Traveling around the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand by camper van is becoming increasingly popular. We just spent three weeks driving 8,164 kilometers around Australia by camper van. I found that the company you select for your vehicle can really make or break your self-driving adventure. There are lots of companies in Australia that rent camper vans and what I failed to do was read some reviews on the company I selected. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have used the place we did. We rented from Hippie and received an Apollo camper van. Apollo is just one of several brands from the same company, including, Star, Cheapa Cheapa, Hippie and their manufacturing and sales brand Talvor. All of these companies have received more complaints than good reviews on web various sites except their own. It began with the whole process of picking up the camper.
First of all, they are located far away from anything in Sydney. The cab ride alone would cost over $80 from the CBD. To get to their location using public transportation required a train ride to the suburbs, two buses and a 1 km. walk. It’s not something we wanted to do laden with luggage, so we left our luggage at our hotel room hoping to return before our noon checkout time. Little did we know that we wouldn’t get back to our hotel until well past 1:30 p.m.
When we finally arrived, it wasn’t apparent what we needed to do. They didn’t have any kind of reception like we would find at most rental car counters and the place looked to be in various states of chaos with customer luggage scattered around and people languishing in the waiting area. It also quickly became apparent that the staff and manager needed some lessons on customer service. So we waited for nearly 30 minutes just to be acknowledged and finally start the rental process.
This place has some shady business practices. I should have been a little wary when they said they would charge my credit card AU$2,000 to cover any possible damages. Most rental companies imprint your card or just charge $1, and then charge your card if something happens. Apollo charges your card first and refunds the money if nothing happens, which is not normal. Many reviews complained that it took months to receive a refund, if they received one at all. So I later disputed the charge with the credit card company to preemptively avoid refund issues.The woman who showed us how various things on the van worked, wasn’t extremely knowledgable and there wasn’t much in the way of documentation for the vehicle and the different systems. Luckily, I owned a larger boat in the past and knew how most of the things work on an RV. The camper we rented was a converted Toyota HiAce Hi-Top van. The vehicle had over 300,000 kilometers on the odometer which is more miles than most people put on their personal cars. It probably should have been retired long ago. Luckily, it’s a Toyota, so the engine will probably run forever, but the rest of the van was definitely showing its age. The brake rotors were warped and the wheels shook violently if I pressed the brakes at higher speeds. The tires were under inflated and the outside treads were almost bald, making for some exciting driving in wet conditions. Both issues are dangerous and should have been fixed before sending the vehicle out on the road. Much of the interior customizations, such as the cabinets, were beginning to fall apart. Everything inside either rattled or squeaked. Loudly. Too many small things, such as the curtain hardware and dining table, were broken, making those items difficult to use. The cabinets were no longer square and the cabinet doors didn’t open and close easily. Other things just haven’t been maintained. The faucet pump needed new pistons; the smoke detector was coming off the ceiling and created a huge leak the first time it rained. Which leads to the next issue: roadside customer service.
When the roof started to leak, we called Apollo customer service. Sheri got on the phone with Joel and when she started complaining about how the leak soiled our clean laundry and got my camera wet and wanted to know how the company would reimburse us for the time and expense, the guy hung up on her. When we tried to call back, he hung up again. The third attempt wasn’t even answered. The next morning, someone else called me and gave me the location of a repair facility. Luckily, it was only an hour out of our way, and the repair guy did it for free. Kudos to Grange Smash Repairs.Finally, on our way back to Sydney to return our camper van, the serpentine belt on the engine broke. I heard parts of it fly underneath the vehicle and I thought we had run over something on the road. The van immediately started to overheat since the water pump wasn’t turning, the power steering failed, assisted brakes failed, and alternator light came on. I was able to safely pull the van over to the side of the highway on the narrow shoulder and let the coolant boil over and cool down. I checked the engine and sure enough, the belt was completely missing. We called Apollo’s customer service again. We had to use Sheri’s phone since it appeared my number was blocked by them. Of course, we talked with Joel again and he told us he was sending a tow truck to us. We were about 77 km. from Sydney, so I figured it would take about an hour to get to us, and I thought we may still be able to return the camper that afternoon. After 90 minutes passed, Sheri called the Sydney office and got ahold of the office manager, asked to make sure a tow truck was coming, and convinced them to stay a bit later so we could drop off the camper. The fact that she had to persuade them to stay later says a lot about who we were dealing with.
After 2 hours and still no tow truck, Sheri called customer service again and left a message for Joel, telling him that she spoke with the Sydney and corporate office about the breakdown and that we were still waiting. Yes, instead of getting a person on the phone, she had to leave a message. The tow truck finally showed up 2 hours and 40 minutes after our initial call to customer service. When we asked the tow truck driver when he was dispatched, he said he was only 30 minutes aways when he got the call. Just about the time that Sheri left her message. Granted, the tow truck dispatcher could have sent the message late or the driver could have been lying, but prior circumstances would suggest otherwise. I believe Joel sat on our distress call until Sheri left her message. Another reason I believe this is something the tow truck driver said. He said it wasn’t unusual for Apollo to move slowly when it came to breakdowns.When we finally arrive at the Sydney office with the camper in tow, they were initially going to charge us $75 because we returned it after hours, but we convinced them to waive that fee. One of their service guys asked me all sorts of questions about the belt, as if I should have been aware of the belt starting to deteriorate. I turned it back onto them, saying that when I rent a vehicle, I expect it to be in a good state of repair and road worthy. That quickly shut him up. Since the camper broke down before I could refill the gas tank, it only had a little more than half a tank. We convinced them to waive the charge for the fuel, but I won’t be sure until I receive our credit card statement.
I would have been willing to overlook the mechanical problems with the camper, because shit happens. But combined with the poor customer service and what appeared to be retaliatory tactics by one of them, it was just too much to ignore. I will be sending a letter to them regarding both incidents. I doubt it will achieve anything, but we can’t just do nothing. Needless to say, we can’t recommend this company.