Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

To Rental Car Or Not To Rental Car

Every summer, usually in August, I take my family to visit my in-laws in Montana.

For over a decade we simply flew from Raleigh to and from Billings because that's just 90 miles away from the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area in the Stillwater River valley, which is our destination.

And every year the airfares went up and up and up, until my wife and I were paying as much for the four of us to fly to Billings as we sometimes do to fly to Paris, London, or Belize. After all, $700+ per person round trip is nothing to sneeze at: times four, that comes to almost $3,000.

In August, 2008 we experimented by flying Southwest to Denver at less than half the airfare to Billings (a savings at the time of over $1500), and then we drove the 630 miles each way up through the heart of Wyoming to reach southern Montana. I rented a car, and that was an interesting trip--the first time.

We did the same thing in late August of 2009: flew into Denver, but this time on American for a bit over $200 per person and thus saved almost $2,000 on the air costs. And then drove the 630 miles up and 630 miles back again as last summer.

This time, however, the drive seemed a lot longer and more tedious. Perhaps that's because I put more than 2,000 miles on the vehicle after all was said and done, thanks to multiple scenic drives around Montana once we arrived.

However it happened, two thousand miles in the rental car seemed more wearying this year than last, and I am looking for a way to fly again into Billings in the summer of 2010 without breaking the bank. (So far, looking out 11 months on airline websites, the best I can come up with is around $550 per person RDU/BIL. But I digress.)

This year the rental car was more expensive, too. I originally comparison-shopped for a good rate, and I found every rental car company's rates high. I settled on Avis at around $700 (all in) for 14 days in a full-size four-door.

Then Avis "lost" the reservation when I called to give them a schedule change, and the replacement was quoted at $100 more by an incompetent and rude agent. I canceled, and checked Hertz online instead.

Just a few days from our arrival I was able to book a two week Hertz rental of a full-size four-door for under $700 (again, all in--even with the huge taxes and special airport surcharges and usage fees and other absurd extra costs). I was happy, even though last year's rental for the same period cost me just under $600.

Happy, that is, until we arrived Denver. Once at the Hertz lot I found that my assigned car reeked of smoke. (If you've read some of my earlier posts, this will sound familiar. I seem to be especially unlucky when it comes to snagging rental cars fouled with cigarette smoke.)

This necessitated a long wait back at the Hertz Gold counter for a replacement. I did a slow burn while waiting my turn. After years of being a Hertz Presidents' Circle member and having this happen repeatedly, I wondered how Hertz could be so consistently incompetent.

The hostler who parked the car, and the "cleaners" before him, would certainly have noticed the strong tobacco smoke odor, yet put the car out for availability anyway. Maybe it's because they themselves are smokers and didn't even notice.

After a long wait behind other irate customers, I explained the problem. The Hertz agent was not able to give me a comparable car (sold out!) but offered a Kia SUV--the larger of the two Kia SUV models--and I took it in the interest of time. We'd already lost 25 minutes by then.

It was a good choice. The Kia was roomy and comfortable, had excellent visibility, very tight steering, good turning radius, and was quick off the mark. Yet it returned over 23 MPG.

Our family settled in and learned to love the car through 2,000+ miles of occupancy. By the time we returned it to Denver, I was very glad the car's overall comfort and easy handling had minimized wear and tear on my psyche.

I have to admit that the only stressful part of the long drive was the first 100 miles north from the airport to get out of Colorado. Once at the Wyoming border, and all through that big state, driving was a breeze. It's nothing like the constant stress one feels on I-405 in L.A. or I-95 north of Richmond where, day or night, traffic is snarled.

But even an easy 2,000 miles, mostly at 75-80 MPH, still takes its toll on the driver.

There is also the considerable beauty of the landscape en route to recommend the drive. Wind River Canyon in Wyoming between Casper and Cody is gorgeous, and the ever-changing terrain from Denver to Red Lodge, Montana is never boring. If you've never driven through those parts of Wyoming and Montana, I highly recommend it. At least once.

While I never tire of the rugged mountain scenery of the West, the long drive still became tedious the second time around. I commented to my wife as we pulled into the Hertz return gate at Denver that next year we should think about spending a premium to fly to Billings again, and she agreed without hesitation.

I forgot to mention that covering such mileage on the ground requires an overnight stay in each direction, in effect cutting about 3 days off our time in Montana with family. However free of stress when compared to other highway routes, our road trip was not relaxing. The extra dollars spent to fly directly to Billings would have bought us more time to relax.

Is it really worth it to spend extra? Matter of personal choice, I guess. But even if you can afford to cough up $2900 to fly direct versus $880 to Denver (and then drive), it's hard to ignore the $2,000 savings. That's a big difference.

Another choice is simply not to go. I am considering staying home next year and sending only my wife and two kids, and letting them fly direct. If I bought the tickets soon for them, I could get them there for about $1650 for three flyers, which is twice what we paid this summer for four.

And in case you are wondering, it's nigh-impossible to get frequent flyer seats to Billings on any airline without a Papal Intervention.

Next post will describe our long Labor Day weekend trip to visit friends in New Orleans where things are back to normal: a 3-murder weekend in the city--which still didn't spoil a divine evening meal at Bayona.


Blogger hulananni said...

After living on an island for 20+ years the idea of driving that many miles makes me squirm. Longest drive here is around the island and with photo stops can take about 4 to 6 hours (and that's doing it slowly.) Although we've been to Big Sky and loved it...we flew into Bozeman via Denver and enjoyed the trip.

9/11/2009 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

About 4 years ago I drove cross country (Oregon to Washington DC). Even more than heavy city traffic, I strongly disliked driving through Utah and Wyoming because there's no speed enforcement with respect to tractor trailer rigs. Though there were state police around, I never saw a truck stopped, only passenger cars with out of state plates.
Even in heavy weather they go unsafely fast. Triple trailer rigs stayed in the fast lane doing 80-85 mph! (I suppose they appreciate the added risk of lane changes.)
If you're doing 70-75, it takes a long time with windshield covered from splash-up for such a vehicle to pass before being able to see again. Only safe alternatives are to brake quickly or not to let them pass you.
Such situations made my driving in those 2 states very heavy in stress and misery. Enough to make me fly over than to drive through in the future. No more vacations in those states!

9/11/2009 7:48 PM  
Blogger hulananni said...

New post is great. The comma is much better than a semi-colon. My mistake. Aloha.

1/08/2010 1:26 PM  

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