Posted in Car Rental, Travel

Road trippers: How to avoid being scammed abroad by car rental companies. Stay away from FireFly Rent a Car!!!

 

Please find above attached documents: original car rental reservation showing $226.18 booked via Expedia and Firefly Rent a Car charge at the Costa Rica airport showing $699.61, nearly a $500 overcharge! 

As a road tripper, this is my biggest nightmare because an American customer has no rights to complain abroad, nowhere to run, you are at the mercy of these foreign companies in the travel industry.  Nothing can prepare you for what can happen to you abroad so I am going to share my wisdom and own experience to prepare you the best I can for your next car rental overseas.

You fly many hours overnight, cross oceans and time zones and arrive with a lot of excitement to discover a new country. You have your hotels booked and activities lined up for the next few days or weeks, got your maps and GPS ready.  You pick up your luggages, pass customs and immigration then take a shuttle to pick up your rental car.  You line up at the counter and are informed that they can’t honor your original rental quote and the rate has now tripled!

These people know you came from the USA (or western countries), the word “TOURIST” is written all over your forehead, they know you came with credit cards and US dollars. You just became a victim of a scam. There you are, tired and jet lagged, frustrated trying to solve your transportation problem and re-think your entire road trip.

  1. Taxi is too expensive for a 10 day road trip and most likely you won’t find any cabs in remote locations near volcanoes, jungles, waterfalls, national parks, etc.  You need transportation multiple times a day because you not only need to get from one city to another but also need to go out for either grocery shopping or to dine out.  So taxi is out.
  2. Buses and trains only travel between certain cities and please keep in mind that traveling on buses can take double, if not triple the amount of time versus driving a car on a shorter route with higher speed and fewer breaks; buses stop everywhere and take detours to pick up passengers from many remote locations.  You may have to transfer buses and trains and wait for connections. When you arrive at a bus stop you will still need to take a cab to your hotel and then you still have to get to a national park somehow or wherever you go next from your accommodation. You will greatly depend on bus or train schedules and routes, given they even go to the cities you are heading next.  If you do decide to take this option then you seriously have to reconsider your road trip and perhaps eliminate a few cities and activities, in that case you have to re-plan your entire trip based on train/bus routes and schedules.  If you have already paid for hotels and activities then you might have a loss if you need to cancel those.
  3. You look for other car rental companies in the hope of finding lower or the same prices. Chances are slim that you will find reasonable rates at that time (without prior booking) especially during peak travel seasons or holidays or on certain remote islands, like Sardinia, Corsica or Iceland where they only have limited availability due to destination.

So, what can you do to prevent getting into this situation?

  1. Always book your rental car to be picked up at an airport, big or small but make sure it is an airport.  It doesn’t mean you will never get scammed at an airport but chances are smaller that they will rip you off there.
  2. Choose a big name, preferably American or European chain. Again, it does not mean that you will never get scammed at brand name car rental office but the chances are smaller.  Please note that car rental offices can be sold and they can become privately owned and operated businesses, meaning no franchise rules will apply.
  3. Use an American website for the car rental reservation, either book directly with an American car rental company (Hertz, Avis, Sixt, Thrifty, etc.) or a registered American travel agency. You just have more rights there as a damaged US customer abroad.  I am a faithful and loyal customer of Expedia so I am only booking with them; I can recommend them to any traveler.
  4. Pick an option where you can prepay for the car. Again, it does not mean that the car rental agency will never increase the original booking rate and asks you for a difference due to higher prices but the chances are smaller.  Besides, if all goes well, prepaying for a rental car normally gives you an even better deal (5-10% discount).
  5. Stay away from Firefly Rent a Car in Costa Rica and pretty much anywhere else.  That was the company I rented from overcharging me $500 but looking at their Italian branches, they have a lot of negative feedback in Europe as well. They simply do not respond to inquiries, ignore all emails and phone calls and you certainly can’t argue with them onsite. They won’t give you the rental car until you pay the increased rate so it is their way or the high way!
  6. Use your American credit card for payment. Now, if you do agree to pay the increased amount for the rental car (simply because you don’t have any other option) and sign the contract, furthermore you initial it on multiple places, your bank  cannot reverse the charge, they are bound by that contract even if it is on a foreign language and nobody understands it, the numbers (currency amount) speak for themself.  It will not be considered as fraud either because nobody stole your credit card number in this case and you actually used the car.  Most likely you will end up with the charge but at least your bank will investigate the case and they may give a few dollars back as a goodwill if your account is in good standing.
  7. You can report the incident to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and file a claim by submitting your documents at www.cfpb.gov. That only helps you if the rental car company abroad is an American franchise.
  8. You can also report the incident to the foreign consumer protection agency if you find out who they are. You may not recover your money but at least you can help future travelers and have your voice heard.

