Tourists are being warned to beware of illegal car parks being operated near Gatwick Airport, which are leaving their cars vulnerable to damage and theft. The warning comes after police found a muddy field near Gatwick had been filled with over a thousand cars.
Not only did the state of the field mean the cars were at risk of other vehicles sliding into them, but they had been left open to theft. Some cars had their keys taped to the windscreen, while hundreds of others were found in the boot on an unlocked car.
Sergeant Darren Taylor said: "I was disgusted but not overly surprised by the condition of the cars, because this appears to be an ongoing issue in the area. Some of the cars were stuck in thick mud and were unable to be towed away; let alone driven away.
"But one of the most worrying things we found was an insecure vehicle with the keys to hundreds of others left in full view in the boot. We were on site for about 45 minutes and not a single person was present to challenge us during that time. There was nothing stopping us from accessing the field and no CCTV cameras anywhere in sight, which is a real concern."
Sussex Police, Horsham District Council and West Sussex Trading Standards are investigating five companies that they suspect of operating illegally at the site.
How can you spot them?
The firms in question are thought to advertise secure, reliable and cheap parking near the airport. Tourists do not see the site until they arrive, and even then have no idea how insecure their car is.
The police say the only way to protect yourself is to only book with a parking company approved by the airport. Sergeant Taylor says: "Clearly, what is being advertised by these companies and what is actually happening are two completely different things, and we'd like to make people aware of this. The simplest advice we can give is to look on the Gatwick Airport website for approved parking operators, and not opt for a company just because it is the cheapest. The chances are, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is."
Cut the cost
Clearly these operators have been able to flourish, because approved companies are so expensive, and people are hunting for an affordable alternative.
Fortunately, there are five sensible ways to do this that will not leave you vulnerable to rogue traders.
1) Book in advance. If you book well in advance you could save up to a third off your parking costs at some airports. Even if you book just before you leave the house it will be cheaper than simply showing up on the day.
2) Check your loyalty schemes. Tesco Clubcard, for example, will let you use points to book parking - and you'll get twice the value of your points - that's half price parking.
3) Consider a hotel package. A number of airport hotels offer parking for the length of your trip when you stay overnight at the hotel. This is often costs the same - or even less - than parking alone, and has the added benefit of allowing you to book a cheaper ticket at a more antisocial time of day - and still be sure of being able to get to the airport in time.
4) Go further away. Typically, the more shuttle transfer time you are prepared to put up with, the cheaper the deal is likely to be. If you are prepared to go a couple of stops on the bus, train, or tube, you could find parking for the fraction of the price - or even a space on the street.
5) Shop around. There are a number of comparison sites, including Holiday Extras, and Looking4Parking. They will track down the cheapest parking near your airport. If you have time, it's also worth visiting each of the approved operators to see if there are any special offers on their sites. You can easily save up to 30% this way.