Everyone loves looking at beautiful travel photos and hearing about absolute dream trips. But I’ve learned, in my six years of travel blogging, that there’s something most people love even more: hearing about someone else’s absolute, total, complete travel disaster.
Perhaps it’s the dark humor, perhaps it’s knowing we aren’t alone in our own personal misadventures and meltdowns, perhaps it’s just pure voyeurism. Who knows. What I do know? The camper that we rented for our #SunshineStateScuba road trip will go down in the books as one of my greatest travel disasters of all times.
Back to the Beginning
First, I have to back way up, so you can understand how much logistical hell we went though to even get behind the wheel we ended up banging our heads against. I actually first had the idea for this road trip upon discovering a company that rents colorful vintage VW vans out of St. Pete, a dream Heather and I eventually had to let go of after weeks of back and forth, when we accepted that I can’t drive manual and Heather couldn’t be rented to. Why? While she has a US drivers license, she lives in the Cayman Islands and only carries international car insurance, and couldn’t buy US rental insurance through her credit card or another carrier since the vintage VW vehicles in question are more than twenty-five years old. Major blow.
But, after hours spent scouring the internet for the perfect Plan B, we finally settled on an adorable little camper from Outdoorsy that we’d rent an SUV to hitch to. Perfect! Yet… cue the next set of hoops to jump through.
One lesson that took us a long, complicated, sob-inducing road to learn: you cannot hitch anything to a rental car, even one that it appropriately sized such as an SUV. You also cannot hitch anything to a leased car, such as my aunt’s SUV that we were going to borrow after figuring out the first point (and invested quite a bit of time trying to figure out how to attach a hitch package to.) It turns out your only legal option for towing, other than hitching something to a vehicle that you or someone you know fully owns, is to rent a car from a specialty department like Enterprise Trucks — which come with heftier price tags… and huge sizes!
We found that our only option at Enterprise Truck was a size of car we affectionately termed “monster truck” — a Dodge Ram 2500. The guys at the rental counter literally laughed (with delight!) when they saw two little blondies roll up to rent this baby. Heather was super intimidated to edrive it and I didn’t blame her — but she rocked it! We picked up the truck several hours before picking up the camper so we could run all our camper-prepping errands in it and Heather could get some practice before adding another challenge. Ha, I literally have a headache even thinking about getting to this point — and this was just the beginning!
As frustrating a road as it was to get to that point with so much confusion and so many changes in plan, I give nothing but kudos to the employees of the Spruce Street Enterprise Truck location in Tampa, who were sweet, friendly, and empathetic to our condition of cluelessness. Despite all our frustrations so far, there was certainly no one at fault and no one to blame — just an unfortunate set of circumstances. And the Enterprise team really bent over backwards to help us get the best deal and feel comfortable driving such an enormous vehicle.
On the other hand, throughout the process of trying to figure out what vehicle we could hitch the camper to, we became increasingly perturbed with how unhelpful our Outdoorsy renter was. He was confusing and dismissive when we were scrambling to figure out what kind of hitch we had to buy — and, um, what a hitch was, considering we’d never done this before! — and kept piling on extra charges. We even ended up renting the camper for an extra day because the charge for an “early” pick-up was so high, it was more economical to get it the night before.
The day of our arranged pickup, we were still getting last minute messages about things that weren’t included, and we were getting pretty frustrated. We made our way to the arranged spot, and found… no one. We called the renter, who told us he was in an entirely different location. “You must have gotten confused,” he said. “Um, nope,” I said, and read his text message back to him. “I see,” was his only reply, as he headed to the original meeting spot. No apology.
Things went downhill when he did arrive. No pleasantries asking us about our trip, still no simple apology for giving us the wrong meeting location. He gave us a tour of the camper that mainly consisted of pointing out features of the camper that were no longer available as he removed them due to alleged abuse from past renters. Um, thanks for pointing out that shade cover that’s no longer there. Also, we didn’t realize this until later, but the camper exterior was filthy. My aunt broke out some major cleaning supplies and gave it an intense scrub the next morning when we were packing it up to get it in blog-able condition.
Anyway, we clearly got a pretty bad vibe but remained polite and got out of these as soon as we could. And once we did, we were giddy! For all the wrong turns, all the logistical nightmares, all the crazy hoops we’d jumped through, everything, we had persevered and it had paid off: we were in our little dream camper, heading off into the sunset.
On The Road
Or so we thought.
The next evening, after a long day of driving and exploring some of Central Florida’s vintage charm, we pulled into Chassahowitzka River Campground in a rainstorm, excited to set up our charming little home for the night and cook dinner, edit photos, and get to bed.
Instead, we spent four hours attempting to get the trailer’s electricity to work or water to hook up, with the campground manager moving us to two different sites and checking the voltage at each to eliminate the possibility that it was a problem on their end. While the outlets worked, the lights and AC would not kick on. The gas worked only sporadically, on one burner. The water never hooked up.
