Case dismissed: My father died — please refund my rental car

Sometimes, even death isn’t a good enough reason for a refund.

Consider what happened to John Graham when his father died unexpectedly the day before he was scheduled to pick up a rental car he’d booked through Priceline. It’s true that Priceline’s rentals are non-refundable, but travel companies routinely make an exception when someone flashes a death certificate.

Not this time.

When Graham asked for a refund, Priceline turned him down. And there was no negotiating with it.

Here’s its cookie-cutter response to his request.

We understand that you would like to receive a refund for your rental car reservation in Phoenix.

Prior to submitting your request, you were asked to review and initial a contract. This contract contained the travel information you entered during the request process and outlined the terms of the offer, including the restriction that your reservation would not be canceled.

We really wish we could give you the resolution you’re looking for; however, your reservations are truly non-refundable. For your reference, a copy of your contract page has been sent in a separate e-mail.

We apologize for the inconvenience.

I wasn’t happy with that response, and neither was Graham. He responded,

I understand your policy. However, death is not something one can predetermine. Allowances are
made in most every circumstance for travel,that I have encountered, thus far for this particular reason.

I have used Priceline many times previously and feel this is a valid reason for a full refund.

Please advise me of your final determination, as this will surely impact on my future use of your services. Thank you for your kind understanding during this most difficult time.

Unfortunately, Priceline’s answer didn’t change. So I contacted the company on his behalf. Surely, there must be a misunderstanding.

“The rental car companies will allow for a cancellation and refund in the case of death in the family provided notification is given prior to rental pickup,” a representative told me. “In this case, notification was after the fact. Sorry.”

That’s a tough pill to swallow.

I looped back with Graham to find out what he thought of Priceline’s final answer.

I was unable to deal with my Ddad’s death and those details until a few days past the pick-up date.

I understand their policy, however some instances, such as this, where my dad died early Thursday morning are quite nearly impossible to
address in one’s state of mind at the time.

I know their policy but maybe they should adjust a bit of leeway — the death certificate has a date on it. Maybe allow at least two days?

I’m disappointed with Priceline’s response. I can understand why they’d say “no” from a business perspective — they’d probably be on the hook for the entire amount of the rental. But every rule has exceptions, and surely this is one of those times when they’d want to work with the car rental partner to either offer a full refund or credit for a future rental.

But pocketing Graham’s money? I don’t know, that seems a little harsh to me.

(Photo: Lis Abatty/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

More Posts - Website - Twitter - Google Plus

  • Carver

    My one experience with priceline was to book a flight from San Francisco to Las Vegas to meet some friends.  An hour, maybe 90 min direct flight.  On the return flight, Priceline put me on a 6am flight, routed me through Utah, cancelled the flight, put me on another flight (at least that one was direct), and didn’t notify me of the three hour time change.

    Not for me but hey, it works for many others.

  • Carver

    ” Inability to perform a contract can be a reason to void a contract.”

    Not by the non-performing party, unless your non-performance is legally excused.  Sometimes death is an excuse.  Depends on the type of contract

  • Bodega

    That is an silly statement.  They are running a business and the OP went for cheap pricing.  If you can’t afford to lose the money, don’t book NONREFUNDABLE travel.

  • Bodega

    He booked on a site that offers lower NONREFUNDABLE pricing.  He went into the contract knowing that.  Because insurance is available to protect against losing money due to death, he could have protected his prepaid rate.  He took a risk and lost.  The policy on the contact was very clear.  Everyone want cheap pricing their way. 

  • Bodega

    Exactly!  I was thinking the same thing in regards to tickets to events. 

  • Bodega

    From all the articles on Chris’ site about Priceline, I think I have to say people aren’t happy with the cons.  Nobody complains when things go the way they want them to go.

  • Marvin

    I voted “No,” Priceline should not have given a refund.  Here’s why and Graham did exactly the right thing by writing to this site:

    A deal is a deal.  Often things, both goods and services, are sold at a discount and the seller states that the sale is final, ie. no refund.  What it doesn’t say is, “no refund, unless there is a compelling, sad, unfortunate, unexpected, reason.”  No refund means no refund.

