Notes from Portugal: Hertz Hurts

There are some things to plan when you travel and some things that are best left unplanned if you want to really experience a place.

I don’t usually reserve a hotel, unless I’m arriving at night. I can always find one, and the searching makes for more interesting travel.

However, if you need a car once your flight lands, securing a reservation ahead of time is definitely the way to go. That not to say you can’t ultimately find a car somewhere, for some price, if you look really hard. (If you’re really out of sorts, you can almost always find car rentals off-airport, from hotel car desks, or rentals from smaller, local companies, if you keep looking. But, it can take time and effort, some riding around on buses or taxis, and can eat into your holiday time.)

But what if you’ve done your car-rental homework and you still get screwed? Welcome to Madrid airport and welcome to Hertz.

We secured our auto rental several months ago, confirmed the reservation recently, and printed out all the paperwork off the internet. When we got to the rental desk, they told us: sorry, your reservation has been canceled. By whom, we asked. We don’t know, we were told, the reservations center canceled it. Why, we asked. We don’t know, we were told. Ok, what are we going to do about a car, we asked. Please can we see the manager. Your reservation was canceled. (You can see where this is going.) Sir, we’re heading to Portugal. Tonight. We’ve got a 7.5 hour drive…which we’ll need a car to accomplish.

No apologies, no assistance, no explanation, no cars. Nothing.

All other airport rental agencies said: ‘no cars.’ (A variation: ‘no cars without reservation.’ The distinction became important.)

But perseverance paid off: we found an internet kiosk near a bank of phones, logged into the internet, and found that Europcar still had cars. We pulled out the credit card, made the reservation on the kiosk, went back down one flight of stairs to the counter.

Ah, a sea change had occurred. Sure, your car is ready. Right outside. Right now. Have fun.

My new rule upon landing at an airport: keep an eye out for internet access and keep tabs on where it is. You might need it.

Oh, and avoid Hertz Rent-a-car. In Madrid, at least.