A Cautionary Tale for Travelers Renting a Car Overseas

This week, 19-year old Matt Guthmiller became the youngest person to navigate a small plane around the world by himself. The Boston Globe reported the American MIT student he had a fairly smooth run, but experienced a setback at a stop in Abu Dhabi. Apparently, the technician servicing the plane filled it with diesel, instead of aviation gas. Fortunately, Matt caught the error right away.

Last summer, I rented a car to travel from Paris to Normandy with my family. One evening, after a full day of sightseeing on the coast, we headed south. Excited to have a lovely country dinner and go the Mont St. Michel, we needed to fuel up first. We went to several stations before stumbling upon one that wasn’t closed and accepted our credit card. Relieved, we gleefully filled the tank and planned our evening. After dinner and the Mont, we’d enjoy our last night at the charming chateau we so enjoyed. Visions of foie gras and a cold glass of rose danced in my head.

Our pleasant reverie was interrupted when the car wouldn’t start. Tired and hungry, I tried to be positive. It was probably just a dead battery and there were plenty of cars around to jump us, so I wasn’t that concerned. Suddenly, my husband ran over to the fuel pump, studied the label and turned a ghostly shade of white. Like the young pilot’s experience in Abu Dhabi, the wrong fuel was used. I wasn’t too upset. I figured someone could just siphon the unleaded gas and pump in diesel. And we’d be on our way. Le Mont St. Michel in the moonlight beckoned! I told the non-English speaking girl at the register about our plight. My laissez-faire attitude changed when I noticed how big her eyes were getting. When she put her hands over her mouth, I knew we were really up the junction. A local man standing nearby said in perfect English, “It’s okay. Nobody died.”

Not a terrible place to wait for a tow truck.

Not a terrible place to wait for a tow truck.

Yves arrived with his tow truck 40 minutes later. I thought he’d be able to do the fuel transfer right there in the parking lot. But as daylight faded, so did my optimism. Yves kept saying, “Non” and “Demain.”

Of all the conversational French I had brushed up on, “Where are you taking us in your tow truck?” was not something I had practiced.

Despite not speaking a word of English, Yves was incredibly helpful. He brought us to the closest hotel, about 30 miles from his garage. When we arrived, we must have looked incredibly pathetic because the woman at the front desk was so sympathetic. The crying helped. “Pretend you’re camping,” I said to my daughter when she asked about clean clothes and a toothbrush.

We put our limited belongings in a dark room that smelled like cigarettes and went back outside. We scavenged for food like the stray cats we saw in the neighborhood. It was nearly midnight and a man in an apron was closing up his shop. Having not eaten in for 11 hours, we begged him to feed us. He gruffly scolded us in French, telling us it was too late, but he softened up. He made us pizzas and served us the best beer we’ve ever had.

After a restless night in a very hot room, we went to the garage to pick up the car. It was not an easy fix. Like Mr. Guthmiller’s technician, Yves had to drain the fuel, irrigate and decontaminate the tank and re-fill it with the right stuff. When he handed us the keys, we were so elated to be on our way that we gave him the Calvados we bought for our cousins, who had been hosting us in Paris.

Our setback was over, but the sting would linger for days. The garage bill wasn’t cheap and our last night at the chateau was money down the drain. Talk about learning the hard (and expensive) way.

No more lamb stew and apple tarte tatin for us. “Make sure you grab an extra baguette from the breakfast buffet,” I said. My husband and daughter, beacons of composure throughout the whole ordeal, were not amused.

On the hour-long drive back to the chateau, we played Monday morning quarterback. How could we have made such a huge mistake? Why wasn’t there a sticker on the tank with information about what fuel to use? Were we so emotionally exhausted from seeing the American cemetery and D-Day beaches that we couldn’t see straight? Why didn’t the guy at the rental place warn me? (After all, I didn’t instill much confidence when I got behind the wheel and asked him where neutral was. He asked if I had experience with a manual transmission and I nodded. I did not tell him I hadn’t touched a stick shift for 20 years. I imagined it must be like riding a bike. Switching to an automatic was not possible, since they are rare in Europe and you have to reserve them far in advance.) As we sputtered out of the garage, I thought I heard something like, “Les Americains sont stupides.”

Important Tip: The significant amount of money saved by renting a stick shift auto is not worth the stress if you don’t usually drive one. This became clear when I kept stalling on the way out of Paris. (It still amazes me that we survived the trip.)

Back at the chateau, we arrived just in time to miss breakfast. A first world problem, I realized, but I was crestfallen.The dining room was so elegant. And the homemade croissants? Mon Dieu! We planned the trip a year in advance and saved up for months so we could stay in lush, historical surroundings like this. Taking a last, longing look around the castle, I ran my fingers along the library’s brocade upholstery and admired the 15th century tapestries in the foyer. On the way out, we paid the bill and explained to our charming host why we had not come “home” the night before. With a twinkle in his eye, he said reassuringly, “People put the wrong fuel in their autos all the time! This happens to practically everyone who comes here. Especially English people.”

We felt ten percent less stupid.

Back in Paris, we relayed the mishap to our cousin.

He laughed and replied in his charming accent, “It happens to everyone. But only for one time.”

Yet this won’t happen to you. Or to Mr. Guthmiller– whether he reads this or not.