“Do you want it or not?”

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That’s the question Michael Sand was faced with, as he and his family of seven arrived at the Dollar Rental Car counter at the Milwaukee airport.

And sometimes it’s not what you say, but how you say it, so allow me to put this into context.

Sand had reserved a Dodge Grand Caravan for eight days over the Christmas holiday. He prepaid almost $700 because he needed a large, family-friendly vehicle to accommodate both people and luggage.

But what happened next has become an all-too-common complaint amongst Dollar customers.

“We were told the only vehicle available was a Ford Transit Connect,” Sand writes. “I advised the agent the Ford was too small for the seven of us and our luggage.”

The agent then added insult to injury. She began arguing with Sand that the two vehicles were the same. As Sand tells it, the agent was “incredibly rude.”

Incredibly rude? It doesn’t take much to convince me that a front line customer service agent may have been a tad abrasive under the circumstances.

Because here’s the reality: the Ford Transit Connect was the last vehicle in Dollar’s inventory.

Here we have a low-paid agent, working on Christmas Day, accommodating unhappy customers who themselves have been traveling all day, and in the end, having to be the fall guy for the company’s inventory problem.

Sand stood his ground. The Ford Transit Connect is not comparable to a Dodge Grand Caravan. It is not roomy. It is not comfortable. In fact, Ford quite accurately categorizes it as a commercial vehicle, which is usually outfitted for delivery services and other utilitarian purposes.

And faced with Sand, his wife, his five children, the Ford Transit Connect, and probably Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” playing in the background, she blurted out exactly what had been bottled up inside: “Do you want it or not?”

And faced with his exhausted family, the late hour and this unfortunate reality, Sand accepted the vehicle.

But that didn’t mean he was going to be happy about it. He called Dollar the next day to lodge a complaint. Dollar said the complaint would be escalated, and that he could exchange the vehicle at another location. But, as Sand aptly notes, “There are no other Dollar agencies in the state of Wisconsin.”

Sand was stuck. Or rather, smooshed. The Ford Transit Connect is significantly smaller than the Dodge, by 13 inches in length, 7 inches in width, and roughly 50 cubic feet of cargo space.

When you’re a solo business traveler, it might hurt your ego to drive around in such a vehicle. But when you’re carting around your own miniature basketball team, their gear and a partridge in a pear tree, every inch counts.

Sand says his grievance went beyond mere discomfort. “Using such a vehicle created not only a seriously unsafe condition, it was also a hardship,” he tells us. “With literally 30% less cargo room than a standard minivan, this vehicle was not able to carry more than four pieces of luggage in a standard manner; consequently, such variance would be considered a breach of contract.”

Sand says he can send us pictures, but I’m already uncomfortable just thinking about it. As for the breach of contract argument, he might be onto something. Unfortunately, when you rent a car, you become a party to an adhesion contract, which is non-negotiable. That’s something you can’t get around. And one of the terms of that rental contract is a clause in teeny, tiny print, explaining that customers cannot sue the rental company for conflicts arising out of the contract. The customer’s only recourse is mandatory arbitration.

And for anyone who thinks that mandatory arbitration is a pro-business policy, you’re right. Arbitration costs money — and a lot of it. In the vast majority of cases, the value of any claim arising out of a rental car contract is far exceeded by the costs of arbitration. Rental car companies have corporate attorneys and outside counsel on retainer 365 days a year. For them, it’s the cost of doing business. For consumers trying to recover a few hundred dollars, it’s the end of the road.

If you thought Dollar cared about Sand’s complaint, you’d be wrong. Nobody called him back. Until, of course, our advocacy team got involved. Dollar offered him a 20 percent refund on the rental and $150 in vouchers for future rentals.

I’m sure he can’t wait to be a return customer.

Should Dollar have given Sand a full refund?

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Jessica Monsell

A writer and natural advocate, Jessica joined our consumer advocacy effort following a decade of work on behalf of air crash victims at one of the nation's largest plaintiffs' law firms. She has lived in Europe and Asia, but now calls Charleston, S.C. home.

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  • Altosk

    Full refund, no.
    Partial refund or discount on next rental, yes.

    He could’ve walked away. Sure, it would’ve been inconvenient to find another car from another rental agency or call a cab or use Uber or something, but in the end, he made the choice to accept the vehicle.

