RailayDay 26
In the early morning of day 26, I was partying away at the Full Moon Party and yet, incredibly, I was booked in for the 7am ferry out of Koh Phangan. Those I had revealed this to pitied me. The way their faces recoiled at my revelation suggested it was a foolish task. But I was on a mission. I was on a tight schedule. And I have no idea how I did it, the buckets of Sangsom had wired me up, but I made the ferry.

By the early evening I made my way across the South Peninsular to the Andaman Coast and when I reached my final destination – Railay – I knew the trip was totally worth it. The landscape was spectacular. The huge limestone rock formations (see picture) that rise from the earth are jaw dropping to look at. Every time I look at them I am just puzzled at how nature could possibly shape the landscape in this way. I landed at Tonsai beach by long-tail boat (it’s the only way you can get there) and instantly loved the place. As it is so difficult to access, there are not huge crowds yet the beach has a great, lively scene to it. Fronting Tonsai beach is nothing more than a row of about 8-10 bars and restaurants. Electricity and water is sparse so lighting is provided by nothing much more than a light glow, usually candles. But the music still blares out, providing the beach with a vibrant atmosphere. The combination of all these factors – the landscape, the music, the drinking, the soft glow – somehow matched my vision of how pirates used to hang out. It’s just the feeling I got about the place – I felt like I was in another world. Instantly Railay was up there with Siem Reap as a highlight of my travels so far.

Day 27
When I woke up in the morning I had a tingling wave of excitement as I walked down to the beach to check out the view. The place is that amazing. First thing, I walked over to Railay West beach. It is definitely the nicest beach in the area but also the most crowded. This day was the hottest I had experienced in Thailand so far and a couple hours lying in this heat was more than my body could take.

For the afternoon I had booked myself in for a half day rock climbing course. Railay is known to be a bit of a rock climbers mecca. Many are here for weeks, even months. I say it was a course but they pretty much threw on the gear, showed me how to tie the knot and then made me climb. First two climbs: no problem. The third climb: I struggled a bit and, admittedly, it knocked my confidence a little bit. Halfway up the fourth climb I was ready to quit.

My confidence was wavering, I had no energy left in me and I had no idea how to ascend any further. My instructor was shouting things but my tired brain didn’t want to hear them. But then something happened. The guy climbing the wall next to me let out a huge roar as he struggled up an infinitely more difficult wall than I was climbing. But his roar jolted my body back into life. Somehow I found the energy and focus to keep climbing. And I did. But then I was stuck again.

This time there was no way to keep climbing the wall. The instructor bellowed that the only way to climb the final part of the wall was to utilise the stalactite overhanging behind me. She told me to reach my right leg out to it. But then she was a little crazy. Despite the safety the ropes afforded me I was still not fully confident in it’s ability to hold me (especially as the thing keeping the rope in place was a knot I had tied). And regardless, there was no way my foot would reach it AND give me enough grip to keep me in place in a position most people know as “the splits”. But In the end I went for it. And I did it. Then I managed to pull my left leg across as well. And there I was: wedged between a wall and a stalactite, my back on the wall and my feet stretched on the stalactite. I then eased my way up in a ‘shimmy’ motion and as the gap decreased, the climb became easier before I made it to the top. But that was pretty much all the climbing I could take and I was almost relieved it was over. This was not the sport for me!

I spent another evening in Railay although the Sunday night was noticeably quieter than the previous one. Oh and I should point out that the food on Railay is very good and very cheap… and you can get banana cake! That was my last night in Railay as tomorrow I was heading to Koh Phi Phi. But for anyone who wants to experience beautiful beaches set to a stunning landscape then head to this place (I’d definitely recommend it versus the islands on the other side of the peninsular). There is loads to do with tours, dives and snorkelling trips available in addition to the climbing and the beach activities.

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I’ve blogged before about the Republic of Ireland several times, but we’ve never talked about Northern Ireland. With cheap flights and ferry crossings available, it’s easy to get to and offers some great attractions for everyone.

Often overlooked by it’s neighbours from the South, Belfast was recently voted the third favourite city in the UK in the 2008 Guardian/Observer travel awards. My colleague Alison, who is a regular visitor to Northern Ireland, assures me that the city has undergone a massive transformation over the last few years and Belfast is now an exciting and vibrant place to visit.