    The seller, in this case Priceline, has to live with the consequences of their lack of compassion.  Thousands of people are reading this story, and from the vote, the overwhelming majority thing Priceline did the wrong thing.  Many (and I include myself in this group) are less likely to use Priceline for any future travel services.  For very little money, Priceline could have turned this public relations problem into a positive thing for their company.  They might have sent a letter to Elliott and offered condolences and a credit to Mr. Graham.  All the readers would have had a positive feeling and Princeline would have more business.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Well…while I don’t disagree with the folks who take the position that “a deal is a deal” and the OP should just eat it…this was a particularly cold-hearted comment. “Buyer’s remorse”? The dude DIED! How can you equate buyer’s remorse with someone’s father dying?

    Wow. The comments on this blog have really taken a bizarre turn.

  • Suzie

    In what world are you living in?  “Inability to perform a contract can be a reason to void a contract.  Leave it up to a neutral 3rd party. ”

    I can just see Judge Judy yelling at the OP for wasting the courts time and saying “You cancelled days AFTER the reservation YOU IDIOT!!

  • sirwired

    “There is no place in the market for a company like Priceline”?

    They’ve been in business for more than a decade, so I am guessing there a a whole lot of people that would disagree with you.  It’s not as if there is a dearth of alternatives when you want to book travel.

  • Dave

    As much as it pains me to do so, I have to side with Priceline this time (assuming it was the OP’s reservation — this is admittedly a vague point, but that’s the way I read Priceline’s response, and I doubt he’d have known the details if it were his father’s reservation).

    If Mr. Graham’s father had died just a few hours before the trip, or while Mr. Graham was en route to Phoenix, then I’d say he had a point.   Although just the day before sounds like a short time, it really is plenty of time.  Certainly, canceling plans IS one of the first things that would pop into my mind.  If there is more than one other relative to notify, then perhaps one of the others should take on that task, anyway — it’s usually not the best idea for someone in as much grief as Mr. Graham to be making all those calls, anyway.

    I’m really not as heartless as this sounds, and my sympathies go out to Mr. Graham and the rest of his family.  It’s just one of those cases of the written word not being the best for expressing emotion.

  • sirwired

    How did you get a flight “$200 more than you wanted”?  I thought the whole point of priceline was that you named your price ahead of time.

  • Clare

    Funny you should mention that, because I was just thinking about my own situation while reading through these comments.  I have a MUCH smaller business and if someone were to cancel out on me, it might (depending on the gig) actually affect my ability to pay my own personal bills–yet if somebody DIED, I would be willing to eat the cost to me.  Doing otherwise might be legal, but it’s sick. 

  • Bodega

    Because he picked a price that had restrictions and now he wants those restrictions removed.  Maybe next time he will think twice before making a NONREFUNDABLE purchase. He could have booked a nonrefundable car price.  Buyer’s remorse is an appropriate term.

  • Eighmeagh

    I’m struck by how many people just accept that the “rule” about having to cancel before pickup quoted by the Priceline representative is accurate.  I found no such rule on Priceline’s site or any car rental site.  For car rentals, Priceline lists a bunch of terms and conditions, including the non-refundable non-changeable condition, but at the end says:

    “We may, on an exception basis and at the request of the customer, waive the restrictions identified above after the rental has been reserved.  We may, in our discretion, impose additional obligations and/or fees in connection with any such waiver.”

    So I don’t see any hard-and-fast Priceline “rule” that cancellations for a death or any other reason *must* be before pickup.  Priceline has discretion to do what it wants.  Here it decided not to refund.  Now of course the confirmation the OP received may have listed the so-called “we may refund in our discretion *if* you cancel before pickup” rule, but unless that’s the case, I think it’s a bit cold to say the OP knew that no exceptions could be made a couple days after the fact.

    Also note that the Priceline rep supposedly told Chris that “the *rental car companies* will allow for cancellation and refund” if notification is given prior to pickup.  I don’t believe for one second that the “rental car companies” in the global sense of the word have any such uniform policy, unless it’s a policy that all companies have that applies only to their contracts with Priceline, in which case Priceline should absolutely disclose it.  As others have noted, depending on the company, the cancellation policies vary.  Avis allows changes to a prepaid reservation apparently without penalty right up to the time of and including pickup, though a cancellation policy isn’t online.  Hertz has a $25/$50/full amount sliding cancellation penalty for its “prepaid” reservations.  According to Alamo’s site, the penalty for being a no-show on a prepaid reservation is only $10.

    I voted yes.  Was Priceline within its discretion to keep the OP’s money according to its contract? Sure.  But were they honest about why they were keeping it?  Doesn’t seem so.  Instead they just fed OP and Chris both the scripted response.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Sorry, but I cannot see how you can equate facing a sudden death in one’s immediate family with “buyer’s remorse.” That’s just cold.

