Navigating the bewildering new world of car rentals

Alix Davidson says she was “totally excited” when her car rental company recently offered her the keys to a Toyota Prius in Seattle. It was her first time behind the wheel of a hybrid electric vehicle.

But her enthusiasm quickly turned to frustration when she couldn’t figure out how to start the car. “We pushed the button, which looked awfully like our computer’s ‘on’ button, waved the little stick in front of it,” says Davidson, a researcher for an environmental organization in Washington. “Nothing.”

For those of you wondering how to start a Prius, you insert the key, push down the brake pedal and press the “power” button.

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Davidson is one of a growing number of motorists who are confused by the car rental industry’s latest additions to their fleets, which include everything from electric vehicles to microcars.

This past summer, Enterprise, the largest rental company, announced a major electric vehicle rollout. You can now rent everything from a Nissan Leaf to a Peugeot iOn. And Hertz expanded its electric car fleet in 2011 to include the Chevrolet Volt, the Smart ED and the Tesla Roadster.

The American Car Rental Association, a trade group, expects more puzzled looks from customers as they rent these new vehicles. But its members have had some experience fielding the questions. “Let’s face it,” says Sharon Faulkner, the group’s executive director. “It doesn’t even have to be an electric car, or a specialty unit, for customers to be confused.”

How true. I remember renting a car in Germany a few years ago. It wasn’t immediately clear how to shift the standard transmission into reverse. It took 20 minutes of fumbling with the gears in the parking lot of a restaurant before I was able to coax the car into backing up. That rental ran on old-fashioned unleaded gasoline.

Stephanie Wolkin recalls the Renault Megane she rented in Montpellier, France. She loaded her luggage into the open trunk and drove off. When she arrived at her rental home, she couldn’t open the trunk. “The key didn’t work, and there was no lever,” says Wolkin, a retiree who lives in White Bear Lake, Minn. “We panicked.”

Two young boys watching the Americans struggle with their voiture finally let them in on the secret to prying open a Megane trunk: Point the key at the rearview mirror in the middle of the windshield, and press the button on the key. “Presto!” she says. “It opened.”

Jody Beck also recalls a rental in France, a car that sometimes refused to start. She phoned the agency, which dispatched a tow truck. “The tow truck driver got the car to start immediately as I tried, in my basic French, to describe the problem,” says Beck, who works for a nonprofit organization in Washington. “The hotel owner finally figured out that we didn’t know that the diesel car had a manual choke.”

You don’t have to travel overseas to be confused. Danielle Laatsch rented a car in Pensacola, Fla., a few years ago and couldn’t make the windshield wipers work. “I promptly drove into a storm,” says Laatsch, who now lives in South Korea. “I had to wash the windows every few minutes for an hour to clear off the windshield. And yes, I learned my lesson and now always check out everything in the parking lot.”

That’s good advice, but not necessarily obvious, especially for those of us with a Y chromosome. We’ll figure it out as we go along, we assure ourselves. And we don’t need to read the manual either, even though it’s often conveniently located in the glove compartment.

Faulkner says you shouldn’t leave the car rental facility until you can do the following: start the car, unlock the steering column, turn off the car and remove the key. To that, I would also add: turn on the lights and operate the windshield wipers.

Sure, it sounds basic, but in a world where our cars talk to us and some prefer a charge over a tank of gasoline, you just can’t assume anything anymore. The future can be a confusing place.

“If you don’t feel 100 percent comfortable,” adds Faulkner, “then don’t take the car.”

(Photo: The Listener/Flickr)

24 thoughts on “Navigating the bewildering new world of car rentals

  1. Let me guess Chris, it was a push-to-reverse shifter?  (I know VW/Audi/Skoda, for starters, uses those; it’s also quite common on 4 and 6-speeds.)

  2. Here’s a question that puzzled me.  Four years ago I rented a car in Germany for the day. I got a small Mercedes wagon – don’t recall the model, but definitely a European model that is not available in U.S.  My first time driving a Mercedes

    Could not figure out how to get the key out of the ignition! I’ve seen other cars where you pushed a little lever behind the key,and similar approaches, and I looked everywhere for something like that. No luck.

