Rental Car Nightmare

It’s rare that Steve and I just take a week off of work for vacation.  Our normal time off spans between 10 – 14 days, and as a result, we usually try to see more than just one place.  On our European vacation in September 2014, we were gone for just over two weeks, spending a week in Portugal and a week exploring the French Riviera with a small slice of Provence thrown in.  We were planning to and did rent a car in both countries and as a result, we will rarely rent cars on vacation ever again (at least in Europe anyway).

For starters, Scube and I cannot drive a manual transmission. Our friend, bless him, tried to teach me in a very hilly section of Philadelphia and the poor guy probably needs a new starter (separate incident) and a new clutch.  If I was guaranteed that Europe would be as flat as Kansas then sure, I’d rent a stick car there, but it’s not, so we knew we were paying a premium for our automatic transmission shortcomings.  If that was the worst of it, our experience would not have been marred by this vacation against rental car agencies, but alas, the story continues.

In Portugal we were given an almost brand new Volvo.  From Lisbon we had about a 3 hour drive, maybe more to the Algarve region of Portugal.  With our printed maps we did our best and finally (after quite a few u-turns and attempts to ask for directions in Spanish – I know they speak Portugese but we do not) we found our way to the hotel.  And while our hotel was beautiful with an incredible cliff side beach, we had plans to explore many of the coastal towns and beaches in the Algarve region.  After our second day we noticed a small scratch on the side of the car.  A scratch in the US that would not have rendered second looks or additional charges.  I’m sure you can see where this is going.

We returned the car to the airport in Lisbon and were charged (we attempted to dispute the amount) an additional sum on top of our rental.  We noticed that the agent also checked under our car to see if we had bottomed out.  I have never seen such a thorough review of a vehicle, especially since I rented a car each week for almost two years for my past job.  When all was said and done, our rental car for 5 days in Portugal cost us close to $900.  There may have been tears.  There were tears.  Many, many, tears.

After our experience at Avis in Portugal, we were really nervous for our rental car experience in France.  And of course, after arriving in Nice we were given an Audi convertible.  It barely fit our luggage but was apparently the only automatic transmission they had on the lot.  Also brand new.  We were petrified.  We didn’t want to bottom out, scratch, dent or damage this car in anyway.  While we always set out with those goals when it comes to rentals, we and our wallets, were acutely aware of the consequences.  Sidenote: Even with the heightened rental fear, I will never, ever rent a car in the Riviera again.  The roads are narrow, incredibly winding and all around not worth it.  Taking public transportation either a train or a bus would have gotten us to our destination with half as much stress.

Now that we had this Audi convertible, our first stop was to drive from the airport in Nice a few hours to Avignon.  I don’t know how else to describe Avignon but it is not a place for cars of any kind.  As a medieval city, it is completely narrow with alleyways posing as two-way streets.  Driving through Avignon, knowing that any minor scrape would result in hundreds of extra dollars was so stressful.  The car was filled with anger, yelling, and tears.  After driving around in circles praying that the streets were wide enough for our vehicle, our hotel manager informed us that there is parking outside the city with shuttle service.  If you do decide to rent a car and drive to Avignon, park there.  You will not regret it.

After a few days in Avignon we were off to Eze, a town that sits upon a hill just outside of Nice.  While the area was beautiful, the roads were incredibly winding with countless switchbacks.  Our adorable B&B owner suggested a more scenic route to Monaco while there.  Princess Grace died on that route. I spent the entire drive with white knuckles on the steering wheel honking my horn at every turn in the hopes to avoid a head on collision.  Reason number 8974523948 why you should never EVER rent a car in the Riviera.  Welp.

Needless to say, returning our car in France was a much less painful experience in Portugal without additional charges.  There were battle scars, gray hairs, and unnecessary stress to say the least, but ultimately, the key takeaway is to avoid renting a car in Europe at all costs.  With transportation so easy in most places (the Algarve not being one of them), in most major European outposts renting a car is like owning a car in Manhattan.  We will be much more discerning in the future and I hope this is a cautionary tale for everyone out there.  Unless of course you drive stick, because you are one of the lucky ones.

I may be smiling on the outside, but I am weeping on the inside
I may be smiling on the outside, but I am weeping on the inside

Pic of the Week – The Algarve

My husband and I spent a week in the Algarve, which is the southern most region of Portugal, last September.  The cliff side beaches were absolutely beautiful, but the water, even for September, was freezing.  My husband, the human fish, could barely go in, and that’s saying something!  But nothing, regardless of water temperature, beats lying on a beach and letting all of your troubles float away, no?

algarve
The beautiful Algarve, beaches are just better dotted with colored umbrellas, no?

The Beauty of a Walking Tour

Ah the walking tour.  If you’re anything like me you’re probably thinking that a walking tour equals an umbrella wielding guide in an old colored woolen jacket trying to coral a gaggle of foreign tourists down the street while shouting “this way! this way!”.

Well, walking tours have started to get a bit of a face lift, and are really worth using to your advantage.  I know there are plenty of free apps out there that provide maps and walking tour information, but when visiting a foreign country, my husband and I like being social.  We like meeting new people and talking with inevitably the local who is leading the tour. Tour guides are full of local knowledge and always provide recommendations that are off the beaten the path.

My main disclaimer here is that not all travel destinations will offer or even need a walking tour, but if you’re in a city, there’s a fair chance you can find a ton that fit your taste and requirements.

So why walking tours? They are a great way to get acclimated to a new city, as well as find new areas, restaurants, sample local fare, and get really great tidbits.  When we touched down in Sydney, Australia, the first thing we did (after we showered, changed, and face-timed my parents) was a walking tour…and it was free!  For three hours twelve of us explored Sydney with an incredible guide during the I’m Free Walking Tour.   The tour hit on all the sweet spots, and as someone who loves ice cream, the tour guide gave us a fantastic gelato recommendation (the Robert Brownie Jr was to die for!).  Since a walking tour is just a taste, my husband and I were able to identify areas of the city or landmarks we wanted to explore further, and were thrilled that we were able to spend our first day staring at the Sydney Opera House.  Granted – we had a whole week to explore Sydney, but what should you do if you’ve got only 24 hours to spare and are moving on to some place new?

aussie gelatoWe have also been in that situation* and there are many paid tours out there that focus on culture immersion (predominantly around food and wine).  I also find this to be an incredible way to see hole in the wall little spots and find out what the heck this place you’ve decided to visit is all about.  My husband and I put that to the test in Lisbon, Portugal, where we only had about a day and a half to really explore the city.  As a result – we chose a half day walking tour with Inside Lisbon that involved stops at local pastry shops, butcheries, wine and cheese shops, and Ginjhina bars littered throughout.  We also learned about the city’s history as it related to the Moor’s, and were taken to so many different neighborhoods along the way, including a ferry ride to a great seaside restaurant for lunch.  While I’d like to think we would have ambled in for a shot of ginjhina on our own, knowing the backstory really made us feel like one of the locals.

pastries belemSo while we love a walking tour, they’re not for everyone, and they’re not always available.  However, they offer a great opportunity to help you not only acclimate yourself to a city, but immerse yourself in it, even if you only have 24 hours or so to enjoy it.  Personally, I’m looking forward to our next tour – a walking food tour of Italy.  Stay tuned for that!

*Note: we also went on a walking tour in Seville, Spain, separate post on that later!