 

Posted in Car Rental, Toll in Europe, Travel

Advising on toll systems in Portugal

Dear Reader and Future Traveler:

If you found incorrect or incomplete information on Portugese toll systems as I did, look no further, this is the blog you need!

In all honesty, I have never seen so many toll gates on one single road and so many different toll systems in a single country, as here.  It does not matter where you enter Portugal, you can’t avoid paying tolls, which already starts at the borders.  Upon entering Portugal you can’t miss these large signs asking foreign vehicles to register for EasyToll. This is a very simple and quick process; you approach the EasyToll machine (make sure your car stands fairly close to the gate), slide your credit card (and leave it inside the machine for processing unlike in the USA where you quickly swipe it), the camera takes a picture of your license plate and associates it with your credit card.  The sign up has a cost of 0.60 Euro+VAT and each journey has an administrative cost of 0.26 Euro+VAT, which will be charged to your credit card.

 

Note:

-These machines do not accept credit cards with a chip so you better have the right credit card with you because you can’t turn around here!!!! 

-If you change rental cars during your trip, you can update your registration online but you can’t switch credit cards so make sure your credit card has funds. 

You are going to get a receipt as proof of registration, showing your license plate, identifier number and the last four digits of your credit card number.  The registration is valid for 30 days and with EasyToll registration you can drive on regular toll and EasyToll roads. Every time you cross a toll gate the camera will read your license plate and automatically charge the toll to your registered credit card without stopping. The amount of toll for each car category is posted on a big sign just before the gate. YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO USE THE VV (VIA VERDE) LINES with this type of registration unless your car is also equipped with a transponder. When you leave Portugal don’t forget to cancel this service to make sure nobody drives the same rental car with your registered credit card!!!

The toll gates cost nickel and dime but they surely add up because the gates are only a few kilometers apart.  There are secondary roads if you want to avoid paying toll but they barely qualify for roads; you basically have to share a single lane with incoming traffic, which could easily mean anything from crossing goats to tractors.  Somewhat scenic but there are no facilities between the villages unless peeing in the bushes satisfies you, not to mention you can’t drive faster than 25 KPH. We did not last long driving on secondary roads, immediately set our GPS to allow toll roads from that moment on and saved an hour on a 2 hour drive! People, gasoline in Portugal is 1.48 Euro a liter so do the math, it is more economical to take the toll roads, trust me on that, so worth it!

Another toll option is a 3 day sticker which entitles you to unlimited use on regular toll roads (driving light vehicles only) but not good for EasyToll roads.  It costs 20€ with a service cost of 0.60€+VAT and an administrative cost of 0.26€+VAT per journey. There is also an option of a pre-paid ticket with previously defined date and journey:

Journey from Spain – Porto Airport, via A28 or A41 (round trip)

Journey from Spain – Faro Airport via A22 (round trip)

On a side note: I heard this sticker does not come off easily and rental car companies don’t like it. 

The third option is a transponder, so-called Via Verde device.  This device allows you to use the VV (Via Verde) line which is the express line in Portugal while the toll gates debit the amount from your device.  You can rent a transponder and return it or just buy one if you don’t like the hassle. Cost of rental: 6 Euro in the first week and 1.50 Euro for each week after that. Initial deposit is 27.50 Euro (value refunded upon return of the device) and the consumption is depending on the use.  You can purchase this product in Via Verde stores or in service areas, IN CASH.  For permanent stays, the driver may purchase a Via Verde device with direct debit online, Via Verde stores or at the Caixa Geral Bank in Spain. Validity period of 90 days, extendable for an equal period whenever a new minimum preload is made before the expiration of that period.

The  fourth option is the TollCard which is activated through an SMS, with a fixed amount to be consumed depending on circulation. This solution allows payment in cash or with bankcard, is valid for one year and your balance can be found on the Internet. It is aimed at tourists and immigrants.  The driver can buy a pre-loaded card with 5, 10, 20 or 40 € (with an added service cost of 0.60€+VAT for each purchased card).

