Europe-bound travelers who plan to rent a seven or nine-passenger van—especially one with automatic transmission—should be most concerned about availability. During the spring, summer and fall, families with van bookings flock to Europe. This seasonal surge not only raises prices it creates a van scarcity, especially in the June-September period. Many travelers with confirmed reservations arrive at European rental counters only to be told there are no vans available, and with an entourage of six to nine persons that can be a serious disruption of vacation plans.
So how does it happen that you book a car from a multi-national rental company but are rebuffed at the rental counter? The problem starts with the fact that rental companies’ online websites often don’t require advance payment or even a credit card to secure a booking. Thus, there is no financial incentive for the traveler to cancel that booking if his/her plans change. Since rental companies don't really know how many of these online, unpaid customers will actually show up, they can only guess at their daily need for vans at thousands of European rental locations. It’s different if the rental company can't provide your compact category or intermediate category rental car, as other vehicles can be substituted; but there is no substitute for a nine-passenger van, and if you’ve booked a seven-passenger, an upgrade to a nine-passenger (if even available) might not be covered by your credit card insurance, thus forcing you to purchase additional insurance.
What can you do to ensure the van you book is available when you arrive at the rental counter?
Pick up your van in a major city, preferably at an airport
There are many more vans in rental car fleets of cities such as Frankfurt, Paris and Rome than in smaller towns like Aachen, Dijon, and Siena. Let’s say you’ve reserved a van with automatic transmission for pick up in Aachen at the only office of a major rental supplier. Most days a station of this size might rent three or four vans, maybe none with automatic transmission. If the rental company miscalculates its van requirements on the day of your rental, you’re in trouble. At least if you get burned at an airport you can try at the next counter.
Pre-pay your van rental
Rental companies claim they treat unpaid reservations the same as those that are paid in advance. Our experience and human nature suggest otherwise, however. Let’s say you are station manager of the rental location mentioned above in Aachen. Your compensation is heavily based on the number of cars your office rents…and vehicles still sitting on the lot at closing time are money losers. When you open for business in the morning the computer says you have three van bookings and there are three vans on your lot, each booked for a one-week rental. Only one of the bookings is prepaid. That day the first person in line is a customer with no reservation but who wants to rent a van for three weeks. Now your three vans have four possible customers: one at the counter, valid credit card in hand; one pre-paid; and two “maybes” or “probables.” As station manager you are also well aware that the revenue from this one rental will nearly equal the total of your three van reservations…two of which you know from experience may never show. Are you going to turn that first customer away even though he/she has no reservation? Probably not. You take the bird in the hand. Let's now say that you are one of the three customers with a reservation for the two available vans? Would you rather be the one with the pre-paid booking or someone with just a booking number? It’s an easy call. The pre-paid renter has by far the best chance of getting a vehicle if the Aachen office has miscalculated its van needs for the day.
Make sure your van booking has third-party phone support
You’ve booked a van online at a rental company website or with an online seller such as Expedia or Priceline's rental website. You’re scheduled for a 4pm pick-up at Frankfurt Airport but when you arrive the agent says, sorry, there’s been a problem, we don’t have your van. How about two midsize cars? You ask to see a supervisor who apologizes but confirms the van shortage. It’s a dead-end. You’re stuck.
If you booked with Gemut.com, however, you call a toll-free safety-net help line that is staffed 24/7 in the U.S. and speak with a savvy agent who can do the following in your behalf:
- Remind the supplier's supervisor of his/her company’s contractual obligation to provide a van to “our mutual customer.” This may motivate the supervisor to arrange for a van from another Frankfurt location.
- Go over the supervisor’s head and contact a manager or VP higher in the chain of command. (You might be surprised at the cars that can suddenly appear when higher management gets involved.)
- Transfer your booking to another supplier. You walk 20 feet to the next rental counter.
Gemut.com/AutoEurope has four Frankfurt suppliers; Hertz, Avis, Europcar, and Buchbinder. While an individual renter very little leverage at the rental counter, a third-party broker whom the rental company relies upon for ten of thousands of booking annually, AND who provides 24/7 telephone support, has substantial resources and leverage. To the best of our knowledge, we (Gemut.com/AutoEurope) are unique in this level of personal, round-the-clock support. Every single one of our customers is provided with our 24/7 help line phone numbers.
- Plan to get your van in a big city.
- Pay in full in advance.
- Make sure you have a 24/7 contact if things go wrong.
Get a written quote.