    Look, as I said above, I don’t disagree with the idea that he should accept the consequences of having made a non-refundable purchase. My only point was that calling his situation “buyer’s remorse” is just going too far.

    It’s not remorse. It’s GRIEF. He’s dealing with grief from the DEATH OF A FAMILY MEMBER. One would hope that the people behind the faceless corporations would show a bit of humanity in this situation, but I recognize that legally they don’t have to. A deal is a deal. So, he’s out the money.

    But to say that what he’s feeling is buyer’s remorse is just cold-hearted. That’s all.

  • Djp

    I ran into this same thing when my mother Fiedler. I had made a rental through hotwire. I was initially planning on traveling there because she was I’ll…just unexpected it will kill her as quick as it did. I had to change my rental time. I redid it through hotwire and then sent them the death notice and they gave me a refund. Also at this time with me having to move my flight…the airline allowed me to change without attaching a fee.

  • SallyLu

    I totally agree Clare.  I couldn’t, with a clear conscience, keep a person’s money under these circumstances.  If his father had passed away a week earlier, and he neglected to cancel his reservations, then expect a refund, I might feel differently.  I’ve lost both parents and a sister, and I can tell you that on those days, I was not thinking of any plans I had previously made, or anything else other than the loss of my family member!

  • Tony A.

    I was surprised, too. Read the very long T&Cs in Priceline and here is what I saw:

    Name Your Own Price® Rental
    Car Service
    Additional Restrictions. In addition,
    the following restrictions will apply to rental car Requests made using
    our Name Your Own Price® service:

    If finds a rental
    car company willing to accept your Request, will immediately
    charge your method of payment the total cost of the rental transaction
    including applicable Taxes and Service Fees (see above); rental car reservations
    are non-changeable, non-endorsable, non-transferable and non-refundable;

    Package RestrictionsRental Car: Discounted
    rental car reservations associated with a Priceline Vacation Package
    are non-cancelable, non-transferable and non-changeable and no refunds
    are allowed.

    Maybe the OP did not use Priceline’s plain vanilla rental car service. If he opted to save up to 40% in the Name Your Price auction, then he may have waived his rights to “sympathy and empathy”. Cruel but cheap?

  • SallyLu

    Or maybe it was his father who was so important to him, that he didn’t think to cancel the reservation on the day he died!  I don’t know this guy’s financial situation, but maybe it is really just the point that Priceline would take such a hard stand against refunding to someone who lost his father on the day before he was suppose to pick up the car, and who actually had the nerve to put grief and his families needs before the need to cancel a car reservation!

  • MichelleLV

    Thanks for being tactful in your response..I was really expecting some backlash.  As I was reading the story I was hoping Chris would have influenced them to return the money as a good gesture but I see why they didn’t.  I really think they would have returned it if he had asked before pick up date but I understand that was the last thing on his mind.  I know they have made exceptions before.  I guess because I see awful things happen in times when people don’t expect it several times a month (work in ICU in a hospital in tourist driven Las Vegas) that I understand why companies just can’t take a loss with every tragedy becuase these incidences really do happen a lot.  

    Also caution to my fellow travelers-   I have never bought travel insurance so I am NOT their advocate, but one thing I do want to mention-   If you are on vacation and become critically ill- the majority of medical insurance plans will NOT pay for you to return home.   Air ambulances cost 10-20K and families do have to pay out of pocket if they want the family member transferred back home for continued hospital care or rehab care.  It pains me that I have to tell families this all the time.  Please have a back up plan for the worse.   

  • MichelleLV

    I agree.   You just have to go with a company that meets your needs.   I would never book a big vacation with Priceline, need some flexibility, or to be guaranteed a certain room type.    I use Priceline no more than a week out and most of the time only 2-3 days out.   Sometimes I use them the day of.   Some people just aren’t comfortable with that so Priceline should not be for them.   I just love the money I save so I am agreeable with the service they offer. Until I can call Marriott or Embassy the day of and get 60% off their current room rate with the promise that I won’t cancel, Priceline is it.  

  • MichelleLV

    But it isn’t rare.   BELIEVE ME.  Please read my other posts.   Tragedy when least expected is very common and a company shouldn’t have to insure itself like that.   The terms are clearly posted-You save money but there is a risk.  I don’t want Priceline to raise their fees because some people feel they should always get an exception.  

  • MichelleLV

    i guess Gerry thinks everyone should be and think like him.    I am a fan of having many options when it comes to my personal business.   The demand is there and I wish I had invested in Priceline 10 years ago when I first started using them. 

