A rental agent that didn’t make eye-contact, a car that wouldn’t start, two hours on the phone, and 7 hours spent waiting at the side of the road—our experience renting from Avis Downtown Vancouver.
It’s 10:00 am and we’ve just walked through the ornate and luxurious lobby of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. For once, we were organized and found ourselves ready to leave not only on time‚ but early. Strolling downtown from home we stopped for coffee and a moment of quiet. Marble and dark wood, a killer espresso to soothing music, the day had a perfect beginning. Both of us are feeling a little smug, and a lot excited‚ today is the start of our little summer holiday‚ a 500 km, 4500′ climb from the Pacific Ocean to the Okanagan Valley. The trip would take us along some of British Columbia’s best roads and through some of the province’s most dramatic and awesome environments. The fertile delta of the mighty Fraser River would lead us to scrubby rolling hills, giving way to wineries and orchards, and then up and down a few mountains covered by dense forest. In six hours, we’d reach our destination‚ the beachfront property my family owns along the edge of a cold glacier fed lake.
It all sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?
I held the door open for Tazim, and we stepped into a shambles. One group of Europeans had two parties with separate rentals, but wanted to change them for a giant minivan so thy could travel together, but‚ they still wanted to use their vouchers‚ at the other counter an older gentleman and his young lady-friend were obsessively going over the terms and conditions of the rental contract while the gentleman’s teenaged children barreled in and out of the tiny space to no apparent end. We joined the vague queue as the third set in line, and waited patiently, while wondering why there weren’t perhaps, more staff, a number to pull, or stanchions. . .
Ten minutes later a fellow stormed in and walked around the ‘line.’ “There’s a line,” I said, but alas he did not hear me.
He went to the side of the counter where a staff person was coming from the back area, and hassled the poor fellow about how important he was. The guy was rude, but the staff person matched them rude for rude and sent him to stand directly behind us. I mean directly. I could feel his breath at the back of my neck, and his muttering rang loud in my ears. “I can’t believe how badly they’ve botched this all.” I recall him saying. At the time, I had no sympathy, but now I wonder. Did I see a pair of Avis keys in his hands? Had he already been ‘helped?’
Finally, perhaps 25 minutes later, our own turn at the counter came. We smiled and said “Good morning!”
“Name?” the service representative barked, not looking up over the counter.
Names, credit card, license, and rental confirmation were provided. We felt bad for her, obviously she’d had a long day. “It’s busy in here today, but it’s good to see you. . .”
“Insurance?” she cut us off.
“We’re covered through our card, thank you.”
“When are you returning the vehicle?”
I looked at the rental agreement to see what we’d booked it off for, “10:30 next Wednesday, but likely a little earlier, when do you open?”
“Here are your keys, it has a scratch. We know about it. It’s at hmngfmmphrp”
She points to where the stall is indicated on the rental agreement folder. Then gestures down a hallway.
Right. We followed her finger toward the elevator, and descended eight stories deep into the parking garage. It was rather a strange experience, you see, Tazim and I don’t own a car. But we occasionally find one handy. We’ve rented from every vendor in town over the years, and while it’s not always smiles and laughs the process has that strange ritualistic feeling that’s pleasant in a queer way. Like checking in at the airport or filling out a contract on a significant purchase, it’s a bit of tedious bureaucracy enlivened by the pleasure to come. We enjoy confirming that we’re getting our Aeroplan miles, and checking to ensure that the vehicle we’re receiving is appropriate to our journey.
Like every other service experience, it all comes down to people. Sometimes the rental rep has added lustre to the experience‚ and these occasions are ones we remember fondly. Our first taste of the friendliness of Hawaii came at the Kona Budget office, where the staff were so exceedingly welcoming and conversational that we lingered to find out more information about driving on the island, and in Seattle, a desk agent at Dollar Thrifty also drove us to the Cruise Ship terminal. All the while we had a good chat about secretly great places in Vancouver. We don’t expect to receive extraordinary service every time, but service without being looked in the eye doesn’t particularly feel like service.
Neither does wandering around the wrong level of the parkade looking for your vehicle. But, we were excited to see it once we’d found it, a shiny new Fiat 500. We loaded our kit into the car and took off to a favourite grocery store for provisions.
Unfortunately, after loading the trunk full of road trip goodness, the car didn’t start. In fact, it didn’t turn over at all.
It so happens that I work for a non-profit car sharing co-operative, and regularly help out people in similar situations over the phone. So we gave it the old college try. We read the vehicle manual to see if it mentioned any tricks to starting up‚ like the Smart from Mercedes where the doors, including the tricky to shut back hatch, must be closed‚ or like the less than obvious parking release on a Prius. Nothing. We tried everything anyway, reclosing doors and hatches, wiggling the wheel in case there was a lock, running through the gears to make sure it was in park, even rocking the car back and forth gently in case the starter was just a bit stuck. All to no avail.
But, we know that nothing is idiot proof, and being idiots, and the car being so full of electrical whiz-bangery, we called the Avis office first, rather than roadside assistance, just in case it was something small. The office must have been quiet, we got through immediately.
“Is there any trick to starting a Fiat 500?” we asked.
