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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How "good" is your RV road service?

Things that can mess up your RVing day: Motoring down the happy highway when a sudden "BOOM!" rolls out across the landscape. A quick glance in your rear view mirror reveals chunks of rubber blasting away from your trailer wheel well. Sure enough, you get to test out your emergency road service.

Not too long ago, running that lonely stretch of Highway 95 between Quartzsite and Yuma, Arizona, that was my experience. I'd just gotten the rig back from a mechanic who'd worked on the suspension system, and I was running home to Quartzsite, late for supper. The street-side forward tire, not more than two or three years old, decided it was time to head off to the great "tire beyond."

After limping onto a wide spot on the shoulder and setting out the safety cones to warn traffic, I texted my beloved to tell her not to hold dinner. Then I rang up the dispatch folks at Good Sam Emergency Road Service, looking forward to a short wait for a service truck to help me out of my predicament. Little did I realize that it would be a long time until I finally fired up the engine and headed for home.

We've had Good Sam service for a number of years. We've had a few adventures that required phoning in and waiting for a service guy. Sometimes we waited in a parking lot; once beside a very scary stretch of Utah's Interstate 15 with traffic blasting past us like astronauts hell-bent for the moon. But this experience left me wondering: Is there something better?

I can understand that the outfit will have a central dispatch center somewhere. Texas isn't as far from Arizona as say, New York City, but as far as "local knowledge," the dispatcher may as well have been on the moon. It took nearly a half-hour of concerted effort to help the dispatcher find where we were. At first she had us spotted somewhere in California, then later, I "was" way north of where I really was. Happily, I had a GPS that would display my geographic coordinates, which I rattled off to her. "Oh, my system has located you now," she told me. Future reference: Know how to get your own GPS to give coordinates; it could save you a lot of frustration.

Now knowing where I and the broke down rig are located is one thing; it's quite another to find the nearest service provider. My dispatcher cheerfully told me she'd get back to me shortly to let me know who was coming, and when to expect them. Nearly an hour later, I called Good Sam back. Point number two: Terminology. When you get the cheerful soul on the phone, after the first call, immediately tell them: "This is a re-call," or you can expect to go through a long ritual of giving all the same information you already gave.

The second fellow on the line seemed a bit put-out that I had yet to hear back. He put me on protracted hold. Now mind you, I hadn't planned on being stranded beside the road – whoever does? So of course, I hadn't brought a charge cable for my cell phone. Worried that I might run out of battery before a rescue arrived, I finally hung up after 10 minutes on hold. Happily, the second dispatcher did eventually call me back. His sad story: My original dispatcher was still working the phones, and she'd asked for "a different database," of providers to call. A supervisor soon got involved.

An hour-and-a-half after my initial phone-in, I got the happy news: They'd called 21 different service providers, and the first 20 turned down the job. Good news: Number 21 would accept the job. Bad news: It could be a three-hour wait before they arrived. Given the name of the provider and their phone number, I settled in to watch the sunset. Worried, however, because it appeared that my trailer tail lights weren't working. I called for reinforcements, and my dearest one arrived with a car to provide lights, and hamburgers and french fries to provide nourishment.

After a long wait I dialed up the service provider. He was happy that I had – because there was some confusion as to exactly where I was. Somehow – despite the dispatcher having our geographic coordinates and the fact that their "system has located you" – the tow guy figured I was somehow way north of reality. And that three-hour estimate? "No, we told them it might be four hours before we can get to you – I'm swamped at the shop and I'm having to call in backup."

After one hamburger, numerous french fries, and several hands of pinochle, the service guy arrived. I won't go into detail about how the spare tire rim froze up on the wheel, so that the poor guy had to remove the tire and remount it on a different rim, but I will tell you that the gentleman could tell me in years, months, and days how long it was until his retirement.

I'm happy we finally got away from that lonesome spot beside the highway. But it left me with a lot of questions. First, it seems there has to be a better way to "find" stranded motorists. This isn't the first time we've had to hand-hold road service dispatchers. Second, why is it that it took 21 phone calls to find a cooperative road service provider?

