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Texas - Not a Trip Report - Think twice before hiring a car on a birding trip, if you want to drive on unpaved roads. (1 Viewer)

Jon.Bryant

Well-known member
Probably posting in the wrong place, as this is not a trip report, but thought I would share a recent experience from Texas.

I recently spent 3.5 weeks in Texas and rented a car from Sixt. As we wanted to do some primitive camping at Big Bend Ranch and Big Bend, I opted for a high clearance vehicle, and was given a Toyota 4Runner. I mentioned I needed a high clearance vehicle when I made the booking so thought everything would be sweet.

All was good although mileage was diabolical at <25mpg. In Big Bend Ranch there is a graded gravel track through the interior of the park, which was in good condition and had been regraded in mid April. We decided to drive circa 25 miles along this road to the Ranger Station for a shower, deciding to bypass the bird blind which is off a side road 2 miles back from the station. After finishing at the Ranger Station and returning to the car, we were a little panicked to see that we had a flat tyre. We emptied the boot to try and find the jack, and wheel nut wrench etc, but the compartment where the tools should have been was empty - apparently Sixt do not rent out cars with tools! In this isolated location there was no mobile signal and no one seemed to be around, so I started to looks for anyone staying at the bunkhouse and at the ranger accommodation. Fortunately (... well perhaps not given Sixt's response) I found a lady at who phoned the roadside assist number for me. After some chit chat, back and forth, with Sixt trying to work out where the car was, a garage was mobilised, but from a town 4 hours drive away.

Meanwhile two members of the public arrived for a shower (I don't think many other people were at the park, so we were lucky) and asked if they could help. They had a small compressor and a plug kit, and rapidly pumped up the tyre, listened for the leak and then plugged it. The Rangers arrived back at the station and as the plug seemed to be holding, it was agreed that a Ranger would escort me back along the 25 mile road to our primitive camp site and then check on us in the morning (when hopefully roadside assist would have changed the tyre for the spare).

About half an hour after arriving back at the camp site, the Ranger returned to advised that roadside assist were cancelling the call-out at the vehicle was off the paved highway. If it hadn't been for a resourceful an equipped member of the public, we would the have had an undriveable car, with no tools and been abandoned by the hire car company over 25 miles off the main paved highway, with no obvious way of getting the car back to a paved road. Big Bend Ranch is inhospitable desert with few visitors (the adjacent Big Bend park get far more), and we were foolish to venture so far along a graded gravel road without checking our equipment, but I didn't expect that we would have no tools to lower or fit the spare. Possible over dramatising it, but if we had stopped at the bird blind and the tyre had gone flat there, we could have been in real trouble as the location is really off the beaten track.

A Ranger checked on us the next morning and the plug had still held. We were then kindly escorted to a garage circa 15 miles away where the tyre was properly patched - they could not change for the spare, as they did not have the Toyota specific crank lower the spare from under the car. This garage also could not have assisted us at the park, as they were only insured to undertake repairs on their premises!

Checking the rental policy, the insurances limited cover to paved roads. The prohibited use section of the policy was more ambiguous and allowed use on paved roads or private graded roads and driveways - there are private ranch roads in Texas that make 25 miles seem a short distance! As I was on a public graded highway (these must be quite rare) it is unclear if my use was deemed to be prohibited or not. I am pretty annoyed however that Sixt will hire out a gas guzzling 4Runner, which is obviously designed for rough terrain, but with highways tyres, and under a policy which seems restricted to highway use. I think this should be made explicitly clear prior to hiring a high clearance vehicle, which is obviously designed for use off a paved highway. Furthermore I am annoyed that they provide no tools and would in effect abandon a driver to fend for themselves and improvise in a hostile and remote environment.

On reaching Big Bend we were dissuaded by the Rangers there from using the Primitive Campsite at Pine Canyon that we had booked, as we still could not access the spare. This mean considerable extra cost, as we had to book a hotel in Terlingua, as all the campsite on paved roads were fully booked. The Rangers at Big Bend suggested the lack of off road support was a problem common to all hire car companies, but I have not confirmed if this is true.