Some of the personal recommendations she gave me were:

  • Victoria Square – This is Belfast’s newest shopping destination, complete with a House of Fraser department store. It has panoramic views across the city and the river Lagan.
  • Gaelic sports – Casement Park is one of the most popular venues.
  • Waterfront Hall – Northern Ireland’s premier conference and concert centre.

If that’s not enough to keep you busy, you’ve also got the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, Belfast Zoo, Stormont and Belfast Hills to visit.

Outside of Belfast, there are many other great things to see including the Giants Causeway, Dunluce Castle and the Walled City of Derry. If you’re driving, the Causeway Coastal Route takes in many of the major attractions, as well as providing some stunning scenery, dramatic coastline and remarkable views.

If you need to hire a car, Avis has four locations in Northern Ireland; Belfast International Airport, Belfast City Airport, Belfast Downtown and Derry Airport.

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Koh PhanganI’m hoping I can keep things short for this one as my time on Koh Phangan was relatively straightforward. I spent 7 days there, recharging my batteries (it’s been a tough couple of weeks) and to start, of course, ridding myself of this pasty body. So, days 19-25 were spent, quite simply, lazing around on the beach. More specifically, days 19, 20 and 23-25 were spent at the Malibu Resort in Chalokulum. It’s a resort that I’d highly recommend – a gorgeous, private, white-sand beach, a brand new swimming pool and good, cheap bungalows. On day 21, I set down my beach towel at the even lovelier Haad Khom beach (I was supposed to walk to Bottle beach as well but got lost in the jungle). And finally, on day 22, I went to Chaweng Bay on Koh Samui. It’s an ok place but having gotten use to the tranquil paradise at the Malibu resort, this beach was far too crowded for me. If I’m honest, I don’t think it was worth the trip (or the expensive taxis).

Of course there was also the usual tales of woe that have become so typical of my journey. There was the ridiculously large spider in my room (it was huge I tell you). I tried to capture the arachnid alive but the attempt was poorly executed. I missed, it jumped on me, I let out a far too feminine yelp and, leaping backwards on to my bed, managed to rip down the mosquito net that was fixed to the wall of my bungalow. And there was the time I thought I lost my wallet, causing me to ransack my room, run up to the 7Eleven barefooted and back (and in the dark), only to find it sitting there, perched up in my bungalow, almost mocking me for the fool I’ve been.

But ultimately, my time on Koh Phangan was memorable for two things:

Number one: if you want to just escape the crowds for a bit of peace and quiet and you want to relax on beautiful, white sand beaches, the north side of the Koh Phangan is the place for you. Incidentally if you are looking to party, go to Haad Rin. It’s located on the south-east of the island but it gets very crowded and you should expect to pay over the odds around the Full Moon Party.

Number two: the WakeUp! bar. There is a whole ex-pat community built around this bar and you instantly feel like you’re part of it. I was only in there a few times but before I knew it I was stopping to chat to “Veggie” Dave as he flies by town in his scooter. I was popping into the bar to grab a bit of Theresa’s Sunday roast. Or I was looking at Alan’s photos, flinching at the petrol burns he endured when their boat sank on a day’s excursion. And central to this is Jamie, who runs the place, bolting the community together and, occasionally, found to be intoxicated and embarrassing himself on his new installed ping-pong table. The WakeUp! bar gave me a real “home from home” feeling that was most welcome 3 weeks into my travels.

Jamie will also sort you out a ridiculously cheap taxi to the Full Moon Party making the Chaloklum a good place to stay even if you want to make the party. The party, by the way, presents a great a time. Basically think of the vibe of a music festival, place it on a beach, replace the live bands with DJs, add in buckets of Sangsom whiskey mixed with coke and Red Bull (or their equivalent) and you’ll pretty much get the picture. It’s a messy affair that has no problem lasting through to daylight. Not that I was still there at daylight. I left at 5.30 to catch a 7am ferry. It was a necessary evil (find out why next time) and I have no idea how I did it!

