This is a cautionary tale. You may think you’re smart doing everything online. But sometimes that mouse you click with can turn right around and bite you on the bum. Here’s what happened to me…
How many times have you heard the expression ‘the internet changes everything?’ It’s the reason given for the slow death of our High Streets. Just the other week, as Whole Foods finally opened its doors in Richmond, two doors along women’s fashion shop Hobbs closed down.
But sometimes cyberspace is seen to change things in a good way. Like comparison sites that give you instant visibility of fifty choices of anything from flights to phones to insurance policies. But there’s a fundamental flaw in this business model. It commoditizes everything. The only column we focus on is the price. In October’s Wealth Watch newsletter I highlighted the dangers of online insurance policies that don’t cover you for the most basic circumstances or are riddled with get-outs in the small print.
On my latest trip to the Cote D’Azur I discovered another flaw in the online business model. I’ve often used CarHire3000.com to find reasonably priced cars. But there’s one aspect of their service that’s always troubled me. And this time it bit me firmly on the bum. Here’s how it works. You enter the date, time and location of the rental and it returns a whole page of cars at different price points. You select the car you want based on a photo and a brief description. Then you pay. Then they send you an email with a voucher telling you which company your car is being provided by.
And there’s the rub. I have to say I’ve almost never ended up turning the ignition key on the make and model of car I’d selected. But they’ve always been almost new cars provide by the likes of Europcar or Sixt. Not this time.
I was already grumpy because my BA flight from Gatwick landed at Terminal 1 in Nice airport. All car hire takes place at Terminal 2. Cue a ten minute wait for a shuttle bus, a bun fight to get on without tripping over everyone’s luggage then a ten stop tour of the airport perimeter. The genius who designed the airport decided to locate the care rental centre so far from the terminal that you do occasionally get overtaken by the Foreign Legion on a route march.
It was now forty minutes since our plane landed and we were no nearer having a car to deposit our luggage in. I checked the small print of my voucher and discovered we were to be looked after by a company called Firefly. No, I hadn’t heard of them either. My mood worsened when I couldn’t find a Firefly desk anywhere in the rental centre. I jumped the queue at National and was told that Firefly was the only company still located in the terminal building itself. Another route march, a twenty minute wait while one person in front of me was seen to and now it was my turn.
When the clerk said the damage excess was €1000 I decided I had to take the excess insurance, a bargain at €60 which added 50% to my hire costs. He handed me the keys and gave me a map of the airport with a little open air car park marked on it. Ten minutes later we stumbled upon it almost by chance. I was annoyed, but at least I felt that the shiny new Chevrolet shown on CarHire3000’s web site would soon be pointed down the de3lightful coast road to Antibes.
I found the parking space. Surely some mistake, as they say in Private Eye. My gleaming new Chevvie had morphed into a beat-up diesel Fiesta with 49,000 on the clock. My day was complete. Daphne tried hard to distract me with the sunny weather and the great hotel we were heading to. I was inconsolable. I was mentally composing my complaint about misrepresentation.
L had some misgivings about what the rental return experience would be like. They were justified. It took three trips round the airport to relocate the secret car park. Just as I congratulated myself on finding it my jaw dropped. It was full to overflowing and the only choice was to deposit my Dagenham Dustbin on the slip road. There was no representative of Firefly to be seen in the car park, just an irate English lady whose car was blocked in. She’d also landed over an hour earlier and was counting the cost of cheap online car hire. I rang Pierre in the office and he said he’d be over in five. It was a taxi driver’s five minutes and my entente cordiale ran out. He asked me to move the car. I shoved the keys in his hand and said ‘It’s your car, you move it’. Most unlike me…
From now on, regardless of what the website tells me, I will be ringing the office to check who the deal is with before booking. If anyone offers you a Firefly car rental, run a mile.
When it comes to buying stuff sight unseen from a website, be careful out there!