Saying ‘No’ To Add-Ons At The Car Rental Counter

Thrifty Car RentalI’m a rental car company’s worst customer. I always refuse all the additional insurance coverage options, the pre-paid fuel option and the toll pass. I bring my own GPS and car seats for my little boys, I tend to say, “no thanks” when they tell me I can upgrade for a fee, and I often prepay for my rental cars on Priceline. Usually car rental agents size me up as a cheapskate and quickly hand over the keys to a car, but a gentleman at the Thrifty branch at San Francisco International Airport actually almost managed to sell me something last week. Almost.

He seemed strangely dismayed when I told him I had my own GPS and car seats and didn’t want to pre-pay for my fuel or “upgrade” to an SUV. And then he threw me for a loop asking for proof that I had liability insurance when I told him I wanted to decline coverage because my credit card company would cover it.

“Do you have proof?” he repeated.”What, you mean a photocopy of my insurance coverage?” I asked, confused.

Indeed that was what he wanted, and I told him that in 20 years of renting cars no one had ever asked me for it.

“But this is California,” he protested. “If you get pulled over, you’re going to need proof. You’ll get a ticket.”

I told him I’d take my chances and he moved on to his final sales pitch: a toll pass.

“You’ll need a toll pass,” he insisted.

I actually thought about getting one, but when he told me they cost $9.95 a day or $39.95 per week plus whatever toll charges one accrues, I told him I’d pass.

“But are you going across the Golden Gate Bridge?” he asked.

“I don’t really know,” I admitted, “probably.”

“Well,” he said, sounding pleased with himself, “You’ll need the toll pass then because there’s no one there to collect money any more.”

I had no idea what he was talking about but I later looked it up and found out that he was right – sort of. As of late March, cash is not accepted at the iconic bridge, built in 1937, heading into San Francisco (it’s free heading north bound), so you have to call a telephone number (1-877-Bay-toll during bankers hours only, Monday-Saturday) and pay the fee before crossing the bridge. (Those who used the bridge often can buy a digital transponder that deducts money from a prepaid account or credit card.)

I told him I’d take my chances and, after I asked about how to cross the bridge, he handed me a flyer detailing the above procedure. Feeling exhausted from all the sales pitches, I asked him what kind of cars he had available.

“You don’t get a choice,” he said.

The last time I rented from Thrifty was in Costa Rica and that experience was less than positive as well, as they quoted me a price and then doubled it (unstated mandatory insurance) when I got to the counter. I’ve had two strikes with Thrifty in 2013 after numerous positive experiences in the past, but to be fair to them, I think these heavy handed sales tactics are becoming common for all the major car rental companies, as they seek new revenue streams.

Thrifty and some of the other discount chains advertise low prices so to make up for that they have to try to sell you add-ons. And their agents no doubt have goals and incentives to try to up-sell as many clients as possible.

What’s the take away here? First, if you’re visiting San Francisco, be aware of the situation at the Golden Gate Bridge but don’t think you have to necessarily buy a toll pass. With respect to the insurance, it probably is a good idea to travel with a copy of whatever policy you’ll be using. And as for all the other add-ons, GPS, car seats, upgrades, prepaying fuel and the rest, well, buyer beware.

[Photo credit: Birdie Holsclaw on Flickr]

Mandatory Car Rental Insurance: Watch Out For Bait-And-Switch Pricing

scamMandatory insurance. Those are two words that I hate to hear when I’m renting a car outside the U.S. On Thursday night, I spent an hour and a half in a Thrifty Rent a Car location near the airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, trying to understand how an eight-day rental that I expected to pay $394 for was somehow going to cost me either $786 or $946. I’m an experienced traveler and I should have known better. Here’s how I got scammed and how you can avoid the same fate.

I spent a huge amount of time shopping around for a deal on a rental car for an eight-day trip to Costa Rica and the best price I found was through Thrifty, which quoted me a price of $394 for an automatic transmission SUV. By American standards, this was no bargain, but in Costa Rica during the high season it was the best deal I could find.

I received a confirmation email from Thrifty that listed my estimated “mandatory charges” (base rental price, one-way drop off surcharge, vehicle license fee) plus optional charges (booster seat for child), and then the “estimated grand total” price. Two days before we arrived in country, the local branch also confirmed the reservation and the price via email. Even in the fine print of both emails there is no mention of any additional charges or mandatory insurance costs.We arrived at the Thrifty location near the San Jose airport on Thursday night and, despite the fact that there was only one person in front of us in line, we waited 40 minutes to find out that our $394 rental car was actually going to cost $786 if we opted for the lowest possible level of insurance or $946 if we chose the more comprehensive coverage. We spent nearly another hour unsuccessfully trying to untangle the mess and it quickly became clear why we’d waited so long to get to the counter in the first place: everyone was arguing with them about the same issue as they were shocked to find double the rates they expected.