We waited on hold for a moment, and a rental agent came back on the line. At first they seemed confused, and I felt like I’d been speaking in another language. But it seemed like the gist of the conversation was “no.” We were excited then, when they said they’d send someone out who would be there in a short while. It’s 11:00 am, and we are hoping to leave by noon. We look at each other, “Think I ought to call my folks?” I ask.
We decide we’ll still be on the road soon.
Almost an hour later, someone showed up. A mechanic? Roadside assistance? No. Just a chap from the rental agency. He was friendly at least, if sadly and woefully not the man for the job.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asked.
“It doesn’t start.”
“Let me see.” He grabbed the keys and did half of what we’d just done, taking thrice as long to do it. In fact, he was so woefully inadequate at car starting that I wondered if he’d ever driven a beater, in winter, or a new car.
“Are you a mechanic?” I asked.
I helped him jiggle the car.
He decided to give it a boost.
About 10 minutes later he gives up. “It doesn’t start,” he says. Right. Thanks.
“What now?” we ask. It turns out he’s stumped. When we ask if we can do a car exchange, or hitch a ride back to the office in his truck, he gets on the radio with ‘the office.’ After endless debate, they decide that one of us will wait with the vehicle while the other goes to the office to pick up a replacement. The car will then be towed to the dealer for service, where presumably Tazim and I will meet up and continue on our journey. He gives the office the exact street address, and apparently, they call for a tow.
I wait with the car. It’s pretty uneventful, though the proprietor of the store we’re stuck in front of kindly comes out to make sure I’m alright and offer a glass of water, I refuse to leave my post. It’s not bad actually, I decide, and making the best of a bad situation I pull out the new George RR Martin fantasy epic (It’s excellent, but I want more).
Meanwhile, Tazim is being taken back downtown‚ by a rather circuitous route. We’re only a 12 minute drive from the rental office, but the fellow from the agency follows his GPS on a 45 minute meander across town via traffic-locked major roads. They have a nice chat along the way, apparently it turns out that he’s from the suburbs and commutes over an hour to work each way. He doesn’t know Vancouver’s roads that well, and we begin to understand why it took him so long to reach us in the first place‚ he was lost.
We don’t know it yet, but apparently the tow truck has lost its way as well. Tazim gets to the rental office and to a service representative at 2:00 pm or so. It’s three and a half hours since we called the agency, and I suspect she’s likely non-plussed. Still when I call to find out where she’s at at almost that exact instant, she sounds glad to be back on the road. Since the tow-truck hasn’t come, she’ll come to where I am, we’ll load the stuff into the new car, pass off the keys to the tow-driver when he comes and be on our way. Knowing how to drive, and how to read a map, she arrives in ten minutes.
We wait a while for the tow. Tazim’s phone beeps inside her purse. We fetch it out. It’s the tow company looking for the wrong address. We call back right away. They tell us that they just got off the phone with Avis, who cancelled the tow when they called them to verify the address.
We’re livid. We call the Avis office. We wait on hold for a while. A long while. Finally we get hold of someone, and advise them of the situation. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I can hear the person on the phone snapping at Tazim from three feet away. “YOU HAVE TO BE AT THE VEHICLE FOR IT TO BE TOWED.” Tazim, remarkably, keeps her cool, explains that one of us was there the whole time. Rather than calling the tow company directly an reinstating the tow, the Avis agent directs us to roadside assistance. There is no reason for this, except that she doesn’t feel like dealing with it.
We’re frustrated, but just want to get on the go. “You really can’t help us?”
No. No she can’t. I’m a little incredulous.
We call Roadside Assistance and wait on hold for twenty minutes. We finally reach someone. There’s no record that we have the first vehicle any longer. Something has been done as we picked up the new vehicle where instead of the original booking being altered, it’s gone missing, and a second booking has been made. This means there is no record that we have the car that we’re asking to be towed away. In fact, there’s no indication that it’s not sitting in the Avis lot. It takes the Roadside Assistance person nearly 45 minutes to figure out how to place a request for a tow on the vehicle, all the while I’m trying to call the office.
I call back 3 times in a row, waiting on hold each time. All I want is the original booking number that the Roadside Assistance person is looking for, or some clues we can pass along to help her figure it out, or to ask them if they could please just arrange to tow the car, or tell me where it needs to go so I can have it towed, so that we can be on the road. I get through the second time I call, and say “Hello” in a relieved voice when I hear a human voice on the other end of the line. The call disconnects. I have now way of knowing, but is suspect that they hung up as soon as they realized that it was us calling.
I don’t even care, I just resign myself to calling again and again.
Before I have any luck with the office, Roadside Assistance comes through for us at just after 5:00 and tells us a tow truck is on it’s way.
The driver get’s there at quarter-to-six, having found the place easily. He loads it up onto the flatbed and asks if he should be towing it to the address he was given over the phone by Roadside Assistance. We explain we have no clue, but that it ought be towed wherever they said it should and drive off into the late evening.
Having wasted an entire day of our pathetically short 5 day mini-break, we pay too much for a mediocre hotel halfway to our destination. We’re woken to the sound of a phone ringing at 7:00 am.
It’s Avis Vancouver Downtown, and they want to know where the original car is. They seem to think we’ve stolen it.