Can’t Drive A Stick Shift? Need A One-Way Car Rental? Confronting Common Car Rental Issues

beat up old abandoned carHere’s a killer idea for a venture capitalist with a few bucks to burn: start a rental car company that doesn’t soak customers who want to return the car at a different location. Time and time again, I find myself needing to revise my travel plans because I can’t find a reasonable rate on a rental car to match an open-jaw air itinerary.

In January, I planned to visit the national parks in Utah and wanted to fly into Durango and out of Las Vegas. The airfares looked attractive but the rental car prices were outrageous. A five-day compact car rental picking up and dropping off in Durango was about $150, but dropping off in Las Vegas sent the price soaring to nearly $600.

Overseas, I’ve found that dropping off in a different location is often less problematic, but in most of Europe and Latin America, car rental prices tend to be higher than in the U.S. And picking a car up in one country and dropping it off in another is usually either impossible or very, very costly. I’m flying into San Jose, Costa Rica, and out of Managua, Nicaragua, later this month and it’s impossible to rent a car in one capital and drop it off in the other. Below you’ll find some tips on how to get the best deal on a rental car, including suggestions on how to tackle three common car rental problems.One-way rentals

In the U.S., if I’m renting and dropping off in the same city, I almost always bid for rental cars on Priceline. The bidding system allows you to keep trying if you change the car category, so I usually start by bidding on larger cars at about $12 or $13 per day. With a little persistence, I can almost always get a car for $20 or less per day (plus their fees and taxes) and in most cases, the total is closer to $15 per day.

Priceline used to have no one-way rental car bidding function but these days they pretend like they do. But I’ve entered all kinds of one-way scenarios, like Chicago-O’Hare to St. Louis, Des Moines and Milwaukee, and New York LaGuardia to Philadelphia, Dulles and Boston and it won’t accept any of them. After you try to bid, the system informs you that it can’t accept the scenario and then presents you with the same expensive results you can find on Travelocity, Hotwire, Kayak and any number of other sites. So unfortunately, Priceline offers nothing more than the illusion of allowing one-way rentals.

Because many car rental operations in the U.S. are franchises, they simply do not want to facilitate one-way car rentals. There are companies that will drive the car back to your original location for a fee but their prices are geared to big spenders more than frugal travelers. Obviously, you want to shop around online and it doesn’t hurt to make phone calls, but in most cases, you’ll have to resign yourself to the fact that prices are higher for one-way rentals.

The best advice I can give about one-way rentals is to hold off on booking an open-jaw airline ticket until you’ve resolved how you’re going to get around. There’s nothing worse than booking a non-refundable ticket and then finding out that you need a rental car but can’t afford one. In some cases, you’ll decide that the open-jaw ticket isn’t worth it. For my Utah trip, for example, I decided to fly into and out of Durango, and I had to skip Zion and Bryce National Parks, which are closer to Las Vegas.

But if you’re determined to go open-jaw, take a closer look at your travel plans and see if you absolutely need a car for every day of your trip. Given the high price of one-way rentals, you might be better off renting for only a portion of your trip or not at all.

International Rentals – Can You Drive a Stick?

One of my biggest pet peeves about travel in Latin America and Europe is that I rarely get a great deal on rental cars. Part of the problem is that you can’t use Priceline to bid in most places but my biggest issue is that I’ve never learned to drive a stick.

My New Year’s resolution for this year is to learn to drive a stick because in most countries outside the U.S. you will save money, sometimes a lot, if you can drive a manual transmission car. One tip I can share for those who don’t drive a stick, though, is to bargain in person for an automatic transmission car. In many places, the primary reason they are more expensive is that a location may have only a few of them in stock. But I’ve found that if you show up in person and haggle a bit, you can get a deal if they have what you want.

In the U.S., I tend to rely almost exclusively on finding deals online, but I’ve found that in countries like Mexico, Italy, Greece and others, the best deals aren’t always on the Internet. It’s time consuming, but often times rental car places are clustered in the same area, so take the time to go in person and haggle.

The Old Tank is Empty Trick

In the U.S., we take it for granted that a rental car will have a full tank of gas but this is not a given in other countries. A common scam I’ve encountered, even at U.S.-based chains overseas, is that they’ll give you the car with almost no gas in it. They’re hoping that you’ll return it with more gas than it came with. And it’s a good bet, because it takes some careful planning to return a car with only 1/4 or an 1/8 of a tank of gas in it, but it’s very easy to return a car with a full tank of gas.

When I’m renting a car outside the U.S., I make it known in advance that I want to have a full tank of gas in the car when I pick it up. If they balk, I’ll rent from another company.

