Before You Rent a Car in Cuba

As responsible travel agents, we at WoWCuba do our utmost to ensure our clients are aware of what they can reasonably expect from Cuban accommodation & transportation providers before they dive in headfirst and commit to services. The unfortunate reality is that car rentals in Cuba often fall short of client expectations, and more so at this point in time when demand is at record levels and tourism authorities are struggling to keep up. WoWCuba is a travel intermediary. We are not the rental company, we do not control or maintain the Cuban state’s car rental fleets. We do process reservation requests with our Cuban partners, and only process payments for car rental reservations if a confirmation has been received in writing by the service provider in accordance with the exact parameters of client requests. There are admittedly operators out there who may not even have direct contracts with Cuban tourism operators who will promise the moon, only to disappoint; you should beware of undertaking arrangements through questionably ethical/legitmate websites against which the Cuban Ministry of Tourism has published warnings. The following is meant to provide potential visitors to Cuba considering renting a vehicle the low-down on the rental company’s obligations, and what one can reasonably expect when undertaking a self-drive holiday. We hope you read, absorb and carefully consider the information we offer to best plan your travel in Cuba and reduce stress to a minimum.

At an meeting held by the Cuban Minister of Tourism to conclude the record year of 2016 which saw over 4 million entries to Cuban territory, as accredited Cuban travel professionals we were provided with statistics on the industry’s growth, and problem areas that the various ministries are addressing and attempting to solve with the unprecedented and sudden surge of the tourism sector of late. With just 13, 592 vehicles existing in the fleets of the 4 Cuban state-owned car rental companies, only 5,116 were imported in 2016. That makes your chances of being assigned a late model rental vehicle roughly 1 in 3, not particularly great odds.

With a deficit of vehicles to meet the current demand for rental cars, delays in their delivery are admittedly frequent. We regularly field calls from clients who appear at the agreed-upon rental counter at the confirmed time to collect their rental vehicle, only to be informed by the rental counter functionary that there are no cars. Morever, they are rarely able to provide an informed estimate on how long the client may have to expect to wait before their will can be delivered. They aren’t denying the existence of the prepaid reservation, and we’ve not had a single case in over two years where a WoWCuba client didn’t receive a rental vehicle on the same date scheduled for its pickup. But delays (and sometimes up to 5 or more hours, especially for rentals programmed for early morning or early afternoon pickup) are not out of the question. It can be frustrating for clients and for agents, but is an unfortunate reality with car rental services in Cuba today. The upside is that the rental company has a contractual obligation to our ground handlers to supply a vehicle to clients who have prepaid their services, while others must seek alternative modes of transportation. Their failure to provide a vehicle on the date reserved for pickup could result in the rental company being obliged to assume additional expenses that clients incur, but only once they have analyzed their claim, supporting documents and corroborated evidence. In our experience the claims process can be maddeningly slow, and it often seems to us that Cuban authorities attempt to take advantage of any possible loophole to avoid forking out funds. Some examples we’ve encountered include:
-clients who fail to report their issues to the rental company’s Technical Assistance numbers to document issues.
-clients who fail to present official receipts to corroborate their claim, or (and this one is key) have failed to retain a copy of their completed rental contract to submit as evidence for any adjustments corresponding to documented issues at the end of their rental period.
-clients who ask for compensation for loss of activities that have not been prepaid (and for which verifiable receipts cannot be presented)
-clients who present receipts for inflated and non-approved taxi fares. Ex.: A $20 taxi between 3ra & Paseo and Linea & Malecon is clearly a scam. If your rental car is scheduled at 3ra & Paseo, but they tell you to go to an alternate location to pick up the car, call us first. We will give you instructions on how to proceed and ensure that (if it’s actually necessary for you to change locations rather than have them deliver the vehicle to where it should have been waiting) you retain an official receipt and that we ensure a record of the incident is immediately put on file with our ground handlers.
-Partial compensation is occasionally approved for clients who’ve reserved, for example, an economy category car for 9 am, but not received it until well into the afternoon. While it’s not much, at least it’s something to recognize the serious level of informality demonstrated at times by some Cuban state service providers in terms of compliance with reservation parameters. We’ve handled claims for other clients who’ve lost more than 5 hours of their anticipated rental awaiting the vehicle, but were ultimately provided with an upgraded vehicle at no additional cost (which they’ve not requested). Disappointingly, claims for partial refunds for lost time have been denied in those cases, as the rental company’s logic is that they made up for the lost time by providing an upgraded vehicle. While our stance is that the practice is questionable, thus far we’ve not managed to convince authorities to budge on that particular point, despite persistence and insistence that they reconsider their rulings.

