A Very Slow Boat to Sicily (Part 3 – Hire Car Hell)
We got off the boat at 2:30 pm and the plan was then to walk to Central Station to pick up the bus to the airport. As we set foot on dry land, I noticed a shuttle bus for free. Never one to turn down a bargain, I went up and asked the driver where does the shuttle bus go to.
“To the port entrance”, he said. Not exactly all the way to the train station but every little helps. We boarded and a few minutes later we were deposited on the main road.
The journey to the train station was quite straightforward up any of the roads in front of us onto the main road through Palermo, Via Roma, and then left towards the station. We dragged our cases through an increasingly hot day and within about 10 minutes found ourselves on Via Roma. We could see the station at the end of the road, but it looked miles away. At this point we spotted an airport bus making its way towards us. However we were not at a stop, so it did not stop. We looked at our watches and it was 2:40 pm, so we reckoned that must’ve been the 2:30 pm bus. If we could get to the train station in 20 minutes, then we could easily get the 3 o’clock bus.
We did get to the train station for three, just as the 3 o’clock bus was pulling out. I just gesticulated wildly at him in the hope that he may pull over, but all he did was gesture with his thumb behind him indicating that was the 3:30 pm bus waiting. We used the time wisely to pick up a couple of sandwiches as the effects of the breakfast doughnuts were starting to wear off. Soon we were on the road again, making our way to Palermo airport.
By the time we had got to our car rental desk, it was about 4:15 pm. They had one of those ticket systems like you get at the deli counter, where you have to wait for your number to appear on the screen behind the desk. I’ve commented before about the extraordinary lengths it seems to take to hire a car, but this was taking it to a new high. We began timing exactly how long each person was with a teller. No one actually received the keys to their hire car in less than 20 minutes. We had at least another four people ahead of us in the queue, so we realised it could be a long wait. What we also spotted was that you had precisely 3.5 seconds to respond when your number was flashed up before they flashed up the next number. So we began playing the “Who was going to serve us first” game. Number one, two, or three. For those of you of a certain age it was reminiscent of the children’s TV programme run around. (If that topical reference means nothing to you, watch this).
Eventually we were called and we had everything ready to hand: booking voucher, passport, driving license, credit card. We had been stood there for quite a long time so knew the drill. Before he’d even told us what we wanted I presented him with everything. He gave me a look which was halfway between “efficient” and “smart arse”. He tapped away on his computer and then uttered the words that no one wants to hear, and yet ones that seemed to be following us throughout this journey.
“We seem to have a problem”, he said, “Because you are late, you have been showing up as a no-show and the car has been cancelled”.
“What!” I said; “but we are here now”.
“Yes but the car has been cancelled”.
“Well can you uncancel it?”
“No. You need to contact car rentals.com. They need to change it”.
“Can’t you ring them?” I asked.
“No” he said “it has to be the client.
So we headed off to find a seat to ring car rentals.com whilst uttering some Anglo Saxon expressions under my breath. We got through pretty quickly and they confirmed that the rental had been cancelled because we hadn’t shown up on time. They then said that they could re-book the car but it was going to cost me £30 more.
“And why is that?” I asked, getting increasingly tetchy.
“Well, because it’s more now than it was when you booked it in July” he said quite matter of factly, “but don’t worry, when you get back, just lodge a claim and explain that the boat was late and we will refund you the difference”.
So I suppose all in all not too bad a result as in it hadn’t cost us any more money, just wasted a little more time.
“But there is a problem” he said. There is that dreaded word problem again.
“What now?” I asked.
“We can only get you a car for 7 pm. It was now 5:15 pm.
“But the car hire firm may be able to do something locally and bring it earlier for you.” I guess this was the best we could hope for. I then began reading out my credit card details as he made a new booking for me.
“Sorry sir” he said “your credit card seems to have been declined”.
“What do you mean declined! I just used to buy two sandwiches in a shop at Central Station an hour ago”. (FYI they are much more card friendly in Sicily than in Napoli.)
“Can we check it again please?”. We went through the whole tedious process of the long number, the name on the card, expiry date, the security number etcetera.
“Sorry no it’s still being declined”. At this point I was starting to lose all hope. Luckily I always carry a second credit card with me so we tried that one. Bearing in mind this one hasn’t been used for about three years I was dubious it was going to work. However, work it did. The man on the phone gave me a new reference number, checked that we had received confirmation emails and once everything was sorted, he said to head back to the car hire desk.
When we arrived we tried to jump to the front of the queue, as this is what the man looking after us had told us to do, but we had inadvertently jumped in front of another group who had also been told to jump to the front of the queue. So effectively there were two sets of queues; Those who were going for the first time, and those returning for the second or third time. By this point I even begun recognising people in the queue from when we joined it an hour previously. When we eventually got to see our man, he said;
“Ahh, there is a problem”. Here we go again.
“This booking doesn’t start till 7 pm” he said.
“I know but the man on the phone said that you may be able to change that.”
“No, no, he is completely wrong. Every time a car is booked through a broker it’s a nightmare. They are wrong. They are so wrong”. (I got the impression this man did not like car brokers.)
“Come back at 7 o’clock and we can sort you out a car then.”
So, we had no choice. It was time to find another café and make another coffee last an hour and a half.
