Thursday, August 26, 2010

The holiday that nearly wasn't

Our vacation to the UK was almost over before it began. On the flight over, British Airways had assigned me a seat in a different row to DH and the children. We agreed that this was not a bad thing as I really needed to sleep because I would be the one driving when we got to the UK and would need to have my wits about me as it was so long since I 'd driven there.

Sadly, I got no sleep. The children were right behind me and VERY excited to be on a plane. The last time we flew to the UK it was via Reykjavik on IcelandAir and DS howled because he did not have the seatback TV his sister had promised him. This time they had the seatback TVs and what seemed like a gazillion choices of things to watch - not all of them appropriate for kids, but with no way to switch off the inappropriate stuff. I had told them there would be "a" kids' movie, but they had so much choice they decided to try to watch everything! So no sleeping children, lots of commenting on the movies, telling mommy to look out of the window, and a fair amount of kicking mommy's seat. Oh, and during the brief moment that DH actually got to nap, the flight attendant came by and gave my daughter coffee! Add to that, the fact that I was sitting next to two very nice, very chatty, Scottish girls who were determined to drink the plane dry (and stock up with wine bottles for their flight to Glasgow on which they knew the drinks would not be free) and I was knackered by the time we got to Heathrow.

The kids and I, with our British passports, breezed through UK immigration, but DH got stuck in a enormously long queue as several flights appeared to have arrived at the same time. He was not amused when, after half an hour, he finally got to the front of the queue to find out that he could have walked through with us! (He still has suspicions that if he had tried that, they would have sent him back to the foreigners' queue anyway!)

As we exited into the airport, we believed the signs that told us to head to the far end of Terminal 5 for car rental buses. Once we were outside the building we found we had to walk all the way back to the end of the building where we'd started. Grr.

We took the shuttle bus over to Avis car rental and it was here that things really started to go pear-shaped. I went in to deal with the paperwork, while DH stayed outside with the children. Over-tired children. Weasel children. Apparently deaf children because they listened to not a word their father said.

The staff inside the Avis office and their computer system were amazingly inefficient. It ended up taking over 45 minutes for me to get the paperwork sorted for a car that I had already booked and paid for. Admittedly, not all of the delay was their fault - the bloke in front of me spent twenty minutes going around and around with them over the fact that he wanted to pay cash for his rental and just couldn't fathom why they refused to let him leave with a car without giving them a credit card number. I don't know what planet he came from, but clearly no car rental company is going to let you leave without giving them a valid credit card number.

Fortunately, I had my receipt from British Airways because Avis claimed to have no record of the booking in their computer, and the staff member behind the desk commented that this 'always' happened with BA rentals! No record of the booking meant no record of my credit card, which meant they wanted the number again. I explained I had already paid, and although I understood that they needed to have the number on file, I did not expect them to charge my card. "Of course not", she said, and promptly asked if I would give her my card again as it "hadn't gone through" the first time!

When I've rented cars at Heathrow in the past (with another company, that my sister used to work for), they would get done with the paperwork and then tell me to go out and pick any car from a particular row. I don't think this was special treatment for a 'staff' rental. I suddenly realized when the Avis staff member disappeared for 5 minutes to go and look at the cars in the car park that this was not going to happen at Avis - she was about to assign me a specific car, so when she returned and asked if a BMW 1 series would be OK, I asked, "Is that going to have a boot big enough for all our luggage?" and "Can I have a diesel please?" (Diesel=better mpg) "I'll be right back" she said, and then disappeared off into the car park again. Why on earth did her computer system not have that information available? She returned and asked if a BMW 3 series would be OK. Suspicious that she was trying to upgrade me to a more expensive car, I said fine so long as it has a similar boot size to the Vectra, (which was the class of car I had booked), and isn't going to cost me any more money. I had no idea what a BMW 1 or BMW 3 series was, but 3 sounded more expensive than 1!

By the time I finally got the bay number for the car DH, had had it up to here with the children and demanded that the first place I drive should be Terminal 5 so he could figure out how to get a flight home again. We headed out and found the car she'd assigned us, children still being little weasels all the way. The bags fit in the boot. The kids' booster seats fit, sort of, on the back seat. I found where to put the key in, and decided to spend a minute familiarizing myself with the controls. I found the 'Start' button. Oh, no, a car designed by Microsoft - I bet the 'Start' button stops it too. (OK, it did say "Start/Stop".) But the Start button didn't seem to start the engine. With the children getting even more irritating (if that's at all possible) DH was still grumping about wanting to head for Terminal 5. I finally had to ask one of the Avis staff how to start the car. (Depress the clutch while pushing the Start button.) Fortunately, unlike Nappy Valley Mum and her husband, I had kept my ID in the car with me (American habit!) rather than in the boot , so we got out of the Avis car park OK. Well, we bunny-hopped out onto the main road - it was 4+ years since I'd had to change gear after all! Seeing as I was driving, I made the executive decision not to head for Terminal 5, but to go straight to my brother's house instead. (Actually, if only I could have persuaded DH to take the children with him, I might have dropped all 3 of them off at Terminal 5 by then!)

I breathed a sigh of relief once we got onto the empty-at-8-o'clock-on-a-Sunday-morning M25. Now the vacation would begin. Except I made the mistake once we got my brother's house of checking my email and found that Avis had charged my credit card $900 ($300 more than the cost of our rental!), not once but twice :-( Avis' slogan may be "We try harder" but in my experience all that means is "We try harder to piss you off!"


Expat mum said...

Oh I feel your pain. I have many memories of being at the Heathrow car rental place, (having confirmed the booking the day bedore) to be told that the car wasn't ready, or that the booking wasn't in the system. Enough to make you weep.

Ayak said...

Oh my goodness...what an awful start to your holiday. It can only get better (well it couldn't get much worse could it?)

Hope the rest of your stay will be a happy one.

Daffodilly said...

I just love the way that they lie to your face yet charge you anyway!

A Brit in Tennessee said...

What a bugger.
I can't remember one time when I have been home, when all of my travel plans went according to the original booking...
"Keep calm and carry on", Pobody's Nerfect ;0

Jane said...

Oh my! Thanks for the heads up. I'll avoid Avis next summer!

Almost American said...

Jane - I don't know that any of the other places at Heathrow would be any better. Expat Mum says she's had problems too at Heathrow. Even when we went to the company my sister worked for and had a 'staff' rental, they always seemed to be understaffed and it took longer than I expected to actually get the car and get out of the airport. Just make absolutely sure if you pay in advance to have your receipt with you!

nappy valley girl said...

God they are awful aren't they? Funnily enough we ended up with a BMW too, having ordered a Golf diesel. They must have a surplus of BMWs or something.

Almost American said...

Delighted to get my credit card bill today and find that there were NO unauthorized charges for the car rental :-) I guess Avis must have put a 'hold' on my card and that's what Capital One emailed me about, but the charges never went through!

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