WoWCuba recognizes the need for contractual compliance, and regularly makes note of its importance with our ground handlers. Sometimes, however, we believe those suggestions fall on slightly deaf ears. Just this week I met with the heads of Sales, Quality Control and the International Department Chief at the offices of one of our main ground handlers. My agenda was to hash out some fully documented and corroborated claims that they’ve failed to respond to within a reasonable period, as well as to request that they provide us with the details of some of the specific contractual obligations and terms with the car rental companies. These sometimes seem to be well-guarded state secrets to me. My logic was that when an agency accepts prepayment for a service through their contracts, we should be able to offer more specific information to our clients on exactly what the maximum established compensation might be, when and if things go astray. Despite having spent my entire adult life (over 2 decades), working in the Cuban tourism industry where customer service levels can often be qualified as deficient, and the ratio of quality-price is questionable at times, I still fully believe this is a reasonable and logical demand. But the answer I received demonstrates that there’s a culture of complacency, and even resignation even at the highest levels in the Cuban tourism sector. Perhaps it’s precisely because I’m not a newbie to the Cuban tourism industry, but they didn’t seem to show any shame when responding telling me that there are not enough cars. No hay carros. We have to be real, this is Cuba. That we should be lucky they’re confirming anything at all this year; last year it was almost impossible to get a written confirmation issued by a rental company. That what’s written into the contracts they sign with the rental companies is not always exactly what transpires in reality. That’s the sad truth of this system. When the four rental companies and their ground handler all ultimately belong to the state, I’ve often said that as the agents accepting prepayment for their services it’s a little like playing with a stacked deck, or batting in a ball game where the umpire and the pitcher are on the same team.

Some clients arrive in Cuba with the misconception that as an intermediary agency we have some degree of control over which model of rental vehicle they will be assigned, when in reality Cuban rental companies only confirm car reservations by category. Others believe we are able to ensure that they are assigned a vehicle with low kilometers. If an agent trying to sell you a car rental claims they have absolute control over those issues, you should be skeptical as the ultimate assignment of vehicles normally occurs the evening prior, or on the same day of the service initiation, and it’s impossible to know in advance with any degree of certainty, the exact model or year of the vehicle you’ll ultimately receive. To avoid being slapped with a claim, the rental company’s contractual obligation is to deliver the same category a client has reserved or superior, on the scheduled date of service initiation, with the transmission type requested, functioning air conditioning (for those categories featuring a/c), and passenger capacity as described in the parameters of the client’s reservation. The vehicle must pass documented Cuban technical inspections and be roadworthy. According to the rental companies, cosmetic imperfections (dents, scratches, upholstery which may be stained or have rips/cigarette burns, etc.) do not contractually constitute a valid reason to reject a rental vehicle, but if there are technical or mechanical deficiencies which affect the integrity or safety of the vehicle, those would be considered acceptable reasons for their rejection.

When opening your rental contract, it’s essential that you perform a full inspection and ensure any dents/scratches, or other imperfections are duly registered on your rental contract as it will be inspected upon your return, and you are responsible for any new dents/scratches etc. Take your time, turn on the lights/blinkers, a/c, windshield wipers, carefully inspect the condition of the tires and the spare tire, ensure the jack & tire iron are included in the car inventory, etc. If there are technical issues with the vehicle, you are under no obligation to accept it or sign a contract expressly indicating your conformity with the vehicle. Signing the contract indicating that you received the vehicle in acceptable technical conditions is one of the loopholes the rental company can later use in the rejection of a refund claim. If a technical issue occurs while the rental is underway and the renter fails to duly report the issue, the plate/contract #, exact location of the vehicle, and provide the rental company’s Technical Assistance staff with the tools to contact them at a local number and the opportunity to repair or replace the vehicle, that is another loophole which we often see used as justification in the rental company’s rejection of claims. Contacting WoWCuba or random rental counter functionaries to complain or report a problem does not mean that your issues will be documented as verifiable incidents on file with the rental company. They don’t take the client or the intermediate agency their word, but rather put the onis on the client to ensure they have all issues fully documented in their system and on the rental contract for analysis. From the time an issue is reported to the Technical Assistance office whose telephone contacts are listed on your rental contract, they must respond in a reasonable time frame with a solution. Taking note of the time your report is submitted, and the name of the rental company functionary with whom you spoke is highly advisable.