    Later, I talked to a Mercedes owner who suggested that maybe you had to depress the brake pedal while removing the key.  Anybody know if this is the solution?

    1. What did you do? Leave the key in the car during the whole trip? I bet the rental car company would have loved you if the car had been stolen.

      1. Yes, but this was only for about a 6-hour rental.  Another wrinkle is that the key had an “insert” that you could pull out – guess it was for trunk access or something. But the part left in the ignition would still start the car.

        1. Yes mercedes, bmw and Mini and I am guessing others who have the push
          key.  You have to depress the brake then push the key to release.  I
          found out by buying one and was like huh how do I get it out.  Fooling
          with it I figured it out.

          There is a pull out key as you say on these key faubs.  It unlocks the door and you will notice that only the drivers door has a lock.  It is in case the electrical fails you can still get in.  I like to start the car on cold days,  pull the key part out and clean the snow off.  I am always afraid the doors will lock me out of a running car ( never happened).    My biggest problem with these is that the car comes with 2 keys thats it.  And if you loose one or need a new one it is pricy. 

    1. I also rented a Mercedes in Germany.  Yes it came with an owners manual – in German only.  Trying to read that is quite different from what is taught in Basic German Language class.

  3. The Prius does not have a key per se. At least not mine. It has a ‘key fob’ which the car detects. If the key fob is not in range, the car will not go anywhere. You don’t even use the key to unlock the door – it senses it in your pocket. I have had several rentals that had similar arrangements. Very 21st Century!

    1.  Yeah, that’s my recollection too. I don’t own a Prius but we were upgraded to one (for free) on a rental in AZ in 2010, and I remember the push-button start but I didn’t think there was an actual place to put the key.

  4. A couple years ago I had, I believe, a Chrysler rental from Enterprise.  As the key was already in the ignition when I got in, i didn’t notice that it was basically a small piece of plastic – not the typical metal key until I was about to leave my meeting and freaked out when I got back in the car and saw what was in my hand.  I looked around for ages for the “missing” key until a security guard at the college I was visiting told me the plastic WAS the key.  Sure enough, it worked but I haven’t come across one like that since.

  5. My husband received an electric car when he rented in Los Angeles and loved it – me, not so much.  I had a rental in Indianapolis that threw me for a loop.  Drive wasn’t necessarily drive – I had to turn around and ask the employees of the agency check-out gate to show me how to get the automatic transmission to go out of first gear.

    If given a choice now, I go with a car I already know.

  6. Yep, I’ve been there, done that with rental cars.

    Like you, Chris, I had forgotten the agent’s instructions for getting the first car I rented in Europe (Italy) into reverse.  After checking in for a two-night stay at an Umbrian agritourismo, our host asked me to move the car from where I had parked it on arrival.  I drove over to a the spot he had pointed to, fronted by a wall.  I felt I was parked too close to the wall, but I kept inching closer and closer to it while getting increasing frustrated pushing the gear shift this way and that in a vain effort to go backwards.  Finally, my wife figured out where reverse gear was located before I caused a low-speed collision with an immovable object.

    Ten years later, we picked up a BMW from Avis in Munich and drove it without incident (unless you count not being able to completely shut up the “talking” GPS unit) for a few days.  But on as darkness was falling on a rainy afternoon in a nearly deserted parking lot near the castle of “Mad King Ludgwig” in southern Bavaria, the car wouldn’t start.  We pulled out the owner’s manual, but it was written entirely in German and beyond our comprehension.  There was a phone number for Avis that we could have called, but we didn’t know if we would get an English-speaking person to assist us.  Finally, while tearing my hair out, figuratively speaking, I did something that I had apparently been doing unconsciously since getting the car:  I put my foot on the brake pedal while turning the ignition key and the engine roared into life.

