Rent car anomalies; snagging a deal

Our spiffy Skoda Fabia cost us a lot less than if I’d chosen a different code on Avis’ web site

We booked a rent car this week for a daytrip from Antwerp to see the tulip fields and gardens of Keukenhof in the Netherlands. We’ve rented cars several times now in Antwerp that we pick up at Antwerp’s gorgeous Centraal train station. There are several rental companies there: Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar. Avis and Budget share a small office as do Hertz and Europcar. I think we’ve used all four companies now, but Avis seems to offer the best deal for short rentals. It also presents a classic rent car anomaly that I thought was worth pointing out.

Often different rental car locations for the same company within the same city will offer wildly different prices for the same car and rental dates. Sometimes this is the result of extra fees charged for airport, train or bus station locations. Sometimes fees are higher for a mid-city pick-up at a downtown office or hotel. It just depends. (Also, it’s nearly always more expensive to pick up and drop off at a different location, even if those locations are within the same city.) So, once you’ve narrowed your rent car search down to the best-priced company, there’s still some checking to be done if you want to snag the best deal. Sadly, comparing the different total prices creates extra work for the travel planner, but it also creates opportunities to save a lot of money.

Avis in Antwerp offers one of the clearest examples of the quirks of the car rental industry: In Antwerp, Avis’ web site offers two choices at “Antwerpen Central Railway Station.” (Known locally as Antwerpen Centraal, this is the main train station in Antwerp, and the most likely place to rent a car since it’s not only central to Antwerp itself, but also the terminus of frequent and direct trains that run from underneath the international airport in Brussels, a mere 30 minutes away.) The address given for both rental locations is identical. The only difference is a two-letter code at the end of each. But, when you click on these links and check the prices, you’ll find that the final price (including all taxes and fees) for second choice (“TW9”) is much cheaper for the identical car, dates, extras, everything. The reason is that the first option (“AN2”) is considered at the train station so you’re charged $70.76 extra for station fees, while the second option (“TW9”) is simply considered as downtown, so you’re only charged $5.13. For the identical rental from the identical counter in the identical office. Go figure.

Screenshot of a sample one-day rental using the AN2 train station code
Screenshot of a sample search using the TW9 train station code (considered “downtown” rather than in the train station, although it is in the train station. 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code!

I usually find that the Avis quoted car price is cheaper for the AN2 train station rental (sometimes much cheaper–a ploy that could easily lead the unwary to choose an ultimately more expensive rental). But, when the $65 difference is factored in ON A SHORT RENTAL, the TW9 becomes the much cheaper deal. (In the above example, the TW9 rental is 40%+ cheaper than the identical rental using the AN2 code. For us this week, I think it was an even bigger discrepancy. And, other companies were wanting 2-2.5x what we paid for our car for similar vehicles!) For longer rentals, the pricing advantage can actually switch back to the AN2 train station rental if the base price is really low, although not by much since the train station fee is not a straight per day fee while the $5.13 fee is. Oh joy, more work for the travel planner.

On our most recent rental, I mentioned this anomaly to the agent checking us out and he confirmed. He then informed me that the “airport” location for Avis in Antwerp is also really at the train station. Avis just taxis customers in from the small local airport which is only about 10 minutes away. Cars have never been available from the airport when I’ve checked, so I don’t have any personal knowledge of those prices, but would expect them to be higher.

I do also check other online travel services, rent car search engines and the like. Sometimes they offer better deals, but surprisingly often I find a better deal direct with the rental company. Also, when booking via a third party I have been hit with unforeseen location fees by the actual rental car company. There’s usually some small print about that being a possibility, so when it’s impossible to check in advance, I sometimes go with the guaranteed final price from the rental company itself. With regards to Avis in Antwerp, they’ve been cheaper when booked directly than via an online travel company like economycarrentals.com, Priceline, etc. Finally, I always use cards that give miles or points for car rentals, check for discount and bonus codes, and check to see if I can use Topcashback for a little extra cash rebate. Most car rental companies and several major travel search companies are on Topcashback.

Visitor SIM: get connected in Slovenia [also Predjama Castle & Piran]

SIM cards are always on my list of things to look into when I’m going to spend any time in a country. Overpriced roaming charges on my American AT&T account are out-of-the-question except for the occasional first text to a landlord, etc. (I absolutely detest being gouged.) I try to keep a French and a Belgian SIM card active, but with no non-roaming EU-wide SIM (yet), I often need a new SIM card when I’m in Europe. Options vary widely from country to country, but Eastern Europe can offer some great deals. Unfortunately, those great deals are often hard to take advantage of if you don’t know the language.

Slovenia has solved that problem with Visitor SIM. For a price, sure, but it’s not an unreasonable price, IMHO, given the convenience. https://www.visitorsim.si/default.aspx There are 3 options, and we chose the €20 for 15 days, 10GB data+ €5 of voice. You can use the data to make VoIP calls, Skype, etc., but we wanted a little easy talk time for local calls and it came in handy when we needed to rendezvous with our AirBnB landlord. The Visitor SIM cannot be mailed outside of Slovenia, so you need an address with someone present to receive the package. We weren’t sure we’d have that option with our AirBnB digs, so I opted for to have the card sent to the Ljubljana airport. I was told the card was would be waiting for us at Café Avioncek in the Arrivals area. While David checked out our Sixt rent car, I walked the 30 yards are so to the café, gave my name to someone behind the counter, and was back in no time with the SIM card. (You’re supposed  to provide ID, but no one asked.) The card installed, without problem, on my Android phone and we were up and running, Google Maps and all.

We spent the next days exploring Slovenia and found Internet coverage to be good in most places, if a little spotty in some very rural areas. I can’t say enough good things about Slovenia. I’d been wanting to visit for many years, and we found it to be beautiful, amazingly clean (Ljubljana has been named Green Capital of Europe for 2016), and very accessible. Lots of people spoke excellent English in Ljubljana and we found good English most places save for near the Eastern border with Croatia. I’d go back in a heartbeat!

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Lovely Ljubljana
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Riverside café in Ljubljana. Slovenians love their cured meats!

One of the great advantages of a small country. You can visit a castle built into a mountain in the morning and be eating super-fresh seafood on the coast by lunch:

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Predjama Castle
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Piran, on Slovenia’s small coastline on the Gulf of Trieste
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Piran bounty

On the drive back from Piran to Ljubljana, we made a quick detour out to see the salt-pans at Sečovlje Salina Nature Park. It’s only a short drive out of town and worth a look even if, like us, you don’t have the time or inclination to take a tour or visit the Lepa Vida thalasso spa located in the park. http://www.portoroz.si/en/experience/natural-attractions/secovlje-salt-pans Salt has been harvested from here since at least the Middle Ages.

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Sečovlje salt-pans beyond the canal

March 30- April 1, 2016