So, if you are planning to drive on unpaved roads (Texas or not) , be warned and ....
  1. Check in advance whether the vehicle will come with a spare and all tools to change a wheel (assuming you are confident to use them),
  2. Check in advance that you will be insured for graded, unpaved roads. If not and you have all the necessary tools, then potentially you could drive the car at your own risk, but I would want to know the road condition and the risk of damage to the vehicle, as this could end up being a very expensive choice. Even graded roads can get rutted from over use.
  3. Check that roadside assistance will attend is you are on an unpaved road.
I would not recommend trying to purchase a compressor and plug kit. The plug kit would not be expensive, but for a largish puncture you need a compressor capable of inflating the tyre quicker than the air escapes, which would be expensive. Also plugs cannot be relied upon - they are best for standard punctures, but not good for side wall punctures, which can also occur.

If the answers to questions 1-3 is no, then try to locate a specialist hire company - where I was there was a company called Terlingua Jeep Hire that seemed to cover full off-road use (but at USD255 dollars a day!). Depending on the itinerary and given the expense of a specialist hire, you may therefore wish to hire an off-road car as required and something cheaper for the main highway driving. Alternatively, and probably the least risk option, is to only bird where you can easily walk to from the paved highway!

Regards

Jon Bryant
 

gcole

Well-known member
United States
Probably posting in the wrong place, as this is not a trip report, but thought I would share a recent experience from Texas.

I recently spent 3.5 weeks in Texas and rented a car from Sixt. As we wanted to do some primitive camping at Big Bend Ranch and Big Bend, I opted for a high clearance vehicle, and was given a Toyota 4Runner. I mentioned I needed a high clearance vehicle when I made the booking so thought everything would be sweet.

All was good although mileage was diabolical at <25mpg. In Big Bend Ranch there is a graded gravel track through the interior of the park, which was in good condition and had been regraded in mid April. We decided to drive circa 25 miles along this road to the Ranger Station for a shower, deciding to bypass the bird blind which is off a side road 2 miles back from the station. After finishing at the Ranger Station and returning to the car, we were a little panicked to see that we had a flat tyre. We emptied the boot to try and find the jack, and wheel nut wrench etc, but the compartment where the tools should have been was empty - apparently Sixt do not rent out cars with tools! In this isolated location there was no mobile signal and no one seemed to be around, so I started to looks for anyone staying at the bunkhouse and at the ranger accommodation. Fortunately (... well perhaps not given Sixt's response) I found a lady at who phoned the roadside assist number for me. After some chit chat, back and forth, with Sixt trying to work out where the car was, a garage was mobilised, but from a town 4 hours drive away.

Meanwhile two members of the public arrived for a shower (I don't think many other people were at the park, so we were lucky) and asked if they could help. They had a small compressor and a plug kit, and rapidly pumped up the tyre, listened for the leak and then plugged it. The Rangers arrived back at the station and as the plug seemed to be holding, it was agreed that a Ranger would escort me back along the 25 mile road to our primitive camp site and then check on us in the morning (when hopefully roadside assist would have changed the tyre for the spare).

About half an hour after arriving back at the camp site, the Ranger returned to advised that roadside assist were cancelling the call-out at the vehicle was off the paved highway. If it hadn't been for a resourceful an equipped member of the public, we would the have had an undriveable car, with no tools and been abandoned by the hire car company over 25 miles off the main paved highway, with no obvious way of getting the car back to a paved road. Big Bend Ranch is inhospitable desert with few visitors (the adjacent Big Bend park get far more), and we were foolish to venture so far along a graded gravel road without checking our equipment, but I didn't expect that we would have no tools to lower or fit the spare. Possible over dramatising it, but if we had stopped at the bird blind and the tyre had gone flat there, we could have been in real trouble as the location is really off the beaten track.

