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Rental car nightmare

Yesterday may have been my worst day of travel ever, at least in terms of what went wrong. Still, it wasn’t all that bad.

I wrote yesterday about our flight delay in Phoenix. This dark cloud turned out to have a silver lining, as we were rerouted on a nonstop flight to Orlando — the flight we originally wanted — rather than a connecting flight through Charlotte. The new flight arrived in Orlando on time, putting us only about 90 minutes behind our original schedule.

After arriving in Orlando, we went to pick up the rental car we’d reserved with Advantage. They assigned us a Hyundai Accent with about 18,000 miles on it. Other than a few minor dings that I noted on the damage form, it appeared to be good to go. We headed eastbound from the airport, getting on State Highway 528, also called the Beachline Expressway, a toll road.

As I accelerated away from the first toll booth, I noticed blue smoke billowing out of the back of the car. Blue smoke is never a good thing. I pulled over immediately and stopped the car. After waiting a few minutes, I started the engine again. No indicators on the dashboard, but there was still blue smoke coming out the car, even in park. I definitely wasn’t driving it again. We called Advantage roadside assistance.

Advantage Car Rental, broken down

Advantage Car Rental, broken down

At this point, it was shortly after 5:00 pm. If you’ve ever broken down during rush hour, you know you’re in for a wait at that time of day. AAA, who was handling roadside assistance for Advantage, advised us there would be nine motorists ahead of us. We got out of the car, since there was no air conditioning without the motor running, found some shade on the side of the road, and prepared to wait.

With unclear instructions from his dispatcher, as well as a couple of tourists who weren’t exactly sure where they were, it took several additional phone calls for the tow truck driver to find us, but he didn’t give up. Within about an hour, he had located us. He gave us each a bottle of cold water and had us wait in the cab while he hooked up the disabled car.

At this point, it should have been a simple ride back to the airport. It wasn’t so simple.

The tow truck is apparently too tall to fit into the rental parking garage at the airport. The driver knew this and told us he couldn’t drop us off there. It took another phone call to Advantage to figure out exactly how to return the disabled car to them, and how we and our luggage would find our way into a new car. The instructions we got from Advantage were quite vague. We hoped they’d make sense to the driver, but they didn’t. At this point, even he was lost.

We had almost completely circled the airport when an unmarked left off-ramp suddenly appeared. The directions said something about a left turn, so we had some faith and took the ramp. No sooner had we turned when we found the Advantage employee in his white polo shirt, flagging us down.

The tow truck driver unhooked the car, at which point a mechanic confirmed that, yes, the almost-new Hyundai Accent was billowing blue smoke. The other employee — the one who flagged us down — drove us back to the airport rental desk in what would become our new rental, a Volkswagen Jetta. He said it was a two-class upgrade for our troubles. At that point, any car that ran would have been an upgrade.

So, with our luggage loaded up, we were back on the road again around 7:00 pm. We headed down the same highway, the sun considerably lower in the sky. We made it all the way to I-95, at which point it was dark out. Suddenly, the low tire pressure indicator lit up on the dashboard. I have a tire pressure monitoring system in my own car, and I know it sometimes activates when one tire is ever so slightly below 30 psi. Still, I wanted to be safe. We were close to an exit with a gas station, so I pulled over.

The gas station was a 7-Eleven. It had one of those air pumps that you have to pay for, and it cost a dollar for five minutes. Kathryn ran inside and asked for change. The clerk told her he couldn’t open the drawer unless she made a purchase. She told him she needed the change to purchase a dollar’s worth of air. Lacking any intelligent response, he opened the drawer, and Kathryn came out with our change. And that, folks, is why I love her.

Having glanced at all four tires while Kathryn was inside the store, it looked to me like the front driver’s side tire was a little soft, but I figured, since I had five minutes’ worth of air, I’d check all four. I was horrified to find all four tires were below 20 psi, with the front driver’s side tire at 12 psi.

Now, if one tire had been low, I might assume there was a slow leak, or that I picked up a nail or some other road hazard while driving. Since all four tires were low, I knew no one at Advantage had checked the tire pressure, possibly ever. I suspect someone had just pressed the tire pressure monitor reset button without checking the pressure. In any event, I got all four tires up to 32 psi, and we continued on our way. We haven’t seen the tire pressure warning again.

At this point, with everything that had happened, we realized we hadn’t had anything to eat since the breakfast burrito we fired down at Sky Harbor. We were starving. We made it one more exit on I-95 and stopped for some fast food. We ate quickly and continued on once again.

When all was said and done, we arrived at our destination near Fort Pierce about four hours behind schedule. It could have been a lot worse. Kathryn and I had each other, and that kept our spirits high.

Note: I’ve had good luck when I rented from Advantage in the past. I’d like to think these current shortcomings were specific to the Orlando location. However, it’s worth noting Advantage was acquired by Hertz since the last time I rented from them. I have no prior experience with Hertz. It’s certainly possible my recent experiences are the reflection of a new corporate philosophy.

Postscript: I’ve had some discussion on Facebook about this incident. In the future I plan to bring one of those old-fashioned pencil-style tire pressure gauges with me when my travel plans involve renting a car. You expect your rental car company to make basic safety checks like tire pressure. Evidently they don’t. I’ve never rented a car that had a tire pressure gauge in it.