  • MichelleLV

    From reading the post it appears they do not know how to use Priceline.   You have to know what to bid, and then to know when to walk away.  Not all services Priceline offers are money savers for the risk.  

  • Bodega

    That all sounds good in principal but when you buy something knowing it is NONREFUNDABLE you have to accept your purchase regardless of the circumstances of you not completing the contract.  If you bought tickets to a baseball game to to a play you are not getting your money back either.  Those are always nonrefundable.

    I am not cold hearted, as I have helped many in similar positions and would never recommend a nonrefundable rental car prepaid reservation.  The savings are not worth it if something comes up.  Look at how many come to Chris for similar type of refund requests that are booked on these type of websites.  Companies are offering discounts, for a price and if you make the purchase, take responsibility for your actions when you have to cancel regardless of the reason.   

  • Bodega

    Very easy to see it as that is exactly what he has now.  He went for a low price and now has to eat it.  If you can’t risk it, don’t book it.

  • Bodega

    Exactly.  People also don’t realize how expense it is to bring a body home either.  Travel insurance has coverage for this, too.

  • Ann919

    debate here. Priceline gets paid to say no, even when we all know allowances
    are made. Identify the rental company and press them for the refund. Do not let
    the underlying rental company hide behind Priceline. Make the rental company
    take the public scrutiny

  • Kevkev

    I feel sorry for him but I can’t blame priceline. I think the biggest mistake is to inform the rental car and priceline few days after pick up date. No matter what, he should report before that date. It sounds irresponsible that he didn’t show up and then asked for refund. He has to think about the rental car; how about if that company gave the car to someone else then he showed up and no car was available for him. For sure, he will file complain and ask for compensation.

  • Kevkev

    You have to think that this guy didn’t show up and didn’t request the cancellation prior the pick up date. In addition, he booked non refundable car rental. Yes, he couldn’t use the product but at least he had to let them know right before pick up date. Not after few days later. If the situation was the opposite, for example, his reserved car was given to someone else then he suddenly showed up, do you think he would accept that situation? He will file complain and ask for compensation.

  • Carver

    And under normal circumstances I would agree with you.  However, regardless of terminology, there is no such thing as truly non-refundable.  For example, if the other side failed to perform, you would be entitled to a refund, regardless of the terms of the contract.  If the contract required personal performance by the deceased (technically a non-delegable duty) the contract would be void and the estate would be entitled to a full refund.

    My point is that non-refundable is not the 100% unassailable wall that the contract drafters would like us to believe it is.

  • Carver

    My problem with your analysis is that it is quite likely that the OP was prepared to  accept the risk of booking a non-refundable rate, thinking to himself, “What is the likelihood that I’ll want to cancel.”  Of all the possible outcomes, I’m sure that the death of his father was not one of the possibilities that he considered.

    Now, if his father was ill and at death’s door, perhaps a nonrefundable purchase might make little sense.

  • Carver Clark Farrow II


  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    Good point.  I would say that that Priceline should offer some sort of compensation.

  • Crissy

    I know that when someone dies the first thing I think of is canceling that persons travel plans! I was being sarcastic incase anyone missed that.

    That’s simply terrible and in poor taste on the part of Priceline and yet another reason to stay away from them!

    I do wonder though who paid, and how for the rental car.  if it was on the father’s credit card and hadn’t been paid yet it might just go away with his fathers death.

  • cjr001

    Well, then I guess when your father dies, the first thing you’ll do is cancel that car rental you have booked the next day. If you truly believe that, then you’re deluding yourself.

  • Steve R

    I reluctantly agree that Priceline is fully within their rights to deny the refund, even though many people would argue that common decency calls for an exception in this case. However, the part of this that really makes my blood boil is this: “We really wish we could give you the resolution you’re looking for”. No you don’t, Priceline, or you would do it! I hate, hate, hate it when companies hide behind spineless, insincere apologies like this. Nothing is preventing Priceline from giving him a refund except their own decision. That’s fine, but the least they could do is have the guts to say “we’re sticking to our policy and we stand behind it” instead of pretending that they want to help, but are somehow prohibited from doing so.

    I hate this even more than when a company makes some change that is indisputably worse for the customer (raising prices, cutting hours, etc) and prefaces the explanation with “to better serve you.” It’s bad enough that you’re making a change that negatively impacts me–don’t insult my intelligence, too.