I thought it was a scam because the agent was jotting down all these prices on a scrap of paper as though he was making it up as he went along. I’ve been hit up for mandatory insurance in other countries before but those costs were more an annoyance than the budget buster this was. So I walked out and tried two other rental car places, both of which quoted similar rates.

Rather than pay nearly $100 per day to rent the car, we took a cab to our hotel and I studied the confirmation email from Thrifty. Even in the fine print and “terms and conditions” of the confirmation email there was no mention of the mandatory insurance. I called Thrifty to complain and all they could manage was their contention that my rate was only an “estimated grand total” and not an “actual grand total.”

I went back to Thrifty’s website and tried to make a new reservation, this time studying all the fine print in the terms and conditions section and still couldn’t find any mention of the huge mandatory insurance cost.

I also checked the section on car rentals in my guidebook (Frommer’s) and there is no explicit warning about the exorbitant mandatory insurance, only a boilerplate sentence about checking to see if your existing insurance in the U.S. will cover you in Costa Rica.

I’m sure that Thrifty isn’t the only company guilty of this sort of bait-and-switch pricing, and as an experienced traveler, who has rented cars in a variety of countries, I should have clarified that their “grand total” estimate really was going to be the grand total. But I took the term “grand total” at face value. Next time I’ll know better and you should too. In the meantime, which way to the San Jose bus station?

[Photo credit: jepoirrier on Flickr]

Cheap Vacation Ideas for New York City

budget travel new york city

New York can be crazy expensive. $8 for a bottle of beer. $300/night for a hotel room. $400 for dinner at famed Japanese restaurant Masa. As someone who spent most of 2008-09 writing about the Big Apple for Gadling and who’s lived here over 7 years, it’s a sad fact I’ve come to know all too well. But here’s another shocking fact I’ve discovered about my adopted hometown: if you know the right places to eat, where to stay and what to do, New York City budget travel can also be a surprisingly rewarding experience.

Best of all, budget travel in New York doesn’t mean you have to give up on all the good stuff. Still want to eat like a king? Stay in a trendy new hotel? Experience New York’s legendary activities and nightlife? It’s all yours for the taking. It simply requires an adjustment in your approach.

We’ve scoured New York high and low and come up with the following ten budget travel suggestions. Want to learn how to visit New York on the cheap? Keep reading below!budget travel new york cityThree Tips on Where to Stay
Tracking down reasonably-priced accommodations is arguably the most daunting part of any New York budget travel experience. Visitors who so much as sneeze near popular hotel spots like Times Square can expect to pay upwards of $300/night for lodging. Budget travelers, fear not: if you want to avoid the sky-high prices (and the crowds) check out some of these wallet-friendly options:

  • The Jane (doubles from $99/night)The Jane, a hotel that effortlessly blends old and new inside a beautifully renovated building from 1908, oozes New York cool. Best of all, you’re just steps away from free attractions like the High Line.
  • The Harlem Flophouse (doubles from $125/night) – don’t let the name fool you; this “flophouse” is part of an emerging crop of intriguing Harlem lodgings that are easy on the wallet. Part B&B, part art gallery, guests can immerse themselves in the home’s one-of-a-kind decorations. All rooms have shared bathrooms.
  • The Gershwin Hotel (doubles from $109/night) – you can’t miss The Gershwin hotel from outside. This distinctive hotel is adorned with a one-of-a-kind facade of curvy glass lanterns. The intriguing interior decoration (and the prices) don’t disappoint either. Especially thrifty travelers should check out the Gershwin’s $40/night hostel-style “Bunker.”

Three Tips on Where to Eat
You probably already know New York is one of the best places in the world for eating. Did you also know it’s one of the best for cheap eats too? Thankfully, eating well and eating cheap in New York are not mutually exclusive. Here’s three of our favorites:

  • Xi’an Famous FoodsXi’an Famous Foods, which first found fame on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, recently opened an outlet of its famous Flushing noodle shop in New York’s East Village. Spice-lovers can grab a plate of the shop’s hand-pulled Cumin Lamb Noodles for under $10 bucks.
  • Super Tacos Sobre Ruedas – this unassuming taco truck, parked on Manhattan’s 96th Street, doesn’t look like much. Yet it’s one of an increasing number of under-the-radar New York spots to get outstandingly good (and cheap) Mexican food. Grab a cup of milky Horchata rice milk with cinammon and a couple Carnitas Tacos for just a few bucks.
  • Pies ‘N’ Thighs – think New York is all “fusion” cooking and snooty French cuisine? The down-home Southern cooking at Brooklyn’s Pies ‘N’ Thighs will prove you wrong. Enjoy Fried Chicken, biscuits, and apple pie at (nearly) Southern-level prices.

