Rental cars

Don’t be afraid to be spontaneous


Two things in life I like as much as I love traveling: hair metal and spontaneity.

And those three things came together in a perfect storm of awesomeness.

Many months prior to this trip, I saw the lineup for Rock the Arena. I saw that it was in Toledo, not far from the Columbus suburb I grew up in and where my brother is raising his awesome family. So I bought the concert ticket, and told myself I’d figure out the rest later. Here was my Facebook post after the trip:


That’s right. That brief moment of spontaneity – and not letting myself worry about the details – ended up producing a trip that was WAYYYYYYY better than simply a killer rock show.

Here’s how it happened, and why you should always stay creative and flexible when traveling – so you don’t miss something awesome:

When I got around to planning the trip, the trouble started early. I had planned to fly into Columbus, where my family lives, and visit with them and then just drive up to Toledo for the show and spend a night. But the Gods of Airfare & Rental Cars were not kind to me.

First, I made the Cardinal Mistake of Travel Planning: I booked a flight before researching rental car rates. This doesn’t seem to be that big of an issue, but it really can be. Why? Rental car rates vary wildly from city to city because of the local taxes assessed on them. So even if the rental car company charges $20 a day for a car in, say, Columbus and Cleveland, local taxes in each of those cities can make for a significant difference in what you end up paying for that $20 rental. It’s for this reason, that I always research rental  care rates before booking airfare. On a number of occasions, I’ve found that the total trip is cheaper if I fly into a more expensive airport with a much cheaper rental car.

And that’s exactly what happened here. The Columbus rental car rates were sky high. Fortunately, I booked on Southwest Airlines and one of the tips in my Fly section is that Southwest doesn’t charge change fees. If your plans change, you can’t get a refund, but you can change your flight and only pay the difference in fare, or cancel it and store what you paid as travel funds that you can use for a future flight. After I finished my researched, I settled on booking a different airline and flying into Detroit, where my rental car would save me literally hundreds of dollars. It was inconvenient, but I decided my time was worth less than my dollars.

Once I got all that worked out, two surprises made it all worth it.

First, Lita Ford, my all-time favorite rocker who was on the Rock the Arena bill, announced a show the night before in Cleveland, just a couple of hours from Columbus AND Toledo. Score! Ticket bought.

And just days before I left on the trip, a  good friend who had bought a six-person tasting menu at a great Cleveland restaurant and was struggling to find a sixth guest, on a lark sent me a message to see whether I’d be in Cleveland on March 17. I hadn’t planned to be there until Lita’s show on the 18th, but when travel opportunity knocks, I open the door.

Doing so meant booking two nights in Cleveland, which wasn’t cheap, being the holiday and all. It meant changing my hotel reservation in Toledo. It had been dirt cheap, but when changing it, it allowed the hotel to charge me the now-jacked-up rate based on new demand, so the detour easily cost me a couple hundred of dollars. But it was worth it. Read on ….



I grew up in Gahanna, one of the northeast suburbs of Ohio’s capital cities. Columbus has changed mightily since I left for college in 1990, and now it would be one of my favorite cities to visit even if it wasn’t my hometown. One thing I had never gotten to do there was see a Columbus Crew soccer match in its new soccer-specific MAPFRE Stadium. It’s a great place to catch a soccer match, and you can even get noodles at the concession stand. The following day, I did something else in my hometown that I hadn’t done before: Visited the Columbus Museum of Art which, like many museums, often offers a free admission day. Worth a visit.



From there, it was on to Cleveland. All the years I lived in Ohio, I had no idea how seriously the folks in Cleveland take St. Patrick’s Day. There’s a massive parade that shuts down much of the city, and plenty of drinking to be had (and an occasional fight, so be careful.)


That night, I met my friend and his posse at Michael Symon’s Lola Bistro, one of the city’s hot dining spots, for that private six-person tasting menu.It was an experience worth every penny of the extra hotels. We had a private table overlooking the kitchen, so we got to see everything prepared and talk with the chefs. I took a look at the menu, and was a little worried that not much on it was in my wheelhouse. And some of it (can you hear my, cauliflower?!?!) is on my choose-death-over-consumption list. But, when in Rome (or Cleveland), I opened my mind – and my taste buds – to all of it. And I loved every single bite. Another reminded to myself to always be open to trying new things.