If the rental company functionary attempts to assign a vehicle which you deem to be unsafe or unfit and does not offer an acceptable alternative, then you should immediately contact a WoWCuba to request intervention. If there is evidence available to corroborate your claim, then we can contact their superiors/operations office on your behalf to report the difficulty and request intervention for replacement of the vehicle. If no alternative acceptable solution is ultimately available through those channels, and you choose to reject the vehicle they’ve assigned to your rental, then upon verification, refunds for prepaid rental fees are available. To avoid being left without a rental car altogether, some of our more flexible clients have accepted older/inferior vehicles which they’ve been able to switch for alternative models at the earliest opportunity. In our experience this strategy can be hit or miss, especially when heading outside of major urban centers where the availability of vehicles may be more limited. Some clients have had to travel through several cities before finally encountering some luck replacing their vehicle, and most report the experience to be inconvenient at best.

If you do elect to reserve a rental car in advance, following are some suggestions worth considering to maximize your time and itinerary goals:
-If picking up a vehicle after your international arrival (not directly at the airport upon arrival in Cuba), consider programming pickup of your rental vehicle the evening before you’ll actually need it. Especially if planning on travelling several hours or more from the planned pickup location, this strategy can often result in the best guarantee for an on-time departure.
-Consider upgrading to REX, the “luxury” rental company. Their rates are certainly higher than those of the other three Cuban rental companies, but in our experience they have the highest rate of client satisfaction. It’s not to say they’re perfect – we have had a couple of cases where even REX ultimately disappointed clients by delivering an inferior category than that which was initially confirmed, but always with reimbursement for the difference in contracted rates.
-Arrive slightly earlier than the programmed pickup time to collect your vehicle. Lineups at the rental counters, especially in Havana, are common, and the earlier you mark your spot, the faster you will hopefully complete the process and be on your way.
-Ensure you have all documentation on your person (printed voucher if one has been issued in advance by WoWCuba, a copy of your invoice with contact information, your driver’s license issued at least 2 years prior to the date of initiation of the rental, and passport corresponding to the primary driver on record, demonstrating that he/she is at least 21 years of age (or 30 for sport car models). If registering additional drivers they must be present with their identification at the time you open the rental contract.
-If your rental vehicle is scheduled for routine maintenance while under your care (typically this is every 5000 kms; the rental company will advise when the vehicle’s next maintenance must be performed), ensure you take care of that detail. There are penalties if you fail to have the maintenance completed when due. It’s not always convenient for the client, but the manufacturer’s warranties require the maintenance to be performed. If the designated rental company garage does not have the corresponding filters/cannot perform the maintenance for any reason, simply ensure you have them issue an official document (duly signed & stamped) attesting to the fact that you attempted to have maintenance performed but that X reason(s) prevented that task from being completed. You should submit that document to the rental counter functionary upon conclusion of the rental for compliance/justification.

Traveling independently in Cuba can be a wonderful adventure, but things aren’t always rosy. WoWCuba continues to offer car rentals as many of our long-time clients would be disappointed if we discontinued the service. Being prepared for the realities of what to expect/the limitations of local systems & infrastructure, and planning accordingly can make the experience much more fulfilling and relaxing.

Previous car rental posts you may want to reference for additional information:
Cuba Car Rental Advice
Cuba Summer Car Rental Adventures

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Cuba Car Rental Advice

As we gear up for another busy summer season where the demand for car rentals usually exceeds the local supply, here are a few of my best tips for those preparing to pre-book their 4-wheeled holiday in Cuba. From both personal experience and client reports we’ve become aware of various ways that clients are unnecessarily separated from their hard-earned money and this we hope this post will help to make you aware of current policies and how you can protect yourself against unscrupulous operators when renting a vehicle in Cuba.

