Simon Calder: The man who pays his way

Travellers have long been the target for scams. These days, they can start as soon as you touch down, particularly if you rent a car. Bill Swan decided temporarily to swap his home in Crawley for the allure of a California road trip. As soon as he arrived, he fell victim to what he believes was a swindle – but which the car-rental firm might call good marketing.

"We booked an ordinary car for a trip around California, at £160 for a fortnight. We picked up the car at San Francisco airport after a 12-hour flight. We were warmly welcomed by the rental rep, who was really interested in where we were going."

The itinerary included the national parks of Yosemite and Sequoia. The representative looked horrified when he learnt where Mr and Mrs Swan were heading.

"He said we would not be allowed in a national park unless the car was a four-wheel drive. He urged us to upgrade, to which we reluctantly agreed. We ended up with a ridiculously large and thirsty Jeep Cherokee. And when we reached Yosemite we realised we'd been had – there was no reason at all why a normal car could not access the national park."

Not only did Mr Swan feel foolish, he also felt out of pocket: instead of £160, he ended up paying £541. This included insurance that, he calculated, worked out on an annualised basis at a staggering $14,388 (£7,400).

He also burned much more fuel than he intended: "From my perspective the vehicle was a downgrade; we didn't want the lumbering, ugly, gas-guzzler we were told we needed to have."

****

To avoid finding yourself in the same position, book a fully inclusive deal for the very smallest car before you leave the UK, and stand your ground against well-honed sales techniques such as the car-rental representative feigning horror at your intended itinerary. In my experience, you will probably end up with a car far too large for your needs anyway, but the only cost to you will be in the form of extra fuel.

Or will it? Leslie Rushworth of Halifax rented a car in Florence in January, but last month received a demand for €285 (£235) for alleged traffic violations.

"The offence in each case was the same, 'Driving in a time restricted area without the correct permit'. The fines are to be paid within 20 days (otherwise the amount is doubled) by credit card online or by bank transfer direct into an account detailed on the forms. There is no address quoted, nor any right to appeal."

Given the length of time since the alleged events, this sounds to me like a scam rather than a reflection of the pace of Italian administration. The absence of contact details and an appeals procedure also look suspicious. You may know better.

****

Far more alarming was the experience of Jason Donnachie and his family while driving in Spain: "On the autopista outside Barcelona we were attacked by bandits," he writes. It happened on a clear Wednesday evening, on a busy stretch of the A7 motorway heading north from the Catalan capital.

"A silver BMW 5 Series sped up behind us in the outside lane, coming so close that I thought they would hit us. In my rear-view mirror I noticed the passenger was hanging out of the window. Then we heard a loud bang of something hitting the car. From a chance glance to the rear, my wife was able to spot an item bouncing across the carriageway, which looked like a car part. Clearly this is what was thrown at our car. The BMW drew alongside with two occupants, aged around 30, gesticulating wildly that something was wrong with the car and we needed to pull over. The BMW then pulled in front of us sharply with its hazard lights on.

"I was trying to compute this event unfolding in what seemed a blink of the eye; while trying to drive safely, avoid a collision and rationalise what was happening. I decided that, as there were no warning lights or problems with my car, I would push on rather than pull over to assess the damage."

A wise move, judging by the many Foreign Office warnings about robberies from British tourists who rent cars in Spain. At Alicante airport, you could be targeted at the desk: "There are numerous reports of luggage being stolen while people filling in the paperwork for a rental vehicle". In the event that you survive this, be warned that thieves are deliberately driving into rental cars, "and, while travellers are consequently busy filling in the insurance papers, an accomplice steals belongings from the vehicle".

A good case for not renting a car in Spain – or, perhaps, picking something sturdy, like a Jeep Cherokee.

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