budget travel new york cityThree Tips on What to Do
Having fun and free are not opposites in New York. In fact, the city is filled with surprisingly fun activities and freebies for budget travelers looking to save a couple bucks:

  • Free Friday museums – even the city’s most famous cultural centers aren’t always expensive, particularly on “Free Fridays.” Venerable institutions like the Museum of Modern Art (Free Fridays from 4-8pm) and the Whitney Museum of American Art (pay-what-you-wish, Fridays 6-9pm) help art lovers enjoy these great institutions at low or no cost.
  • Wander Grand Central Station – It’s free to enter this gorgeously restored New York landmark. Gaze in awe at the vaulted ceilings in the Main Concourse, stop by the great food court and share a secret with friends in the Whisper Gallery. Here’s a few more Gadling Grand Central tips to help you out.
  • The High Line – New York’s High Line, the city’s newest and greatest park is built atop the ruins of an old elevated railway line. In its place is a beautifully designed park, complete with wild grasses, art exhibits and plenty of great people-watching.

One Wild Card
One of the most intriguing and cheap ways to spend a Saturday or Sunday in New York is at the Brooklyn Flea. This one-of-a-kind swap meet meets artisanal food tasting meets art show is one Brooklyn’s more intriguing weekend activities. Pick up inexpensive jewelry and handcrafted clothing and art from Brooklyn artists while enjoying cheap eats from local food vendors.

Just another surprising example of New York’s refreshing range of cheap accommodations, inexpensive eats and budget-friendly activities.

[Photos courtesy of Flickr users b0r0da, DanDeChiaro and albany_tim]

Will the Toyota recall affect your next car rental?

Toyota‘s massive recall due to faulty accelerator pedals is trickling down into car-rental companies. How does the recall affect your next rental?

I checked in with some of the major players to see how they’re handling the recall, now estimated at more than 9 million worldwide.

Avis Budget: About 20,000 cars have been grounded due to the recall. “Our fleet is 7 percent smaller today, but we are receiving weekly deliveries of new vehicles from the purchase agreements we made months ago with our suppliers,” Avis Budget spokesperson John Barrows told me via e-mail. “So we expect to be able to fulfill all demand for any rental occasion while we await guidance from Toyota regarding the handling of the recalled vehicles.”

Dollar Thrifty: The recall represents less than 1.5 percent of the overall Dollar Thrifty fleet. “We have currently grounded the vehicles and are working with Toyota on inspection of the vehicles and a proper resolution of the issue. We do not have any significant Toyotas on order,” Scott Thompson, president and CEO of Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group, said in a written statement.

Zipcar: Toyota’s recall affects about 5 percent of the Zipcar fleet. The car-sharing company isn’t taking new reservations on any recalled vehicles, which include the 2009 and 2010 Toyota Matrix. If you already have a reservation on a Toyota Matrix, Zipcar will move you to a different car and compensate you for any rate difference. If you’d rather bail, any cancellation fees will be waived. For questions about upcoming reservations, call Member Services at 866/494-7227.

The silver lining: Many car-rental companies, such as Avis, Budget, Dollar, and Thrifty, only let you reserve a certain vehicle class (compact/economy, mid-size, full-size). Since you weren’t able to specify a make/model to begin with, at least you won’t have to deal with re-booking because the car you wanted is suddenly unavailable.

In general, car-rental companies had already been shrinking its fleets, which was resulting in higher prices. We’ll keep an eye on how this will affect pricing now that the supply is even smaller. I’ll also update once I hear back from Hertz, Enterprise, Alamo, and National.

Drive a rental car to Florida for $1

I agree with Mike Barish’s recent post. Road trips do rock. I love grabbing some friends, jumping in the car, and blasting great music as we cruise down the highway or along back roads. If you love a good road trip…..and you happen to live in Texas or on the east coast……and you want to drive one-way to Florida…..and you just happen to plan on going before November 15, well then Thrifty Car Rental has a deal for you.

The car rental company is offering the rock-bottom-rate of $1 per day for renters willing to pick up the car at Houston Hobby, Houston International, Corpus Christi, Boston, Burlington, or Providence airports and drive it to one of nine airports in Florida before November 15.

Odds are that not many people will be able to take advantage of this offer, except perhaps some of the snowbirds, like my grandmother, who head south every winter. But if the circumstances are right for you, it is an awesome deal.

There are some additional restrictions though (yes even more than those above!). Availability is limited and you must make the transfer within seven days. Drive fast, grandma!
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