Saturday, 19 July 2014

Nice work if you can get it..

Let me preface this entry by saying that these are just my own opinions and musings, please do not rely on anything mentioned here as you would a verified fact.  I'm not making this stuff up but it is purely based on my own perspective and experiences, which as far as I'm concerned are factual..  You can trust me, I'm a teacher..

I'd also like to add that whilst the events that follow have taken place in la belle France, I'm pretty sure it would be the same in the UK or pretty much anywhere in the 'developed' world, I'll let you decide whether it should be called 'developed' or not?

So to begin at the beginning.  We are on holiday in France and to make the most of our visit we hired a car.  If you've ever hired a vehicle you'll know that this is not as simple as you might think, partly due to the desire of the hire company to make a profit and also because unscrupulous customers try to rip them off.  In between these two opposing forces are the ordinary folk that just want to drive around a bit and end up paying the cost associated with these two self interested camps.

I guess the best story I have to illustrate what clients can get up to is the one about a guy in the Middle East who hired a Bentley then took it dune bashing.  You may not know exactly what a Bentley is but let's just say it's not an off roader.

Like I said, not suitable for off road use.  Please be aware this is just a stock photo picked at random from the internet so if you are the proud owner of  DK57 CXV fret not, you won't be finding sand in the glove box.  Also I'd like add this was not our hire car..

Then there are my personal experiences of rental cars which include one occasion where the previous user had obviously used the back seat as a mobile dog grooming parlour, or another time where they had left enough vapour in the petrol tank to get me 200 yards away from the hire office.  From his perspective an excellent piece of planning, from mine enough to go and see a witch to get a spell put on him.  I hope he enjoys his time as the cuddly toy on the front of a dust cart..  Mind you the phone call to the office was priceless - 'I've run out of petrol in the car you've just loaned me!', 'where are you?', 'look out the window..'..

So I can appreciate why car hire companies like to dot the i's and cross the t's, but it does make a simple transaction in to something akin to writing the Magna Carta.  Much of this paperwork is based around insurance.  Insurance to cover you should you not being the car back with a full tank of petrol (this is a western thing..), 'extra' insurance should you have an accident - 'what do you mean 'extra' insurance?!  What do I need 'extra' for?  Collisions that include royal personages?  A no fault bump with a dragon?'.  Then at the end of these discussions you're asked to sign a four page contract in triplicate that would take a team of lawyers no less than a week to interpret.  I mean really, has anyone ever read the terms and conditions before ticking the box?

I'm a cynic about insurance, I've always believed it is a way for insurers to make money rather than a safety net for the insured.  This outlook is supported by my experience that if you ever need to claim on it by the time you've taken in to account the caveats and excess payment, you normally end up with about a tenth of what you thought you'd have.

Where was I?  So we hired a car and had a marvellous time in Provence, which was going to be the subject of my blog until we were cruising back down the motorway and bang, something had clearly made an impact on the underside of the car, and it didn't sound helpful.  I don't know if you've ever been on the autoroute doing 130 kph and wondered what would happen if your tyre had a sudden and calamitous deflation? No?  Just me then..  In my mind there was going to be an explosion and then Jason Statham like I was going to steer the car around the school bus, past the minivan full of nuns and park it safely on the hard shoulder. Later, when collecting my OBE I was going to modestly wonder what all the fuss was about, I'm just an ordinary guy with an inbuilt ability to be at one with motorised transport. But every bloke has probably had that daydream. No? Still just me then.. 

I can reassure you that thanks to the marvellous engineers in companies like Hankook (for instance) nothing much happens right away.  However over the next two seconds or so you get the idea that it would be better if you pulled over.  Thank you unsung heroes that are tyre scientists.

It became immediately obvious that this was a dead tyre, it had shuffled off it's mortal coil, it was now an ex-pneu.  But dreadnought, this is a hire car from a national company, surely they will have contingency plans for this sort of common occurrence? And they did, just not the sort I had in mind.

This is when I learned a lot about spare tyres in a very short space of time.  Mainly that modern cars don't have one.  This is one of the genius side effects of the global warming con.  It's given companies the opportunity to offer you less and claim the moral high ground at the same time.  You can imagine their reasoning - 'you see if we don't give you a spare the car is lighter and uses less fuel, manufacturing costs are lower, you pay less road fund licence and the environment is saved, hooray for us!'. Brilliant, unless you get a puncture, in which case the whole scheme falls apart.  You need to have a less fuel efficient truck drive twenty miles to pick you up and take you the twenty miles back to their base, which means you are  now further away from your destination than you were when you started, take that environment..  They do supply a puncture repair product designed to get you to the nearest garage, but it doesn't work in the event of a tyre  being deformed in a high speed blow out on a motorway, they've not really thought that through have they?

However their recovery insurance got us off the motorway curtesy of a breakdown truck - tip #1 definitely get insurance to cover this, I think their minimum charge was 122 euros.

Now we could relax, the hire companies emergency strategy would swing in to action.  We called them, 'l have a puncture in one of your cars', 'that's down to you mate..', 'surely you have an agreement with a supplier?', 'nope', 'what do recommend we do?', 'sort it out yourself.'. Wow, those hours spent on the customer service course weren't wasted..  