  • MarkKelling

    He accepted the vehicle and drove it. Therefore he owes something to the rental company for the use of the vehicle. He could have looked at the other rental companies to see what they had available before accepting this one. While I am not that familiar with the Milwaukee airport, I’m sure even at Christmas there would have been options. Maybe not as affordable as the original reservation, but there would have been someone who could rent him what he needed. The 20% refund is a good start. I would be happy with 50% since the vehicle was not the same class of intended use as what he reserved.

    There have been many times I was given a vehicle different than what I reserved and wanted at several different rental companies. For a while when gas prices were at their highest Hertz was giving me full size mini vans and other not so gas efficient vehicles when I reserved a compact fuel efficient vehicle. Usually I go ahead and accept what they provide because it will do what I need and finding someone to talk to quickly who can give me something else just takes to much time.

  • Pat VanHooser

    He prepaid for a mini van. Once they took his money…

  • Tom McShane

    This company screwed the customer. I would not want a voucher to use the company again. The next van they rent him could be full of emotional support snakes.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Christmas Day? He is not finding another car at all.

  • NotThatBrooklynGuy

    Agreed. If he had *not* prepaid there was no assurance he would ever show up and the rental agency could be stuck with an unrented card. Since he pre-paid they had no risk in holding the requested car.

  • Another day, another Dollar horror story. This one is typical.

  • MF

    Although I have never heard of it done in the car rental business, perhaps he should have been ‘walked’, like hotels do when they have no availability? He prepaid & fulfilled his end of the deal, Dollar, not so much…

  • AAGK

    If it was actually unsafe, he shouldn’t have put the family in it.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    He’d already paid them.

  • Randy Culpepper

    He was able to rent a Dodge Caravan specifically? I’ve always been able to rent by class, but never by specific model.

  • KanExplore

    This was prepaid, so the company had no business renting it out to someone else. It could be of course, that the previous renter failed to return it on time, and that’s why it wasn’t available. We don’t know. I would say a 50% refund would be more like it. Failing a satisfactory refund, I would challenge the charge with my credit card company on the basis I purchased a product which was not delivered.

  • 42NYC

    You rented the car, used it for your agreed time and returned it. You do not get a full refund. Should dollar offer $100 or 25% off a future rental, sure that would be a nice gesture.

    Here’s the thing with rental cars……you dont need a credit card to reserve one, meaning you can cancel at the last minute or be a no show at no penalty. Thus, its a lot tougher for rental agencies to guarantee the right car for the right person at all times. In order to guarantee this they’d need to hold your credit card and deny changes/cancellations within a certain period of time. They’d have to charge the full amount if you didnt show up and would have to hit you with a MAJOR penalty for keeping the car longer than the allocated time.

    Rental agencies have very flexible booking, the downside to this means that someone renting a specialized car for a long period of time over the Holiday season may have problems. I’d prefer this flexibility vs having to pay a change fee every time my plans changed.

    Then again, i’m usually by myself and renting a Chevy Malibu or something equally generic so it’s not hard to accomodate me if the Malibu isnt available. They usually try to sell me a bigger car, then give it to me for free when i turn down the upsale.

    **EDITED** I do see that he prepaid and that should get him a little more reliability from the rental car agency. That said, not every rental is pre-paid (i know i’m usually offered a 10-20% savings to prepay which I dont usually take since plans can change) so who knows if the Dodge Caravan just hadn’t been returned yet? Maybe it was in an accident? Or maybe Dollar just couldnt care less about having the right car available.

  • jim6555

    It’s probably too late to challenge the charge with the credit card issuer. There is almost always a 60 day limit on challenges.

  • Don Spilky

    I’ve never seen the ability to rent a specific make/model of vehicle, only a specific class. Unfortunately, if Dollar classifies the Ford Transit Connect in the same class as the Dodge Grand Caravan then the OP is SOL, and Dollar has provided exactly what it said it would provide.

  • DepartureLevel

    For crying out loud, why is is so hard for these companies to just do a 1 in 10,000 refund as a gesture of goodwill ?? Are they really messing up tens of thousands of people on a day to day basis ?

  • cscasi

    Did the company promise him a Dodge Caravan or just that class vehicle?

  • Lindabator

    I wonder if it was pre-paid or just a deposit? Some companies require it for Holidays

  • Lindabator

    might have said Dodge Caravan or SIMILAR – they just never assume similar is what they will get.

