Monday, April 25, 2016

Renting Cars Without Getting Fleeced

And Silvercar too!

Everyone thinks they know how to rent a car.  But, judging from what I've observed most people just reserve a car online and then proceed to get royally screwed.

I've rented a car almost every week for 30 years. So here are a few basic Roadboy tips on how to get a fair rate and minimize wasted time in line.

Lets start with the basics. Are you 25 with a valid credit card? If yes to both questions, you are probably good to go. If no to either or both questions, plan on making special arrangements.

First the ground rules.

Rental car companies make much of their profit by selling you extras. Rental counter agents get commissions for getting you to buy stuff. So expect to be pressured into buying upgrades, additional insurance, a GPS device and toll tags.

• Upgrades
Normally the first up sell will be for an upgrade. It might go something like "Oh I see you are tall, is that little car going to be big enough for you? I can put you in a larger car for only $XX."

First off, the $XX quoted is daily and will be in addition to the rate you reserved.  Upgrading at the counter is almost always a bad idea.

Upgrades are also frequently pitched when the lot is out of the car class you reserved. If you are dealing with a reputable rental agency they'll readily admit it and go on to offer you an upgrade for the same  rate. You should never tolerate an extended wait for a car in the class you reserved.

• Insurance 
This one requires 15 minutes of homework before you rent a car.
1. Contact your auto insurance company and verify that you are fully insured when you rent a car for business and/or leisure.

2. Check with your credit card company to determine if it covers you for a car rental. Many credit cards do only IF you decline all rental car company offers of supplemental insurance. However, even credit cards that offer car rental coverage, frequently limit this coverage to domestic use, so don't rely on them for an international rental.

Expect the agent to try to subtle intimidation with comments like "You do understand you are responsible for the full value of the car?"

• Prepaid Fuel
The next question you will be asked is: "Would you like to pre-pay a tank of gas at (enter cheap per gallon rate here) and return the car empty?"

This sounds good, but the rental car company realizes that most customers return their cars with quite a bit of gas in the tank. So, getting you to pay for a whole tank, despite the discount per gallon rate, is almost always a bad deal for you.

• Emergency Road Service and Other Up Charges
Before you leave the rental counter scan the summary of charges on the contract they hand you. You will likely be amazed at the array of charges added to your bill. In some cities (Seattle is a good example) the added taxes and charges frequently exceed the daily rental rate for the car.  Sorry, but you are stuck with most of those fees. But one fee added in that is usually optional is emergency road service. 

So if any charge or fee seems vague ask. It never hurts. Thrifty in Salt Lake City always used to add an expensive daily "Emergency Road Service" fee. I missed seeing this fee a couple of times and got stuck paying for something I really didn't need.

Consider becoming a basic member of AAA. Here's why. Once rented a car and a few hours later I locked the car keys inside. First I called local locksmiths and was told "We don't do auto lockouts" anymore. I then called the rental car company and was told the "emergency road service" I bought was limited to mechanical break downs, not a lock out.

So my only two options were to hire a taxi to / from the airport (to pick up a spare key) or break a window. So faced with a $200 cab fare or the expense of replacing a broken window, I thought I'd check AAA. They unlocked my car in 20 minutes at no charge. I almost always save more than my annual AAA fee each year just in hotel rate savings.

• Paying for the Last Guy's Sins
Never simply get in a rental car and drive off.

Even if the lot is dark use your cell phone flashlight and examine the body, windshield, headlights and the tires. Take cell phone photos of anything you see and get the gate agent to initial your updated damage form.

Alamo in Albuquerque once rented me a car once with a tiny windshield crack. I blew it off. But when I returned it I was told they "cannot rent a car with even a tiny crack" and proceeded to charge me for a full windshield replacement.

Just this week I noticed my rental car steering wheel was just a little off after I had left Silvercar in Denver.

Admittedly, It seemed odd for an otherwise nice car. Since there was no shimmy or pulling, I ignored it.

But an hour after returning the car I got a call accusing me of hitting a curb and told I may be subjected to paying for damages to the tire and/or suspension etc. Although the roads were dry for my rental Denver experienced a big late spring storm the week before. So I'm betting the last renter slid into a curb. So examine tires and NEVER drive a car with a steering wheel that is not 100% dead level.

• Road Tolls
If you will be in an area with toll roads check into the various rental cars toll policy. Many charge excessive daily charges for toll tags. This is a real pain when you have a 5 day rental and only a small part of your trip will include a toll road.

I recently had one rental car company issue me a toll tag, then charge me $8 per toll gate (where the cash charge for the actual toll was only 80 cents).

So Here is Roadboy's Tips:

1. Shop
Research prices for your car on a site like That allows you to scan rates for the dates and market you need from lots of agencies at once. Be careful to avoid pre-paid rentals unless you are totally sure of your travel plans.  If yur a willing to pay a pre-paid rental check Hotwire and Priceline. But rmeember Hotwire adds a service charge. The key is to  always compare the total rental charge, not the daily rate.

If the car you want is under $69 / day then go to the actual rental car site to rent that car.

Please, before you male the reservation spend 5 minutes to become a member of the car rental agencies frequent rental club. Then log in and reserve the car. Now, when you arrive you'll get access to the expedited lane and eliminate much (if not all) of the car rental counter up sell hell experience.