This is where we had our crash course in how the system works. The following information was given to us with the headshake, shrug and intake of breath through teeth that only true professionals can manage.  'You see you can't change one tyre as the pair have to match and guess what we, don't have one that matches', so we're now looking at two new tyres. 'Oh and we may struggle to get one that size and type'.. Hang on, we're driving a Citro├źn in France and you don't think you can find a tyre for it?  Would you rather we bought something more common place next time? Maybe a £1.5m Bugatti Veyron or a 1923 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost?!  Either way it was now 12pm and the garage was closing for two hours so nothing was going to happen soon.  They dropped the Jolly Roger and sauntered off for a leisurely lunch.

After the break, it transpires they could get hold of two tyres, what luck.  Bad news was the whole business was going to cost roughly twice the normal price, why, because it just does if you want to be on your way.  Stand and deliver.. 'What if we shop around?' we thought. 'Good luck with that, feel free to ring my mates in local garages who will tell you the same thing..'.  How did he read my mind?!

Maybe it's worth involving the enormous weight a national car hire company could bring to the negotiations?  So we ring our man in their office - 'nothing I can do to help, it's your problem, oh and don't forget if you're late back tonight we'll charge you for another day'.  We were feeling the love..

So we got two tyres when we needed one, at twice the usual price, on a car that we didn't own and were giving back that evening, still we'd had a nice lunch in local restaurant, silver lining anybody?

Tip # 2; next time you buy or rent a car see what sort of spare it has.  Especially if you're buying, as the only thing that will make manufacturers think twice is if they lose sales as a result of heir actions. Like me not buying a car is going to make any difference.

Tip # 3; check with rental companies before you travel and make sure you know what you are liable for.

Tip # 4; you can't help where you break down but if it's on a motorway you may have to brace yourself for a big bill.  

Tip # 5; if you're in garage trade get a contract to pick up motorists from the motorway, it's a licence to print money.  We weren't alone in the two hours that we were waiting in the yard, at least another 5 cars were bought in and we saw another 3 broken down on the hard shoulder later on.

It may sound like I'm being overly critical with the two businesses concerned, so in the interest of fair-play let me summarise by saying the following.

When I drove leased cars you were responsible for paying for punctures, fair enough, however they had national agreements with tyre companies which ensured you got new rubber fast and at a discounted rate.  Would that not seem logical for hire companies too?

I appreciate the breakdown company have a lot of costs in running their super-expensive trucks.  I just didn't realise that when they pick you up you have to buy the wagon..  I remember reading a newspaper article once about why all of the products, including petrol, at motorway service stations are more expensive than in other locations.  The answer given was that it was dearer to get delivery lorries out to the them.  But don't lorries use the motorways every day?  Aren't they passing the outlets that are more expensive? Their argument would be more understandable if you were talking about Land's End or the Mull of Kintyre.

The truth was, of course, that they were more expensive because you have no choice, if you're up a creek, the first paddle that comes along is going to be welcome at any price.

School's out...

for summer, as the song goes, and with it also goes our first year (ten months to be precise, I'm nothing if not a pedant..)  of working and living in the UAE.  It has been a wonderful experience and I'm going to try and summarise how I feel about the whole thing.

I guess the best place to start is at the beginning and that would be the weeks we had in between being offered the job and leaving the UK.  It was hectic, what with making sure all of our affairs in England were sorted out and with the preparations we had to make for our arrival here.  Virtually every logistical task was a first for us so the learning curve was incredible, we had to keep reminding ourselves that we were choosing to do this, we weren't being deported.

There were three standout events during that period:  1.  Our farewell party where many of our friends and family came to say their goodbyes.  2.  The day we say the 21 boxes containing our shipped goods get swallowed up in to a van and drive off.  3.  The trip to the airport, not quite the same feeling as going on holiday! Then the arrival at Dubai airport, 2am and hot as a rattlesnake's bum, as the saying goes.  However we soon met our group and they all seemed to be on their first visit to RAK too so we felt in good company.

Then came the acclimatisation both  to the environment and the culture.  Our collection of cards started:  health card, I.D. card, driving licence, car registration card, hospital number card, health insurance card, Carrefour loyalty card, bank cards, I'm still not sure we have a full set?  As the primary person in this adventure it fell upon my wife to get her admin first before she could facilitate mine.  Her joy at signing the letter allowing/authorising me to have a driving licence will never diminish.

So what have been the highlights?  Firstly the people we have met, they are an amazing bunch and we have learned so much about their backgrounds and home countries, interesting information that you can only get by spending time with indigenous people.  The fact seems to be that whilst people's experiences and up-bringing is so different, their hopes and expectations tend to be the same.

Our wish list of things to see and do in the first year has been pretty much met.  Dolphin watching, dune bashing, going up the Burj Khalifa, marveling at the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, picnics in the mountains, visiting deserted ghost-towns, camel riding, jet-skiing, the list goes on.  And there is more we hope to do or re-visit next year!

What are the downsides?  It's not nice living far away from your family and close friends, but modern communication takes the sting out of it and we've been fortunate in having some visitors, with hopefully more in the future.

I guess that doing this sort of thing is not for everyone, there is not a lot of job security in this line of work as the contracts tend to be for two years.  so if you're looking for work that takes you up to your pension in yen years time this probably isn't for you.  However it does tick the box that says 'have an adventure' along with those that read 'experience a different culture' and 'push out the envelope of your comfort zone', and that seems to suit us.