    So here’s what you should do before you drive a rental car off the lot:  Adjust the driver’s seat and the rearview mirrors; figure out how to turn the radio and air-conditioning/heating on and off; find the turn signal, headlight and window washer controls; determine how to use the GPS and Bluetooth gadgetry, if the car has them; turn the engine and off at least three times to make sure you know how to do so.

    If you are renting a car during the winter and plan on driving into the mountains, don’t assume that tire chains will be in the trunk.  You will probably have to ask for the “Ski Package” (which will include a roof-mounted ski-rack) to get chains, even if you don’t plan to drive to ski area.  Although I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I rented a 4wd Ford Explorer for a trip to Yosemite one February, and to my chagrin, after arriving in the mountains I discovered that tire chains were not in the car.  Luckily for me, chains weren’t required during my trip and the car’s 4wd was sufficient to get me safely over the few sections of snowy roadway that I encountered.

    Finally, pull out your cell phone, and shoot photos or a video of every area of the car’s exterior, before you start out.  If you find even small scratches, go back into the rental agency’s office, show your pictures to a customer representative, and have the damage noted on the rental agreement so you don’t have to pay for what a previous rented did to the car.

  7. Yep, I’ve been there, done that with rental cars.

    Like you, Chris, I had forgotten the agent’s instructions for getting the first car I rented in Europe (Italy) into reverse.  After checking in for a two-night stay at an Umbrian agritourismo, our host asked me to move the car from where I had parked it on arrival.  I drove over to a the spot he had pointed to, fronted by a wall.  I felt I was parked too close to the wall, but I kept inching closer and closer to it while getting increasing frustrated pushing the gear shift this way and that in a vain effort to go backwards.  Finally, my wife figured out where reverse gear was located before I caused a low-speed collision with an immovable object.

    Ten years later, we picked up a BMW from Avis in Munich and drove it without incident (unless you count not being able to completely shut up the “talking” GPS unit) for a few days.  But on as darkness was falling on a rainy afternoon in a nearly deserted parking lot near the castle of “Mad King Ludgwig” in southern Bavaria, the car wouldn’t start.  We pulled out the owner’s manual, but it was written entirely in German and beyond our comprehension.  There was a phone number for Avis that we could have called, but we didn’t know if we would get an English-speaking person to assist us.  Finally, while tearing my hair out, figuratively speaking, I did something that I had apparently been doing unconsciously since getting the car:  I put my foot on the brake pedal while turning the ignition key and the engine roared into life.

    So here’s what you should do before you drive a rental car off the lot:  Adjust the driver’s seat and the rearview mirrors; figure out how to turn the radio and air-conditioning/heating on and off; find the turn signal, headlight and window washer controls; determine how to use the GPS and Bluetooth gadgetry, if the car has them; turn the engine and off at least three times to make sure you know how to do so.

    If you are renting a car during the winter and plan on driving into the mountains, don’t assume that tire chains will be in the trunk.  You will probably have to ask for the “Ski Package” (which will include a roof-mounted ski-rack) to get chains, even if you don’t plan to drive to ski area.  Although I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, I rented a 4wd Ford Explorer for a trip to Yosemite one February, and to my chagrin, after arriving in the mountains I discovered that tire chains were not in the car.  Luckily for me, chains weren’t required during my trip and the car’s 4wd was sufficient to get me safely over the few sections of snowy roadway that I encountered.

    Finally, pull out your cell phone, and shoot photos or a video of every area of the car’s exterior, before you start out.  If you find even small scratches, go back into the rental agency’s office, show your pictures to a customer representative, and have the damage noted on the rental agreement so you don’t have to pay for what a previous renter did to the car.

  8. Been there, done that.  I spent some frustrating minutes in the rental garage at Munich airport trying to start my rental car.  Problem was, I could not find any place to put the key.  (I forgot what make the car was).  I finally trudged back to the agent to ask them where the#$%^& one puts the ke.  I learned “nowhere”.  As long as the key is IN THE CAR, the car will start when pushing the “start” button.  Ah so!

