Tribulations of a European vacation

For the past three weeks my wife and I traveled to Europe, visitng Greece and then met up with the rest of our family in Southern Spain. In spite of our careful planning, we hadn’t anticipated how much more grueling traveling would be due to the unpredictably of flying. 

Flying from Heraklion, Crete to Athens, we arrived at the relatively small airport shortly before 5am for our Aegean Airlines 6am flight and encountered a huge line of about 400 people waiting to go through a single security line. Luckily, our Gold status on United allowed us to go to the front of the line.

We connected in Athens to an Iberia Ailrlines flight to Malaga and encountered another long line to check in at the Iberia counter that took almost an hour, and that was for business class. With Iberia running so few flights from Athens, they outsource their check-in counter to another company with a single agent. Lesson learned: better to fly from an airport on an airline with more than a modest presence. Add to these the long lines in immigration when entering Madrid and the huge lines in passport control when leaving, means unpredictability and anxious moments. With so many choke points you need to assume the worst and plan to spend many extra hours waiting in lines or waiting at the gate.

My son and his family joined us in Malaga from Barcelona and had a much easier time. They traveled by train and it was right on time. And when we later traveled to Cordoba and Madrid by train, it was a welcome relief from flying. My grandson remarked how much better planes would be if they had the spacing and seating of a train, their wide aisles, generous spacing between seats, and plenty of storage space.

While much of the trip went smoothly, I learned some lessons about renting a car in Europe. I used Costco to reserve a 7-passenger van to be picked up at the Malaga airport from Alamo, at a cost of about $460. (Alamo is no longer the low service/low cost rental company; they’re now part of National and Enterprise, using the same office and pool of cars, at least at this location.)

A fcouple of weeks before our rental was to begin, I wanted to switch the drop off point from the Malaga airport to the Malaga train station. But Alamo told me they couldn’t modify the reservation, since it was booked through Costco. And Costco said to call Alamo or rebook, because changes cannot be made on the Cosctco site. I tried booking a new reservation on Costco with the new dropoff location, but the cost jumped to $596! On a whim, I called the Alamo office in Spain and asked what would my cost be to make a new reservation through them. It was just $350 for the very same vehicle, so I booked it.

When I picked up the van, I opted for the $240 insurance, which I rarely do, but considering I was driving a large van with manual transmission in a foreign country, it seemed prudent. And that turned out to be fortuitous.

A few hours after renting the car I drove back to the Malaga airport to pick up my daughter. I parked in the short term lot next to the terminal. Squeezing a 7 passenger van into the tiny parking space was a challenge, but I managed to do it. However, when pulling forward out of the space, I carefuly maneuvered past a large cement column, watching the fender through my left side mirror to prevent scraping the side of the car, completely unaware of a large metal box strapped to the column protruding into the parking space above the sight line of the mirror. Suddenly, as I was turning out of the space, I heard a crunching sound as the corner of the box pierced the large side window of the van. The window shattered and hundreds of pieces of glass fell into the car

A bit shaken, I drove back to the rental car office and an Alamo agent examined the damage, put the information into their tablet computer, and declared it was fully covered by insurance. They even sent me an email confirming this the next day. They asked me to go back to the airport to file a police report, but when I objected, they gave me a replacement van.

As others who have been traveling recently know, international travel isn’t as much fun as it used to be, but it’s still a wonderful experience sharing new experiences together with your family, even with the inconveniences and occasional glitches. The key is to expect issues to arise and to allow plenty of time to deal with them, especially on trips with connections. And do buy car rental insurance.

by Phil Baker