  • Geoff

    A fool and his money are soon parted. This seems to be the case. Pre-paying a car  ( much like the article and are cheap airlines cheap?) seems to me to be the biggest waste of $$$ in the travel industry. Now if it is and air, hotel, car package; a whole different story because you would have purchased INSURANCE! I have rarly seen a difference between a car rental with no deposit at all and a pre-paid car rental. I have even advised the customers to use the confirmed rate at other counters to get a better rate. That works well, they paid a service fee for my knowledge, they get ideas. I bet that on-line gave no idea.

  • Bodega

    Good point Carver about the father’s health when the reservation was made. 

  • Michael K

    You’re right: I have personally had Priceline opaque hotel reservations that could not be honored (because of overbooking).  If you know your rights and are persistent, they will make sure you get a room elsewhere and refund the first night.  It still may not feel like enough after the length of time you spend on the phone with them….

  • Las Vegas Golf Resorts

    As a business owner, I would rather have that person back as a customer than risk losing him for life. At least offer him a rain check! Give him a credit or a partial credit! Instead, Priceline chose to be the rigid. Now 81% of 91 people on this website disagree with their inflexibility and will likely never use them in the future. That is just plain STUPID!!!

  • Chris Z

    It’s appalling that a corporate giant should expect that the first thing you do after an unexpected death is put off funeral arrangements and grieving with your family so that you can call Priceline to save them a couple of hundred bucks.  Do you seriously think that that car couldn’t have been rented to somebody else?

    And if I read one mor of those canned “I’m sorry for your inconvenience” statement I will pitch my laptop over a cliff.  They are in no way sorry.  Not one bit.

  • Steven

    OK,  o refund but how about credit toward a future rental?  But, then, this is why I NEVER use these types of web sites.  You are at their mercy and to save a few $$$ isn’t worth the hassle. 

    My sympathies on the death of his father.   

  • Shukhrat

    Now, there is a story when I bought a non-refundable one way ticket for my friend to Europe on Air India via Expedia on Sunday and next morning his mother passed away so he couldn’t go there. I contacted Expedia to ask them if they can still refund it, their response was No ‘coz it is Non-Refundable ticket, then I contacted Air India’s office in India – they don’t have customer service here and on they assured me that in case of death they’ll refund a 100%, I hang up, called 2nd time and again was assured about their policy in case of death in a family by different person, then I contacted Expedia and asked them to contact Air India and confirm that they WILL REFUND in case of family member death, Expedia called them up and confirmed it. I had to wait for 1 month before Death Certificate is issued and mailed to me – that’s how long it takes in NYC and submitted the refund claim in Expedia as we agreed (they knew that it takes 1 once and had a case number opened for me), it took another month to get an answer from Air India’s claim department here in Newark, NJ that they denied my claim to my surprise despite their main office in India, I asked for their phone number and called to Newark office, nice lady explained to me that NON-REFUNDABLE means NON-REFUNDABLE, I agreed but then told her my what their office in India told me, she said that they were wrong 3 times (me contacting them twice and Expedia = so total 3 times), the only thing that could be waived is some fees associated with purchase of the ticket. So, the story is over – ticket was not refunded and I lost money on doing good deed.

  • Phraedus

    I second Carver.

    “A business does not have to provide refunds as long as the policy is
    stated.” is not legally true, as Carver has mentioned. There is no such thing
    as being legally nonrefundable.

    “most rental companies don’t charge you for not picking up a car on most
    of their car rentals” is also untrue. All companies have disclaimers so
    they’ve got the ability to say no (if legal). However, it strikes me
    that other companies might make a reasonable decision.

  • Phraedus

    KevKev, I agree with you that it would be better to cancel in advance.

    However, this might not always be possible. Eg. If I was to get hit by a car and go into a coma for three days. I imagine everyone would agree if this was the case.

    I know he wasn’t in a coma, however, I would imagine he wasn’t in the best frame of mind.

    KevKev: airlines regularly overbook flights, and sell tickets that don’t exist.

    Linda: The problem with ticket events analogy is that if you read the fine print, it states that if the even is cancelled for any reason whatsoever by the organisers, then they wont refund your money.

    And remember: the company might not have actually lost money. It’s possible that nobody would have hired the car, and it could have sat in the parking yard for a week. In this case, it’s a lack of being able to make money, even though he cancelled.

  • joquiroz

    I would believe Priceline would have some pull with the rental company in order to get the money back…that would have bought a customer for life!

  • Honna3030

    Nope even If you tell them before pickup they won’t refund. I am trying to do this right now