wanted, never took more than 5 minutes from arrival to drive off, and never gave me hassle for syaing no to the insurance. I like them.

Of course my best friend works for Hertz (which is these days just a ford show room) and I can't say anything to bad. His 6 speed 2.2 turbocharge mondeo company car is a wonder to behold. I think it is better to work for a rental company and rent from one!

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