It was at this point I began thinking back to the conversation that Karen had had with our dentist when he found out that we were coming to Sicily for our holiday. He explained that the airport that we were currently sat in had recently been built, but it was built by the mafia and that the concrete was not up to standard and therefore was liable to collapse at any moment. I have no idea where he got this story from. It sounds very much like a story a bloke down the pub had told him. He recommended we get through the airport as quickly as possible. So as we sat in the café in the arrivals hall at the airport, not only when we slowly getting more tired and angry, but we were also literally dicing with death, as at any moment the entire airport could come crashing down around us (well according to the dentist anyway).
We headed back at 7:00 pm and our usual man was busy so he gestured to his colleague. We then started the charade of going through all the details. Two new variations on the usual were:
A) he suggested that if we wanted to go for a diesel car for an extra few euros it may save us money, as diesel is 15 cents a litre cheaper than petrol here. It also meant we could have a different car. In reality you will have to use a lot of diesel to make it worthwhile, but effectively you can get an upgrade so we went with it. I am not a real car expert so when I was told we could have a Fiat Qubo I had no idea what that was, but said yes (I was tired!!). The reality is that it is a Postman Pat van with windows. Saying that, they are very popular around here, not just for deliveries, or as work vans, or driven by old people. We have seen dozens of them since we arrived. Perhaps the mafia likes them.
B) He then tried to sell us the extra insurance which every hire car company tries to sell. We have just renewed our excess insurance which effectively is the same thing; but at a fraction of the price. However, since we have got this insurance I have noticed an interesting trend. Because they know you are insured, whenever you take a hire car back, regardless of the condition the car is in, they will find a fault, take the money off your deposit, and then leave you to claim it back off your insurance company. This has happened to me at least twice so far. In both cases the insurance company paid up no problem, but it does just seem to be another white-collar crime where insurance companies are paying out for pointless claims. But I guess it keeps the financial institutions ticking over, and it’s not as if they would do anything underhand or slightly dodgy is it? You can always trust a bank. (That was satire by the way.) When I explained this insurance to him, he said something which no one has ever said to me at a hire car company. He simply said “good for you”, but not in a “congratulations on your prudent purchase” way; more a sort of “who’s a clever boy then” sarcastic manner. He then asked if this insurance included breakdown cover. I lied and said I think it did, really having no idea if it did or didn’t. It does make you worry though that these hire cars are usually only a few years old, and yet they seem to think they will break down. There again he had just fobbed a Fiat Qubo off on me, so who knows.
We eventually left the desk and went out to find our car. It was now getting dark. When we picked up the car, I was even more particular than usual about checking it. (I always have my suspicions about hire car companies, but I had a bad feeling about this lot.) The paperwork showed it had a slight scratch which we found, but using the torch on our phone, Karen and I found about another half dozen scratches which we thought the girl with the keys should know about. We got the lady back and made her turn the picture of the car on the paperwork into one resembling a game of noughts and crosses, as we insisted that every single blemish was noted before we left. She must’ve thought we were mad. We were slightly. And tired. And hungry. And just wanted to get to our accommodation. We eventually left the airport at 7:50 pm.
I had been keeping our host up-to-date on our delays via WhatsApp. Our hosts was actually going away for the week but had told us that the local girl would let us in. I now have her WhatsApp as well, and I seem to get the impression that we were already quite well known in the village. We already had the address in Google Maps and had studied the route. It seemed to be quite straightforward. It was straight down the A29, and then another road straight into the village. Our host had also sent us directions, including pictures of where we had to turn. So even though it was dark, we were confident the journey should be okay. How wrong we were.
We did make the school boy error though of trying to mix following a Sat Nav and following a set of instructions. The Sat Nav wanted to take us off the A29 at the Trapani junction. We knew that we were staying close to Trapani, but our host had said to take the Fulgatore junction. So we ignored the Sat Nav and continued to try and find the Fulgatore junction. We carried on for about 20 minutes until we noticed that the Sat Nav was now saying it would take us an hour to get to our destination. It was only going to take us 45 minutes when we left the airport! We pulled over and looked at the map.
What we hadn’t realised was that the Trapani junction the Sat Nav wanted us to take was actually still on the A29, well the A29 dir to be precise. We had affectively been driving in the wrong direction for the last 20 minutes and the only way to get back just turn round and retrace our tracks. We eventually arrived at our accommodation at 9:50 pm. Nearly eight hours after we had set foot on the island.
Our host’s friend met us. She was charming, and began showing us around our accommodation, but she could not speak a word of English. In the end she typed something on her phone into Google translate and showed us, and Karen typed something into her phone in Google translate, and showed her the answer. What a the time to be alive.
The one thing which I had spotted which did cheer me up, was the bottle of white wine in the fridge. As soon as we went to open the bottle came the final insult to the day. We couldn’t find a corkscrew anywhere. This is an Italian farmhouse, how could it not have a corkscrew. We searched high and low and could not find one. But being a good Boy Scout, I knew there was another way of opening this bottle, so instead of the cork coming out, the cork went in. A novel use for the end of a wooden spoon; but boy was I glad of that glass of wine. (Update: we found the corkscrew in a hidden drawer in the kitchen table. Sneaky.)