Is ‘travel’​ really ready for the return?

Is ‘travel’​ really ready for the return?

We all know the saying, ‘strong as the weakest link’. When it comes to resiliently rebuilding a sector, that’s so true. Unless everyone looks out for everyone, there is a danger no one benefits. Here is a case in point.

Typically, I plan for an annual trip to France the same way each year. This involves early booking of flights and car hire. That’s it. The key advantages being availability certainty, better prices and with dates known, I can plan activities in France.

To say 2020 was anything but typical for travellers, is an understatement. Many found restrictions meant it wasn’t possible. According to the ONS in February 2020 there were over 6 million flights from the UK. Two months later and this was down to 112,300. We did manage a trip during one of the few allowed windows.

So come 2021 I anticipated it would again be possible. However, despite an industry desperate to regain its momentum, it was a car hire company policy, and not any lockdown requirement or border testing which meant we had to cancel our family summer trip.

So what went wrong?

I choose to book through broker RentalCars. One of many I’ve used in the past. The offered a good deal for a Europcar hire. Again, a company I’ve used in the UK and across Europe before. So, the car hire was booked, with a knowledge I could cancel if I couldn’t travel. My flights were with Ryanair, because they fly to Bergerac, which is the most convenient airport for our trip. With Ryanair, I accept its a cold transaction. A cash for seat exchange. I expect nothing more than to arrive safely and roughly on time, they expect nothing more than the seat and baggage ticket fee paid. It’s an arrangement that’s worked for years.

This year Ryanair moved my flight departure several times. It eventually fell 3 days after I originally booked to travel. They offered a credit or a refund because of this change. This was disappointing as it reduced our trip by 3 days. However, it was still the same price and the same seats, so we decided to travel.

In service of the sale or in service of the customer?

That was until I contacted RentalCars to tell them we would arrive three days later. Their response was that because I had chosen to be a ‘no show’ (meaning not collect the car within 24 hours of agreed time) I would be charged the full price of the rental.

I explained I would be there, just as soon as the plane (still same flight number) arrived, so the car I reserved would be needed. But I was told, as it was clear from the operative they felt I hadn’t listened, I was a ‘no show’. Why do companies use their internal tags when talking to customers?

I explained I still wanted the car and he said this was possible. I felt elated, we’d got through. The car, when I originally booked a few months before, was £260 to hire. So to accommodate my 3 day later arrival, they explained they would simply cancel my previous booking and set up a new one for the same car. But with a week to go before the trip, this was now £750; a tidy 300% price rise. Not something I felt comfortable with. The explanation was that this was the ‘open market’ price because I was booking so close to the travel date the demand is higher. But this was for the car that I’d already hired, not more demand; 1 less booking replaced by 1 more booking.

I was then told, it’s not us, it’s Europcar, speak to them. So I did. Ditto the two previous paragraphs. Despite explaining there was no law stating they had to cancel and rebook, they could simply change my dates. They wouldn’t/couldn’t. So, it’s either an inflexible system or a bad policy. It was clear nothing would change.

In fact, it was then suggested I speak to the front line Eurpocar car hire office in Bergerac and see what they could do. I did call up and the lady who answered said she was out of the office but to call back and share my query then.

I decided at this point not to call back. I reflected and thought it terrible that the buck had been passed by both of those I spoke to and now it rested on the local operator putting a ‘work around’ in place. So I went online and cancelled our car hire and our flights. We received a full refund on the flights and car hire (minus a £30 deposit they kept).

Jerry Seinfeld got there before me…

This is one of my go-to videos for customer experience, so the irony is not lost on me that I have now suffered at the hands of a poor car hire experience. Please enjoy.

Empathy underpinned with agility is needed

In fairness it wasn’t Europcar’s fault the flight changed. It was probably down to demand that RyanAir changed the flight, and it wasn’t our fault it changed. The reason was beyond all of us. But because of a ‘policy’ we all lost out. These are the times we live in.

The way they chose to manage it was in their control. This is a broken process, and it should be reviewed. Covid-19 restrictions will change how many customers behave and therefore business responses will be out of date.

I received a very upbeat customer feedback survey from Europcar soon after. I explained all, providing reference numbers. When it concluded, the thank you message stated, ‘we don’t personally respond to any feedback’ – oh dear.

I’m not the world’s most prolific hirer of cars but worked out in a normal business year it’s probably 8 times; 2 for personal trips and 6 for business trips. So that could be 8 trips x 10 future years, which could be about £XXXXX of lifetime spend on car hire, or as it’s turned out £30 instead. Sorry Europcar, I’m out from here on.

I appreciate this is not reflective of all travel operators, but it seems there are some weak spots in the journey which will potentially have a knock-on effect to others. The airline lost out and the attractions, retailers and restaurants we visit lost out. I wonder if Europcar appreciate how important their role is in helping others progress?

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