Cuba currently has 4 car rental operators to choose from, all of which are operated by the state. The Transtur group operates REX, Cubacar and Havanautos. The Transgaviota group operates Rent Car VIA. Accredited travel agencies contract preferred rates with these companies either directly with the car rental companies or via their ground handlers in Cuba, rates which are generally below the public prices established for payment directly by clients in rental counters for direct reservations. The rate you pay for car rental services descends depending on the duration of the rental. Rental companies accept advance reservations of 3 or more days in duration and rates generally go down incrementally for 7+ days, 14-15+ days, and at present just two companies (REX and Rent Car VIA) have preferential rates for rentals of more than a month in duration.

Few tour operator contracts include prepayment of insurance, except in some cases for US-based clients, whose government places restrictions on how much money they can spend in Cuba. In general, rates designed specifically for US-based clients traveling with OFAC licenses are higher than for other nationalities of travelers for many services in Cuba.

Our quotation process and invoicing includes specific information on the rates for local services including:
additional drivers (optional). VIA charges a set fee for additional drivers for the duration of the rental, while the other 3 companies have a daily rate for this service. Additional drivers must be registered on the contract when opened, and most companies won’t accept their incorporation after the rental has initiated. The damage waiver issued by the rental company will not cover unregistered drivers and the rental companies require that the primary driver be present upon return of the vehicle, and may charge a fine for violating that rule.
dropoff fees. REX is the only company which currently doesn’t charge dropoff fees in their Cuban rental counters. REX only charges dropoff fees for pre-arranged pickups or drop-offs in locations where they don’t have a rental counter/staff. We publish the official dropoff fees for all 4 rental companies so that you can have a very close estimate to what the actual charges will be if dropping off your vehicle in an alternate rental counter or province prior to traveling. Being familiar with those rates in advance helps to avoid being overcharged locally.
daily damage waiver. This is an obligatory fee as foreign-issued policies don’t cover rental cars in Cuba. VIA is the only exception, whose insurance policy is optional, but if you choose not to pay for their insurance package they will assess a significantly higher refundable damage deposit, payable upon opening the rental contract. As part of our booking process, we also express the local rates for this service which you should expect to pay the rental company when opening the rental contract. A very important rule to remember is that you should never pay anything to the rental company functionary unless it’s clearly detailed on your rental contract. My brother recently rented a vehicle where the Rent Car VIA functionary attempted to charge him double the actual established daily damage waiver rate when he picked up the car. Having the real rate printed on his information meant that he immediately called me to double-check before handing over his cash and I cleared up the confusion for the rental company’s employee. Although specific policies for each company may have different terms, in general none cover tires or audio equipment. We suggest you carefully inspect the condition of your vehicle’s tires (including the spare tire) when opening your rental contract to avoid disappointment later.
security deposit. This is refundable at the end of your rental providing you return the vehicle in the same condition in which it was rented. If paying by credit card (remember, you can’t use US-issued or affiliated credit cards in Cuba), the rental companies will only take a pre-authorization for the established amount for the deposit, and charges will only be processed at the end of the rental if there are discrepancies in the condition of the vehicle. In the event of an accident, you must complete a police report in order for the insurance coverage to kick in. If you are found to have been under the influence of alcohol or drugs while operating the vehicle, you’d better have deep pockets and a lot of patience. It’s very important to have any dents, scratches, or missing equipment on the vehicle clearly noted upon opening your rental contract to avoid any discrepancies upon return of the vehicle.
fuel. This is a charge for which we receive the most frequent complaints, and it’s due in large part to the rental companies’ policies. Rent Car VIA charges for the empty fuel capacity at the end of the rental. If they try to charge you for fuel at the beginning, you’d better make sure it’s documented on the contract. This also recently happened to my brother, and only by being very convincing with the rental guy when I discovered what he’d done was my brother able to recover the funds, as there was no documentary evidence that he’d handed over $58 in cash when opening his contract and he was forced to pay for the fuel consumption again at the end of the rental. Charging for the empty fuel capacity at the end of the rental is clearly the fairest of the policies, but still leaves room for play for the rental counter functionaries as there’s no digital reading on their vehicles for the amount of fuel in the car when you pick it up or return it; it’s their estimate that will appear on the contract. They don’t take the vehicle to the gas station in your presence or provide a receipt for the amount of fuel required to fill the vehicle at the end of the rental. Make sure the vehicle is not parked on an incline when you do the initial inspection as that can skew the actual capacity of the vehicle’s fuel tank. If your vehicle is replaced at any time during the rental period, make sure that the fuel capacity of the initial and replacement vehicles when returned/replaced are also noted on your contract at the time of the change of the vehicle as these factors will all be taken into consideration at the end of the rental when you pay for your fuel consumption. As for the three Transtur rental companies, their policy is one that few clients (or we, for that matter) agree with and it works like this. They’re supposed to deliver the vehicle with a full tank of fuel and they expect you to return it empty. Obviously that creates a certain level of stress for clients at the end of their rental period when trying to gauge exactly how much fuel they’ll need to get back to the rental counter. It’s my understanding that this policy has been in place for more than several years now for a couple of reasons. One is a report I heard that some malicious Miami Cubans poured sugar into their luxury car’s gas tank at the end of the rental, effectively ruining the very expensive car for future use. But the other reason why the policy was actually put in place is probably closer to the truth. In Cuba the rental companies expect you to fill your car with the highest octane, or “Especial” fuel only for maximum performance. But since there’s also regular and motor fuel available at gas stations in Cuba, even though gas station employees are prohibited from dispatching the lower-priced fuel to rental vehicles with tourism plates, it sometimes happens. So the rental companies prefer that their own employees fill up the vehicles using company-issued gas cards at the end of each rental, thereby ensuring that the vehicles are always running with high-performance fuel for the next client.
airport pickup fees. These are in place for all Transtur rentals, but VIA (so far) has not implemented this additional charge. At present REX, Havanautos & Cubacar charge $20 when you schedule your vehicle for airport pickup.