We texted and did several calls with the owner trying to problem shoot, with him eventually telling us he believed it was a problem with the RV cord — though the campground manager and our RV neighbor were both skeptical. In late August it is far too hot to sleep in an unheated, stuffy trailer and so we had to cook (on the one burner that would light, natch) using borrowed flashlights and the water spigot from our RV neighbors and then rely upon the pity of the campground manager who allowed us to sleep on the floor of the campground’s air-conditioned TV room. Not exactly the relaxing first night of camping we were imagining.
We had a manatee snorkeling tour booked near the campground at 8am the next morning, so we begrudgingly got up at 5:30am to drive to a local 24 hour Wal Mart to search for RV cords. There, we spoke to a third RV owner who assured us it did not sound like a problem with the cord but with the fuses. Regardless, Wal Mart did not have the necessary cord and as it was a Sunday the other RV stores we called around to were closed. Despite our early wake up, we were embarrassed to arrive late for our morning tour due to our wild goose chase.
At lunch, between our manatee tour and our dive of Rainbow River, we held up our group by again getting back on the road and driving to the nearest Home Depot to again look for the cord the owner insisted we get. Again, we spoke to an RV tech who told us that while the cord we had was covered in electrical tape and looked like it had seen far better days, he did not believe that was the issue (and they didn’t carry our cord anyway.) So, admitting temporary defeat, we purchased some fans to try to make sleeping bearable and tried to accept our situation for what it was.
That morning, we had asked the owner to send a tech to us since one of the upsells we had been forced into was an alleged “roadside assistance.” (Later, I was told by Outdoorsy that charges outside the platform were unauthorized, though the renter told us the insurance was required by Outdoorsy and we could not rent without it.) He told us that the issues we had were not covered and told us he would issue a refund if we drove back to St. Pete and returned the RV that day. Um, seriously?
That was quite obviously not an option. It would have completely consumed an entire day of our brief four day road trip to make the journey back to St. Pete, and we would have missed two of our four scuba dives in the process. Considering I was already commissioned to write about the dives for PADI, I also had professional obligations to honor. We had no choice but to go on towing what was at this point an extremely expensive and burdensome (due to parking, driving, and beyond) closet behind us.
Arriving in Williston, we did a video call with my future step-dad in New York who helped us go one by one through the fuses and several other problem solving steps to no avail. As we were assessing how we could get through the night without light, air conditioning or gas, we met our hero of the night, freediving legend Forrest Simon of Go Native Freediving, who was staying in one of Blue Grotto’s onsite cabins. He kindly offered us his kitchen and his spare bedroom, and we had a lovely night sipping local Florida wine, dining on Heather’s best camping cuisine, and talking all things travel and diving. Glass? I see you, and you’re half full!
The next morning, over breakfast, Heather and I discussed our options for the final night. To our incredible disappointment, we agreed we had no choice but to forgo our final pre-arranged night of camping at Ginnie Springs as we didn’t know what resources would be available to us there and we knew we at least had a safe place to eat and sleep if we stayed a second night in Williston. At this point, having come completely unprepared to survive without the amenities of our camper, we were totally reliant on the kindness of strangers.
There was no other way to slice it: the camping portion of our trip was an unmitigated disaster. It was the kindness of the people we met in Florida (with the exception, unfortunately, of our camper renter) and the amazing diving we did each day that made our trip fantastic despite such an enormous failure regarding the camping we were so looking forward to.
In the end, we spent $494 renting a truck with towing capabilities, $368 on the actual camper rental and extra charges, and $104 buying supplies we never got to use, including fans we purchased mid-trip — not to mention higher gas and toll charges than we would have paid with a smaller vehicle. The truck, clearly, was by far the most expensive aspect of this whole ordeal and of course we had no recourse to receive any refund from Enterprise, though this truck also was a burden in the end and we would have been so much happier in a standard vehicle that would have cost exactly half the price.
I really do want to cry a bit when I think of the money and time we wasted on this precious trip that we were so incredibly excited for — Heather literally flew in from another country to be a part of it! If only we’d rented a cheap car and bought a tent, we’d have been more comfortable and prepared, spent a fraction of the money, and spent far less of the trip in panic or problem solving mode. In fact, my time continued to be wasted after the trip as I attempted to resolve the issue first with the owner, then with Outdoorsy, and finally with the fraud department of my credit card.
As Heather and I drove the camper back to Tampa, we noted that the texts from the owner had taken on a different tone — he actually said the words “I’m sorry!” — and we were pretty confident we’d be offered a full refund. Not so. Claiming he needed to consult with the other owners, he took weeks to reply to my texts and calls, chiding me that the looming Hurricane Irma was much more important than my camper refund. Um, definitely true, but I returned that baby a full week before Irma started hitting the news! Next, he informed me that one of the fuses was popped (which I’m suspicious of), and since “it would have been an easy fix” if we’d returned the camper after the first night, he was offering a 30% refund. Um, no thanks.