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara ]
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Kiwi Cool: Saving Money While Traveling In New Zealand

Saving money in New Zealand - supermarket lamb
Last month, I spent three weeks traveling through New Zealand, focusing mainly on the cities and culture. After living in Istanbul for two years, it wasn’t the culture shock, the jet lag, or the seasonal switch that was hard to adjust to, it was the prices. While I knew New Zealand wasn’t cheap (though their dollar is slightly weaker than ours), I was unprepared for the sticker shock. Dinner and drinks can easily run $50 a head or more, city buses can cost more than a NYC subway ride, and $3.50 for a bottle of water seemed offensive. I did discover a few ways to save money and still enjoy the Kiwi cool.

1. Drink locally, eat globally – New Zealand is known for its excellent wines, and starting to get accolades for their craft beer as well. Whether you’re dining out or picking up a bottle in a supermarket, it’s hard to go wrong with anything made in New Zealand; even the cheapest glass of house “Sav” is likely to be pretty tasty. Also note that many pubs are likely to be “tied” houses (unlike the excellent Free House in Nelson, pictured in my first “Kiwi cool” post) and will carry a limited range of brands, giving you an incentive to stick to the “house” tap. In contrast, for cheap eats, look for foods with origins outside the country; Asian cuisine like sushi, Chinese noodles, and Indian curries are often the most budget-friendly options and given the country’s ethnic mix, just as authentic Kiwi as roast leg of lamb and Pavlova.

2. Rent a car – This is one area where I didn’t follow my own advice, preferring to explore the country on public transportation as my husband is the only driver in the family and my baby is not a fan of car rides (yet she’s perfect on planes). Generally, public transportation in New Zealand is not cheap – a day pass for the Auckland bus system is over $10, taxis from the airport can cost up to $100, and the cost of two bus or train tickets between cities often exceeds the daily rate for a budget rental car. Kiwi companies Jucy and Apex offer older model cars as low as $22 – 34 per day, if you don’t mind a less than sweet ride.

3. Book transportation online – If you do choose to go the public transportation route, it can pay to make your arrangements online rather than in person. By booking tickets for the Waiheke Island ferry online, I saved $7 on each adult fare, even for a same day ticket. As part of the promotion for the new Northern Explorer Auckland-Wellington train, Kiwi Rail was offering two-for-one tickets, check their website for current promotions.

4. Check out motels – In my European travels, I’ve been using AirBnB and other apartment sites to book accommodations, as it pays to have extra space, laundry and a kitchen when you are traveling with a baby. The AirBnB craze hasn’t quite hit New Zealand yet, though you may find luck with BookABach (a bach is a Kiwi word for a vacation home that might be more basic than a typical house). I was more surprised by the quality of motels and motor lodges in New Zealand, they are often modern in style and comfortably outfitted with nice amenities like heated towel racks, electric blankets, and real milk for your coffee standard (a small pleasure compared to the powdered creamer typical in most hotel rooms). Motel rooms range from modest studios to sprawling apartments with jacuzzis. I found a useful directory of accommodations on NewZealand.com, and you can filter for features such as laundry or pool and check for special deals. Golden Chain is a quality collection of independent motels spread over both islands.

5. Create your own Wi-Fi hotspot – Another surprise I found in New Zealand is the lack of free Wi-Fi. Even many coffee shops only offer Internet for a fee, and some accommodations will limit your free connection to 100 mb or so per day. The city of Wellington has set up free hotspots in the city center, but I found the signal hit or miss. A more reliable and affordable option is to make your own hotspot by purchasing a pre-paid SIM card with data. Consult this helpful wiki for rates; I bought a SIM through 2degrees with 1 GB of data for about $20. One other tip is to find the local iSite tourism office for a short period of Wi-Fi access if you need to check email or make travel plans (they can help with booking travel and accommodation too, of course).

6. Shop vintage – After a few days in Kiwi Land, you’ll feel an urge to buy lots of nice merino wool clothing and gifts. For a country with apparently more sheep than people, it is everywhere and you can easily spend hundreds of dollars on new sweaters. Another option is to try vintage and thrift shops. I found a lovely baby sweater probably knitted by a nice Kiwi grandmother for $8 in an antique store, just as quality as the $30 one I bought at a market, and both far cheaper than most retail shops. Auckland’s K Road and Wellington’s Newtown have lots of used and “opportunity” shops, often with proceeds going to charity. Eco-friendly fashion is also becoming more widespread, and “recycled” fashion shops can be found in most cities.

7. Stay in on public holidays – One upside to the high cost of a pint of beer is that tipping is unnecessary in New Zealand; the GST tax on goods includes service. However, you will note on many restaurant menus a surcharge for public holidays of 15%. This covers the owner’s cost of paying their employees more for the holidays. Try to avoid dining out on holidays or look at it as a special holiday gratuity.

A bonus tip that may or may not be relevant in the future: follow the rugby fan trail. Started for the Rugby World Cup in 2011 to ease traffic congestion and crowding on public transport, Auckland’s Fan Trail was revived for a match against Australia last month. The trail stretches two miles from downtown to the stadium and is lined with entertainment, food and drinks, and other activities, most of which are free. Even if you aren’t headed to a game, it’s fun to watch both the performers and the fans dressed up to cheer on their team. If you happen to be in Auckland during a future big rugby match, find out if the city plans to run the fan trail again.

