When it comes to fixing travel problems, every happy ending isn’t necessarily a Hollywood ending. Consider the case of Samantha McCormick, a 23-year-old Hotwire customer whose car rental rate unexpectedly doubled.

McCormick turned to me to fix the problem, but now she’s at a crossroads and needs your help. I’ll get to the proposed resolution in a second. But first, a few words about compromises, and, of course, the details of her story.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, there are varying degrees of happy endings. A company will sometimes admit partial liability and offer to meet you halfway on compensation. These can be some of the hardest cases to wrap up, because no one likes a partial victory.

Often, travelers will walk away from a perfectly adequate settlement agreement on principle.

Is that what McCormick is about to do?

She recently booked a one-week car rental by calling Hotwire. An agent asked her to authorize a $170 charge for the rate.

I’m 23, and on the phone I asked if there would be an additional charge because I’m under 25. They said, “No, as long as you have someone over 25 vouch for you.” So I gave them the name of my father, who would be driving me to the rental center.

So far, so good.

But then McCormick checked in at Budget and was given some bad news:

I was told at the counter that I would be charged a fee each day for being under 25 and being the primary driver. The fee was over $20 more each day – almost doubling the $170 that Hotwire already charged me for the car rental itself.

I spoke with the manager and he said this happens all the time with Hotwire, they don’t inform customers of extra fees, they just want to seal the deal.

So because I wouldn’t pay the extra fees, I was refused the car rental. I immediately called Hotwire’s customer service to find out what the deal was. I was told by a rep that Hot Deal sales are final.

McCormick didn’t rent a car that day, but Hotwire (and Budget) kept her money. A credit card dispute was unsuccessful.

I contacted Hotwire on her behalf. Yesterday, I heard back from her. A Hotwire representative had called her with some good news. Sorta.

I was offered half of what I paid, and an explanation that they “do not feel at fault” but are giving half back as a (mediocre) courtesy.

[A representative] said she reviewed the tape of the original phone call sale. In response to the tape, she did say, “We feel that our representative should have anticipated that you were asking if you could add yourself as another driver.” This statement sounds as if they know the rep was misleading — however they still somehow don’t feel at fault.

When I asked to hear the tapes, she said I could. However, she has to play the tape for me over the phone – they will not let me have a copy.

I told her I was prepared to go to small claims court. At this point, I don’t want to accept half of what I paid, because that will just allow them to close this situation as resolved. As I see it, it is nowhere near resolved.

I agree with McCormick that this is not an ideal offer. But practically speaking, going to court could be costly and she may end up with nothing at the end of the process. Should she continue to fight Hotwire or accept this compromise?

What do you think?

Survey says: Keep fighting. By a pretty wide margin. (The poll was taken Tuesday morning, and more than 500 people responded.)

Update (11/20): Hotwire has responded to this post.

Prior to booking, Samantha called our customer service center to get more information. During that call, our agent was very clear that Hotwire doesn’t book reservations for customers under the age of 25. This is our policy and is in part related to the additional fees most rental car agencies charge for drivers under 25.

In order to help Samantha explore options to help get this deeply discounted rate for her travel, we also discussed the option of using another person as the driver, if there was one in her party that would meet the age requirements. Our agent was very clear that this person would need to be travelling with Samantha and would be the driver. Samantha agreed that was acceptable (using her father), and finalized the booking.

During the purchase, Samantha asked our agent if secondary drivers could be added at the time of rental. The answer to this question, is ‘yes’. Customers can add secondary drivers at the time of pickup. Unfortunately, Samantha arrived at the rental agency without her father, and wanted to add herself as a covered driver.

Never did our agent state that Samantha could add herself specifically as a driver while avoiding any fees, nor did our agent suggest that there were ways to help her circumvent the system with that goal.

We’ve listened to the actual call ourselves, and even offered to let Samantha hear it as well so that she would know that we were not providing misinformation. If we had made such an error, we would of course be willing to work with her on fair compensation. We always strive to provide the best customer service experience possible.

In this case, we offered to split the cost of Samantha’s rental with her. This was done as a courtesy in recognition of the fact that she did not use the rental. However, it’s also very important to note that at no time did we provide her with incorrect information, and in our follow-up conversation, our agent simply wished that we would have known her unspoken intent up front so that we could have helped her avoid this situation.

Samantha’s rental was available to her as promised, but she chose not to use it. Unfortunately, she also declined to accept our most recent offer as well. We were very sorry to hear that.

Hopefully this story can help educate your readers a little more on how the car rental industry works, which will help avoid similar situations in the future. Thanks again for the opportunity to share these details.

(Photo: Clon ny/Flickr Creative Commons)