I tend to write letters out of sheer mischief. Sometimes though, I endure such terrible service that I want to teach a service provider a lesson. This is one such occasion. I actually received a lot of criticism when this letter was first published. I was told that it was all my fault. Some of it was of course, I should have paid more attention to the (very) small print.
However, I maintain that I was treated very badly. Be that as it may, I was getting nowhere with my complaint until the travel desk at the Telegraph intervened which drew an immediate response from Auto Europe. Here is the full exchange….
Customer Services Italy
c/o AE Europe Limited
39 Commercial Street
P.O. Box 7006
Portland, ME 04112
By email to email@example.com
Dear Customer Relations,
I love Italy. The climate, the style, the culture and history, the food and wine.1 All of it. I especially like Puglia and so fly in through Bari fairly regularly. I really don’t know why, but I have always hired cars from Auto Europe. It’s probably because you send me ten unwanted emails a week and I’ve been too lazy to add you to my ‘blocked sender’ list (until now that is).
Anyway, Mrs. Hindsight and I went there on holiday again this year and we booked yet another car with Auto Europe.
We got the usual Ryanair bus from London Stansted to Bari and as ever, arrived on time. A short wait by the baggage carousel for Mrs. Hindsight’s extensive wardrobe and we were in the arrivals hall in no time – where we headed immediately to the familiar Auto Europe counter.
There were two ladies behind the counter. I shall call them Dona2 and Aida.3 Dona was busy with a crazy Italian woman who, judging by the time taken to hand over a set of keys, wanted a pimped-up SUV with an automatic transmission, a sat-nav, a child seat, sixteen authorised drivers and to return the car to Entebbe Airport in Uganda. Aida looked like she was close to completing her processing of a relatively normal looking bloke. They both greeted the simultaneous arrival of two dozen car-less Brits as if we had collectively urinated on their favourite rug. If looks could have killed, it would have been a massacre.
Then, Aida just got up and left. That is, she picked up her handbag and departed. Vanished. Went home.
There wasn’t a closed mouth in the queue. Every single person was slack jawed in sheer, mind-boggled disbelief. They would have been less shocked if Aida had taken all her clothes off and started serving the customers in the buff whilst singing Verdi arias4. The only thing missing from the scene was a little roller blind pulled down across her half of the counter saying ‘F@@k You!” You had arranged for half your staff to simply piss off at the precise moment when a crowd of eager new customers had arrived bang on schedule.
So, we had little choice but to continue our vigil, watching Dona work her way through the paperwork at glacial speed. To entertain themselves, our fellow sufferers began to run sweepstakes on how long it would take her to deal with a single customer. Anyone who bet on less than twenty minutes was to be sorely disappointed. 23 to 27 minutes was typical. At one point, one lucky competitor who had bet on well over half an hour was an unexpected winner when Dona realised that she had run out of Auto Europe child booster seats and went on a tour of the other car hire counters to see if she could borrow one.
Below is a little video taken exactly 2 hours after I joined the queue (if it doesn’t appear straight away, just SHIFT F5 to refresh the window). It’s only short but it contains all manner of useful information. From the first few frames you ought to be able to identify Dona behind the Auto Europe counter. As the camera pans right, you will see a vending machine that was getting some serious hammer from the poor sods in the queue. (Having spent two and a half hours in the air surviving on a diet of sour cream and chive Pringles, and a further couple of hours waiting in the Auto Europe queue, blood sugar and hydration levels were getting perilously low. There was even speculation that Dona was on a vending machine profit share). From the remaining frames, you will be able to see that the airport is entirely empty – apart that is from the remaining unfortunates who were still waiting to be pissed off by Dona at the Auto Europe counter. That includes the people sitting down. Their legs had given out but, being British, we were holding their places in the queue. Note that the Hertz and Europcar counters in the background are deserted. Their customers had all left ages ago – in their hire cars.
Eventually, after two hours and four minutes – yes, exactly two hours and four minutes – we reached the counter. Our ordeal was nearly over, we thought.
I presented my Auto Europe voucher. The one with the Auto Europe logo at the top of the page which had been sent to me by Auto Europe after I had booked an Auto Europe car on the Auto Europe website. The ensuing conversation went as follows:
Dona: “Your car hire is with Firefly, you’re in the wrong place”.
Me: “My car hire is with Auto Europe. It was booked on the Auto Europe website and look at the voucher, it has the Auto Europe logo on it just like the one above your head”.
Dona: “Read the voucher. It says you have to ring Firefly on arrival”
Me: “No. It doesn’t”. (I had read the voucher. Several times. I’d had two hours and four minutes to kill).