A Ranger checked on us the next morning and the plug had still held. We were then kindly escorted to a garage circa 15 miles away where the tyre was properly patched - they could not change for the spare, as they did not have the Toyota specific crank lower the spare from under the car. This garage also could not have assisted us at the park, as they were only insured to undertake repairs on their premises!

Checking the rental policy, the insurances limited cover to paved roads. The prohibited use section of the policy was more ambiguous and allowed use on paved roads or private graded roads and driveways - there are private ranch roads in Texas that make 25 miles seem a short distance! As I was on a public graded highway (these must be quite rare) it is unclear if my use was deemed to be prohibited or not. I am pretty annoyed however that Sixt will hire out a gas guzzling 4Runner, which is obviously designed for rough terrain, but with highways tyres, and under a policy which seems restricted to highway use. I think this should be made explicitly clear prior to hiring a high clearance vehicle, which is obviously designed for use off a paved highway. Furthermore I am annoyed that they provide no tools and would in effect abandon a driver to fend for themselves and improvise in a hostile and remote environment.

On reaching Big Bend we were dissuaded by the Rangers there from using the Primitive Campsite at Pine Canyon that we had booked, as we still could not access the spare. This mean considerable extra cost, as we had to book a hotel in Terlingua, as all the campsite on paved roads were fully booked. The Rangers at Big Bend suggested the lack of off road support was a problem common to all hire car companies, but I have not confirmed if this is true.

So, if you are planning to drive on unpaved roads (Texas or not) , be warned and ....
  1. Check in advance whether the vehicle will come with a spare and all tools to change a wheel (assuming you are confident to use them),
  2. Check in advance that you will be insured for graded, unpaved roads. If not and you have all the necessary tools, then potentially you could drive the car at your own risk, but I would want to know the road condition and the risk of damage to the vehicle, as this could end up being a very expensive choice. Even graded roads can get rutted from over use.
  3. Check that roadside assistance will attend is you are on an unpaved road.
I would not recommend trying to purchase a compressor and plug kit. The plug kit would not be expensive, but for a largish puncture you need a compressor capable of inflating the tyre quicker than the air escapes, which would be expensive. Also plugs cannot be relied upon - they are best for standard punctures, but not good for side wall punctures, which can also occur.

If the answers to questions 1-3 is no, then try to locate a specialist hire company - where I was there was a company called Terlingua Jeep Hire that seemed to cover full off-road use (but at USD255 dollars a day!). Depending on the itinerary and given the expense of a specialist hire, you may therefore wish to hire an off-road car as required and something cheaper for the main highway driving. Alternatively, and probably the least risk option, is to only bird where you can easily walk to from the paved highway!

Regards

Jon Bryant
WOW !!! …. That’s some trip.
 

jurek

Well-known member
I want to add another warning, because I was on a birding trip to Texas few years ago and had a bad experience with Dollar. The sellers persuaded me to buy some extra payment for crossing bridges in Texas for ca $160. It turned unnecessary (one can avoid bridges or pay directly for a fraction of the price).

Perhaps most annoying was the careless attitude at Dollar. Apparently the employee rotation is fast, staff supplements their low salaries with pushing customers to buy extras, and don't care because they will not work in that company in a short time anyway.

And, foremost - for any car rental, remember that the usual collision damage waiver does not cover lots of things and you are likely to be hustled to buy excess insurance for serious money. BUT most credit cards already cover this excess insurance. Also, your personal liability insurance common in many European countries covers it. And alternatively, many online companies sell excess insurance for car hire at much smaller cost. If you did not know it yet, this is likely to be a big saving on your road trip.

Bird-wise, Texas in spring was a good birding (and driving) destination. Whooping cranes wintering in people's backyards, good birding reserves in Rio Grande Valley (unfortunately, pricey), good migration at the shore and also some nice localized birds like red-cockaded woodpecker and golden-cheeked warbler. Only the Attwater's prairie chicken appeared to be almost unobservable.
 

