mexico roadGordon Houston prepaid $97 for a rental car in Cancun through Hotwire — a rate that was supposed to include all required fees. But then his car rental company, Europcar, added a mandatory insurance charge to his bill, leaving him with a $268 bill.

Who pays?

In the short term, Houston shelled out the extra money. But then he checked with me to find out if Hotwire should have disclosed the mandatory insurance in Mexico.

Hotwire guarantees that its rates are all-inclusive:

Hotwire Hot Rates include all applicable tax-recovery charges and fees — there are no hidden charges. For regular-rate rentals, Hotwire calculates estimated charges based on the agency’s published rates, taxes and fees. All rentals include unlimited mileage unless otherwise noted.

The way I read this, a mandatory insurance charge should have been disclosed at the time of the rental, if not included in the price.

But that’s not what happened to Houston.

Before leaving for my trip, I verified that my credit card company covered all types of rental car insurance and that no additional insurance should be purchased.

Upon arrival in Cancun, the Europcar agent insisted that it was company policy that I take the extra insurance (otherwise he could not rent me the car). He even insisted that this would have been on the Hotwire agreement page.

Reluctantly, I accepted the insurance. Upon my arrival back home, I ended up being charged $268.29 for the rental car.

Oddly, I received another email from a Hotwire customer at about the same time.

For nearly a month now, I’ve been fighting to recover over $280 from Hertz or Hotwire in connection with a reservation for a Mexican
rental I made through Hotwire.

On Hotwire’s website, I reserved a Hertz car for a week in Mexico for an estimated $113.85 — a flat $90 for the rental of the car, and an estimated $23.85 in taxes and fees. I did not pay Hotwire at the time of the reservation and understood that I would pay Hertz directly when I rented the car.

At the Hertz desk in Mexico, I was presented with an entirely different set of charges. There, I heard for the first time about the mandatory Mexican liability insurance that you discussed in your October 11, 2008 post.

I did not have the option of declining the insurance, which amounted to approximately $110 for the week. But that wasn’t the only surprising charge. The price of the car had mysteriously risen to around $108, and I was assessed a “SERV.CHRG” of approximately $135. No one at Hertz or Hotwire has yet been able to tell me what that’s about. Together with two smaller fees (about $44), my total bill was for $397.41.

I asked Hotwire about both of these cases. Here’s what it told me:

If insurance is required by a supplier for a particular booking, Hotwire will provide that information up front during the purchase process. In this case, neither Europcar nor Hertz seem to require additional insurance for car rentals at these branch locations in Mexico.

It appears that the customers may have been “hard sold” by the branch representatives when they arrived to pick up their cars. In many cases, it can be a good idea for customers to get some form of additional coverage, but it shouldn’t be positioned as mandatory when it’s not.

Because this charge was coming from the supplier and was not required, this would normally need to be worked through the supplier and the customer directly. However, in some cases our customers can’t get a satisfactory resolution, at which point we will try to help as well. Both customers were contacted and compensated in the total amount of the cost of their insurance, and now both suppliers are aware of these specific cases so that they can work with their two branches to solve the problem for future car rentals.

That’s great. So insurance wasn’t mandatory, but someone at Hertz and Europcar told these customers it was, and refused to rent until they accepted the insurance.

You can almost understand why car rental companies are doing this on deep-discounted Hotwire rentals. They’re making almost nothing off these cheap rentals. Hard-selling insurance can turn an unprofitable rental into one that makes a little money (even if you have to tell a lie to do it).

Hotwire did the right thing by advocating for its customers in both these cases and securing a refund.

(Photo: Danny Playami/Flickr Creative Commons)