Dona: “Look, there’s the telephone number” (circling a number with her Auto Europe biro).
Me: “I know there’s a telephone number. It has your telephone number on it as well. Do I have to ring you too?
Dona: Another you-pissed-on-my-rug stare: “You have to ring their number and they’ll send a bus”
Dona: “It’s four kilometres away. Next customer!”
Dona really didn’t give a shit.
Angry does not even begin to describe my feelings at this moment. Up until this point, I had been feeling a just the tiniest bit of sympathy for Dona. After all, you had placed her in an impossible position by sending Aida home just when she was most needed. Right now though, I wanted to fire a cruise missile at the Auto Europe counter and blow it and Dona to Kingdom Come!
Instead, I rechecked the voucher for the umpteenth time. I couldn’t find a bloody word about calling Firefly.
There’s the voucher, just below. Can you spot the explicit instruction for me to call Firefly on arrival?
No, I didn’t think so.
Yes, it mentions that the car was being supplied by Firefly but this was my fourth Auto Europe pick up at Bari and you have probably sub-contracted the job every time but I had never had to go anywhere but to the Auto Europe counter.
OK, this is only the first page of a four page voucher. On page two, it does state (and I quote exactly):
“Vehicle returning to the Palermo, Cagliari, Catnia, Milan, Rome or Venice locations must be returned to the off airport location and use the free shuttle service”.
Odd that. It doesn’t mention off airport returns or pick ups for Bari Airport.
Palermo, Cagliari, Catnia, Milan, Rome and Venice…
But not Bari.
And on page 3 it states (and again, I quote exactly):
“This Auto Europe voucher must be presented at the rental desk”
Of course, I also found the bit about the minibus eventually but not until I was safely back in the UK. Buried in the small print under ‘Terms and Conditions’ on page four, right after the bit about not travelling on ferries and the need for German Emissions stickers, it does indeed tell you to make the call and to go and stand by a sign that doesn’t actually exist to await the amateur rally driver and her minibus (more of her in a second). Your voucher was about as much use as a chocolate fireguard.
You bloody idiots!
Anyway…. back to the story.
By now it was getting late and my car was apparently still four kilometres away so I did what Dona had told me to do and I rang the number. The young lady who answered the phone – I’ll call her Agata5 – told us to wander down towards the car hire car parks and wait near the ‘Car Parks 2,3 and 4’ sign where she would meet us in ten minutes. There wasn’t a ‘Car Parks 2,3 and 4’ sign so we waited between the ‘Car Park 2’ and the ‘Car Park 4’ signs in the hope that this would be close enough and after fifteen minutes, I gave Agata another call in case we were in completely the wrong place. Apparently not. She hadn’t even set off yet but would be with us soon.
And she was.
The minibus, Agata at the wheel, screamed into view ten minutes later. She was apologetic about the confusion caused by our voucher (unlike Dona). It clearly wasn’t the first time she had heard this story of woe and she wasted no further time in driving like Lewis Hamilton to the Arse-End-of-Nowhere6 where she handbrake-turned to a halt outside a large metal clad warehouse with a very large Hertz sign on it7 in the midst of a deserted industrial estate.
Above left: The-Arse-End-of-Nowhere, photographed two weeks later when we returned the tractor. Above right: The Firefly warehouse with the helpful large Hertz sign. The tiny little sign below and to the right of the Hertz sign is in fact the Firefly sign. Try spotting that when you’re driving around the Arse-End-of-Nowhere in a tractor.
We ascended to an upstairs office where we joined Agata’s colleague, Arsenio8. I handed my voucher, driving license and credit card to Agata and she set about the paperwork. For a few moments, it looked like our luck was finally improving when Agata spoiled things again by quoting me the extortionate daily additional cost of insuring the excess on the insurance policy for the vehicle. I pointed to the words on the voucher:
“Your rental includes: Excess refund cover“.
Agata: “Ah yes, but that’s with Auto Europe. We’re Firefly”
Me: “I know, but I’ve already paid for it”.
Agata: “If you don’t pay the extra daily insurance rate, I will make a €1,510.00 block on your credit card”
Agata: “Or you can’t have a car”
Me: “But I’ve already paid for excess cover”.
Agata: “If you have an accident, I take the €1,510.00 from your credit card and then you get it back from Auto Europe”.
Bloody marvellous!. I could just see myself back at the Auto Europe counter with Dona trying to get back my €1,510.00! “Read the voucher. It says on page 347 of the Additional Supplementary Terms and Conditions in Braille that you have to telephone the Pope before you can have your excess back!”.
It wasn’t a pleasant fantasy.