Paying all local fees by credit card seems to be more effective in reducing fraudulent charges for many services, as there’s also a paper record that can’t be tampered with on your end. If paying for any local charges in cash, again make sure that everything is fully documented on the rental contract. At the end of your rental, retain a copy of your rental contract. If the rental counter functionaries attempt to convince you otherwise, you should be suspicious as it’s your official receipt, a record of the service and all transactions and without a copy of your rental contract, it’s difficult if not impossible to present a claim for services afterwards.

Regarding the exact model or condition of vehicle that you’ll be assigned, note that only VIA confirms specific models in advance, although they reserve the right to substitute other models in the same price category or superior categories in the event of breakdown. The other three rental companies confirm only categories. In terms of our client feedback, REX obtains the best evaluations in terms of the quality and maintenance of their vehicles, followed consecutively by Havanautos, Cubacar and lastly Rent Car VIA. Many of our clients choose VIA for summer rentals based on rates alone, but for more demanding clients, we recommend weighing the option of spending a little more for a more comprehensive guarantee with one of the other rental companies. For those who only drive automatic vehicles, the Havanautos fleet is comprised exclusively of automatic transmission vehicles. REX has several mid-high to luxury automatic transmission vehicles which receive consistently good reviews, and Rent Car VIA has several attractively-priced automatic vehicles, but some of these are often disappointing in terms of overall condition. There are exceptions of course, but the Peugeot 207 SW automatic model seems particularly problematic and can be very hit or miss depending on the vehicle assigned. VIA has fewer options in their fleet for replacement vehicles when mechanical problems arise, which sometimes results in delays and sometimes even disappointing last minute service cancellations by the rental company when they aren’t able to substitute a similar or superior vehicle for prepaid bookings when availability of certain models is limited or at full capacity.

