Rental Car Problems/Solutions

You should know the full extent of the bad news about car rentals in Germany. It is no longer the cheapest European country in which to rent. Here's a sampling of one-week rates, including value added tax, for a standard transmission, midsize car in several European countries:

  • Belgium $149
  • France $189
  • Holland $191
  • Switzerland $191
  • Germany $220
  • Austria $286
  • Italy $375

These prices were available at 800-521-6722 at press time and do not include airport fees which are 11% to 13% of the total rental, except for France and Holland where airport pickups are between $20 and $30. In Germany, Avis and Europcar, had been placing a 100 DM ($47) limit on the airport fee but that cap was removed in July.

In addition, Germany, like several countries before it, has introduced a 2 DM ($1) per day "road" tax.

Besides the huge jump in prices, this year the car rental companies have some other surprises in store for us. There have been overbookings and too many U.S. renters are not getting the category of vehicle they reserved. I'm not talking about getting a BMW instead of Mercedes or a Vectra instead of a Passat, I'm talking about getting a compact Opel Astra instead of the full size Mercedes C180. Based on our experience, you have about a one in 50 chance of getting a car that's in a lower category than reserved.

What to do?

Begin to consider alternatives to airport pickup. In Zürich, for example, where the airport charge is 12% ($48 if your rental costs $400) you can take the train to the main rail station. The fare is 6.2 Sfr. ($3.70) and the trip takes 11 to 13 minutes. From there you can get a taxi for about $10 to $15 to one of the downtown rental offices. (Why not pick up the car at the rail station? Because you'll pay the same "premium station" 12% charge.) The ride from Frankfurt Airport to the main rail station is even shorter. From the Munich Airport to downtown takes about 40 minutes by rail.

Know how to do battle at the rental car counter. Those who book cars through the Gemütlichkeit car rental service, are given a phone number that is toll-free from Europe. It is answered 24 hours a day, seven days a week by Auto Europe, our car rental partner. This is the number to call if there is a problem when picking up a car. In virtually every case, the issue will be resolved to the renter's satisfaction.

Get on a train. Compared to rental cars, rail passes look much more attractive financially than they did a year ago when auto rental rates were lower.

If you are staying within Germany, German Rails twin pass at $474 for six days first-class travel ($327 second class) within a one month period for two persons, beats a two-week rental of a midsize car, or even a compact. Figuring fuel and parking, you are likely to spend more than $600 on a midsize for 14 days. The total expenditure for a compact will be $50 to $100 less. With the rail pass you only get six actual travel days, they don't have to be consecutive, but that's usually enough for a two-week trip. If not, get a seven-day ($522 first class, $360 second class) or an eight-day pass ($570 first class, $393 second class).

If you're staying entirely within Austria, and sticking mostly to major towns like Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck and Graz, the decision is a slam-dunk. Buy the Austrian Railpass for $152 for three days first class travel ($104 second-class). Add extra days for $22 first-class and $16 second-class. Travel has to be completed within a 15-day period.

The Europass will take you to four other countries: Switzerland, France, Spain and Italy. For an additional fee you can add Austria and other countries. Two persons will pay $628 for the six-day, five country Europass, $732 if they add Austria. The Europass is for first-class travel only.

Can We Trust UAL?

Since they got rid of most of their experienced, capable, long-term employees a few years ago, United has become my least favorite airline. It offers the only service from Southern Oregon to California, where we go to catch most international flights as well as flights to the east. With that monopoly and their foot firmly on throats of Southern Oregonians, the company sets fares that extract as much as possible from local travelers. Right now the 14-day advance purchase price is $188 RT for the 50-minute flight to San Francisco and $270 for the two-hour run to L.A. But look out if you have to travel on short notice. The L.A. flight jumps to $609 and to San Francisco it's $404.

It is with this mind set that I view the company's disastrous summer of canceled flights and bad publicity.

Perhaps, like me, you assume that United customers who have paid for tickets on canceled flights eventually get to their destinations after a little inconvenience, in some cases, considerable inconvenience. Is that not a sacred commitment the airline makes, to get us where we're going eventually? We give them our money long before we want to travel and they agree to carry us on the prearranged date. Isn't that the way it's supposed to work, or am I missing something? It has always been my impression that even if the weather is bad or equipment breaks, the airline has a responsibility to get passengers to their destinations.

Apparently, however, I have been misinformed. Consider the Columbus, Ohio, couple who have been Gemütlichkeit subscribers for 14 years and go to Europe once or twice a year. In June they spent a full day and evening at Chicago's O'Hare Airport trying to get on a UAL flight to Frankfurt. They are United frequent flyers and had reserved (and paid) months before. After being told a variety of stories regarding weather and mechanical difficulties they finally had to give up. The airline simply couldn't keep its end of the bargain. Their flight was canceled and all other flights were full. Since it was late in the evening when they gave up the ghost, they couldn't even get their checked luggage returned to them and had to go back to Columbus without it. Their high-priced Passion Play tickets, rendered impossible to use by United's failure, will now be kept as very expensive souvenirs. Their luggage arrived back in Columbus the next day. Naturally, they had to go to the airport to pick it up.

Early in August, they tried again with fresh reservations. This time, after actually loading and taxiing twice, their scheduled United flight from Columbus to Washington D.C. was canceled. Again they had no choice but to return home and unpack their suitcases.

If you think this is an isolated incident, log on to the WebFlyer frequent flyer forum. There, travelers who fly more than 100,000 miles a year on United tell many a tale of woe, including weather cancellations that seem to ground only United planes.

If you ask the opinion of this writer, United demonstrates questionable ethics when it accepts thousands of reservations it surely knows it cannot fulfill.

Advice Needed

Here's a turn of the tables. At the end of October, Liz and I are headed to China on a short, first trip to that country. We're trying to do it as independently as possible and are starting in Beijing. We'd welcome any tips or advice and would appreciate hearing from any "old China hands." Call 800-521-6722 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. rhb

August 2000