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Christmas TreeEveryone on the blog team would like to take this opportunity to wish all Avis customers, staff and readers of this blog a very Merry Christmas! We’d also like to thank all of our staff members who continue to work over the Christmas period, which is one of our busiest times of the year. Some of our airport locations are even working Christmas day! I spent the day helping out at Avis Mayfair yesterday and it’s great to see how dedicated and hard working our staff are.

Today is the blog team’s last day in the office until Friday January 2nd 2009. Any comments posted between now and then will be held in a queue and published and responded to when we return. However, please have some patience while we work through them all. We will do our best to publish the comments and replies as soon as possible.

So, once again, we hope that everyone has a safe and enjoyable Christmas and has a happy and prosperous New Year. See you in 2009!

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#6 in Tripadvisor’s hot spots for 2009 is Protaras in Cyprus…

What’s the deal?
Protaras is yet another coastal town on Tripadvisor’s list. Situated on the east coast of Cyprus, it is a town much smaller than nearby Ayia Napa. But that is only the beginning of its differences with its local neighbour. Tranquility and intimacy are buzzwords that are often used to describe Protaras, words that wouldn’t be used in association with its neighbour. The resort brags a 6km coastline of golden beaches with the majority of bars and restaurants to be found around the Fig Tree Bay and Pernera Bay areas. The combination of sun, sand and quiet, relaxed vibe make Protaras the perfect alternative to the busier Ayia Napa for fcouples and family holidays in Cyprus.

What are other traveller’s saying?
Ciao has quite a wide range of reviews (25 of them), which are resoundingly positive. All reviewers are complimentary about the beaches while one reviewer enthuses about the diving. Another reviewer provides a decent account of a selection of the local restaurants – with Nicola Tavern recommended for some local Cypriot food. But this is one thing you should not expect a lot of in Protaras. It is a purpose-built resort so you should not expect an authentic Cypriot experience.

How do I get there?
Protaras is about an hour from Larnaca Airport. Avis has an office at the airport and car hire is a good option in Cyprus, particularly if you fancy exploring more of the island.

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Koh TaoStephen told me off for writing such long posts so for my experience of Koh Tao (which marks my decent south to the islands of Thailand), I’ve decided to dispatch with the day-by-day account and provide a summary of events instead. For continuity purposes I’ll mention day 14 which was not that memorable apart from experiencing my first painful yet somewhat pleasurable Thai massage at Wat Pho. My time on Koh Tao – a small, chilled and very pretty island – on the otherhand was a fairly event free affair, except for 3 things. I’ll always remember days 15-18 because of the following:

1. The boat ride over – was the worst 2 hours of my life. That is not an exaggeration. The water was so choppy that the bow of the catamaran bobbed in out of the sea like a yo-yo. I lasted a mere 20 minutes before the inevitable happened. Many people lasted less. Few people lasted the whole trip. After an hour of sheer agony, I assumed the only position that would be bring me any comfort: the foetal position. And there I lied on the floor, without shame, until the agony was over.

2. I convinced myself I had rabies – when I went to the travel clinic to get all my jabs, the nurse made recommendations about other diseases I should be vaccinated against. That night I decided to do a bit of research – on Wikipedia of course. That’s when I got the low-down on the horror that is rabies. It’s a horrific disease which, unless you catch it within 24 hours, pretty much guarantees death (there are 7 known survivors and 6 suffered severe brain damage as a consequence – according to Wikipedia of course). That night while lying in bed in England I was convinced I was going to catch rabies. Fast forward to Thailand and I’ve been staying well clear of the mountain of stray dogs that roam the streets here. Except on my first day on Koh Tao.

While grabbing some lunch after the boat ride earlier, I was approached by a dog with a ball. Eager to keep the dog away I swatted the saliva-ridden ball away. This was not something I’d normally do but hungover, ill and shattered from departing the sleeper train at 4 in the morning, my judgement was blurred. As a matter of caution I washed hands vigorously.

24 hours later and my memory reflects on the day before. I recalled scratching a mosquito bite after lunch with the hand that tipped the ball away. Telling myself that a mosquito bite constituted a gaping wound and that a drop of rabies-ridden saliva had remained on my hand I convinced myself I had caught rabies. For 2 days I thought, no I knew, I was going to die a horrible, painful death. Of course once I’d caught up on my sleep and read that Koh Tao was close to rabies free, a simple bit of reasoning told me that this was not the case.

