Initially, I logged on to the Holiday Autos website and decided that the most suitable model for my requirements was an Astra five-door quoted at an all-inclusive price of £388, less a £10 discount for booking on the web. Unfortunately , there was a malfunction, which prevented my reservation being processed.
I telephoned the call centre and was quoted £398 - £20 more than I would have paid via the website. After strong protests and referring the issue to a supervisor, the clerk eventually agreed that the original price of £378 would be honoured.
I received a letter explaining that although insurance was included, the operator might try to sell me 'top-up' cover.
At Faro airport we made our way to Europcar and the 'front desk experience'. Sure enough, was offered Super CDW, which I declined. No attempt was made to explain the potential liabilities I was accepting by not purchasing this cover.
Then we moved on to the car. I explained that I had chosen the Astra because I believed it had air conditioning. No, she said, the cheapest car with air conditioning was in a higher group and would incur a surcharge.
I declined and settled for the Astra. Being charitable, you might say this all arose from a misunderstanding on my part but (according to Europcar's tariff), the Astra is in its D Group but it positions the Renault Clio with air-con in C Group at a lower price. It smacked of a blatant attempt to up-sell by not providing clear choices. Eventually, feeling bruised, I was handed the keys and a rental agreement showing damage as 'none'.
An inspection revealed obvious damage to the rear and offside.
Leaving the airport I quickly realised that with three adults and two weeks' luggage, the Astra seemed somewhat asthmatic. It was only later that I realised it had a 1.2-litre engine which I assume Europcar must have chosen on cost grounds. That's fine except that it does Opel few favours in terms of product placement.
After an enjoyable vacation, I returned the car. Termination was quick but no one made any attempt to check for new damage.
What have I learnt from this experience? First, website rates can be 'out of sync' with telephone enquiries.
Secondly, the insurance area is still a minefield.
Thirdly, no amount of effort by senior management to reduce damage recovery will succeed unless procedures and disciplines are in place at the rental desk.
Fourthly, manufacturers do not seem to be working hard enough to ensure the derivatives offered by rental companies project the model range in a positive light. Verdict? In the words of my old teacher, 'could do better'." (November 2001)