Avis - We're Number Two, You try harder!

Dear Avis rent-a-car people,

I would like to tell you about a wonderful holiday my husband and I enjoyed last week in France, and how much our enjoyment was enhanced by Avis and its wonderful service. We were travelling to France from India for the 10th year reunion of our business school class at INSEAD, and driving from Paris to Fontainebleau, the venue of the reunion. We looked forward to driving down the familiar roads from Paris to Fontainebleau and enjoying the beautiful French paysage.

We arrived half an hour early at the Avis address given on the confirmation letter of the booking, at 9:30 am. Imagine our surprise when we found that it led into a parking garage! We thought it was a weird place to have an office but with a Gallic shrug, we trustfully marched down with our bags to the second level, following the Avis signs. Weirder still, once we got to the second level, we found that the signs said Avis retour – Avis return. Return is fine but how about going, in the first place? Well, there was neither an office nor a person in sight. Hmm, puzzling. After considerable waiting for Godot, a man appeared from an unmarked elevator and upon anxious questioning, said that the Avis office was across the street, at the Gare de Lyon, and that this was only the return venue. But here’s what the address on the confirmation letter says, we wailed. His turn to do the Gallic shrug. After two more people emerged from the selfsame elevator and confirmed what he had said (simultaneously restoring my faith in my ability to speak and comprehend French, since I thought I had misunderstood what the first guy had said).

Half an hour of form filling and option picking later (yes, 20 euros extra for the GPS, no, 30 euros for insurance), we were finally at the car – a gigantic Toyota Verso, since we were planning to ride back with friends from the reunion. 10:45 a.m., only over an hour since we had reached the correct address given by Avis. Put away our stuff, got in, plugged the GPS into the lighter outlet and got ready for lift-off. Only, nothing happened when we turned the key in the ignition. Tried again. Rien. Again. My husband went back to the Avis counter and spoke to the lady. She came out, did a magic trick, and the engine came on. The trick? Pressing the brake and the clutch together, while turning the key!

We started off, and the car lurched erratically out of the parking lot. At first my husband thought it was because he was new to the car. Each time he tried to change a gear, the car stalled or bucked like a feisty bronco at a rodeo. The GPS hadn’t come on after the stipulated 5 minutes, despite frantic pressing of its buttons, so we were also a bit stymied for directions. I remembered we used to take the A6, so we routed ourselves towards the Peripherique entry for A6. I thought I smelled a burning odour soon thereafter – and half wondered whether it was burning rubber from the wild screeching and lurching of the car every time we slowed down at a light or had to restart.

A few moments later, the burning smell got stronger, and we thought we saw a wisp of smoke from the engine. It dissipated moments later so we careened on towards the highway. At a traffic signal, the engine died again. As my husband struggled to get it to sputter into life, black smoke started spewing furiously from the engine. Quite alarmed, we tried to get the car started so we could steer it over to the side of the road. A Good Samaritan driving behind us also pulled over to offer us his help. They opened up the hood, the French gentleman tried starting up the car…they struggled with her for 15 minutes but couldn’t figure out what was happening. As it turned out, our new friend was also driving down to Fontainebleau and asked us to follow him, saying he’d stop if the car smoked again. Easier said than done, he pulled away before Christine started. Moments later big clouds of black smoke were spewing out. Seriously alarmed we pulled over to the side and stopped. I called Avis emergency, and the lady was helpful, only, she said, since we were now stalled on the entrance to the Peripherique, she couldn’t send the Avis rescue and we’d have to call the French highway police and ask them for a bailout.

About when I got off the phone with her, a French police car pulled up. The lady officer said that we were endangering traffic by being parked where we were. Once I explained the problem, she said the police van would push us to a safe area and we could then wait for the rescue mechanic. By then it was 11:10 a.m. The class photo was scheduled for 12 noon – there was no way we could make it. After having paid 1876 euros in airfare and registration fees, to attend the special classes being held for the alumni, the class photo, the lunch, we would be lucky to make it there by late afternoon and find a few friends hanging around. The police van bumped us up an incline and peeled off. We called the French highway police, who said they’d get help out there. The Avis emergency had told us to expect an average wait of 30-45 minutes for the rescue squad. An hour down, we were still waiting, on a blistering hot day, afraid to turn on the AC or the fan or to drink too much water since we weren’t in reach of a restroom. Two more phonecalls to the highway police and another 45 minutes finally brought an end to the ordeal. The mechanic loaded up our car and drove off, leaving us and our bags on a sidewalk. Avis had said they’d send a taxi out to us.

The taxi arrived another half hour later and took us, yes, right back to the Gare de Lyon, a bare 15 minutes away! The lady at the counter was surprised to see us back. Emergency didn’t inform us of this, she said. The only other cars we have are all automatic. We have a small car, an Opel, that’s manual. Fine, give us that, we said, eager to get gone. How much less do we have to pay? Oh, no, you have to pay the same as for the big car, because emergency didn’t inform us about this problem. Otherwise we could have sent a car out to where you were. Of course, that Avis emergency didn’t speak to Avis rent-a-car was our problem! Okay, fine, whatever. At least give us a working GPS. Also, can we get insurance this time, since we no longer trust the quality of car you rent out? Sorry, you should have picked that option the first time. Your contract is sealed. We can’t give you insurance.

Thoroughly irritated, we decided to turn to the last resort of harried consumers everywhere – customer service. We called our friend at emergency and asked her to put us through. Waited for 15 minutes. She came back, all regretful. “Sorry, customer service doesn’t work on Saturdays and Sundays”, she said. I could have sworn I heard the sound of a Gallic shrug as we hung up.

Yours truly,

PS1. I forgot to thank you for helping me practice my rusty French – I had to, to deal with the cops, the emergency service, the highway police and what not!
PS2. I wish this had happened in the US of A so we could have sued your pants off!


Anonymous said…
You need a good story for every holiday right? Pity it couldn't have been a good customer service story!
dipali said…
How absolutely asinine. Bah:(
bird's eye view said…
Anon - you're so right!

Dips - couldn't agree more !!
DesiMom said…
I'm fuming here reading about your experience that was a few months ago...... I can imagine what you must've gone through. If it were sooner, I'd suggest you try making a formal complaint in writing to them. And yeah, I agree .....living in the US helps in more ways than one realises.

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