Holiday Travel Hell Part 3: If you book with Payless Car Rental, make sure your flight is on time

As I’ve written over the past few days, my and my sister Ali’s trip to Tampa started about fairly rocky. There was the disinterested and blatantly untruthful American Airlines customer service agent, and then the lost car rental reservation with Expedia and Payless Car Rental (we still don’t know who to blame, but Exepedia eventually worked it out for us).

But while I sat around the Payless Car Rental office, watching a TV blaring Fox News and learning new swear words from Ali, I witnessed half a dozen clients come to Payless to pick up a car, only to learn that their reservation had been cancelled because the customer was late. Payless employees maintained that reservations are only held for four hours after the original booking time. No cars were left once the reservation was cancelled, so travelers had to take the shuttle back to the airport and start over with a different agency. This was December 28th, right in the middle of the holiday season, and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for travelers that were late for their reservation through no fault of their own — flights were delayed and connections missed, as I knew well. One couple was late because their luggage was lost, and they had even called Payless to let them know they’d be late.

On the other side, I witnessed Payless employees take abuse after abuse, when I’m certain many of the situations weren’t directly their fault. To their credit, they handled each outraged customer well, moving on to deal with the next one after the previous stormed out. That’s got to be a job that requires a strong cocktail at the end of the shift just to get your blood pressure down near normal.

So what’s going on here? It’s hard to say — Payless cars seemed to be the cheapest, and judging by my experience there, it’s a bit of a fly-by-night operation. I doubt the employees were getting paid enough to handle the kind of abuse they received — but it also seems completely ridiculous to cancel a reservation if a customer is late. I can’t imagine how many reservations were lost in 2007 when flights were delayed.

Is it possible that Payless profits from canceled reservations? That’s definitely worth looking into.

Has anyone out there had this kind of experience with Payless Car Rental? We’d love to hear about your experience.

Holiday Travel Hell Part 2: If you need anything from Expedia, scream at them for an hour

After Ali and I finally made it to Tampa, a good 18 hours later than we should have, we took a shuttle to Payless Car Rental to pick up a car Ali had booked through Expedia. The night before, when we knew we were stuck in Dallas for the night, she immediately called Expedia to let them know we wouldn’t be able to pick the car up until the next day. The Expedia representative put her on hold for several minutes, then returned and told her he had spoken to Payless and that the company would hold the car for us. We just had to show up between noon and 4:00 p.m.

When we arrived at Payless, there was no record of the reservation change, and the Payless rep told us he had no car for us. After a bit of a go-round, the rep explained that when Expedia supposedly called the night before, the Payless offices were closed — so no reservations could’ve been changed. Ali called the customer service number listed for Expedia on her reservation, where an Expedia rep told us that there was nothing the company could do for us. She maintained that Expedia had called Payless, and even had a contact name. It didn’t matter — Payless didn’t have any record of it, thus they didn’t have a car. It was the height of the holiday season, and finding a replacement car, let alone a cheap one, seemed unlikely.

After about 20 minutes of going back and forth between Expedia and Payless, trying to make one company take responsibility, Ali got angry. I watched her from inside the car rental office as she screamed out in the parking lot, her face red, hands flailing, and occasionally her high-pitched voice carrying through the glass. The Expedia rep continued to tell Ali there was nothing she could do.

“Oh, yes there is,” Ali replied. “You can find me a car right now, and honor your rate.” “I have no way to do that,” the rep maintained. “Yes, you do,” Ali said. “Here’s how: pick up your cellphone, start calling rental companies, and find me a car within an hour. I’ve got nowhere to go since I don’t have a car. Put me on hold — I’ll just wait right here.”

After an hour of this back-and-forthing, the rep did just that. She transferred Ali to someone else, who in turn found us a car at Enterprise. I don’t believe she used any Expedia magic, and I think had we called Enterprise, we might’ve been able to find the same deal. But as it was, we were able to get a Volkswagon Jetta for $50 less than our original quote at Payless.

Lesson learned? Get a confirmation number when a reservation has been changed. We thought we had covered our bases by calling to change our reservation (the number for Payless Car Rental was not listed on Ali’s confirmation email, only Expedia’s), but we needed to ask for more information. I can tell you that Ali will not be booking through Expedia ever again, although I’ve got faith that patience and a bad temper just might get you what you need.

What do you think? Were we right to demand that Expedia honor our reservation and price? Or should we have taken it up with Payless (who had no cars left)? I think we were correct to call Expedia on it, and I’m proud of my sister for doing what I don’t always have the guts to do: get mad.

Want to read more of my holiday horror stories? Check out Holiday Travel Hell Part 1: American Airlines really doesn’t care and Holiday Travel hell Part 3: If you book with Payless Car Rental, make sure your flight is on time. Got any holiday horror stories of your own? Be sure and leave a comment!

Now I understand why travelers get angry

I’ve always been a patient traveler — or so I like to think. Missed trains and delayed planes don’t normally phase me beyond a general annoyance. I’ve always regarded the stressed-out angry traveler as someone who needs to take a chill pill and enjoy the journey. I plan to get sick, get robbed, and/or see big insects in my guesthouse; so I don’t take valuable items with me, and usually sleep with the lights on (just because I expect to see big bugs doesn’t mean I’m not scared of them).

But this holiday season, I had the experience that made me understand just why travelers get so pissed off. I’ll be discussing it in a three-part series coming up, but for now I want to apologize to travelers out there on whom I have formerly passed judgment. It sucks being stranded in the U.S.A.

Here are the lessons I learned this dismal holiday travel season:

1. Landing in Tampa does not have the charm of landing in Bangkok or Delhi. There’s no $1.50 tuk-tuk or rickshaw to take somewhere if your car rental reservation gets effed-up. When you’re stuck in a hotel room in Dallas outside the airport (a hotel with no bar, nonetheless), it’s not as cool to have to order a $12 pizza from Dominoes as it is to eat street food for a few cents. Thus, being stranded while traveling domestically loses any glamor it might’ve had in a foreign country.

2. Delays cost money. Delays cause stress. Vacations are short and expensive, so a day by the pool that has been replaced by sitting stand-by and eating unhealthy and expensive airport food is reason enough to get upset. But when airline, travel agent, and car rental companies have no empathy for the bedraggled traveler, it makes everything all the worse. All we want is a kind word and a little respect to help make up for lost time and spent money.

3. When things happen through no fault of your own, don’t expect anyone else to take the blame. You’re on your own. As such, take every single precaution you can think of to protect yourself. One thing I regret is not taking down names; it helps to know who you were dealing with when filing a complaint. And when you file a complaint, don’t expect reparations — but it’s still worth filing.

Those are the three major lessons I learned — what about you? Did you have any eye-opening experiences while you traveled over the holidays?