Chris Barnett on Business Travel
No Planes, No Trains, Just Automobiles
December 22, 2016 -- No way will I climb into a driverless contraption that promises to take me from here to there with no human hands on the steering wheel. I already have to deal with soulless airlines. Why compound that with robotized ground transportation?

Yet to hear Silicon Valley techies, Detroit carmakers and New York venture capitalists talk, the RoboCar is just around the corner. And your mileage may vary. Manhattan-based corporate crisis management consultant Rich Torrenzano's certainly does.

"I'd do it because I don't like anyone else driving me," he explains. "But what happens if a driverless cab gets hacked and suddenly I'm going to the Bronx instead of my meeting at 57th and Madison?"

I've been thinking about cars and cabs and Uber a lot lately as I've jetted around the world. Allow me to explain.

An airport dash in Buenos Aires can drive you batty, even if your hotel arranges a car or a cab. I tried flagging a taxi on a busy BA boulevard at 3 p.m. on a recent Wednesday and it took me 90 minutes to snag a ride.

A stunning, ponytailed lady beat cop took pity on me and offered tips on where to stand and how to wave. Look cool, she advised. Not frantic. It didn't work.

In most cities, a cabbie sees a guy on a street corner with two rolling suitcases and a canvas bag and he thinks: Bingo! Airport run! Fat fee and a fare back to the city. Not in BA. Even with an armada of black cars and yellow cabs plus a bus and subway system, there are 17 million metro residents and suburban commuters looking for a ride. Uber? My mobile phone's WiFi was on the blink and I couldn't connect.

I finally piled into a cab at 4:30 p.m. The driver was half-Argentine and half-Italian, so he had half a sense of humor. But with BA's narrow streets and rush-hour traffic, it took more than an hour to get out of the city and another 90 minutes in bumper-to-bumper freeway traffic to reach Ezeiza International Airport (EZE).

The good news: A taxi to EZE is a bargain. Even with the horrific congestion and delays, I paid just 600 pesos (about US$40) plus a 15 percent tip.

When does a quoted $61 fare from Newark Airport to the Upper West Side of Manhattan end up costing $95? When you're in a New Jersey cab headed across the Hudson River to New York.

Public relations executive Daniel Kennedy, just off a 9-hour flight from Europe, got a guaranteed one-way fare quote from the Newark cab dispatcher: $61 plus bridge and tunnel fees.

But when he boarded, Kennedy was told by the cabbie that he had to pay the fees both ways plus an additional 5 percent if he charged the trip to a credit card. Before long, the tab was $95 and counting.

"If I put the trip on my American Express card, which I usually do, it would have been $100," Kennedy laments.

It's unnerving enough to skim nearby rooftops to land or take off at San Diego International, one of the nation's most challenging airports for pilots and passengers. But try finding the return road to the city's spiffy, 11-month-old consolidated car rental center.

Word to the visiting frequent flyer: It's impossible unless you're a regular renter.

Driving south on Interstate 5, the main highway into and out of California's second-biggest city, you'll see a sign reading "San Diego Airport, Sassafras Ave." What the sign doesn't say is what matters: The Sassafras Avenue exit is the only interstate off-ramp to get to the car rental center.

I didn't take it and wound up heading downtown. I had to make an illegal U-turn before finally spotting a sign for the return center. I wound up blowing 45 minutes--and I wasn't alone. A Denver-bound business traveler and a Houstonian heading home, both on the car rental shuttle, complained they were "confused" and "frustrated" by the awful signage.

What gives? Airport planning director Ted Anafis concedes the Sassafras Avenue off-ramp sign should be amended. It should advise renters to exit for the rental center. Unfortunately, he says, that would clash with the signage standards of the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans). City and airport officials knuckled under to Caltrans' standards.

So even though travelers pay a usurious $7.50 a day "facility charge" when they rent at San Diego Airport, neither the state nor the city is going to make it easy for flyers to dump their wheels before they catch their flight.

Thinking of leasing or buying a car? Who'd know better about cars than car rental agents? I've been conducting an informal survey of check-in agents for the last 18 months and quizzed staffers at Hertz, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Fox and National.

The question: Based on your experience, what's the most reliable, least-problematic car in your fleet? Unanimous winner: The mid-sized Toyota Camry. Second was the Hyundai Sonata. The runner-up: Toyota Avalon.

Of course, most car rental outfits will happily sell you vehicles from their respective fleets. They claim you'll get a car that has a good warranty and has been meticulously maintained.

Enterprise Holdings, which owns National and Alamo as well as Enterprise, is also an active player in the car-sales market. A salesman named Tim in the San Leandro, California, office, says Enterprise gives a 12,000-mile or 12-month parts and labor warranty. That's in addition to any time left on the original warranty. Most rental cars are sold with 30,000 to 40,000 miles on the odometer.

Typical price for a used Toyota Camry at Enterprise? About $15,000, says Tim.

This column is Copyright 2016 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.