3. I got my open water scuba diving qualification – which was actually the reason I went to Koh Tao. If you want to learn to scuba dive, you won’t find it anywhere cheaper than Koh Tao. 8,500 Baht covered the cost of the course, the equipment and 4 nights acommodation. I went with Phoenix who I would highly recommend and Neil, my instructor, did a great job – patient, helpful and a good laugh. And I got to see a couple of sting rays on my dives which I was chuffed about although sadly no sharks. Sairee beach, where the resort I stayed in is located, is the biggest on island and has a great, relaxed vibe.

Rabies scare aside, I really enjoyed my time on Koh Tao and the open water qualification gave me something tangible to show for it. And Stephen, sorry if the summary approach didn’t work. This wasn’t so short after all.

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Don’t be that guyAt Avis, we hear lots of stories from our customers (and our delivery drivers) about tailbacks and delays when the days grow shorter and the weather turns wintry. These can be caused by a car breaking down on the motorway, someone running out of petrol in the middle of the countryside and even snowdrifts or floods blocking the road! If it’s happened, we’ve heard it!

To try to ease the delays as traffic increases this winter, the Highways Agency have launched the “Don’t be that Guy” campaign. The campaign aims to help and educate drivers by reminding them of a few simple steps they could take to make their journeys this winter safer, easier and a little less frustrating for everyone.

Preparing as best as you can for any situation can really help you out if it all goes wrong on the roads. On the site, you can find information to help plan your trip, reminders to check and service your car regularly throughout the winter and details of what to include in your emergency kit: from jump leads and de-icer to warm drinks and blankets.

To help you during your journey, there are great tips on driving safely in every kind of unpleasant weather condition including rain, fog, snow and wind. And if something does go wrong despite all your careful preparation, the website tells you what to do and how the Highways Agency and its operatives can help you get home safely.

At Avis, we prepare all our cars especially for winter. Tyre pressures are checked, fluid levels are topped up, anti-freeze is added and an Avis ice scraper is put in every car. We also supply GPS units (dependant on availability) for an additional charge to help you get to your destination on time and without getting lost. However, the Highways Agency still recommends that you plan your route and check the traffic conditions before you leave and that you make sure you have got some warm clothes in your car, just in case you get stuck.

Always remember, a traffic free road is a happy place for everyone. Travel safe this winter and don’t be that guy.

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CambodiaDay 10
Having been forced to take the over-land route into Siem Reap I’m up early to take the minibus to the Thai border. The minibus is unable to take you across the border so you have to literally walk across. It was a surprisingly odd experience. And crossing the Thai-Cambodia border is like walking into a different world. Literally. The smooth, paved roads of Thailand meet the dirt, hole-ridden tracks of Cambodia. We are greeted by a pre-arranged taxi to take us to Siem Reap.

Along the way we stop off at a small roadside settlement for a quick break. Asides from our driver, this is the first real contact I have with the people of Cambodia. A young girl greets us and instantly melts my heart with her sweet charm and quick wit. It’s an experience which will later reveal itself to be indicative of most of the people I meet.

So onwards to Siem Reap and we arrive at dusk in a town that caught me a bit by surprise. My initial motivation to visit Siem Reap was purely driven by my desire to visit the Angkor temples. But I instantly loved the town. I stayed in the quieter north-east part of town at European Guesthouse – a more than adequate place to rest my head with a great host and, at $6 a night, a bargain! This side of town can also be identified by the pretty river which is nicely decorated with white fairy-lights.

The south-west of town is the busier end where you can find a plethora of bars and restaurants on Bar/Pub St and the Alley. Granted it’s a bit touristy but has a great chilled-out vibe. Check out Temple Club for some Cambodian dancing while you dine and Angkor What? – a cool, graffiti-ridden bar where you can leave a message of your own on the wall.