Rental companies in Cuba are contractually obliged to guarantee the vehicle/category that you’ve prepaid in technically sound condition (meaning that it will pass inspection with Cuban Motor Vehicles) or substitute with one of a similar or superior category within a reasonable amount of time. On paper that’s nice to know, but in reality when mid-July or New Years rolls around and all operating vehicles in their fleet are sold out, our experience is that they’re occasionally not able to pull the rabbit out of the hat. In an ideal world, if you are able to be flexible with the type of transmission of your vehicle, that can open up more options, but many our US-based clients only drive automatics, which limits the replacement possibilities in the event of total breakdown of their rental vehicle. The first and most important step if you encounter technical difficulties with your vehicle after completing the rental contract is to report the problem, your vehicle’s license plate #, your name, location and contact information to the rental company’s 24-hour technical assistance number listed on your rental contract. We suggest getting the name of the person you speak with as well as noting the time of the call as they are obliged to respond with a tow truck/mechanic or replacement vehicle within a reasonable amount of time. This of course depends on your location and previous service calls registered at any given time, but having the incident officially registered and on record with their operations office is the first step to getting the problem resolved. We’ve found that reporting mechanicals to individual rental counters is not necessarily a guarantee that a report will be issued to the operations office, and often results in undue delays since the official procedure requires clients to report mechanicals directly to the rental company’s operations office. As an intermediary in securing your reservation, we are happy to provide advice if required, and intervene on your behalf with the rental company if the process has completely broken down or you feel the rental company is not being responsive, but in general the most efficient way of resolving technical issues with your rental car is for you to personally contact their 24-hour technical services number to report the issue. We had a client reserve a 7-passenger Peugeot Partner Tepee from VIA in January for a recent rental in May. In the interim, it appears that the rental company has been gradually removing that model from their fleet without issuing notification to their partners, and when the client showed up at the rental counter to claim their minivan the rental company tried to substitute a 5-passenger Peugeot Partner with no notice whatsoever to our ground handler or our agency. We intervened on the clients’ behalf and insisted that the rental company comply with their contract and substitute a vehicle of a similar or superior category, and luckily they were provided with a 9-passenger Peugeot Expert Tepee at no extra cost, albeit 3 hours after their scheduled pickup time. That there was actually a 9-passenger vehicle available for the substitution unfortunately isn’t always the case in extreme high season. The rental company should have contacted us in advance, shouldn’t have tried to substitute a lower-cost vehicle for a prepaid reservation, and should have automatically known to upgrade, but the level of customer service in VIA simply isn’t always up to international standards. On the very odd occasion where a prepaid advance reservation isn’t able to be fulfilled by the rental company for whatever reason, unfortunately the only option we’re left with is to refund the service.

Avoid driving at night when at all possible. Especially on the highway, be on the lookout for loose livestock and avoid speeding. Cubans have a hand signal where they raise their index and pinky finger to indicate that there’s a cow or otherwise large animal on the road, indicating that you should immediately slow down as their movements can sometimes be unpredictable. Flashing your headlights at someone is the universal signal to warn of police ahead. It’s very commonly used in Cuba.

If you commit a traffic violation while driving, you can have a fine applied to your rental contract. For visitors to Cuba, the amounts usually range from $10-$30 CUC depending on the infraction committed. Under no circumstances should you deliver cash to the police officer issuing the ticket, which could be considered bribery. Outstanding fines are resolved upon completion of your rental company directly with the rental counter functionary upon closing the rental contract and the amount to be paid will be reflected on the rental contract. Besides opening the doors to larger problems, offering to bribe police officers to avoid accepting a legitimate ticket only encourages deviant behaviour and in my humble opinion creates a bad precedent for future visitors to Cuba.

Hitchhiking is commonplace in Cuba, and while it admittedly might be nice to extend the favor, you should be aware that opportunistic crime is also occasionally associated with the practice. Petty theft is the most common report I’ve had from clients who’ve unwittingly picked up unsavory characters, even some of the most experienced travelers have fallen victim to unsuspecting drivers of vehicles with tourism plates. I’ve had more than a couple of clients be unwittingly relieved of their cash and valuables on the route between the Jose Marti airport and Havana, one of whom was so unnerved by the experienced that she cut her trip short, and another gentleman who luckily followed my advice to immediately complete a police report as he had been relieved of his driver’s license in the process, and this on the first day of his holiday. Fortunately, the document had been verified by the rental counter functionary upon opening the rental contract and when he was later pulled over by a police officer, the client presented his rental contract and the police report and the police officer allowed him to proceed without even issuing a ticket in light of the bad experience, even though the visitor was no longer in possession of his driver’s license.