2.  Timing
If you can, shop for a car 45 days before your trip. Advance rates are usually (but not always) lower than prices will be just before you travel.

But, I try to also check back 7-14 days before I travel. Sometimes I'll find rates have gone down. When that happens, I reserve a new rental and go back and cancel the old one.

3. Buy Your Own Gas
If you have the time, plan to buy your own gas. Otherwise many rental car companies will charge an exorbitant price to refill.

4. Smile - Never Argue
No matter how awful the experience is try hard not to argue or get mad. If a conflict arises be firm, but reasonable.

Yelling almost never benefits you. Conversely, being the nice guy who comes up ot the counter after an agent has just served a string of upset customers, frequently results in making the agent more inclined to treat you well.

5. Check Silvercar
If the rental rate for the dates / locale exceed $69 / day then check if your destination is served by Silvercar.  Silvercar delivers a wonderful premium rental car experience. It only rents newish Audi A4's. ANd every car has both satellite radio and WiFi. They have a fair toll and refuel policy too. You'll first need to add their app to your smart phone. Then upon arrival you simply use your smart phone to check the car out (no rental counter lines, no high pressure up selling, no BS).

6. Car Sharing
And for you Millennial's (with car sharing accounts), see if you can ride a light rail to your hotel and use your ride sharing account. This allows you to bag the whole hassle of renting a car!

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Saturday, April 9, 2016


Thank You!
From An Architect on The Road
I just happened to notice that my blog's stats checker recently passed 75,000 hits. 

I've really enjoy creating these posts and sharing the highlights and sometimes obscure or hidden stories associated with the places I've been lucky enough to visit over the years.  Here are some highlights looking back.....

 Holiday Shop Windows New York City

 Storms  Over Nashville

 Sky Shark

 The Magic of Piazza St. Marco Venice

 Sunset Over The Pacific From Santa Monica

 Summer Fun in Lisbon

 Shop Window in Barcelona

 Mugging At Parc Guel Barcelona

The City Museum St. Louis

Looking ahead....

Between work, a speaking engagement and fun my calendar for the next eight months is filling up. It has me visiting Denver, Montana, Seattle, Chicago, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Toronto, Virginia, San Diego and Hawaii. Plus I'll take a bicycle journey in the late fall through Spain's Costa Brava.

So stay tuned for more posts and, to the 75,000 plus folks that have visited here over the years, well Roadboy offers a big thank you!

Roadboy's Travels © 2016

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Boyce Thompson's Southwest Arboretum

A Desire to End Hunger  
A Love of the Southwest

Boyce Thompson's background was eclectic. Born in Montana, he demonstrated little interest in his public schooling and was sent to be educated at the elite Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He followed that in 1889 with a single year spent studying engineering at Columbia.

Colonel William Boyce Thompson

He completed his education on Wall Street amassing a fortune. His fortune allowed him in 1907 to both purchase and establish various mining operations in Globe and Superior Arizona.

In 1917 he was given the title Colonel of the Red Cross and sent to Russia by the Wilson Administration to assure that it would not negotiate a peace with Germany. The experience proved to be life changing. While there he witnessed incredible poverty and starvation and returned home committed to finding ways to end hunger and ensure the world's food supply.

In 1923 on land near his mining interests in Superior, Arizona Thompson began building a winter home that came to be referred to as his "Picket Post" house. Much of the house remains today.

Thompson's Picket Post House
(Portions of the original home burned in 1953)

A year later in 1924 Thompson endowed $10 million dollars to create the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) for Plant Research in Yonkers, New York. Adjusted for inflation that is the equivalent of about $138,000,000 in 2016 dollars.

Also in 1924 he hired Dr. Frances Crider from the University of Arizona to begin the creation of the Boyce Thompson Southwest Arboretum on land adjacent to his new winter home.

In 1978 his Yonker's New York BTI was abandoned and a new BTI facility opened on a site at Cornell University in Ithaca. 

The Original Boyce Thompson Institute 
Yonkers New York 2014

For the next 38 years Thompson's beloved BTI buildings and greenhouses were left to vandalism and decay. Perhaps, in a bit of irony, the plants have reclaimed the site. I note that a google search indicates there are plans underway to redevelop the Yonkers BTI site.

In Arizona he sought to create his Southwest Arboretum as "the most beautiful and useful garden of its kind in the world".

Mountains to The South

Smith Interpretive Center and Greenhouses (1925)

Along Magma Ridge

Spring Blooms

A Reptiles Delight

Access to The High Trail

In 1925 he suffered a serious stroke from which he never fully recovered. Convinced an even more serious cataclysm was eminent after the stock market crash in 1929, he began liquidating his fortune. But just one year later, in 1930, at the age of 61, he died.  

Now, nearly a century later, Thompson's Arboretum is part of Arizona's state park system. And, like most Arizona parks, it demonstrates our legislatures neglect in our state parks. Luckily, it is cared by some really dedicated staff and a legion of volunteers. The Arboretum is a must see for Arizona residents and visitors alike.

It is located about an hours drive east of Phoenix and is open every day except December 25.  Its operating hours vary by season. From October till April the hours are 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.  From May through September it is open from 6:00 AM till 3:00 PM. Last admissions are sold 1 hour before closing.

Roadboy's Travels © 2016