  9. I would add finding reverse. Rented a car in Lisbon and drove out in the country to visit friends. Got lost near their house when a road dwindled to a walking track. Could not find reverse. Tried a u-turn and ended up in ditch. Could nt get my American world phone to dial my friends. A local towed us out
    with us tractor as our friends found us. Then everyone showed us reverse in this unfamiliar vw. Stupid Americans were the talk of the village.

  10. I rented a car from Enterprise.  I didn’t know that the car would not shift out of “park” unless you applied a pretty firm pressure to the brake pedal.  I figured it out after a few minutes.

  11. I’d think the location and method of accessing the fuel filler door is probably the most universal issue with rental vehicles.  I’ve seen it vary from levers, push buttons, switches, or unlocked filler flaps.  The button/lever location can be anywhere, including the dash, inside the glove box, next to the door, on the steering column, or even on the side of the driver’s seat.  I remember when the filler hole was accessed by pulling back the rear license plate, which was mounted on a door flap.  It might take someone a while to figure out that certain vehicles have pull and press levers where pulling unlocks the trunk and pushing unlocks the fuel filler door.

    As for driving a manual transmission as a rental, that sort of boggles my mind.  A manual transmission is such an individual thing.  It takes a lot of familiarity with a certain vehicle (even if it’s the same exact model) to get one to shift well.  Some are a little bit balky in first gear while others slip in smoothly.  I frankly wouldn’t trust some random person to drive my car, because I’ve heard of too many cases where an almost new clutch was burned or gears were sheared off by someone new to manual transmissions

  12. Personally the first thing I do when I get into a rental car is familiarize myself with all the basic controls, where they are and how they work. Seats, mirrors, etc get adjusted. If there is anything I can’t figure out (or I am going to be driving on the interstate where I can use cruise control-which will happen when I go home to visit family) I pull out the owners manual to read up on how to use it. Then and only then to I start the car and drive off. All of this just seems like basic common sense to me. I don’t want to be figuring out how to use the windshield wipers in an unfamiliar car when I need them.

    I have learned reading this post though to make sure I double check turning on and off the car if I ever travel to Europe.

  13. I got stuck in the Avis parking lot in the US when I didn’t know how to remove the main break (am used to a manual with a handbreak).  Had to call my husband in the UK for help!

  14. sirwired wrote: “Let me guess Chris, it was a push-to-reverse shifter? (I know VW/Audi/Skoda, for starters, uses those; it’s also quite common on 4 and 6-speeds.)”   Another guess: There was a ring on the shaft below the shift knob. With your hand on the shift knob, you had to reach down with your fingers, pull up on the ring, and move the shift lever. It was in Germany, and I think the car was a Fiat. Fortunately, 
    on the way
    there was a garage attendant out to ask how to do it.
       The procedure sounds worse than it was in practice. As soon you you did it once, it was second nature. It was actually easier than push-to-reverse. However, I had never seen this system before (or since).
       Dick Jordan advised about winter tires/chains: “If you are renting a car during the winter and plan on driving into the mountains, don’t assume that tire chains will be in the trunk. You will probably have to ask for the “Ski Package” (which will include a roof-mounted ski-rack) to get chains, even if you don’t plan to drive to ski area.”
       In Germany, you won’t have to ask for snow tires. During the winter, they are required by law. However, you may have to pay a extra fee for them (even though you can not decline them!). For us at Munich airport in December 2008, it was an additional 100 euros for 19 days. the dollar was very low at the time, so this was app. $145! We were driving to the Alps, so the tires were very welcome.

  15. Problems like these really illustrate how non-intuitive automakers are designing their cars to be. I remember spending over 15 minutes searching for a way to open the fuel door, along with two coworkers, at a gas station on the way back to the airport after a business trip – fortunately we had plenty of time before our flight.

    It seems like automakers (and they’re far from the only culprits) are more concerned with making something flashy than making something that works.

  16. We once rented a Toyota but didn’t know and never would have guessed that the fuel door release was in the  glove box.

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