The good, bad and ugly of hire cars and airports

An AirHelp survey about the best and worst airports in the world got me thinking about how we rated airports. There are different criteria for when we arrive (speed of getting from plane to airport exit doors), when we depart (navigating security/facilities), and when we’re in transit (Frankfurt deserves a special mention for being a pernickety nightmare).

A factor often connected with satisfaction levels is picking up/dropping off rental cars. The experience, good or bad, doesn’t impact overall on how we view a destination, but it can leave a lasting impression.

Riva del Garda, Italy
Whilst we were strolling around Riva del Garda, someone was playing dodgems with our hire car in the car park.

Good advice in Milan
The staff at Avis strongly advised, in a friendly ‘this is really for your own good’ way that we take full insurance. When we initially waved the advice away, saying we were used to driving in countless countries they responded with a “this is Italy people drive really badly here, you’ll need it. Trust us.” So we did. Within two days there was a dent in the side of the car, damaged whilst it was minding its own business in a car park beside Lake Garda. Incidentally, the entrance to rental car drop off at Milan is confusing as hell. We managed to find it, just. But over a couple of visits we’ve seen plenty of cars reversing along a busy approach road after they’d overshot the entrance. I hope they’d taken the full insurance option.

Air Berlin
Descent Munich Airport on Air Berlin – a proper airline. I was sorry to see it go under.

Most practical, Munich
Locating a proper supermarket right beside the exit and car rental hall in Munich Airport is inspired planning. You’ve got to love the Germans for this sort of forward thinking. Being able to stock up on wine, water, and snacks at non-airport prices before we set off on a long road journey gets things off to a happy start, especially if arriving quite late… or even early evening. Arriving at 19.00, a drive from the airport to our hotel took a couple of hours, making us too late for the ridiculously early German dinner times, but the snacks we’d picked up at the airport meant there was no hungry gashing of teeth as a result.

Driving in Scotland
One of the reasons we don’t want a big, posh automatic hire car in the Highlands.

No manual drives in Glasgow
Despite having booked a car with a gear stick, Sixt at Glasgow Airport not only informed us they didn’t have the model we’d booked but that nobody drove manual cars there any more. Nobody drives manual in Scotland? Utter bollocks. To be fair, they did offer us an upgrade to a snazzy BMW or a limousine-like pimp car (their words)… both automatic. As neither of us have driven automatics, we didn’t fancy attempting it for the first time in an oversized monster on narrow, winding Highland roads. The only other option was a downgrade (no refund for their error) which we took.

Outskirts of Zadar, Croatia
I know the accommodation is somewhere around here, just not exactly where.

It’s Zadar, but where are we going?
Stepping from the plane to being handed the keys to our hire car at Zadar Airport happened so slickly quickly that we were actually cruising the streets of the Croatian city before we knew where we were heading for. Partially my fault. A distracting party weekend in Hay on Wye immediately before travel combined with a shocker of a night in an airport hotel at Liverpool had meant I hadn’t gotten around to printing off details of our accommodation and couldn’t access the info from my phone. The solution was a prompt introduction to Croatian cafe culture with a quick pause at a cafe with wifi and strong, cerebral cobweb-clearing coffee.

North Tenerife driving
Palm trees and a snow clad volcano – the drive from Tenerife Norte Airport.

A tale of two airports, Tenerife
Tenerife’s two airports are geographically quite close, but in other ways worlds apart. Tenerife North Airport made Airhop’s top ten best airports list. We wouldn’t argue with that. It’s one of the most relaxing airports we’ve travelled through, and picking up the hire car from CICAR mirrors the general laid back attitude. Newbie arrivals might get a shock encountering a four lane motorway immediately after arrival, but once free of La Laguna’s busy autopista, the drive along the north coast, with Mount Teide providing a stunner of a backdrop, gets the juices of anticipation flowing. Tenerife South is a decent airport, but exudes that homogeneous holiday resort airport vibe. My beef with it is that after a teasing arrival – Montaña Roja looking splendid on the coast – the drive south is through an unattractive landscape which has similarities to builder’s rubble; a poor first impression which isn’t helped by an overdose of naff billboards.

Driving on Fuerteventura
Car-free roads on Fuerteventura, an antidote to a bad rental car experience.

Worst car hire, Fuerteventura
Sticking with the Canary Islands, the most unpleasant car hire experience we’ve had anywhere was on Fuerteventura with Goldcar. It was our first visit to the island and it got off to such a bad start we were predisposed not to like the island after it. It was so bad Andy was moved to write a rant about the experience (I’m usually the ranter). Thankfully our experiences thereafter diluted the bad taste the Goldcar experience had left.

Marseille Airport, France
Marseille Airport, an all round decent airport.

Longest wait, Marseille
Two things stick in my mind about arriving at Marseille Airport. It seemed to take an eternity before we were handed the car keys, the process seemed to take oh-so-much longer than anywhere else. Waiting in a greenhouse of a car rental office when it was 30C plus didn’t help. The other is the runway jutting out into the Etang de Berre lagoon – WOW. For all the fussiness, I like Marseille Airport.

Carretera Austral, Chile
One of the better sections of the main road through Chile.

You can’t be serious, Coyhaique
Chile’s Coyhaique Airport is a sweet and friendly big shed of an airport, and one I shall always have very fond memories of thanks to the kindness of the staff there. However, I did exclaim “you can’t be serious?” at one point when returning our Mitsubishi pick-up truck. Over nearly three weeks we’d driven hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres on the (in)famous Carretera Austral without any mishap other than the car wearing a dusty overcoat. The girl responsible for checking the car was returned in a decent state had commented “it’s so dirty I can’t tell if there’s any damage.” To be fair, after my McEnroe outburst the girl laughed and ticked the ‘all okay’ box on her docs.

Vasco da Gama Bridge, Lisbon
A stunner of a way to arrive in, and leave, Lisbon.

A stunner of a way to arrive, Lisbon
It can take a long time to get out of Lisbon Airport. But once free of its clutches, if heading south across the Tagus, the experience is unique. After a few minutes you escape the city to cross the Tagus on the Vasco da Gama Bridge, until recently the longest bridge in Europe at just over 17km in length (12km being over water). It is an architectural marvel. Our first experience crossing it included a dreamy sunset of endless pastel bands drifting across the sky, an army of fisherman wading in the mudflats on each side of the bridge, and a flamboyance of flamingos in the wetlands at its southern end.
Why a photo of Freiburg? Because Basel is the airport you fly into to get to the German city. Three countries for the price of one.

Bizarre Basel
Although only 3.5km from the Swiss city it’s named after, Basel Airport is in France so is jointly operated by France and Switzerland. The same car hire companies have different branches located in separate areas. Which you use depends on whether you pick up your hire car in France or Switzerland. It isn’t an issue collecting the car, but returning it is a minefield. You can’t leave a French hire car at a Swiss drop off point. If you try, you’ll be directed to the ‘correct’ country even though it’s the same company. Although they share the one building (only a couple of hundred metres separates them as the crow flies), you can’t just drive across the airport from one to the other. Nope, you have to leave the airport, join the motorway and seek out the correct entrance to the other country’s part of the airport. I know this because we got it wrong on a Monday morning when the motorway was gridlocked and the time left for being able to check in was running out. We only managed to catch our flight because a member of Avis’s French staff took pity on us and allowed us to leave our Swiss hire car in a French parking bay.

The joy of travel.

About Jack 799 Articles
Jack is co-editor, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a Slow Travel consultant and a contributor to online travel sites and travel magazines. Follow Jack on Facebook for more travel photos and snippets.

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