Monday, June 22, 2015

Story Time: Bad times with rental cars

If you travel at all, renting a car is one of those things that is pretty much unavoidable. It is possible to have great experiences, especially when by the luck of the draw you end up with a free upgrade or the rental agency makes an error in your favor. But today, we are not going to talk about those fleeting good times. Instead, we are going to share some of our rental car horror stories. I, in particular, have had some seriously back rental car experiences, ranging from terrible service to horrible cars to unplanned incidents that resulted in hours of delays. After the jump, I am going to share a few of my own worst experiences and would love to hear in the comments about some of yours.


The third time's a charm

An early flight into DC resulted in an early trip to the rental car counter and, to my chagrin, the options were pretty pitiful. The line-up of mostly Nissan rental spec products was appalling, so I opted for the one that looked new and relatively few miles on it, especially by rental car standards. Loaded into the car, I set off in search of a place to grab a quick nap before making the morning slog from Dulles Airport into Alexandria, VA. Finding one of the many parks scattered along the George Washington Parkway, I parked and closed my eyes for 30 minutes to try to reduce the deficit of sleep I usually have when I have spent the night on a plane.

Waking up from a fitful nap, I go to fire up the Nissan Rogue and the check engine light is shining angrily at me from the middle of the dash cluster. Damn! Since it was still early enough in the day and there was another airport branch not far from where I was, I called ahead and arranged to have the car swapped out. Once again, the pickings were slim. A few more Nissans mixed in with a smattering of last generation Chevy Impalas. Given the reputation, I ended up selecting a Nissan Juke, figuring that a small turbo engine and hopefully livelier handling would at least make the garbage interior somewhat tolerable.

I set off to head to my hotel to get checked in when I am rear ended while stopped at a stop light. The car behind me had been hit at nearly full speed by a large panel van. The rear bumper on the Juke, which had been in my possession for a grand total of less than 10 minutes, was now unceremoniously smashed in. Luckily, there had been another car between me and the offender in question to absorb much of the impact because things could have been much worse.

After having the rental towed to the the designated shop, an Enterprise rep picked me up and took me back to the rental location to pick up what would be my third car in as many hours. I picked the ugliest car on the lot, a baby blue Chrysler 200. Of course, by doing so, that is the car I was ultimately stuck with for the rest of the trip.

I think it has a flat

On one of my first trips work trips to Boston, I flew in an picked up a then relatively new VW Tiguan from Logan airport's rather large National Car Rental location. After driving it into the city for my meeting, I noticed one of the tires seemed to be going flat and it had a pinging sound on every rotation, which I assumed meant there might be a nail in the tire. Rather than risk it, I promptly took the car back to the airport and swapped it out. For my trouble, they allowed me to take a Saab 9-3X with less than 2000 miles on the odometer.

Last time I checked, silver is not the same as blue

For another visit to the DC area, I took the train into Union Station and because the rental car counter was going to be closed by the time I arrived, I decided to pick up a ZipCar for the evening and would swap it out for a proper rental car the following day. When I arrived, I pulled out my phone and opened the ZipCar app on my phone. Following the information provided, I arrived where the cars were parked and found the right model of car with the right name, but the wrong license plate and the wrong color. Confused, I called ZipCar and was told they were not sure what was going on, but to just take the car. Still, a bit concerned, I called again later to confirm that there would not be any issues with my reservation and they assured me everything was fine.

The next morning, I went down to try to get into the car and my card refused to work. I called ZipCar again to find out what was going on and they were not sure, but remotely unlocked the car for me. I grabbed the keys this time to avoid being locked out again and went about my day. Later in the afternoon, I took the car back to Union Station and parked it back in its place and swapped out for a Volvo S60 that would be my rental car for the remainder of the trip.

Of course, in the mail a few weeks later, I receive notice from ZipCar that the car that I had been driving was ticketed by one of the numerous speed cameras. Since I used to live in DC, I knew exactly where the speed cameras were along my route and knew for a fact that there was not a speed camera anywhere that I had driven that first night. Going online and retrieving more info from my ZipCar account, I found out that the location of the speed camera was one that I had not even driven that evening. It turns out the reason I received the ticket was because the license plate that was supposed to be on the car I had driven had been mistakenly installed on an identical model car that was being driven by a ZipCar employee that night. He had been shuttling it between locations and got caught at a speed camera. Needless to say, when the facts were laid out before them, ZipCar promptly dropped the charges to my account and even offered me a $25 credit for the trouble.

Reservations? We don't care about no stinking reservations

Another business trip, another rental car reservation gone wrong. This time, I had made a reservation well in advance and chose to rent from the Hertz location inside the hotel where I was staying since the car was only going to be for a quick day trip. I show up a little early to pick up the rental car and there are already about a half a dozen people in front of me. Apparently, this location had done such a poor job of allocating cars that they actually did not have enough cars for everyone and were just sticking people in anything that came back, regardless of what they paid for.

Sick of the bullshit that the counter staff was feeding me, I hopped a shuttle to the airport and tried my luck there, only to find out that Hertz had somehow managed to get themselves so overbooked, that they could not find a car for me for at least another two hours. I told the counter agent to cancel my reservation, possibly preceded by more colorful words, and made a show of going right next door to inquire about options.

Lucky for me, Budget has not only plenty of cars, but fantastic deals on them at that. I ended up in a Camaro SS, sporting a big burbling V8 with full insurance coverage for less than I was going to be paying to get some crappy compact sedan at Hertz without the insurance. Needless to say, I have soured to Hertz and were it not for their availability of high performance cars, I would probably never rent from them again.