Lastly, always use an official parking attendant, especially for overnight parking. You can expect to pay $0.25 for most short-term local parking and $1-$2 for overnight rates. Most official parking attendants in Havana wear a red Havana Club vest and all of those who are officially designated for this type of employment also possess an official document identifying them as such. This is the best way to protect you and your possessions. Keeping personal items and valuables out of sight and reach in the vehicle is also key to avoiding attracting petty thieves in the first place.

The huge majority of our clients rent vehicles without incident (or at least without reporting incidents to us), so the above isn’t meant to be alarmist, but simply to alert you to many of the ways you can avoid being taken for an innocent traveler. Now you can consider yourself “in the know”.

Cuban Summer Car Rental Adventures

Some people think working as a destination representative for a travel company in Cuba is a dream job. Sometimes it’s great, but mine is a 24/7 job and although I’m very conscientious and extremely detail-oriented, this is Cuba and despite my best efforts, services don’t always go off without a hitch. Alot of our Canadian clients mistakenly assume that Cuba’s tourism industry dies off in the summer when the Canadian geese are happily flying around northern skies. Not so. Cuba has a very large influx of Cuban-American and European visitors in July and August, so much so that the demand for many categories of rental cars is traditionally exceeded by the local supply of vehicles. Man, do we book a lot of car rentals in Cuba for the summer months. Hoping that a rental car of any category will be available last minute during high season in Cuba is a big gamble. A certain

Rental Car

segment of the Cuban-American traveling public is very wary of prepaying services, and we receive numerous messages from them wondering what guarantee they’ll have if they reserve and prepay a car rental only to arrive in Cuba and have the rental company try to pawn off a different category of vehicle or one that’s in rough condition. Some of them even have their local family members act as amateur detectives, calling the rental counters to double-check our work once the service has been confirmed and documents/instructions issued to the client. Unbeknownst to them, this is often a futile attempt to obtain information on their part since bookings and operations are handled through a central reservations office and the actual rental counters don’t usually have information on upcoming rentals until the day prior to the initiation of the service. Funnily (to me anyway), some of them even call us up at the local contact numbers we’ve provided and ask if we’re legitimate. If I were wondering about a company’s credentials and reputation the first person I’d ask probably wouldn’t be the company itself, but maybe they do it just to see if someone actually answers the phone on this end. I’m not really sure. Being one of the few companies that actually publishes unedited and real client feedback (the good, the bad and the ugly), I personally think that’s the best place for any Doubting Tom to begin research on WoWCuba before committing to services. Not only does it give a potential client an idea of what to expect from us as a company, but more importantly to compare experiences of past clients of ours with the various service providers with whom we contract services.

On Sunday morning I was contacted by some clients from New Zealand who’d reserved a 5-passenger vehicle for 4 days to drive from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. The car was reserved for 9 a.m. but still had not appeared at the rental counter by mid-morning. Unbeknownst to the rental counter functionary, the clients found a telephone and contacted me for advice. They were worried that the rental company wasn’t going to deliver the model they’d confirmed since the clients who were ahead of them in the rental contract lineup were upset with the rental counter for delivering a model that wasn’t what they’d reserved. I informed them that this is high season and that from mid-July on some of the rental companies (and particularly the one they selected for their rental) occasionally experience deficits in their rental fleet. It can be due to breakdown, problems with replacement parts supply (which aren’t always sourced in the country), and sometimes is simply the fault of clients who elect to return their rental vehicle after the agreed-upon date and pay a penalty to do so. I advised that if this were the case, then the rental company’s contractual obligation is to replace the vehicle they’d reserved with another of the same category or provide an upgrade. I next contacted the rental company who first indicated the vehicle they reserved was on its way, but immediately thereafter they leaked the bad news that the 5-passenger vehicle was broken and they were offering a smaller economy vehicle as a substitute. It took me just under 3.5 hours of calls back and forth between the rental counter, the rental company’s operations office, their head office, and that of our ground handler until I finally convinced them that all hell would break loose if they didn’t live up to their end of the bargain and deliver a vehicle of the same or superior category. I begged, I pleaded, I explained, and I even got a little mad with the rental company when they kept trying to force the economy car downgrade on my clients. In addition to my elevated stress levels, I probably spent $30 CUC of my cell phone credit on resolving the issue. Which comes straight out of our profits; noone compensates us for the rental company’s inadequacy or poor planning. In the end they did somehow pull a vehicle out of a hat and delivered a car large enough to get the couple and the wife’s parents plus all their luggage across the country without having to tie someone to the roof. When I was finally able to advise the clients that the larger vehicle was on its way, we also agreed that I would begin a claims process with the rental company asking them to consider refunding one of the rental days in exchange for the significant delay in delivering the vehicle. The clients had prepaid for 4 rental days, but since the 4th day was scheduled for an early return, effectively they only were going to be using the vehicle now only for 5 hours on the last day of the rental. I thought that it was reasonable to expect the rental company to extend that refund considering the circumstances, and indicated that I’d be happy to process the claim with our ground handler and the rental company, who can ultimately take up to a month to get back to us on service claims, but I am nothing if not persistent. Pshew. I thought the saga was over and that I could go on enjoying my “day off”.