Stay tuned for more “Kiwi Cool: New Zealand for the Un-adventurous.”

Travel Scam Alert: Renting Cars With Little Or No Gas

empty tank of gas empty gas gauge car on eHave you ever stepped into your new rental car, started the engine and noticed that the gas gauge was nearly empty? In the U.S., most reputable rental car agencies will give you a car that has a full tank, or, at the worst, a half tank of gas. But overseas, all bets are off, and a common tactic of many agencies, even name brand ones, is to give you the car with only one-fourth of a tank or less.

It might seem like a benign inconvenience, but in most cases, it’s a calculated scam. Rental car agencies know that most travelers are going to fill their tank up with gas if they get it on or near empty. But trying to plan how much gas to put in so you can return it with only ¼ tank, for example, is inconvenient to say the least. Agencies know this, and hope that you’ll return it with significantly more gas.

I’ve encountered this sly gambit in Mexico and Greece and have heard it’s also common in a number of other countries. Just this week in Patmos, I rented a car at Avis and it was given to me on empty. The manager said, “Oh, don’t worry there’s a gas station right down the road.” So I said, “Great, here are the keys – go gas it up and bring it back to me.”

He balked but I insisted and he relented. Returning a rental car with extra gas is an expensive mistake in the U.S., but in a place like Patmos, where gas runs the equivalent of $9.50 a gallon, it’s financial suicide. The best game plan when renting a car outside the U.S. is to tell them you want the car to have a full tank of gas when you receive it. If it doesn’t have it, tell them to fill it up or you’ll rent from someone else.

(Image by Laffy4k on Flickr)

Hertz to offer Lotus Evora in Europe

Lotus Evora

Two-door, four-door, sedan or compact not your idea of an exciting selection of rental cars? How about a $75,000 Lotus Evora? Hertz has introduced the Lotus Evora to key European rental markets, following a successful launch of the coupe in Italy in 2010.

“We are very proud to offer the Lotus Evora for exclusive hire in Europe following its rental success in Italy, thanks to our extended partnership with Group Lotus” said Michel Taride, president of Hertz International reports breakingtravelnews.com.

The move marks an extension of Hertz’s partnership with Group Lotus and is the launch car of the new Adrenaline Range in the Hertz Fun Collection of Germany, Spain and the UK, and also joins as a special car in the Fun Collection in France.
Similar to the Hertz Adrenaline Collection in the United States which includes 60’s and 70’s muscle cars Chevy Camaro SS, Ford Mustang 5.0 GT Premium and Dodge Challenger R/T, the Adrenaline Range in Europe will showcase the most exciting new vehicles in Hertz’s fleet with high quality, enhanced performance, and beautifully designed vehicles, with the Lotus Evora as the hero car.

“The hugely popular Lotus Evora is the perfect ambassador for our new Adrenaline Range, combining style, elegance, agility and sportiness to make driving journeys a dream come true.”

The Lotus Evora will be available to hire from Hertz France’s Biarritz, Bordeaux, Marseilles, Nice and Paris Charles De Gaulle airports and Paris Porte Maillot, Germany’s Frankfurt Rhein-Main and Munich airports, Italy’s Rome Fiumicino and Milan Linate airports, and Spain’s Madrid and Barcelona airports.

“We are pleased to extend our agreement with Hertz; the exclusive collaboration provides the perfect opportunity to make our stunning world class sports car available to the luxury rental market,” said Group Lotus director of sales Guillaume Chabin.

Rates start from 250 euros per day, and confirmed reservations are guaranteed.

Flickr photo by exfordy

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Lotus Cars at 2011 Geneva Auto Show

Travel activities at your destination gets twice the money of car rental business

Tour activitiesWhat do you do when you get to your destination? Well, apparently you spend $27 billion. A recent report from travel industry research firm PhoCusWright says that’s how much was dropped on the travel activities, events, attractions and tour space in 2009. Yep, $27 billion sounds like a big number, and doubtless, it is. But, did you know that it’s almost twice the size of the car rental market in the United States?

Several factors are responsible for the growth of this sector of the travel business, including “a growing aggregator network and advancements in technology and commercial models will power significant growth in advance bookings and online distribution,” says PhoCusWright.

And, it’s going to keep going.

Look for double-digit growth for travel activity bookings via online channels through 2012.

“The challenges of connecting to myriad small providers with limited technical capability and a low average transaction value have inhibited online distribution of travel-related activities,” notes Douglas Quinby, senior director, research at PhoCusWright. He adds that “while the market remains highly fragmented, key activity aggregators and a flood of innovation related to local search, social media and mobile devices are creating unprecedented opportunities.”

[photo by Richard Hsu via Flickr]