If ever there was something that would scare you about renting a car, it’s recurring stories about rental car companies billing people for repairs for damages they swear they didn’t do -- months after they turned the car in. How do you prove a negative, that that ding in the door didn’t exist when you turned the car in? And how do you protect yourself when no employee of the rental agency is available to do a walk-around inspection with you? The stories seem to be cropping up more frequently -- along with accusations that rental car companies have found a questionable new source of revenue. Read this story by Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and author of the syndicated Travel Troubleshooter column, and like me, you’ll be shooting photos of every tiny ding and scratch on a rental car before you even open the door. Just make sure that the time stamp on your camera is correct.
If you could buy a new vehicle for your 2013 road trip, what would it be? C’mon now, open your mind; show some imagination! Ellen Creager, travel editor of the Detroit Free Press, checked out new vehicles at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month and picked out her seven favorites. Read about them here.
I was on vacation the last two weeks, traveling through Los Angeles and Sedona, Ariz., about which I’ll write more later. But I returned to find a bit of good news for roadtrippers: Sales of RVs are up. People are buying the smaller, towable vehicles rather than the big Winnebagos, but they’re on the road again. Read the full story here.
I reported earlier on this blog that I was trying out a couple micro-cars — the Smart Fortwo and the Scion iQ — to see whether I could recommend them for road trips. The answer: Yes, as long as they are short trips. Read the full story here. But first, here are a couple anecdotes:
The Smart Fortwo is slow with a clunky automatic transmission. I wanted to know just what it would do. I was at Sebring International Raceway on a weekday when the track had no events scheduled. A gate blocked access to the track, but a long, wide stretch of tarmac runs behind the grandstands — the racetrack started life as an air field — and I couldn't resist. I stomped on the accelerator and hoped no one in the track offices would notice.
The car slowly chugged along, hesitating each time it changed gears. It accelerated so slowly that I'm not even sure accelerating is the correct verb. By the time the car hit 45 mph, I was halfway to the exit and knew that no one was going to flag me down and tell me I couldn't race there because I still wasn't going fast enough for anyone to notice.
The Scion iQ, by contrast, is zippy. Not that I could roar away from a stop and pass a car that was accelerating. But it's also noisy -- so much so that Siri, the assistant in my iPhone, couldn't understand me over the constant buzz of the engine. It took three attempts before she understood I wanted her to send me a reminder that evening. Finally she got it and asked, "What should the reminder say?"
"I need to take my camera to work tomorrow."
" 'I hate to go to work tomorrow.' OK, I'll remind you."
Hmmm. Better not ask Siri to send a message to the boss when I'm in the iQ.
Last month, at the invitation of the Smart Car people, I took one of the tiny cars to Sebring for the weekend. This weekend, I’ve got the Smart Car’s competitor, the Toyota Scion iQ, 14 inches and one cylinder larger. The road trip: Marco Island and Naples.
The iQ has a very different personality. That fourth cylinder – the Smart Car has only three – makes an enormous difference, for this car has a lot more get-up-and-go. Unlike the Smart Car, the iQ has a pretend backseat, a bench that wouldn’t seat two full-grown adults or anyone with knees. But that backseat folds down and turns into cargo space approximately the equivalent of the Smart Car, which is plenty for two people going away for the weekend. The Smart Car’s front seats are more comfortable, however.
Stuff stowed in the back seat, I headed across Alligator Alley, with Daniel Silva’s latest audio book, The Fallen Angel, in the CD player.
This is low season for Collier County. The advantages: I got a great deal on Priceline for a room at the Hilton Marco Island Resort, $99 a night, compared to $199 a night on Hotel.com. I booked a massage at the hotel spa at the last minute. I had my choice of waterside tables at the Capri Fish House. Disadvantages: The art museum is closed until late September, as are some restaurants.
And the car? It's just fine for a weekend getaway.
I’m on the road, heading north on US 27 along the west side of Lake Okeechobee, in someone else’s car. It is not a Corvette. I know this because when I take off from a stop in one of the small towns along the highway, the automatic transmission chugs and hesitates each time it changes gears. I count six gear changes between 0 and 60 mph, and it takes about a minute and a half to get there. No, not really. Edmunds.com put the 0-60 time at 14.1 seconds, and my time is undoubtedly slower because I’m not driving it with any finesse, but it feels like 90 seconds. The last Corvette I drove made it from 0-60 in 3.9 seconds.
I’m in a Smart Car Passion Cabriolet. One of those tiny but cute two-seaters that looks like it lost its rear end. The Smart Car people, with no provocation on my part, offered to lend me one. The car is touted for its utility in running errands around town, but road trips are what I do, and so I’ve taken it on the road.
The other reason I know it’s not a Corvette is that it’s comfortable. Yes, it’s a tiny car – 106 inches long -- but it has plenty of leg room, plenty of head room. Plus, I’m sitting higher than I do in a Corvette.
So, when I reach cruising speed, passing sugar cane fields and citrus orchards at 70 mph, I’m happy. Traffic is light, and at times it seems I see more police cars than trucks (which is why I don’t try to reach the car’s top speed of 92 mph). I don’t feel as vulnerable in my tiny car as I feared I would. This is just my first reaction, not a recommendation. Stay tuned for more reports from US 27.
What are the best vehicles for a family road trip? Dee-Ann Durbin, automotive writer for the Associated Press, says these five are ideal, because of their high gas mileage and/or family-friendly features: Toyota Prius V, Honda CR-V, Mazda5, Hyundai Azera, and Ford Flex. All are new or newly redesigned and have top safety writings. Read about her choices here.
If you missed out on Hertz and Alamo’s no-dropoff-fee promotion for rental cars driven out of Florida this spring, Budget Car Rental has just started a similar deal, good only for the next two weeks.
These promotions are aimed at snowbirds headed home to cooler climates but also offer a way for Florida residents to take a road trip without putting hundreds or even thousands of miles on your own car. You drive the rental car out of Florida, drop it off at the end of your trip (only certain destinations are eligible) and fly home without paying a dropoff fee – which can be huge. I took advantage of Alamo’s promotion in April and drove one of their cars from Miami to New Orleans. I paid only $163 for the week, taxes and fees included.
In addition to Florida, there’s a similar deal for driving cars out of Arizona.
Rental car companies offer these short-term deals now because so many cars have migrated to winter/spring vacation spots like Florida and now need to be moved back to other states.
The Budget deal is good for pick-up at multiple locations in Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe counties (as well as many others throughout the state) through June 15. Prices start at $9.95 a day for compact and economy cars and unlimited mileage; prices don’t include fees and taxes.
There are only 32 eligible destinations, so be careful in making a reservation that you’re headed to one of those cities. Not included, for example, are such South Florida favorites as Savannah, Charleston or Asheville. For details, go to this website. Click on “participating Florida airport location;” at the end of the Florida list, you’ll also find the list of eligible destinations.
I’ve never rented a car in Europe. It’s expensive and intimidating, and I love riding trains between towns and walking within a city anyway. In Portugal, I got a tour of the Douro Valley by hiring a car and driver for a day. But some classic European trips that demand a car are calling to me – the Croatian coast, the Irish countryside, Italy’s Amalfi Coast – so I’ve started doing research. I found a good starting point in this column by Rick Steves.