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Saturday, August 15, 2009

I Need A Van - And It Has To Be Right After I Get Rid Of Mine!

I wrote a couple of weeks back about how I traded in my van for a new Hyundai Elantra under the CARS program. I also wrote about how my wife gave me a grilling about the tradeoffs involved in making that decision. I am convinced that my decision is a sound one. Assuming that repairing the van was just throwing good money after bad, buying a car is a much better decision than buying another van. It costs less initially, and it cost less to operate over the long run.

But as my luck would have it, my brother-in-law came over on a visit with his family yesterday. He and his wife and two kids plus his mother make five people in all. And since I have to go to the airport to pick him up, we would need a 6-seater to make it back together.

My wife gave me a hard time about the decision to sell the van and move down to a car as soon as her brother's plans were clear. I told my wife that even if I have to rent a van for $100 each the 2 or 3 times a year when I need one, I would still come out ahead. My wife was not convinced. And she had some arguments of her own to throw at me. Given that I am a cheap bastard, she was pretty sure I would try to avoid renting a van when one was needed and instead come up with some hare-brained scheme that would scandalize her in front of her friends. Or I would ask her to drive all over town following me in my car and she would not like that because she is comfortable driving on regular city streets, but is not comfortable driving on highways at highway speeds.

I consider that an irrational fear. I have argued with her several times and tried to convince her that highway driving is much safer than city street driving. You don't need to change speeds as often as on city streets. You don't have to worry about signals, pedestrians, bicyclists, etc. You don't have to worry about bone-headed drivers cutting you off by getting on road right in front of you from driveways. And in most cases, the speed limit does not change as frequently as on city streets, so you can set your cruise control for just over the speed limit and cruise in the right lane without any worries. But it takes more than my argument skills to convince my wife on this issue. Her main issue is that highway speeds are too high and she is convinced she will never be able to master driving on highways with comfort.

In any case, given my brother-in-law's plans, I started researching my alternatives pretty early on. My first stop was breezenet to check on rental car prices. For some reason, minivans were very expensive everywhere I checked. Most places did not have any minivans in the first place. The few that had them were taking full advantage of the shortage by charging up to $200 per day before taxes! My theory is that rental companies have not really added to their fleets since the recession started a year or two back and since then, their fleets have shrunk without replacement, giving rise to shortages and higher prices.

Whatever the reason, it looked like renting was not going to be a viable option. The next option I came up with was seeing if any of our friends would be willing to go with me to the airport and help me pick up everyone. I have given some of our friends rides to the airport in the past when they had lots of luggage or too many people to transport and I thought I was owed one when I needed the same kind of help now. My wife was not extremely comfortable with the idea, but I convinced her that I would do the asking and she did not have to do any of the talking.

In the meantime, I asked my brother-in-law to send me his travel itinerary so that I would know when exactly I would need a ride to the airport. His reply was a little unexpected. I had expected him to come in between 8 and 10 PM at night, but instead his flight was scheduled to land only at 10:50 PM. I knew that by the time we picked up the luggage and got home, it would probably be well past midnight. So, I decided that getting a friend to tag along was not a good idea anymore.

The next bright idea I had was to check the yahoo yellow pages for local car rental companies whose rates would not be picked up by sites like breezenet. Most of the major national chains have local rental outlets where I live (without having to pick up a car from the airport), but there were surprisingly few rental outlets other than these national ones (such as Hertz, Avis, etc.). I did find one called USave that had a minivan for about $65 before taxes per day. I filed it away for future reference, but even $65 was a little high for just an airport pickup. I researched taxi rates and found out that it would cost me about $38 to $45 before tips for a taxi ride from the airport to home.

As I related all this to my wife, she relented and offered to drive with me to the airport to pick up our guests even though it would involve night driving on the highway. But there was another problem with that plan too: it would be way past our kids' bed-time. Since we have never had a babysitter, our only option was to take them along to the airport with us. Then they would stay awake about 2 hours beyond their bed-time, making them cranky the next day.

As a last desperate measure, I even went on Craigslist to see if rides to the airport were a separate category. There were categories for taxi and limo companies and auto repairs, but no section for friendly ride-swaps between regular people. I debated putting in my own ad asking for a favor, but decided it just wasn't worth it.

So, I decided I would take a bus to the airport, and then take a taxi back home after picking up our guests. I stopped doing any more research on the subject, resigned to the cost of a taxi ride. I knew I would recoup the cost of the taxi ride in two fill-ups of the car's gas tank compared to two fill-ups of the van's gas tank, so I was not too concerned about the cost.

On Friday morning, the day I was supposed to do the airport pickup, one of my friends called me up. He told me his wife had told him about my needing a ride to the airport and was wondering why I hadn't called him with the details. I explained to him that my brother-in-law's flight was coming in only around 11 PM, and if he helped me out, he would get back home only around midnight. If someone had told me that, I would have brushed it off and insisted that I help him out. After all, the next day was a Saturday, I don't have to go to work or get up early for any other reason. So, I could go to sleep at any time I wanted and make up for it by getting up late the next day.

