Two years before we had visited Germany and stayed in the city of Baden-Baden in the north of the Black Forest and enjoyed it so much that we booked to return a year later. We didn’t make it however because on the day of the flight there was a little bit of snow across the United Kingdom which closed down all of the airports and cancelled all of the flights. Not to be outdone by inefficient English bad weather emergency response planning however we booked again and this time with mild weather at Stansted the flight got away as planned.
It took only fifty-five minutes to fly the short distance and land at Kahlrsrue-Baden Airpark at nine-thirty in the evening and after quickly clearing immigration and customs we were soon at the Sixt Car Hire desk to pick up our hire car.
There was a pleasant young man on duty called Herr Schmidberger and he examined my hire details and then sighed and furrowed his brow and adopted a concerned demeanour, “You have a booking for a vehicle without the winter tyres” he said, “are you sure you want a car without the winter tyres?” I had no idea what he was talking about and must have given him my best blank expression because with that he rolled his eyes so far back into their sockets that if had laser vision he would have fried his brains. The winter tyres were an extra €55 and I was beginning to detect a well rehearsed scam so we took a while to consult with each other on the proposal of paying the extra and this started to test his patience.
I enquired why I might consider going to the unnecessary additional expense and although this was his opportunity to inform me that since May 2006 German motorists have been required by law to use the most appropriate tyres for the weather conditions and that driving on snow covered roads is permitted only if a car is equipped with winter tyres, but instead he became even more theatrical and speaking in that clipped precise sort of way that Germans do when speaking English said “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!”
Obviously I could see the snow but I still failed to understand why he was so insistent (unless it was a scam and I was becoming more and more sure of that). He could have told me that in Germany motorists are obliged to make sure they have correct tyres to suit the winter weather conditions and if a vehicle becomes stuck because the tyres are unsuitable drivers are liable to an on the spot police fine, and furthermore if the vehicle causes an obstruction or aggravation to other traffic, the fine may be doubled. Instead he gave a look that suggested that I was the craziest customer that he had ever dealt with and that driving without winter tyres in snow was madder than wrestling with alligators, swimming in shark infested waters or sky-diving without a parachute.
I asked about the weather forecast and whether he thought it might be snowing in the Black Forest (which at over a thousand metres was an absolute certainty and a really dumb question) and then his eyes started to swivel from side to side like the symbols on a fruit machine and he was clearly losing his patience with me now. He might have explained that winter tyres use a tread rubber compound that is softer and a tread block pattern with more sipes, or small slits which are specifically designed to retain flexibility in low temperatures and give good braking and traction performance on snow and ice covered roads but instead he just keep shrieking “Look at the snow, you can see the snow, in just two minutes you can see the snow!”
By now we were beginning to understand that he thought snow tyres were a very good idea so finally agreed to the additional charge and he immediately calmed down and set about allocating us an appropriate vehicle for the conditions.
After that he went through the booking and paying procedures, explained where we would find the car in the car park and then clearly lacking any sort of confidence in my snow driving abilities and not expecting to see the car again in one piece bade us farewell with the words “please be sure to drive carefully in the snow, it is very dangerous…”
We quickly found the bright blue Nissan Micra hidden under a blanket of snow, cleaned it down, examined the tyres which, at this time not understanding about the special rubber compound, looked quite normal to me and fairly soon after setting off I was certain we had been scammed. And we had been of course because at €13.45 a day I calculate that if they are on the car for a third of the year that is an extra €1,600 or €400 a tyre and I could not believe that they can be that much more expensive than a regular tyre. And of course they are not because I have checked and they can be bought for as little as €40 each.
Preoccupied by this thought and how Herr Schmidberger had taken me for a mug I predictably took the wrong turn out of the Airpark and instead of reaching the motorway as intended we found ourselves on the back roads driving through small villages and searching for clues from the occasional unhelpful road signs.
Although Kim has improved recently as a navigator she was off duty tonight so we just had to keep going and trusting in our natural sense of direction. It was still snowing but not as heavily now and I began to curse myself for having been rushed into the winter tyres decision. Eventually, after a bit of a detour, we reached the motorway and then the right exit and then after only one more mistaken wrong turning which we quickly corrected found the Rammersweier Hoff hotel without any difficulty at all. This was unusual for us and quite remarkable because the place was tucked away in a side street in the middle of a residential area and on a different occasion I could easily have spent hours searching for it.
Upon return home I raised the issue of what I considered to be an excessive winter tyre charge in this journal and the reaction has left me speechless with admiration for Sixt Car Hire.
I have experienced the best customer service that I have ever had with a response from the Customer Services Manager in the United Kingdom who provided me with a clear explanation of the law relating to winter tyres and the company policy in respect to additional charges. He also promised to raise the matter with the Company’s Commercial Director.
I have to say that although I paid too much for them I was really glad of the winter tyres as I am sure they made driving a much safer experience in quite tricky driving conditions and hopefully the Commercial Director will be as good as the Customer Services Manager and will give full consideration to my comments.