Jon.Bryant

Well-known member
Yes, Texas was very nice as a spring destination this year. Circa 299 species seen (some of the Empids sp may eventually be ID'd from photos and add another 1 or 2), plus another 3 heard (and one detected but Merlin, but the sound could not be discerned by me in the field! - I left Merlin running at the Attwater Prairie Chicken site for a laugh, and it made multiple detections for Henderson's Sparrow in the same general area, on the way out and again at the way back on the Auto Loop). The Prairie Chickens were not seen - it seems a remote chance, but people still see them without going on the Saturday tour (which ups your chances, but does not provide a guatrantee) - someone suggested a 1 in 10 chance from the Auto loop.

We were too late for Whooping Cranes - best taking the boat trip around Aransas which sails from Rockport. The last trip is normally in early April, when there are one or two family groups still present. Some birds have become semi resident in Texas - birds were being seen inland of High Island, but I understand that these are from recent introductions and therefore potentially less 'tickable'.

Four difficult birds were not seen, and these normally require you to cough up the dosh and take a guided tour around King Ranch. This can be a busy destination, so you need to book early. These species are Botteri's Sparrow (there is at least one other accessible site), Aududon's Oriole (sometimes birds are accessible elsewhere, but King Ranch seems the most reliable), Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl (someone advised me that the King Ranch has circa 200 pairs! - all other sites seem unreliable now) and Tropical Parula (possible to bump into in the valley, in early spring, but apparently hybrids with Northern Parula are not that uncommon either).

A couple of localised birds required a bit of hiking - Colima Warbler (ten miles round trip) and Lucifer's Sheartail (would have been 7.5 miles if Carolyn had not generously given us a lift out and halved the walking). The Lucifer's Sheartail at Christmas Oasis can be accessed by car (after contacting Carolyn to ask to visit), but the road is very rough in the end section, and I wouldn't risk it after my puncture fiasco.

Not sure if Texas is a 'well known' destination, or whether it is worth drafting up a trip report - any views?

Regards

Jon Bryant
 

Elkhornsun

Well-known member
Anywhere I travel I check that the spare tire is OK and that there is a jack and tire nut wrench in the car. It is part of our checklist when taking possession of a rental vehicle of any kind anywhere.

People use Yelp in the USA to find restaurants but I have found it very useful for checking out businessess in an area, including auto repair and auto rental places.
 

MikeInPA

Well-known member
I think it’s standard practice for the larger rental companies to restrict driving to paved roads. When we were in the SW a few years ago we wanted to visit White Pocket which is in the middle of nowhere. We rented a Jeep Cherokee for the day which was supplied with jack and a compressor for pumping up your tires after airing down for soft sand. I don’t remember the breakdown policy for retrieval from White Pocket but I think it was a case of ‘you’re on your own’ or $1000.

It was worth it. White Pocket
 

gcole

Well-known member
United States
I think it’s standard practice for the larger rental companies to restrict driving to paved roads. When we were in the SW a few years ago we wanted to visit White Pocket which is in the middle of nowhere. We rented a Jeep Cherokee for the day which was supplied with jack and a compressor for pumping up your tires after airing down for soft sand. I don’t remember the breakdown policy for retrieval from White Pocket but I think it was a case of ‘you’re on your own’ or $1000.

It was worth it. White Pocket
About cell phone service ?
 

Steve Babbs

Well-known member
Not being covered to drive off paved roads is common even in some places such a Southern Africa where you'd expect it to be normal.
 

temmie

Well-known member
When renting a car:
1. always check the spare and jack. A plug kit is indeed very handy (not expensive and it works well for most flats).
2. don't even mention you are going off road, and don't ever call the company when you have a problem off-road (unless you drove it into a ravine).
3. when having a flat, put the spare tire on, drive to the nearest tire facility and present the flat tire. The cost will be anything between 2 (yes, 2, in Morocco) and 20 euro (somewhere in France) and it will take 15 -30 minutes. Next, replace the spare tire for the original, and off you go like nothing ever happened.

Your experience isn't specific for Texas... ;-)
 

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