Simon Calder's Travel Column

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The Independent Online
The chap at the Alamo car rental depot in Orlando was charm itself. "Where will you be travelling this week?" Touched by his interest, I outlined my plan to head to Florida's Gulf Coast. Immediately his tone changed to one of surprise. Leaning forward with an air of deep concern, he said "Sir, I would strongly advise you to upgrade to a bigger model."

"No thanks, I'm very happy with a small car." The promised model was about the size of a Fiesta.

"If you were to upgrade, I could probably get you a mid-size for the price of a compact - just $9.99 a day."

And the rest, I thought uncharitably. Renting a car in America is like taking a freeway off-ramp as you pass somewhere dodgy, like Dallas. As soon as you deviate, whether from Interstate 10 or the pre-paid fully inclusive car rental rate, you start paying. To that $9.99 you can add Florida tax and airport fees, and probably a whole trunk-full of other charges; a state government that is mean-minded enough to charge renters five cents (yes, the equivalent of three pence) per day for "battery and tire disposal" has many ways to dip into your holiday spending.

"No thanks, I'll take the economy car." After a 10-hour flight I just wanted to get going, Instead, the discussions continued in a rather less cheerful manner.

"Just a moment, sir, I think we may have a problem."

Ten minutes - and several hushed conversations with managerial types - later, he handed me the paperwork for a Suzuki Esteem. "It's rather larger than an economy model."

This was one of the largest car rental depots on the planet, yet it did not have a single small car. It is tempting to deduce from this that almost every client who has booked an economy model is persuaded to upgrade - and the corollary that anyone who stands firm will get a bigger car than planned anyway. Evidence for or against, please.

The whole episode was mildly amusing until I hit the rush-hour traffic and started thinking about the environmental implications. Since smaller cars generally use less fuel, you would hope that an environmentally responsible company would encourage people to trade down. Perhaps it is far fetched to imagine a rental rep asking "do you really need that gas-guzzling Lincoln, ma'am? The Geo Metro is much more economical." But at the very least, car rental companies should apply no pressure on customers to drive a bigger, heavier and more damaging car.

In Britain, the railway still provides an alternative for people who prefer not to drive - but in certain quarters there appears to be a concerted campaign to get people off the trains and on to the roads.

Virgin Trains is based in Birmingham. Last Tuesday, passengers at New Street station trying to find the right platform were confronted by a complete set of blank screens. (A ruse to prevent people seeing how late the trains were running?)

And get those sandwiches packed; from Monday, Virgin is stopping serving lunch or dinner on Birmingham- London trains.