I needed a car. We had been trying to get one for three hours by now so I caved in. On principle, I wasn’t going to pay again for something I was already covered for so I took the chance and let Agata put the block on my card. I could always phone the credit card company and tell them not to pay anything to any Italian car hire firms. Then she told me I had been upgraded from a Ford Fiasco to a Ford Hocus Pocus Estate (which would be very useful for all Mrs. Hindsight’s luggage).
A small victory I thought.
Wrong! Obviously. As I was soon to discover.
In the meantime, Agata then handed me a copy of the directions for how to find my way back to civilisation and, of course, to enable me to return to the Arse-End-of-Nowhere with the car a couple of weeks later. To the right, you will see a high resolution, actual size scan of the map she gave me. Amazing isn’t it? Obviously, assuming North is indeed up the page, you set off East from somewhere grey, go East then West in a white bit, cross another grey bit then sort of bear right across another white bit and you’re there! Easy.
May I suggest that you submit this masterpiece to the Italian Museum of Cartography where it can be added to the ‘Most F@@king Useless Maps of All Time’ archive.
Anyway, despite having no bloody idea as to where we were or how to get to where we were going, it seemed that we were finally close to having a car! We followed Agata back downstairs and out into the pitch black car park where she presented to us an equally pitch black car. It took a while for our eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness but eventually, the wreck took shape in front of us.
It looked like a cast off from the set of a Die Hard movie. Bruce Willis had obviously hired this car and had chased a lot of baddies in it. Or perhaps it had lost a fight with an earth-mover. Either way, it was a collection of dints and scratches joined together by small areas of smooth, black metal.
It had no wheel trims. The rear bumper9 was hanging off. It was a piece of shit.
“I’ll take it”, I said.
This was probably a big disappointment to Agata but I’d had enough. Besides, I could crash this car and they wouldn’t even notice. My €1,510.00 was safe. Just to be sure, I took 20 photographs of the wreck with my phone with the help of Arse who thoughtfully shone his torch so I could see all the dints and scratches (and missing bits) more clearly. I compared the reality in front of me to Agata’s little form with the diagram of a flattened car (you know, the one which all hire car companies use to record the damage). It had more little kisses than a teenager’s Valentine’s card. All was well.
I then kicked the bumper back into place, climbed in and started the car.
The engine worked. Lights came on. The tank showed full. The dashboard informed me that it had recorded 96,000km10 of abuse already (yes, that’s not a typo – ninety-six thousand kilometres – registration number EJ 905 YB if you would like to check). Anything I could inflict on it was unlikely to be terminal. It would do nicely. The cases were loaded and we set off into the night, sounding like a farm tractor after someone had peed in the fuel tank. I pulled up at the end of the road, fired up my sat-nav and programmed in the Arse-End-of-Nowhere so I could find my way back to this grim hellhole through the grey bits and the white bits.
At least the bastards wouldn’t have the pleasure of getting me lost.
And there the nightmare ended.
Arriving at our rented villa in the early hours of the morning (four hours late) was a pain in the ass but, despite the very considerable efforts that your company had put into ruining our holiday, you ultimately failed. The black tractor, Mrs. Hindsight and I had an absolutely wonderful two weeks. However, Auto Europe has lost a regular customer for ever. I would rather crawl naked on broken glass with the suitcases on my back than hire another car from you.
But then what does just one customer mean to you when your viral marketing can replace me with ease?
Not much I imagine.
But remember this. Because of the appalling way you treated me, I’m going to tell others about my experience.
Lots of others.
Chief Executive Officer, Auto Europe (Portland, Maine) – by email
President, Auto Europe (Portland, Maine) – by email
Chief Financial Officer, Auto Europe (Portland, Maine) – by email
Chief Information Officer, Auto Europe (Portland, Maine) – by email
Auto Europe Customer Services teams in Europe, China and Australia – by email
Managing Director Europe, Auto Europe, Munich, Germany – by email
Firefly Customer Services, Italy – by email
Oliver Smith, Travel Editor, the Telegraph – by email
That last copy proved to be important. It was lucky I had Oliver’s email address. A week later, I received the following email reply from Molly at Auto Europe in Portland, Maine. They had been contacted by the Telegraph travel desk team which had begun investigating my complaint.
Whether I would have received the reply without the Telegraph’s intervention is impossible to say:
From: Molly – Auto Europe [mailto:Molly@autoeurope.com]
Sent: 14 August 2013 22:41
Subject: Auto Europe Voucher # UK 2666642 – Firefly Reservation
Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention.
On behalf of Auto Europe, I would like to extend my apologies for the inconveniences and distress which you experienced in Italy.