Day 11
The next mornng I’m up at 4am to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat. We had a pre-arranged a tuk-tuk driver to take us around the main temples for the day. For $15-20 they spend the whole day with you, taking you to as many temples as you can take and waiting for you for as long as you want outside each temple you visit (although renting a bike for $2 a day would’ve been a cool alternative).

The Angkor temples have got to be one of the most fascinating, awe-inspiring structures you could find anywhere on this planet. I can’t really use words to describe them. You’ll just have to check them out for yourself! And it doesn’t matter how many temples you go to you’ll never get bored because each temple has it’s own unique charm or story, riddled with Buddhist and Hindu symbolism. It’s a tough one to choose but here are my top 3 temples:
- Angkor Wat – impressively vast, it’s a Cambodian icon featuring on the flag and even their beer!
- Bayon (pictured) – it’s a bizarre one but my favourite. Built by King Jayavarman VII as a Buddhist temple in the city of Angkor Thom, it is recognisable for the 11,000+ carved figures sculptured into the walls
- Ta Prohm – the ‘Tomb Raider’ temple for it’s appearance in the film. Once upon a time the jungle was allowed to engulf all the Angkor temples. To preserve the temples, this jungle has been removed although some of it has been allowed to remain at Ta Prohm, demonstrating it’s awesome power. This temple is like something straight out of Indiana Jones.

My experience at the temples though doesn’t just educate me on the awesome power of the Angkor people of the past. It educates me on the greatness of the Cambodian people today. Our young tuk-tuk driver is a kind, quiet lad who, by demonstrating an unnecessary level of gratefulness that he is our ride for the day, really makes you warm to him. And there are many young children who, initially, are desperate to sell you an assortment of goods with crys of “one dollar!”. But stop to talk to them and you instantly fall in love with their sweet, bright, charming nature. Outside of one temple, twins Corn and Choi were quite happy to forgo the hard sell when we stopped to talk to them, gleefully talking us through their school work. Excitedly Corn shows us her school workbook while we calculate algebra in the dirt floor with Choi.

I came to Cambodia to visit the magnificant temples of Angkor. Little did I realise that Cambodia’s biggest attraction would be it’s people.

Day 12
As I was now travelling overland instead of by plane, my stay had been cut to 2 days instead of 4. If I had more time I would’ve visited the floating villages of lake Tonle Sap. Instead I went into the countryside to visit a couple more temples and the landmine museum.

The countryside dwellings consist of wooden huts on stilts and we are greeted by child after child smiling and waving ecstatically at the sight of us. We visit another impressive temple, Bantaey Srei, before heading for the landmine museum. Run admirably by dedicated landmine clearer Aki Ra (who also runs a care home for children affected by landmines), the museum is a small simple structure but, in it’s simplicity, really gets the message across. Not only do you learn of the life shattering impact the landmines have (and it is estimated that there are still over 6 million still active in Cambodia), you learn of the devastating Khmer Rouge genocide. Their inhumane reign brought about the deaths of 2 million (out of a population of 7 million). If this is not a subject you are very familiar with, I’d urge you to read more. These events are all too recent in our history.

Visiting our final temple for the day, I feel a little depressed. Having grown quite attached to the people here I can only thank God that these amazing people no longer suffer at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. And I am relieved that it is something the children I’ve met will never experience.

Day 13
The next day I’m back over the border to Thailand on the taxi-minibus combo. I leave feeling almost like my time away is over. Like it’s the end of a holiday. I fell in love with Cambodia, it’s people, the town of Siem Reap and the Angkor temples. But I’ll be back and I’d urge anyone else to make their way there.

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At Avis, we’re committed to reducing our impact on the environment. We’ve previously supported the CarbonNeutral campaign, introduced Electric Bikes for deliveries in London and in Jan 2008, we were voted the Greenest car hire company in the Telegraph travel awards.

Now, we’re supporting ACT ON CO2, a cross governmental campaign designed to help people to save money and fuel as well as reducing their CO2 emissions. Visit the ACT ON CO2 website for more information on buying, driving and sharing cars.

There are a few easy things you can do to reduce the amount of work your car engine has to do, the amount of fuel you burn and your CO2 emissions. By following the below tips, you could cut your CO2 emissions by around 8% – equivalent to saving up to one months fuel per year.