We decided to question Good Sam about the matter. It took several days to get the answers, but to his credit, Frank Stofa, Good Sam's Senior Program Coordinator for Roadside Assistance and TravelAssist, went the extra mile to dig up the "what happened," with our peculiar case. Since the outfit records all calls to the dispatch center, Stofa took the time to listen to those calls, review the notes from the dispatch center, and finally render a judgment.

Stofa describes the experience as "a first magnitude of service errors," that represent perhaps a quarter of one percent of all the calls that the organization handles. In our case, four dispatchers (instead of the typical one) handled my case. Among them there were poor communications and a failure to observe service rules. Net result: I got the dirty end of the stick. He was quick to point out this is NOT the way Good Sam typically handles service calls, where the goal is to see to it that a stranded member's problem is turned around in 30 to 90 minutes.

How does Good Sam's road assistance dispatch service operate? Your call is always handled domestically – never by an operator in, say, Bangladesh. Once your scene is located (having the precise geographic coordinates from your GPS system really helps), the dispatcher works a map system, laid out in concentric circles. Contracted providers in that first circle are called; if none can help, the next circle of contracted providers is called, and so on, until three concentric circles around your scene are worked. Still no providers? It's at that point that the organization starts calling "non-contracted" providers to bail you out. In our case, none of the contracted providers would come. Stofa was at a loss to explain why none of the first 20 providers would come change a tire. He pointed out that when bad weather or other situations tie up a lot of providers at once, you'll typically wait longer for service.

On behalf of the road service group, Frank Stofa seemed genuinely embarrassed by the poor performance on our call. To smooth the way, he offered to upgrade my basic membership to the "Platinum Plus" grade (instead of taking your rig to the nearest "capable and willing repair facility," you can choose any spot within 100 miles), and tossed in a free membership to the club's medical assistance program.

Oddly enough, during the days between our desert flat tire crisis and Frank's call summarizing his findings, we had another chance to test out the road service program. Near the infamous Donner Pass in California, another tire let go in a blaze of rubber. Yes, we had carefully checked inflation and trailer loading – the contrary thing just blew. This time, a local tow company was on scene and had us on our way in about two hours. Not quite the "30 to 90 minutes" goal, but close enough.

How about you? Has your road service company lived up to your expectations? Drop us a line, Russ at sign rvtravel.com.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

With gas prices up, how much can you save with after-market 'economy improvers'?

U.S. public domain image
If you recall that infamous scene from "Blazing Saddles," you know that there's a lot of gas floating around these days. Some of the hottest air in the marketplace is on equipment and additives "guaranteed to help you save at the gas pump." It's like "snake oil" for your car. How much will really save you money?

The answer is "not much." Be skeptical of the following kinds of advertising claims.

"This gas-saving product improves fuel economy by 20 percent." Claims usually tout savings ranging from 12 to 25 percent. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has evaluated or tested more than 100 alleged gas-saving devices and has not found any product that significantly improves gas mileage. In fact, some "gas-saving" products may damage a vehicle's engine or cause substantial increases in exhaust emissions.

"After installing your product on my car, I got an extra four miles per gallon." Many ads feature glowing testimonials by satisfied customers. Yet, few consumers have the ability or the equipment to test for precise changes in gas mileage after installing a gas-saving product. Many variables affect fuel consumption, including traffic, road and weather conditions and the car's condition. For example, one consumer sent a letter to a company praising its "gas-saving" product. At the time the product was installed, however, the consumer also had received a complete engine tune-up -- a fact not mentioned in the letter. The entire increase in gas mileage attributed to the "gas-saving" product may well have been the result of the tune-up alone. But from the ad, other consumers could not have known.

"This gas-saving device is approved by the Federal government." No government agency endorses gas-saving products for cars. The most that can be claimed in advertising is that the EPA has reached certain conclusions about possible gas savings by testing the product or by evaluating the manufacturer's own test data. If the seller claims that its product has been evaluated by the EPA, ask for a copy of the EPA report, or check www.epa.gov for information. In some instances, false claims of EPA testing or approval have been made.

Source: Contributed