It would appear, a great deal of the misunderstanding relates to a confusion between our company Auto Europe (with an E at the end), which is car rental broker, and the Italian rental car company Sicily by Car who also go by the name Auto Europa (with an A at the end).
Auto Europe has contracts with a variety of rental car suppliers all over the world, such as Hertz and Avis and Europcar and Firefly and even Sicily by Car.
It would seem that you have booked directly through Sicily by Car in the past, and this time you used our company to broker the best rate, in this case, Firefly.
We do regret that Sicily by Car/ Auto Europa did not treat you kindly.
Please note, it is a standard practice, with all car rental companies world wide that they block a security deposit for the rental car. The amount caries from supplier to supplier, although Italian security deposits tend to be high due to a great amount of damage and theft.
In this instance, you had a rate through Firefly which included collision and theft protection with an excess of approximately €1,510.00. This means, in the event of new damage, or theft of the vehicle, Firefly would have charged you up to €1,510.00.
The rate you purchased through Auto Europe included a product named “Excess Refund Cover”. This means, had you been charged for most cases of damage or theft of the vehicle, Firefly would charge you, and Auto Europe would process the claim and refund you. It is essentially extra assurance for a few pounds more.
This is all explained on the Auto Europe website (www.auto-europe.co.uk) and also printed on our voucher (copy attached for your reference).
We are very sorry for any misunderstandings, and for any poor service you received from Firefly. We were also distressed to read of your description of the condition of the vehicle which you received. In light of this very poor experience, as a gesture of goodwill, Auto Europe has refunded the entire voucher value, for the 14 day rental, in the amount of £285.60. Please allow 2-3 working days for this to post.
If you have any other questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me directly.
Customer Service Manager
Well, I couldn’t leave it there could I? I had to say thank you for the refund at least!
Sent: 18th August 2013
To: Molly Douglas, Auto Europe [mailto:Molly@autoeurope.com]
From: Anthony [mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org ]
Subject: Auto Europe Voucher # UK 2666642 – Firefly Reservation
Thank you for your email.
Thank you also for the refund which I look forward to receiving. I was going to ask you to donate it to charity to demonstrate that my complaint was not financially motivated but Mrs. High-Maintenance has been buying dresses again so I have decided to keep it. Now I can tell her that orphans are suffering as a result of her flagrant disregard for the dress-buying ban, so I am indebted to you.
Since sending my complaint, I have made a study of the various Auto Europe and Auto Europa logos (on the right) and have seen the error of my ways.
The first one is the standard Auto Europe logo used all over the world. This was the logo on my car hire voucher.
The second logo is taken from the website http://www.autoeuropa.com/italy-car-rental/ which is actually one of yours (if you click on the logo on the Auto Europa website it is hyper-linked directly to the USA page of the main Auto Europe website). It seems that you and your colleagues are being a bit naughty when you say that it’s you if it has an ‘e’ on the end but it’s another firm altogether if it has an ‘a’.
However, it is the third logo which was over the counter in front of which I queued for two hours and four minutes. (from http://www.autoeuropa.it/)
Obviously, this third logo bears no resemblance whatsoever to your logos and I was profoundly stupid to think that this logo was in any way connected to the other two. Clearly, you have no affiliation with the company which uses the third logo. I should have spotted that immediately. I will be more careful in future.
I’m a firm believer that every cloud has a silver lining and I am pleased to tell you that this whole experience has inspired me.
Learning from your fine example, I have decided to start a new online venture.
Look, I’ve even designed a cool logo!
It has an ‘a’ at the end instead of an ‘e’ and has no affiliation whatsoever with a well known search engine so it shouldn’t cause any confusion at all.
Strangely, I didn’t get another reply.
And the cars and the women. Especially the women (but don’t tell Mrs. High-Maintenance) ↩
Apparently, in Italy, the name Dona only has one N. It is the short form of Adona, meaning ‘my lord’ (which is odd for a girls name). Full name: Dona Give-a-Shit ↩
Aida means ‘happy’ so it was probably a bad choice on my part given that she was a truly miserable sod. Full name: Aida Rather-Be-At-Home ↩
Did you notice the clever link between ‘Aida’ and ‘Verdi’? ↩
Full name: Agata Nattitude ↩
Just up the road from the Back-of-Beyond ↩
Hertz didn’t hire cars here. This was where Hertz sold cars that were too knackered to be hired out any more (to Firefly presumably) ↩
Arsenio Somewhere-Before. Arse to his friends. ↩
For the benefit of American readers: Bumper = Fender ↩
Beating the record for all previous hire cars by about 90,000km! ↩