Friday, October 08, 2004

Trapped in Paradise

We're home in Celebration, but this weekend we face a strange dilemma: we're "trapped in paradise." We couldn't get a rental car, so we'll be relying on our feet and our bicycles. We might even try a bus adventure on Sunday.

You may be wondering, what does a rental car have to do with it? As weekly commuters, we are in an odd situation. It is actually cheaper to rental a car each weekend than to have our own in Florida. The biggest stumbling block is needing to get to the airport each Sunday. If we had a car, we could drive it there, but then where would we leave it? The parking rates would add up very quickly if we left it in a lot near Orlando International. If if had "auto pilot" and we could somehow send it home, we'd be stuck at the airport next time we came to town.

Then, of course, there would be car payments, maintenance and insurance. All of these things would add up quickly to a large monthly outlay. Compare that to Priceline, where I can usually get a car for the weekend for anywhere from $13 to $18 per day, and you can see why it makes no sense to buy one.

Because of our weekly commute, I have become quite an expert on most of the car rental agencies inside the airport and outside of the North Exit. Typically, through Priceline we get either Alamo, Avis, Budget, or National (on site) or Hertz (offsite). When Bill Shatner can't find anything for me, I turn to Thrifty, which is right across the street from Hertz. Even though both of them are off site, their shuttles are always waiting ride outside the airport door. You jump on and are at the office in minutes. I've literally gotten done at Hertz and Thrifty more quickly than at on site Alamo, which seems to have the most consistently long lines.

I've learned the quirks of each rental agency. Besides long lines, Alamo tends to have pushy agents who try to trick you into buying the supplemental insurance. Their favorite line is, "Do you want the deluxe coverage, or just the basic?", implying that you have to take one or the other. I've heard them get downright nasty with people, lying to some customers by telling them that Florida law requires them to buy a supplemental policy, They especially like to pull this with internatonal visitors. But not all of their agents are like that; there are just a few bad apples.

Even though National shares the same garage space and cars as Alamo because they are the same company, their attitude is much different. No hard sell at all; just fill out the paperwork and head to the garage to pick your car.

Being able to choose your own vehicle is a big reason that many people like Alamo and National. Most agencies assign you to a vehicle, but with those two, you wander around the garage, poking through the various available cars in your class, until you find one that appeals to you. Don't want a car that smells like stale smoke? No problem! Sniff them all till you find one with a pristine smell. Hate a plain white car? Look around until a fire engine red beauty catches your eye.

The other two I've dealt with onsite at the airport, Avis and Budget, assign a car. I like them both, although Budget's cars tend to be a bit older and more dinged up. But they're in good mechanical shape, and I like Budget a lot because they once upgraded me from a compact to a Ford Escape SUV! I had always wondered if Priceline customers would be treated differently because of the cheaper price, but I've ever found that to be a problem. I think we've been upgraded by every one of the car rental companies at one point or another.

Hertz, like Avis, tends to have nice, well-equipped cars. Thrifty's are not bad, either, and because I am a Blue Chip member, I can bypass the counter line. I haven't joined the other agencies' clubs because I can't use them when I rent via Priceline. Thrifty doesn't work with Priceline, so I book them on my own when I can't get a bargain any other way.

It's very rare to not be able to get a car. The only other time that this happened was Christmas, and that's understandable. This time, I had no clue why almost every agency had no cars available, and the two that did wanted $99 per day (by Friday, that had gone up to $199 a day!). Finally my husband glanced at the calendar and realized that it is Columbus Day weekend. I never realized that it was such a popular holiday for travel to Orlando!

Fortunately, I was able to reserve a towncar. I have an ad for Happy Limo on my Disney Cruise Line website,, and I have used them many times for past Disney World trips. My husband and I usually still take a towncar when we go to Port Canaveral for our cruises. I dispatched a desperate email and reservation request, and they quickly comfirmed. Whew! We wouldn't be stuck at the airport; we'd at least be able to get home.

As we prepared for the flight to Celebration, we marveled at how crowded the airport was. The security line was the longest that I've seen it in months, and the plane appeared to be full. When we arrived at Orlando International, we found ourselves swimming in a sea of people heading for the baggage area. Fortunately, we bring carry on only, so we were able to continue on down to the ground transportation area. We linked up with the towncar driver and were on our way home.

417 wasn't trafficky, but the toll booths were more backed up than I've ever seen them. Thank goodness the towncar had Sun Pass! I think the drivers probably spent more time waiting to pay tolls than the total time actually spent driving (i.e. moving) to Disney World.

Soon enough we were pulling into Celebration and heading to good old East Village. It always feels so good to be home, and I long for the day that I won't have to leave 48 hours later.

Since it was still fairly early, my husband and I hopped on our bikes to head to the Columbia restaurant for dinner. We took the bike path rather than the streets, since it was already dark. The path is well lighted, but there are still many trees down due to the onslaught of hurricanes, so that added a bit of a challenge. We had a delicious meal, and we could feel slightly less guilty about the calories since we'd actually exerted some energy to get there. But honestly, I think it would take about a hundred trips from East Village to downtown to even put a dent in the calories my husband consumed in his dulce de leche cheesecake.

Tomorrow we'll have lots to do around town, since it's the big porch sale. We will eat well, because there are plenty of restaurants within biking distance, and we can also get to Publix if we're up for the challenge of crossing 192. We did that last Christmas, and it worked out quite well. We even have an insulated bag to help transport frozen goods via bike.

The only slight problem will be the fact that our mail is delivered to a P.O. box that is a few miles away from town. It's possible to get there via bus, but the bus stop is all the way on 192, outside of Celebration on the tourist strip. It should be possible to bike there, leave the bikes, and do a mail run if we're feeling ambitious. Now, that will be an interesting blog entry!

But other than that, we're pretty much self-sufficient. Celebration is a great little place to be "trapped," with lots of good food downtown, plenty of places to walk and bike, swimming pools, a movie theater, and of course my beloved Farmers Market on Sunday. I'm ticked at Bill Shatner and Pricline for not coming through for me, but I can think of much worse places to be trapped than "paradise."

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