When I explained yet again that returning the camper was not an option for us and it was not used so much as towed as it became an enormous burden to us, he informed me that “the social agenda of the renter” was not his responsibility. You say “social agenda,” I say “travel itinerary I booked and payed for your camper for!” At that point, I realized we were never going to see eye to eye, and I called Outdoorsy.
At that point, frankly, I was straight up insulted that we were expected to pay any percentage of the trailer rental. Let’s just say when I lovingly planned our itinerary I definitely did not expect to be roaming the RV aisles in Wal Mart at 5:30am with a day full of diving ahead. Any legitimate renter with an ounce of customer service would have issued a refund — and a sincere apology — immediately. I was so relieved when I called Outdoorsy customer service and spoke to a kind employee who listened as I calmly outlined our entire experience, apologizing profusely and promising to help me resolve the issue. Why didn’t I call them sooner, I thought! He promised to follow up via email as soon as possible.
A week went by. I sent a follow up via email. I got a confused reply from another customer service rep who seemed to think I was trying to contact the owner of the camper. Um, nope, I’m trying pretty specifically to never speak to him again. I replied clarifying I was following up on my extremely disappointing first rental experience, and received an apology and a promise to follow up on my case. Later that day I received the following email:
[Redacted] has informed us that during the reservation he had offered for a full refund if the unit was returned. Since this offer was declined, he is now offering a 30% refund for the rental. If you wish to negotiate this further you will need to speak with the owner directly as this was his last offer known to us.
At this point my brain kind of exploded, because of course I had disclosed that offer, as well as why it was not even as entertainable option for us, in extreme detail during the hour-long call I’d made with the first customer service representative! At this point, I was in Thailand, but I was so incensed that I called customer service again via Skype. Once again, I was lulled by the calming voice of a third customer service representative who assured me that this was his top priority, apologized for the confusion and the chaos, and had me convinced that maybe this was all a big misunderstanding! Just to be on the safe side, I sent a several thousand word, detailed account of everything I’d reported now twice over the phone via email.
And I heard crickets.
Twelve days later, I sent the following email:
I am extremely saddened that after twelve days, I have still not received a response to this email or to my two phone calls to customer service, one of them international. At this point I have no option but to file a fraud claim with my credit card. It is astounding to me that a customer who takes the time to make multiple phone calls and write a 1,000+ word email does not even warrant a response from you. We spent our hard earned and loving planned vacation time and funds with your company and have not been given any respect in return.
I still have not received any response. Thankfully, filing a fraud complaint with my credit card went much more smoothly. It only took one phone call to Capital One — plus my wonderful mom sending hard copies of my letters, receipts, and text message screenshots to them (why can’t banks receive email in 2017?!) — to start my case, and the full refund appeared in my account not long after.
While I was horrified by the attitude of our renter (whose listing still remains active), I was truly appalled by the apathy of a company like Outdoorsy, which is literally designed to act as a broker and protect customers from situations like this. The fact that they couldn’t get it together to so much as reply to my emails is pretty unforgivable in my books. I loathe spreading negativity into the world — you’ll see the vast majority of this blog is pretty rose-tinted and I rarely go scorched earth — but I felt I had no choice but to file a Better Business Bureau complaint against Outdoorsy and warn friends, family, and my community here about my experience with them.
Looking At The Bright Side
And yet! There’s always something to be grateful for. In this case? The blow of our travel disappointment was softened at every turn by the absolutely overwhelming kindness and generosity of people we met along the way.
The Enterprise staff who saw how overwhelmed we were and did everything they could to cut us a deal and calm our nerves. Our neighbor at the campground who ever-so-sweetly said “my wife says you girls look like you’re having a bit of a time,” and lent us extension cords and fans and lights our first night. The campground manager who went above and beyond trying to help and offered to let us sleep on the floor of the locked common room to escape the August heat. The fellow customers at Home Depot who tried their darndest to help us — and literally didn’t even work there! The friendly freediver who let us crash in his cabin and cook on his stove. The boat driver at Rainbow River who left us the number of an electrician under our windshield after we told him our troubles. Even my mom’s fiancé, who talked me through checking for blown fuses over FaceTime from New York.
While everything that happened after the fact left a bitter taste in my mouth, despite everything, I smile when I think about this trip, thanks to those we met along the way. This state can end up the butt of many jokes but I was truly, truly humbled by the kind people of Central Florida. If ever I need a reminder of the impact you can have with a smile or an outstretched hand, I’ll think back to our four days spent at the mercy of strangers in the Sunshine State. It was, above all, an adventure.
We sure needed these — cheers to the road with all its highs and lows!