Rental cars in Geneva are a scam. That’s the bottom line.
I booked the rental car for our last property-hunting trip through kayak.com. I had never used Kayak before, and there was no indication that anything was amiss. Maybe I should have seen the signs… the flight was booked through Kayak too, and the booking apparently went through an intermediary called CS.com, on Swiss Air, which is a Luftansa company, operated by United. They were the cheapest tickets and it was a direct flight from Dulles to Geneva, so I didn’t care that I couldn’t figure out which airline to claim the miles on or pick my seats in advance.
We landed in Geneva on Saturday morning delirious as always; I never sleep on the plane. There was no jetway so we waited for the shuttle and then waited for the last passenger to deplane before bussing a hundred meters over to the terminal. We went immediately through passport control (we have to split up because Dominik is an EU citizen, while I fall in the “other” category) and through a maze of duty free shops to baggage claim. We had checked luggage because we were carrying all the ski gear, although it was looking like there wasn’t going to be much spare time to ski. We had appointments booked to visit restaurants and houses every day of the week except Sunday.
I don’t know why I have anxiety coming up to passport control; I think I have PTSD from Germany. When we lived there, passport control would sometimes give a visa stamp, sometimes refuse to stamp the passport and use the SOFA card instead. Sometimes they argued that I was required to be using my red passport even when traveling on personal business and not under orders; sometimes they said the only option was to use the tourist passport. I started carrying both. Once they detained my aging mother who was bringing the kids back from a visit in America because she had a different last name from them — only my husband’s work connections with the Polizei saved her from being put on the next plane home. When I used to work in Abu Dhabi, I was stopped by customs every single time, my bag searched, and was questioned closely and incredulously about whether I was bringing cigarettes into the country. None? None. Really.
Passport control was no problem this time at least, and I got a visa stamp for Switzerland. I even managed to say, “Bonjour, merci.” After we got our bags, we went straight through customs with nothing to claim, and then were dumped out into a long hall full with many people. We looked everywhere for rental cars — no counters were obvious, so we went outside for shuttle buses. It became apparent that the only buses coming by were city and hotel buses, so we went back inside, dragging unwieldy luggage behind. We walked the opposite way down the long hall and eventually saw a sign for rental cars, which was out of the building and across a breezeway into another building. We had reserved with Dollar/Thrifty, which was the first counter. There was only one family in line in front of us, but we waited more than 20 minutes. I handed the girl behind the counter my reservation papers, and she looked at them for just a moment before announcing, “You rented from the French sector.”
Wait. What? The airport is in Switzerland, how could I have rented a car in… France? Dominik did a facepalm, indicating that he knew something about this. We left the line, and he admitted that we needed to find the French sector of the airport. Up to that point, I had thought Geneva and its airport lie entirely within the sovereign borders of Switzerland. How can it be hiding… France? So it turns out that there is a small corner of the airport, hidden away at the periphery and not discussed amongst the Swiss, that is France. Or least considered sovereignly French; I am skeptical that the border actually runs through the airport. They do their best to hide it, like an embarrassing relative. Knowing now that it exists, we headed back into the main building and back down the long hall to the opposite end, where we find France. I walked through a set of doors, even more delirious than an hour ago, and the next thing I knew, a gendarme was yelling at me. I had walked right past him — it was another, rather informal, passport control and customs desk. He asked me what I was doing in France, where was I going, and I struggled to come up with my destination — Aime. That’s where I’m going, Aime. His face brightened, and he said, “Oh, La Plagne?” No, but yes, close enough. I guess everyone comes to ski. Ski tourists coming to spend money in France are fine with him, so he let me go.
It was a short walk to the Thrifty counter, which was surrounded by a number of very unhappy looking people. We didn’t have to wait to approach the desk, but that was misleading, because getting to the desk is just the first step of a very long journey with French Thrifty. First, he sees that we are early to pick up. He announces that it is impossible to pick up our car until three hours from now. He is prevented from giving it to us, it is impossible. I asked if the car was physically present, and he replied, “Yes, it is here, but I am not authorized to give it to you.”
“Well, can I just switch the pickup time? I’m here now.”
“That would be inadvisable.”
“Why would that be inadvisable? I really want the car now.”
“Oh, because it would cost hundreds of euros.”
“Why will it cost hundreds of euros for three hours?”
“Because it would be a separate booking.”
“You mean I have to rent a car for three hours, and then return it and re-rent it for the rest of the week?”
“Well, the only other option is to contact who you originally booked it through and have them authorize it and email me directly that I am authorized to give you the car. Otherwise, I am not authorized to give you the car.”
So we called the help number from Kayak and miraculously they answered, and agreed to immediately send an email to the guy behind the desk. Ha! Never give up. We re-approached the counter and re-engaged the strange young man with a shaved part down the middle of his head.
“Okay, I have the email and I am now authorized to give you the car. Unfortunately it appears that you have reserved a car without snow tires. You know that snow tires are not mandatory in France, so snow tires will cost extra. If you would like a car with snow tires, I have one available, but it is an upgrade. But first, you must wait ten minutes. I must change my pants.”
Insert interlude where strange man goes behind the knee wall with other counter workers for 10 minutes and returns, apparently wearing the same pants.
“This is ridiculous. I’m renting a car in Switzerland in February, how can it not have snow tires? How much is the upgrade?”
It turned out to be more than double the original booking quote. Hence the scam. Classic bait and switch. We were headed to the Alps though, so there was no choice. We took the upgrade and were told to wait again. It was a hostage situation. To kill the time, went over to the only food counter in the French Geneva airport and I had my first tiny coffee of the trip. Even “a longe” (missing accents), their big coffee, is basically a tiny espresso-sized Americano. After another 45 minutes, Dominik went back to check, and miraculously, keys appeared. We escaped to the garage, almost three hours after we landed.
When we returned the rental car, we followed the airport signs to “rental car return” and went through the entire garage, which was almost in a state of riot with people jockeying for parking space and honking horns, before we finally figured out that this was only for the Swiss sector car return — they had hidden France again. We circled the airport at least a dozen times before I finally googled “geneva airport french sector rental car return,” and of course someone had blogged about it because it was so ridiculous. We followed the convoluted, completely unsigned directions, leaving Switzerland and crossing the border back into France before we finally found the hidden entrance to the correct garage, which we thankfully recognized. It was good that we had built in enough time, because the circling process burned more than an hour.
I said when we got home that from then on I was only going to book directly with a rental car company. Instead, when I booked our next trip, I did it through rentalcars.com. I don’t know why. I really don’t. The ad did say “winterization included” and I added a note saying to please ensure that the reserved car has snow tires and chains. The booking doesn’t say if it is Swiss or French sector. What could go wrong?
Copyright 2018, Rachel Howard