One of the worst travel mistakes I ever made was to rent a car instead of using public transportation. Whether you are traveling for pleasure, for missions, or for business, one of the big questions you must solve is whether to depend on local transportation–tuktuks, taxis, buses, subways, trains–or to be independent and drive yourself in a rented vehicle. Let me give you a few things to think about to help you make the right decision.
Don’t try to save money at the expense of safety or the completion of your mission. This was my big mistake in London. It was 1979, and we were a family of five, forced to fly through London on our way from Germany to the US. Not only did we have to spend the night, but we had to change airports. At that time, all of the flights from Europe landed at London Heathrow and all of the flights to the States departed from London Gatwick.
We had always flown directly to and from Frankfurt before, so this was our first time to fly through London. Even though we had lived in Europe for eight years, London was very much a foreign country to us. About all I knew was that the two airports were about 30 miles apart–so how difficult could it be to move from one to the other?
I made two bad decisions and they were both in an attempt to save money! The first was to book a hotel about 10 miles away from Gatwick. Airport hotels for a family of five are always expensive–sometimes outrageous! I had found a nice country hotel in a small village south of Gatwick that was quite reasonable, but, of course, it did not offer an airport shuttle or any other convenient way for a family with three small children and their luggage to get back and forth.
The decision to rent a car was confirmed when I found out how much it cost to take the bus from Heathrow to Gatwick. To rent a car was about half the price–and that would solve the problem of getting from the country hotel to Gatwick as well. Easy decision!
We landed at Heathrow in the late afternoon and our misadventure began with the discovery that the car rental place was off airport, so we had to move the family and luggage by bus anyway to where the cars were. (But think of all the money we were saving!!) Then we got the car and discovered that it was about two sizes smaller than I had expected–and was a hatchback instead of a station wagon. Fortunately, these were the days before car seats were required, or we never would have made it. We literally had to load into the back seat and have the children sit on top of the suitcases to get all of us and the luggage in.
Did I forget to tell you that they drive on the wrong side of the road in England?? I did know that and just decided it couldn’t be that hard. But did you know they also put the steering wheel, the gear shift, and the rearview mirror on the wrong side of the car too? Yes, of course, it’s a stick shift! I’m sure it made the car rental a lot cheaper!!
So with Sherrylee navigating with a map–pre GPS times–from the left front seat, the kids having a great time climbing around on luggage in the back seat, and me about as tense as I ever get, off we go from Heathrow to our hotel near Gatwick.
Within two minutes, because of not being able to accurately estimate where the left front corner of the car was, I nicked an innocently parked car’s bumper. I stopped and left my phone number on the car window, but it really was just a small scuff mark on the bumper, so I never heard from the owner.
Nonetheless, it scared me–maybe scarred me– but what choice did I have but to go on. No one had told me about traffic in the evening on the Motorway around London! So what was just a 30-mile trip took a couple of hours, with us often standing still because of rush hour traffic.
Well, I don’t remember anything else from that trip, but it did teach me some things about travel in foreign countries that I can share with you to make your trip easier.
- Don’t save money in the wrong places. Both your own safety and successfully getting from one place to another is worth a lot of money. I have made that trip between Heathrow and Gatwick many times now and have never rented a car to do it again.
- Use public transportation if it meets your needs. That’s not always the case. Sometimes you have to move around faster than buses or subways can, but if you are not in a hurry and if you don’t have lots of luggage to manage, then it might be an option.
- Don’t forget to think about safety issues when traveling. In many countries it can be dangerous to you to have an accident involving someone’s livestock, much less a person. If you rent, know what to do for your own safety in case of any kind of accident. If you choose public transportation, especially buses and subways–then you have to be concerned with petty crime–pickpockets, bus thieves, etc.–seldom life threatening, but certainly disconcerting and something to be avoided.
- Taxis –know their company’s reputation before you assume that they are reputable and safe. Some countries taxis are cheap and safe and by far the best choice. Other countries, only certain taxis are safe. You should almost always know what the cost of your trip will be before you get in the taxi.
- Alternatives–we have often found that private car services are good options. I’m not talking about traveling in limousines, rather just a private car service with your own driver. You can sometimes rent them for the day, but often we just book a trip to the airport or wherever we need to go. This is an especially good option in places where taxis are not particularly trustworthy.
- Car rental – Renting your own car still makes sense in places where you feel you can drive safely with confidence, where traffic is predictable, where you have to travel long distances, or you need a car for a longer period of time–if you have taken all my other points into consideration. I would also stick to the major car rental companies. The smaller ones are fine if everything goes right, but if anything goes wrong, you’ll be happier with the big companies.
I hope these tips help you in your travels. My hope is you won’t be waking up in a cold sweat 35 years later when you dream of your car rental experiences.