1. Pump up to cut down

Under inflated tyres create more resistance when your car is moving, increasing CO2. Simply check your tyre pressures regularly and before long journeys. This will also help to increase the life of your tyres. However, remember that over inflated tyres can be unsafe, so check your car manual for the correct tyre pressure.

2. Less clutter means less CO2

Clutter in your boot is extra weight your engine has to carry around. By removing it, you will burn less fuel and cut your CO2 emissions.

3. Driving at an appropriate speed reduces CO2

Staying within the speed limit increases driver safety and drivers should never exceed the speed limit. It also reduces CO2 emissions and saves money on fuel. At 70mph you could be using up to 9% more fuel than at 60mph and up to 15% more fuel than at 50mph.

4. Less stopping and starting means less CO2

Every time you stop and start in traffic, the engine uses more fuel and produces more CO2. Keep an eye on the road ahead and slow down early by gently lifting your foot off the accelerator while keeping the car in gear. In this way, traffic may have started moving again by the time you approach the vehicle in front. You can simply change gear and be on your way.

5. Over revving accelerates emissions

Modern engines are efficient from the moment they are switched on, so revving up like a Formual 1 car in pole position wastes fuel and increases engine wear. Using your gears wisely can also reduce revs. If you drive a diesel car, try changing up gears when the revs reach 2000rpm. For a petrol car, change up at 2500rpm.

6. Idling is wasting fuel

When the engine is idling, you’re wasting fuel and adding to CO2 emissions. If you’re likely to be stationary for more than three minutes, switch off the engine.

Why not let us know on this blog what your tips are for saving money on fuel and reducing your carbon footprint?

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TigerDay 8
Last night was bizarre. A little lost trying to find a hotel some friends were staying at, a tuk-tuk driver (a bicycle one, not motorized) decided to try and help. He was a crazy old man who spoke little English and clearly did not know where he was going. Instead, with a personality that I can only describe as Rafiki from Lion King, he took me round in endless circles with numerous promises of finding me “boom boom”.

Thankfully the next day’s experience was a little more straightforward and definitely a memorable one. I had a morning to kill before getting the sleeper train back to Bangkok so I decided to head to the Tiger Kingdom. It was an amazing experience. Tigers up to one years old live at the sanctuary and are well cared for. You have a choice of 4 different ages groups which you can pay to join in their habitat. Firstly, I opted for the tiger cubs. The attendent advises you not to let them bite or scratch you but the little critters don’t give you much of a choice. But their cute faces make them all too easy to forgive. We also spent time with the more formidable one-year olds who, despite their awesome size and power, are quite happy to let you chill with them.

In the afternoon I made the trip back down to Bangkok on the sleeper train.

Day 9
Arriving early in Bangkok I had a whole day to kill before flying to Siem Reap, Cambodia the next day. Unfortunately, over breakfast I heard someone asking about troubles at the airport. I thought nothing of it at the time, thinking that any protests at such a major airport would be quickly disbanded by the afternoon.

So blissfully unaware of the problems ahead, I finally got to make my way around the Grand Palace. This was by far my most rewarding experience in Bangkok. The grandiose style of temples in the complex and the palace itself were impressive and it was great to finally see the emerald Buddha. The complex also houses a miniature version of Angkor Wat and the sight of it was giving me goosebumps about my upcoming visit to Siem Reap. Exiting the palace, I also visited the nearby Wat Pho – home of the enormous reclining Buddha.

Looking to kill some more time I used the opportunity to visit some of the nearby markets where there was not a tourist in sight. Finally, I thought I’d check the status of the airport. Horrified I found that all was far worse than I was expecting. Absolutely committed to making it to Siem Reap the next day I sought to find transport overland across the border. I overlooked this when I booked the flights as I heard that there is trouble at the border. But another traveller I was speaking to, who had made the trip before, reassured me it was fine. So I went ahead and booked the minibus/taxi combo, saving myself £100 in the process.

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At Avis, we really do try harder. We pioneered blogging in the car rental world and we aim to make our blog much more than just an information source. You can use our blog to ask questions or tell us what’s important to you when you hire a car. We try harder because we care what you think, so we really do value your feedback.

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