Special Victims Unit: ‘car rental in Italy’ edition

Italy is the glorious epicentre or the slow food movement. But did you know it also started the slow car rental office movement?

“I can upgrade you to an SUV,” the man in the 70’s funeral parlour attire suggested.

“How much will it cost?”

“Only €7 a day.”

“Sounds cheap. But let me extrapolate for 3 days. So, 21 euros?”

“Yes. Plus tax,” he added, which made me wonder if four tyres and a steering wheel might also be added extras.

SUV? More like “Law & Order SVU: Italian airport car rental” edition.

You know a crime’s taking place, but it always takes 55 minutes to realise the how and why.

The who and the where is the easiest part: it’s you. And it’s any car rental agency in an Italian airport.

But I always want to know the how. What new, innovative way will the agency find this time to leave you stranded and in despair trying to haggle in Italian?

The setup was simple. We’d flown into Milan and needed a car to reach a wedding in the foothills of Mont Blanc, (Monte Bianco in Italian; or, in the rather less alluring English, ‘White Mountain’).

I’d booked in advance on a third-party website, and of course was instantly attracted to the low prices offered by the totally legit sounding company “Sicily by Car”.

Milan being 1,500km from Palermo by car, the company was arguably out of its comfort zone. I ignored this warning sign (an incidental metaphor for my general approach to driving). At just €25 a day, the company was among the cheapest, certainly far less than the €60-75 quoted by the Big-4 car rental companies.

Trust nonna’s advice
According to an ex-girlfriend’s grandma, if you rent the cheapest car, you’ll return to the agency three times before you can even hit the road.

In that instance we’d been in Iceland and discovered the cheap 2WD car we hired was only suitable to drive between the rental office and the airport. (Most Icelanders drive monster trucks, custom-made to negotiate the terrific volcanic terrains.)

Another time in Tasmania, we booked through a discount German-language website. This time, the order code was not recognised at Hobart airport, so, no car. Our trans-island road trip suddenly imperilled, I chanced upon the last rental car available: a Hilux ute, available at an expense only a tradie could afford.

Back to Milan, the first bump in the road was that the rental office required a journey by train to get there. Terminal 2 at Malpensa, it turns out, is quite far from Terminal 1.

A queue stretching well beyond some 80’s carpet and dying plastic plant signalled we’d finally arrived at the what constituted their office. I took a number and got in line.

Italy is the glorious epicentre or the slow food movement. But did you know it also started the slow car rental office movement?

If you want to return to the days before fibre-optic Internet, or even go pre-Internet altogether, there is no better place than an Italian airport car rental agency.

Having already filled out my details and paid online, the funeral parlour director behind the desk now asked me to fill out my details on paper. Which he then painstakingly typed into his “computer”, some kind of rebooted Apple 2e from his primary school, or a painted cardboard box, using my dad’s patented one-index-finger-only typing method.

If that wasn’t tedious enough, now his friend, perhaps some distant accomplice from long-lost youth passing through the airport, or just the guy from bain-marie stand across the corridor, came to his desk to say ciao. How’s your mother? Your father? How’s business? Bit slow?

Having upgraded me to the SUV, entered all my details in triplicate into his “computer”, and reloaded the printer with paper (necessitating another 5-minute mission to the backroom), he sprang the trap: “And so sir, how would you like to pay?”

Living in France, where it’s virtually impossible to ever earn anything nearing a disposable income, the concept of a credit card is as foreign to that of eating stale bread, or not giving your host instant negative feedback on the meal they’ve invited you over to enjoy.

And thus, I had only a debit card to pay with.

“You don’t have a credit card? Then you’ll have to pay extra I’m afraid.”

The trap snapped closed.  

“How much?”

“Let me see…” drawing out the agony, he concentrated on his tiny computer screen, pretending to be doing some drawn-out calculation, before arriving at the final figure: “That will be €140 extra.”

In shock, I exploded with the only Italian phrase I had picked up from 12 years in Europe, and is actually just an English phrase expressed in an Italian accent.

“€140. But that’s a bullshit!”

He knew I was screwed. I knew I was screwed. And he knew I knew he knew I was screwed.

“Sir, there’s maybe one thing I can do.” He was playing both parts of the bad-rental-agent /  good-rental-agent routine. He pretended to tap away again, and finally arrived at a sum only €100 extra than what I’d expected.

And, given us wedding guests also needed to be arriving somewhere soon, Mont Blanc, within 2 hours, there was nothing to do but say “si”.

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