A whale of a rental car nightmare


(A. RICHARD ALLEN FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
June 29, 2012

What’s white, weighs 5,000 pounds and nearly ruined my vacation?

Answer: a pickup truck. But not just any pickup truck: the biggest, meanest one I’d ever seen. A pickup truck I now like to think of as . . . Moby-Dick.

Oh, but I should back up.

(BEEP! BEEP! BEEP!)

The way our paths crossed was this:

At the car rental counter in Savannah, Ga., I got bad news. The standard-size car I’d reserved days earlier did not exist. Instead, the woman behind the counter told me, I could upgrade to an SUV. But I’d have to pay extra for it.

It seemed outrageous. But my protests left her unfazed: There were just no other cars, she said. Eventually, though, she consulted a list and brightened a little. Why, here was one I could have. Something called an F-150. And it wouldn’t cost a penny extra.

Terrific! I thought. I grabbed the keys, signed the papers and left to claim my prize, which according to the keychain tag would be a blue Ford.

After a few minutes of unsuccessfully scanning the parking lot, I punched the remote and saw, flashing a come-hither at me, the headlights of a gigantic pickup.

Blue? No, that would be me.

Now, there were several reasons Moby and I were a bad match. Although the truck had a back seat and four doors, the interior was too small to hold the suitcases and other trappings of two women with a week’s worth of stuff. The excess would have to ride in the bed, and should it happen to rain between Savannah and Hilton Head Island, our final destination. . . . Second, I’m no snob, but I didn’t want to spend my week in a nice resort lumbering around in a leviathan. And third — most important — my traveling companion was recovering from arm surgery. The truck sat so high off the ground that to get into the passenger seat, my 5-foot-2 friend would have to grab an overhead bar and hoist herself in — nearly impossible in her condition.

Aha, a compelling medical argument! I returned to the counter, which now sported a long line of waiting customers, some of them in similar crisis. There was the couple that had also been given a car they didn’t want but had made the mistake of driving it off the lot; if they wanted to substitute, they’d be charged for two cars. There was the family of seven (with luggage) that had rented a van but ended up with a vehicle not much larger than a station wagon. (“I’ll have to strap the kids to the roof,” the unhappy renter lamented.) There was the elderly couple that stood patiently for 10 minutes while the attendant filled out their rental forms, then had to do it again when her computer zoned out. And there was me.

The counter clerk was no more accommodating on this visit. There was another argument. Another trip to the parking lot and back. A generous offer to cancel my reservation altogether, which we both knew would have left me stranded. Finally, inspiration struck. “I’m not leaving here without a car,” I announced. “I’m going to stand here and not move until you give me one.” Surely, Occupy Savannah Airport would do the trick.

“You can stand there,” the clerk replied coolly, “but I’m calling airport security to have you removed.”

At that point, the rental car experience had taken more time than the flight from Washington. Getting arrested wasn’t in my vacation plans. So back out I went.

A veteran car renter, I was stunned by the turn of events. But when I pondered it later, I realized how surprising it is that I’d been able to rent cars for so long without a major mishap. There’s a reason these companies don’t make you put down a deposit: They can’t promise you the exact car you think you just leased. At least that was my theory.

“The fine print really does say that they can’t guarantee the class of car that you requested,” confirms Chris Brown, who edits a trade publication called Auto Rental News. Rental companies apparently have to do a lot of guessing, because they never know whether a customer is actually going to arrive and claim his or her car. “You can cancel your reservation at any time and not have a penalty, which in the travel industry is unheard of,” he says. In fact, 20 to 25 percent of customers are no-shows. “Until you see guaranteed reservations and the implementation of no-show fees,” Brown says, problems are going to happen.

As I had just learned firsthand. And my problems weren’t over.

I like to think of myself as a good — maybe even a great — driver. I use a stick shift. I parallel park like a dream. I back confidently into parking spaces. But from the moment I lurched up into the driver’s seat, I knew that I’d met my match.

Moby was a good five feet — five feet! — longer than the Volkwagen Jetta I drive around town every day, and one ton heavier. The body was about 10 inches wider, and the huge outside mirrors added another 18 inches I had to worry about. When I stand next to my 4-foot-9-high Jetta, I can easily see over the top. Moby, a towering 6 foot 4, dwarfed me.

Inside, I was perched so high that the Toyotas and Hondas below looked like minnows. That’s if I could see them at all; I’m not all that tall, and visibility was iffy no matter how I adjusted the seat. Changing lanes seemed fraught with peril; was there another car beside me? I couldn’t tell. Thankfully, we made it to Hilton Head without killing anyone.

The next day I drove to the grocery store, where the parking lot was jammed. It took a while to find a spot that would accommodate Moby. Then it took a while to squeeze into it. (No breezy backing in here.) Pulling back out into the narrow parking-lot lane was taking forever until a passerby took pity and helped direct me. I could almost hear what he was thinking: Why doesn’t that silly woman get a car she can handle? Mister, you have no idea.

The rest of the weekend, we got where we needed to go by bicycle. On Monday morning, I called the small airport on Hilton Head, where the rental car company also had an outlet. The clerk back in Savannah had promised to call this office to ask about a replacement for me. Of course, she hadn’t. But after a few minutes, I sensed that the Hilton Head employee felt my desperation. She thought that all her cars were reserved, but she told me to come to the airport, and she’d see what she could do.

So I did, and after a while I got the keys to . . . still not the standard-size car I’d paid for. In fact, it was an economy-size model, an Aveo. But sitting there in the parking lot, it was the vision of loveliness. My vacation was saved.

My hard feelings, however, live on. The unavailability of my standard-size car, I get. The I-don’t-care attitude of the car rental clerk, not so much. We’ll see what the company does with my refund request. After all, I spent six days driving an Aveo after paying for a much larger car.

I sometimes wonder what happened to the person who had reserved that Aveo. I wouldn’t be surprised if they got a whale of an upgrade.

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