  • Lindabator

    usually list as Dodge Caravan or similar –

  • cscasi

    I looked at Dollar at Milwaukee Airport and here is the information on what one sees when renting a mini van:
    Mid-size Van – Details Nissan Quest
    (or similar)
    7 persons 5 bags 0 KPL

    There is NO guarantee one would get a particular make and model – One reserves a Mid-size Van. It shows “Details – Nissan Quest” but it also has (or similar). It also does show the capacity as 7 PAX and 5 bags.
    My question is the Ford Transit Van in that category? If so, then he got what he reserved. He does not get to reserve a make and model; just the class. Now, if the Ford Transit Van is not made to seat 7, then he has a case.

  • cscasi

    I looked at Dollar at Milwaukee Airport and here is the information on what one sees when renting a mini van:
    Mid-size Van – Details Nissan Quest
    (or similar)
    7 persons 5 bags 0 KPL

  • cscasi

    I agree – or similar.

  • Gary K

    For regular rentals, you are correct, there is no guarantee of a specific make/model — the only exception I can think of may be the “super-premium” cars where you’re paying a ton of money. Dollar is pretty explicit in their FAQs/Car Rental Policies:

    “Can I reserve a specific make, model, or color of vehicle?

    No. We are unable to guarantee a specific make, model, or color of vehicle; however, we do guarantee that the class (size) of rental car reserved will be available at the rental car location.”

    That said, looking at Dollar’s website the only relevant class seems to be “Minivan/Van”, Nissan Quest or similar, 7 passengers/5 pieces of luggage. So unless Dollar had multiple van classes when the OP made the reservation and downsized him, SOL indeed.

    I have no sympathy for the car rental agency, but this seems like it may be another lesson about doing as much due diligence as possible when you have non-standard requirements (and before plunking down nearly a G).

  • Nathan Witt

    A Ford Transit Connect (which is what the renter said he was provided) shouldn’t be confused with the Ford Transit, which is a full-size van. The “Connect” can be optioned with 7 seats, but doing so leaves you with about a foot of space between the back of the 3rd-row seats and the tailgate. So you can have 7 persons, OR you can have 5 bags, but you can’t have both. Anything you’d think of as a minivan (Caravan, Quest, Sienna, Odyssey, etc.) is considerably larger in all dimensions. I can tell you that if I reserved a minivan on the basis of 7 persons and 5 bags, I would definitely not be satisfied with a Transit Connect. Do a google image search of “Ford Transit Connect 7 passenger” and see if you agree.

  • Nathan Witt

    I understand what you’re saying, but just because the rental company says two cars are in the same class, it doesn’t mean that they are. If you rented a “Ford Mustang or Similar” and were given a Volkswagen Beetle, even though they both have two doors, I’d take issue with the argument that they’re “Similar” or that they belong in the same class. This is even more true when the capacities listed for a given class are not met by the vehicle provided (I really don’t think a Transit Connect will accommodate 7 passengers and 5 bags, unless all the bags are duffel bags and some of the passengers are small children).

  • I agree with NotThatBrooklynGuy – on Christmas Day nothing is available! Going next door to another agency wouldn’t have helped. They would have been out of cars too. If I had pre-paid I would expect exactly what I had already paid for. If they didn’t have it I would expect the rental company to find one for me.

  • Don Spilky

    While your point makes perfect sense, the reality is that just because the rental company says two cars are in the same class, it means for that company – Yes they are in the same class regardless of anything else. Best bet would be to find out exactly which vehicles are classed together and then make your decision with the understanding you may get ANY of the cars in that class depending on what they may have at the moment you arrive to rent.

  • judyserienagy

    It was Christmas Day. It was PREPAID. A taxi would have been useless. He deserves a voucher for a BIG discount on a future rental.

  • judyserienagy

    Very tough situation. Don’t prepay rental vehicles. Don’t prepay hotels. He deserves a big voucher.

  • Éamon deValera

    I’ve read the general policies at Dollar’s website, as well as the local policies for Milwaukee. I don’t see anything about mandatory arbitration.

    Again contracts of adhesion can be negotiated. The easiest negotiation is to not accept it. We enter into contracts of adhesion every day, you’ve probably entered into four or five without knowing it. Dry cleaners, parking garage, movie theater, any number of common daily transactions involve contracts of adhesion.

    I don’t know why there is such disdain for that type of contract. Do you expect a merchant to keep a lawyer at the counter to draft a new contract each time a customer approaches?

    The idea of teeny-tiny print is absurd. It is illegal to put portions of a contract in type smaller than the majority of the contract. Just because most people don’t take the time to read contracts with which they are presented doesn’t excuse them from knowing what they say and using teeny-tiny print as an excuse is a cop out.

    I’d sooner walk than rent a car from Dollar or Hertz.