Why isn’t anyone mad about car rental fee disclosure?

When it comes to airline fees, there’s no shortage of outrage. The simple mention of the word “ancillary” or “surcharge” in a story is enough to draw hundreds of comments.

But turn your attention to another part of the travel industry, like car rental companies, and you hear the sound of crickets.

Valanie Bradley would like to know why that’s happening. She recently tried to book a car through Thrifty in Orlando for a day, because it offered a reasonable rate of $52.

And then she was shown this screen:

Rental Time Charge – $52.00
Customer Facility Charge – ($2.50 per day) $2.50
CONCESSION FEE REC – (10%) $7.46
Energy Recovery Fee – ($0.45 per day) $0.45
FLORIDA SURCHARGE – ($2.02 per day) $2.02
STATE TAX – (6.5%) $5.63
VEHICLE LICENSE FEE – ($0.59 per day) $0.59
Drop off fee – $21.60
Total Estimated Mandatory Charges – (USD) $92.25
Estimated Grand Total – (USD) $92.25

“Needless to say, I walked away from this one before hitting the final ‘book it’ button,” she says. “I think car rental fees may be even more devious than airline fees.”

I’m not going to rehash what I’ve already written about car rental fees, but suffice it to say that some of them are unavoidable (taxes) some are avoidable (the drop-off fee) and the rest are ridiculous (energy recovery fee – might as well call that a money grab fee!).

Where’s the outrage?

To find out, I tried to recreate her booking on Thrifty. On the home page, I requested a rental in Orlando, and it took me to a second page where I selected the vehicle type. It quoted a low “base” rate, minus fees.

On page two, Thrifty tried to persuade me to upgrade to a navigation system, add a car seat for my child, or to buy optional insurance. The rate remained the same.

It wasn’t until the next page that Thrifty disclosed the real price of the rental. Instead of $78 per day for a Chevrolet Aveo (which, by the way, is a terrible rate) I would have to shell out $97.

That seems like a little bit of a bait and switch to me. Why not disclose all mandatory fees up front? For the record, this isn’t just a Thrifty practice. Practically all the car rental companies do it this way.

The answer lies in the definition of “mandatory” — and in the level of disclosure.

Airlines offer roughly the same level of disclosure as car rental companies, when it comes to mandatory fees. By the way, that’s expected to change in January, when new federal laws take effect that would force carriers to quote a fare that includes taxes and mandatory fees.

But there’s that word again: “mandatory.” Many air travelers don’t consider the first checked bag or a seat reservation to be an optional purchase. Many airlines do. So when they price an airline ticket, passengers need a calculator and crack search skills to figure out the true cost of their trip.

The resulting confusion is immensely profitable to airlines. So much so that if you removed baggage fees, you would plunge the entire industry – with the possible exception of JetBlue and Southwest – into the red.

It is this alleged profit by deception that has air travelers worked up in a frenzy, and why car rental companies have had an easy ride.

It’s selective indignation, to be sure. But it’s understandable.

There’s no reason why airlines, hotels, car rental companies and cruise lines shouldn’t quote an “all-in” price for their products. If there are any optional fees, customers should be able to add those before they check out, in an ideal world.

“Base” rates are just theoretical numbers that no one ever pays, and therefore, no one should ever see.

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.

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