But this friend seemed quite relieved that I had provided him a nice excuse for him not to involve himself in this situation. We made some small talk after that and he wished me all the best and hung up. I called up my wife to tell her what had happened and it got her hopping mad! And I don't blame her. She also correctly assessed that if the roles had been reversed, I would have insisted on helping out, and would have been at the airport with my friend however late it turned out. She ranted about the shallowness of her friends for some time, and I have a feeling she will rant about them some more in the near future!

Another friend of mine owns a van. His wife called my wife and offered the van to me, so that I could drive over to their place, pick up the van, do the airport pick-up, then drive back, leave the van and drive home in my car. My wife thought about it, but decided not to take her up on the offer. I thought the offer was very nice, and if the husband had called me directly instead of the wife calling my wife, I probably would have jumped at the offer and taken him up on it right away. But since my wife had turned down her friend, I did not feel like calling up the friend and proposing the plan to him directly. A taxi it was going to be. . .

The actual pickup turned out to be slightly more adventurous than I had anticipated. My wife dropped me off at the bus stop around 9 PM and I made it to the airport around 9:30. I then spent the next hour and a half reading a book (The Cemetery Dance by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child). The flight landed at around 11:00 but my mother-in-law needed a wheel-chair, so they made it to the baggage carousel only around 11:45. Their bags were already out, though I did not know that since I could not identify their bags on sight.

Once we picked up the luggage, I called up a taxi company and asked them to send me a taxi. This is a taxi company with which my employer has negotiated special rates, so I always use them for all my taxi needs. Sometimes it takes a little longer for them to arrange for a taxi rather than taking a yellow cab from the stand in front of the airport terminal, but the rates are much better, so I don't mind the extra wait. In this case, we had to wait for about 10 minutes for the cab.

When the cab came, he stopped at the wrong spot and asked us to bring all the luggage to that spot. It was a bad start to my relationship with and opinion of the cab driver. But he seemed friendly and helped us load the luggage in the van. He saw that there were six of us and knew that we needed to use every seat in the van, but for some reason, he folded down the last row of seats and put luggage on top of it. We had to get him to rearrange the luggage and keep the row free for passenger use. That was strike two against the driver.

But the true fun was yet to come. As soon as we left the airport, he had to take a particular exit at an interchange to get on the highway that leads back home. He missed the exit (in spite of having a GPS screen mounted right on his dashboard in front of him), and then had to take a different exit and drive around on surface streets to get back on the right highway. I was starting to get a little concerned with the driver. He already had three strikes against him, and I could not very well dismiss him and get the next batter in! I guess a couple of those strikes had to be reclassified as foul balls!

Once on the highway, his driving continued to be somewhat erratic. He kept drifting from side to side in his lane and his corrections to get back to the middle of the lane were always abrupt and a little disconcerting. He also carried on a conversation on his cell phone from time to time, which made his driving more erratic, if such a thing was possible. We were relieved when we reached home finally.

I got out of the cab and helped unload the luggage, then he started processing my credit card for the fare. He charged me $42 for the ride and I added a tip of $4 to make it $46. But he entered it as $44 in his credit card processing machine and sent it off before I could correct him. I guess he was a little unhinged in all aspects of operating a taxi! I was relieved when he finally left.

But, about 15 minutes later, while our guests were having a late dinner, I suddenly realized I could not find the book I had taken to the airport. I searched everywhere I could think of, then even went out to the driveway to see if I had dropped it somewhere there. Being unable to locate the book anywhere, I called the cab company and explained that I might have left a book in the cab. They had the cab driver call me right away and when I explained my situation to him, he was kind enough to check the cab fully for the book. He checked all seats, the glove compartment (my book was too thick to go in there anyways) and the back. No book anywhere.

I decided I had probably lost track of it somewhere in the airport even though I had the distinct memory of getting into the cab with the book in my hand. I decided to chalk up the cost of the book as part of the cost of the taxi ride and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, my book was sitting on my bed-side table. It turns out, I had brought it home. To help with unloading luggage, I had quickly put the book on top of my wife's car which was parked in the driveway. I completely forgot about that crucial occurrence and it did not occur to me to look on top of my wife's car when I had gone out to the driveway the previous night to look for it.

As one can imagine, I was very relieved. I had survived the first occasion when I had needed a van without much of a financial hit. And even though I initially thought the hit was going to be a couple of dozen dollars more because of a lost book, that turned out to be not the case. My wife was also relieved that everything had worked out fine. Hopefully, it will also get her to stop pointing out that I should not have traded in the van for a car the next time I end up needing a van for some reason!

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