After purchasing the card the driver shall proceed to its activation by sending an SMS by mobile phone with the code printed on the card and the license plate of the vehicle (instructions on the card), so that it is associated with the license plate of the vehicle. You can activate more than one card, with the accumulation of balances.

The driver can check the card balance online at www.portugaltolls.pt and when the card balance runs out, the customer will receive an alert SMS. The activated balances will be consumed depending on the use of highways with electronic toll collection only and for each journey it´s applied an administrative cost of 0.26€+VAT.  Each card is valid for one year after its activation.

A tollcard that is not activated or damaged can be returned in any CTT office and its purchasing cost will be refunded. The remaining credit can also be refunded if a credit card was used for the payment (as long this was ordered during the sign up), in a 6 month maximum period. Buy it at CTT post-offices, at Portuguese highway´s service areas or at www.tollcard.pt.

Lastly, the fifth kind of toll, which is not mentioned on any website, are the manned toll booths on certain sections so you have to pick up a ticket the old fashion way and pay the toll when you exit or whenever you get to next pay gate on your road.  They accept cash and credit cards as well.

IMPORTANT: IF YOU FLY INTO PORTUGAL AND RENT A CAR, YOU MUST ASK YOUR CAR RENTAL AGENCY TO RENT YOU A DEVICE OR A TOLLCARD BECAUSE YOU CAN’T REGISTER FOR EASYTOLL IF YOU ARRIVE BY AIRPLANE!!!!

LASTLY: TRY TO LINE UP AT MANNED TOLL BOOTHS FOR PAYMENT, THE OPERATORS ARE PRETTY QUICK, THEY ARE FASTER THAN THE MACHINES THAT PROCESS YOUR CREDIT CARDS. MACHINES OCCASIONALLY DONT ACCEPT FOREIGN CREDIT CARDS OR CARDS WITH CHIPS SO AVOID THE HASSLE AND JUST HAND YOUR CREDIT CARD TO THE OPERATOR INSTEAD.  ONCE THE MACHINE HAS AN ERROR READING THE CREDIT CARD YOU CANT CANCEL THE TRANSACTION AND NEED TO ASK FOR HELP BY PRESSING THE “I” BOTTON WHICH IS INFORMATION AND MEANS A 15 MINUTE STOP. EACH TOLL BOOTH HAS 2 CARD READERS OUTSIDE BUT YOUR BEST BET IS THE OPERATOR.

ADVISE: IF YOU ARE ON A ROAD TRIP CROSSING FROM SPAIN COVERING A BIG PART OF PORTUGAL AND DON’T KNOW WHICH METHOD IS THE BEST FOR YOU: DO WHAT WE DID: REGISTER FOR EASYTOLL.  IF YOU ARE FLYING IN THEN RENT A DEVICE. I WOULD NOT SUGGEST THE 3 DAY STICKER SINCE MOST ROADS ARE ELECTRONIC TOLL ROADS, IT ALSO HAPPENS THAT ONE ROAD HAS BOTH EASYTOLL AND REGULAR TOLL SECTIONS WHICH MEANS THAT YOU WOULD BE PENALIZED FOR USING THE WRONG METHOD FOR EASYTOLL.

Image: engenhariacivil, autotraveler

 

Posted in Car Rental, Travel

Driving in Costa Rica

Costa Rica is one of the most popular destinations in Central-America but hotels don’t tell you that you might need to rent an ATV to be able to make it to the hotel (check-in); some roads are unpaved where you are not allowed (and physically unable) to drive a minicar.

Keep in mind that maps are not accurate on road conditions, even my National Geographic map showed roads with solid lines which would indicate a paved road but it happened many times in the Monteverde and Rio Celeste areas that the paved road broke up after half a mile leading to steep and rocky mountain roads which are only accessible by ATV.

Both maps and GPS show all unpaved roads because the roads do exist but it may be in a condition that requires a Russian tank. You need to have some driving skills to maneuver an economy car through a 20 mile mountain road, you need to accelarate uphill and use impulse downhill while finding your way though between the big rocks.  You should never drive at night in the mountains because there are no street lights and you really need to watch out for any danger from crossing animals to incoming traffic, sharing a serpentine is difficult even in daylight, let alone at night.  Just to give you an example your speed is around 10 mph if you manage to drive an economy car.  If it rains, you need to get out as soon as possible because roads will become impassable, buses and small cars will get stuck in the mud and you can’t go anywhere in your SUV either because of them.