The following night was my Lita Ford concert, and the surprises kept coming. The venue announced a surprise meet-and-greet opportunity. In all the Lita concerts I’ve gone to, I had never been able to meet here. That would change today. And it happened because I remained flexible with my travel. Had my friend not invited me to dinner, I would have driven up just in time for the show, and missed this incredible opportunity. (By the way, the venue – The Odeon – isn’t going to win any awards, but if you’re looking an intimate venue where you can get close to the stage and not be robbed by the beer vendor, check it out).

From there, it was on to Toledo, for an amazing day of rock, followed by some quick sight-seeing in Detroit before heading home, all the time reveling in the good fortune that came from spontaneity.



Categories: Airlines, Eating, Entertainment, Rental cars, Rock & Roll, Sporting events, Uncategorized | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Toll Roads: Highways to Hell

Here’s a Tampa Bay Times article that gets at the rage those of us who rent cars have at toll roads.

This is what I wrote on my personal Facebook page: “Toll-Roads-In-A-Rental-Car is the worst government-sponsored scam in existence. And the lawmakers in this article don’t get it – it’s not just the rental car companies that are to blame; it’s the states that operate toll roads as well. And just wait til these folks make the mistake of renting a car in Illinois, where there is a 73-cents-exact-change-only-no-pennies-accepted toll booth every four blocks. I could have bought my rental car for the amount of tolls, fees and fines I’ve paid driving through the Land of Lincoln.”

In short, plenty of rage to go around here. Look, I understand toll roads are a necessity in some places. Maybe not as necessary as governments in the Northeast might think they are, but they serve a place. No one likes paying to drive on a road, so we’re all going to be upset when we have to. But this  rage goes well beyond that.

As I mentioned on my Drive page, consumers should be careful when renting  a car in an area where they may encounter a toll road. Rental companies love to rent you a transponder. But at 4 bucks a day for every day of your rental, whether you use it or not, you’re playing a premium for that convenience …. assuming you don’t get confused by the confusing ways states collect toll road money. And that’s the problem here.

No one carries coins anymore, so the old “stop and throw two quarters in a bin” toll collection is on the way out. Paying toll workers to man booths is also expensive, so it makes sense that states are looking for new ways to collect tolls. And let’s face it, with all the technology available to us, toll collection SHOULD be modernized. And that’s all well and good if you are a resident who travels those roads often. But when you’re a visitor, it’s impossible to know whether you’ll encounter a toll road, whether you’ll be able to avoid it if you want to, and how to pay for it if the old-school methods are no longer in use.

For example, Florida uses “Toll By Plate.” It’s a beautiful system. No booths, so no traffic slowdowns. You maintain your speed, and if you have a transponder, your account is automatically charged. If not, a camera snaps a photo of your plate and sends you a bill.

But here’s the problem when renting a car – that bill goes to the rental car company, not you. And it’s reasonable that the company is going to charge you a service charge for having to deal with thousands and thousands of these 75-cent bills every day. We can, and should, debate what a reasonable charge for handling this is, but the real problem is that, in this scenario, a driver has no option. I can’t swing to the right lane and throw some quarters in a machine or hand a dollar bill to a human. I have to drive through and incur a service charge. Sometimes hundreds of times more expensive than the actual toll. My only other alternative is to rent a transponder from the rental car company (see above for why that isn’t always cost-effective) or buy a transponder and carry it around with me. And that would be an option if every toll road in America shared one transponder. But there are dozens.

What’s the solution? Well, there really isn’t one. The best consumers can do is add copious amounts of research before renting a car. Map out the routes you plan to take and see whether toll roads are part of them. If so, figure out how many tolls you’ll incur, and how you can pay for them. Crunch all that information and figure out whether it’s better for you to get ripped off by your rental company for a transponder rental, or whether it’s better for you to get ripped off by your rental company for passing along a toll bill.

Either way, until states and rental car companies can come to some sort of consumer-friendly agreement, you WILL get ripped off.

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