Actually, my plans for Sunday morning included meeting a group of U.S. graduate students that I’d organized to visit a local agricultural cooperative. I really wanted to get some pictures of their experience there and also to say hi to their tour organizer who I’d met previously here at a Sustainable Tourism conference. While I did get the visit to the “farm” in, it was much briefer than I’d have liked and I was worried the whole time about trying to offer a viable solution to the New Zealanders transportation problem. When the clients finally were completing the rental contract, they called me back to see if the rental company couldn’t throw in the extra driver fee ($30 CUC each) for 2 additional drivers to compensate for their almost 5-hour delay in delivering the vehicle. While I totally understood that they were hot & bothered by that point, I think they were under the mistaken impression that the rental car company and myself actually have the authority to make that kind of decision, which absolutely isn’t the case. There are so many layers of bureaucracy here that sometimes it’s hard to see your way to the end of the tunnel. They called me back while I was just about to have lunch to question the rental company’s local dropoff fees, which are clearly published on our website and coincided 100% with what the rental car functionary was charging on their contract. But apparently they had misunderstood the calculation and wanted us to pay for almost half of the local fee, which definitely wasn’t part of our deal. At that point they were implying that OUR customer service was deficient and that they were going to make it known on Trip Advisor upon completion of their holiday. Sheesh. I was thinking to myself at that point that I should have just told them to accept the smaller vehicle from the get-go, that it was out of my hands, and gone on my merry way. I was speechless when I got off the phone and when I finally tried to tell my husband that they implied I’d been less than professional when I’d just dedicated half of the day to going to bat for them, I simply broke down in tears and told him that some days this job is a thankless one.

But then the very next day I received a call from a repeat Spanish gentleman who comes here year after year and stays for an extended period each time and always reserves his car rental with my husband. After a month in Cuba, he was scheduled to leave the country that night. But before he flew out he wanted to meet with Abel. When he stopped by in the afternoon he mentioned his vehicle had been vandalized while parked overnight at the private house where he was staying and that Abel had intervened on his behalf to have it replaced with a different model. After he completed the police report, the insurance covered all the damages sustained to the vehicle. He was totally thoughtful and brought a bottle of rum as a gift and (more importantly) expressed his thanks for our work on his behalf. I almost started crying again because not many people realize how many hoops we actually have to jump through to make things happen on this end. I think that the very fact that he’s visited here as often as he has in the past has made him more appreciative of the small things. And knowing that he has someone here that is looking out for his best interests is also very comforting. For me, having someone actually express that to us and take the time to personally do so meant more than he probably knows.

Beached-Whale

If anyone tries to tell you that everything always goes smoothly in Cuba, they’re either lying or very naive. But having experienced and honest intermediaries on your side to defend your interests when you most need them is a good thing. It could mean the difference between driving across Cuba in air-conditioned style or improvising in one of those Chevy Chase-style family vacations with everything but the kitchen sink tied to the roof of your rattle-trap rental car.