When traveling to Central or Latin-America, please note that there are no physical addresses.  Both residences and businesses use a short description as an “address” like “800 miles from the gas station”, or “100 meters from the soccer field to the left”; I have seen them using a church or school as a landmark as well.

When you have a GPS (whether it is your own or belongs to the rental car), you can’t put in words like “800 meters from the gas station” but you can put in the name of the hotel, a national park, school, church or other land marks or just search for gas stations in whichever city.  You can zoom in and out the GPS screen to have a bigger view, if not the whole city at least the neighborhood ahead of you.

I hate to burst your bubble but developing countries are lacking signals on the road. It sucks big time because without street/route names sometimes you don’t even know which city you are in because guess what, there are no city or county names posted!  So, this is what I am suggesting you:

PRIOR TO YOUR TRIP please buy a road map which includes detailed city maps as well.  When you arrive please take a few minutes to study it, be familiar with where you are and where you are going, see if you can memorize street names or neighborhoods you need to drive through.  You certainly can’t hold the map while driving unless there is somebody sitting next to you, who can somewhat read the map.

In addition to the map, you will need a compass. No, I’m not kidding, you are going to need one.  You can also use your smart phone’s compass application which is almost as accurate. You need a compass to have an idea if you are going to the right direction.  If you know from the map that a road is north of you but you got no clue which way is north, then start driving, let your compass tell you.  If your compass is on your smart phone, hold your phone down, the back of your phone should face your legs (when sitting in the car).  The road won’t be completely straight but after a short drive you will be able tell your position.

Now, there is one more option, certainly depending on where you are. If you happen to be in a city near Starbucks, McDonalds, a shopping mall, gas station or any place with free wifi than go ahead and connect your smartphone and simply turn on Waze, get the directions to the place you are heading.  KEEP IN MIND THAT ONCE YOU GET THE NAVIGATION YOU CAN’T MAKE A MISTAKE BECAUSE THE APP WON’T BE ABLE TO RECALCULATE WITHOUT INTERNET; once you leave the wifi area, you are on your own again, so if you do mess it up, I suggest you to turn back and do it right.  The way Waze works is that even though you lose the internet connection, it will save the directions for you. You can thank me later, my friend, but you gotta use your common sense when everything else fails 😉

As a last resort: Ask locals for directions and show them the map.  On the countryside don’t expect them to speak your language, you may need to polish your Spanish in terms of directions 😉

Regarding GPS: If you need to buy a download for the continent, don’t bother it unless you plain to visit other countries there later, and there is no need to pay $10 a day for renting it with the car, for that money you can already buy one brand new.  We made it without a GPS and keep in mind that a GPS may not work either if you are in remote areas of the country, like being in a jungle or volcano area in Costa Rica. In Europe you certainly need a GPS, I would not do it any other way, but today I was only focusing on developing countries.

Photos from various sources: Remax Oceansurf, Loupiote, pacificlots

 

Posted in Car Rental, Travel, United Arab Emirates

Driving in Dubai – Toll and Speeding

Car rental agencies may not tell you everything you need to know about driving in and around Dubai but there is an electronic toll system in the United Arab Emirates.  Rental cars do come equipped with a gizmo because it is nearly impossible to bypass toll roads  simply because they are everywhere.  The electric gates are very close to each other, you could easily see five gates or more within a few kilometers but they only cost nickel and dime per gate. We drove over 1,000 kilometers in the Emirates and spent about $50 on tolls in 5 days but it was worthy.

Please note that there is another $45 charge for picking up rental cars at the Dubai International Airport.  Nice, France does the same thing, think of it like a luxury tax.

Well, speeding is a must avoid. Fines are super high and you will get caught, if the police does not stop you, you will get photographed. Fines start from 600 dirham which is around $200 so it is better to slow down and keep the speed limit.  The car rental agencies keep your credit card on file so eventually the fine will get to you one way or the other.

Lastly, driving in Dubai is very stressful.  This is a very busy metropolitan city with a population of 2.5 million plus add visitors who are shopping and entertaining day and night.  There are constructions on pretty much every corner so the city is expanding.  Life does not stop, kind of like New York or Las Vegas; you will find supermarkets open at 1 AM with no parking, people walking with babies/kids in the middle of the night so you wonder what time they go to sleep.

Locals drive like maniacs and aggressive driving is not my strength; they tend to push you off the road.  We picked side roads whenever we could to avoid the crazies on highways.   We spent 5 days there and found at least 10 ways of getting to back to our hotel and 15 ways of getting lost.  There are roundabouts at every end of the road and for a westerner it looked complicated first to understand how to change lines to exit from there and figure out when Arabs are flashing the turn signal in roundabouts.  Chaotic for sure, similar to the traffic in Naples, Italy or Asuncion, Paraguay.  Take the metro in downtown Dubai or pay for a tour if you can, there are not many tourists driving in the city.  The country roads are fine just leave early and come back to Dubai late. Very late!

 

Posted in Car Rental, Travel

Car rental contract hijacked by another company at the Istanbul airport

Istanbul, Attaturk Airport, November 15, 2015

Turkish Airlines just landed, we passed immigration and customs, picked up our luggages and exited to the arrival terminal.  The Istanbul airport is the most chaotic airport I have seen in my 25 years of traveling, filled with rude people, rushing and bumping into you, no lines anywhere, people are already smoking while exiting.  The airport lacks signage so you basically just follow the crowd.

Back to the topic: we had a car rental reservation with Fox Rent a Car for an economy size car via Carrentals.com.  We found a “wing” packed with car rental offices, travel agencies, money exchange and public transportation but Fox Rent a Car was nowhere to be found.

I asked the information booth but they have never heard of that company.  Then I lined up at Avis who directed me to the booth that said “Expedia” on it.  I walked over and noticed a lot of company names on their sign:  PayLess Car Rental and different tour operators, taxi, etc. It did not seem right, I have never seen a car rental that sells so many things.   Anyway, there was no line here so I asked the guy for information.  HE SAID FOX RENT A CAR WENT OUT OF BUSINESS AND HE TOOK IT OVER.  He asked me if I had paid any money to the rental company, I said no (which luckily was my case) so he asked me to show him my reservation print-out to see what I reserved.  I passed my papers and he told me he had my car but on a higher rate, Fox Rent a Car was now under his company so different rules applied.  Red flags started to fly left and right….

Luckily the higher rate was only $2 more per day so for the 10 days it was only $20 more. The good news was that he gave me a bigger car for the extra $20 which benefitted us even more since we were 4 adults with fairly big size luggages.  I really think he just wanted to make a little money but he kind of favored us.

 

While driving though Turkey this car rental contract kept bothering me a bit, what if Fox Rent a Car does exist and I just didn’t find them, what if they charged me for not showing up and here I am driving another car, paid the same amount to another company. It bothered me the point that when I returned the car I took 3 panoramic pictures of the airport with the car agencies lined up next to each other to prove there Fox is not there. I still could not find Fox, neither their return lot at the airport so I calmed down again, maybe they did go out business.

What I learned is that the Istanbul airport prohibits placing company signs in parking lots, which is insane because tourists need to find where to return the car and then find the proper lot.  Try asking for help, people don’t speak English.  We ended up returning the car to the public (paid) garage,  which is where the security guard directed us.  PayLess told me that we parked at the wrong place and need to pay the parking ticket. I told him that I wasn’t going to agree to the extra $10 cost for parking the rental car and I was going to reverse it with my bank.  He calmed me down and told me that he was going cancel the ticket out but he gave me the check-out documents in Turkish so I had no clue what he wrote on it.

When I returned to the USA I decided to send an email to CarRentals.com to tell them my story and protect myself from potential charges using my photographs.  I received a reply saying that Fox does exist but it appears that I got “hijacked” by another agency, which they claimed was not the first time.  Well, soon the extra $10 charge appeared on my bank statement as well.  I thought about disputing it but I let that one go even though that I already knew that was “hijacked” but the $10 charge might have been a legitimate charge from the paid garage, which they don’t control.

TRAVELERS HEADING TO THE ISTANBUL AIRPORT: IF YOU HAVE A CONFIRMATION FOR A CAR RENTAL, PLEASE LOOK FOR YOUR AGENCY, THEY HAVE TO BE THERE SOMEWHERE, IN A DIFFERENT WING PERHAPS.  THERE IS ONLY 1 TERMINAL BUT THE AIRPORT IS SUPER PACKED AND CHAOTIC.