The rate error story that got away — in a big way


Pavel IgnatovShutterstock
Pavel IgnatovShutterstock
Anyone who reads this site probably knows my position on rate errors, which is to say I think it’s wrong to take advantage of someone else’s mistake, even if it’s made by a big travel company.

So you can imagine how dismayed I was when I got a call from Howard Steinberg, who owns several Budget car rental franchises in the United States. Not only had one of his customers exploited a rate error, he says, but I had helped the traveler do it.

How’s that?

Well, to get up to speed on this story, here’s the Q&A column that started it all. It involved a reader named Brandon Chase who had received a mysterious phone call from Budget’s auditing department, notifying him of a billing error. Budget re-charged his credit card $85, apparently not giving him a discount it had promised.

I scolded Budget in the column for going back on its word. But it turns out I didn’t have the whole story. Even though I had contacted Budget, its only response was to offer the customer a refund. Otherwise, it had nothing to say. (I’ll have more on Budget’s silence and the meaning of it in a moment.)

The rest of the story

Steinberg called to fill in the gaps. As it turns out, Chase hadn’t negotiated any discount with the Budget Kansas City location when he rented his car, he told me.

“When Mr. Chase returned the vehicle, our rental agent erroneously entered the returning mileage of 8,727 into the discount field on the return rental agreement,” Steinberg says. “This error by our rental agent generated a total credit to Mr. Chase of $104.69 — $87.27 of time and mileage charges, $9.69 in airport concession fee, and $7.73 in sales tax. Mr. Chase was not entitled to this credit and he only received the credit because of our counter agent’s error.”

During a routine audit, the Kansas City location caught the mistake.

“Our staff in Kansas City contacted Mr. Chase and informed him that we had found the error and we were going to be charging him an additional $104.69 for this rental,” says Steinberg.

But that didn’t sit well with Chase, as we already know.

Mr. Chase contacted our Kansas City operation several times in February and March to complain about this charge.

On March 6th he contacted Budget Customer Service. On March 14th a letter was sent to Mr. Chase by Budget Customer Service. This letter reiterated what he had been told by our staff in Kansas City.

Even though it was quite evident to us that this was a discount that Mr. Chase was not entitled to, on March 15, 2012, we authorized a credit to Mr. Chase for $104.69.

In other words, that refund was the result of the back-and-forth between Budget corporate, the franchise, and the customer, and had nothing to do with me.

In our phone call, Steinberg made it clear that Chase knew he wasn’t entitled to the discount, but that he wanted it anyway. After all, a deal’s a deal.

Case dismissed?

I’m unhappy that Chase didn’t tell me the full story. The fact that he knew he wasn’t entitled to the discount, and that it was the result of an agent error (a “fat finger” rate) probably would have changed my coverage of this dispute.

I’m also unhappy with the way in which Budget corporate handled my mediation request. Because of the volume of cases I handle, I can’t follow up on each one and ask if there’s “anything else” a company wants to say once it’s fixed a problem. If they want to talk about a particular case they know where to find me, and they also know that my request for help puts them on notice that I may write something about the problem.

In Chase’s case, the real issue was the apparent breakdown in communication between the franchisee and Budget corporate. Even after the Q&A story appeared, the corporate PR department advised Steinberg to remain silent, because it would just bring more attention to this case.

I’m glad Steinberg ignored Budget’s advice. His side of the story does indeed change the dynamic of this case, and I am sorry I wasn’t able to tell it to begin with.

Should Brandon Chase pay Budget back?

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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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  • Marcin Jeske

    Rates can adjust depending on exactly when you take and return the car (whether that kicks you from daily to weekly rates, or kicks in a promotion that would not apply to your reserved times).

    I have seen rates on the contract be higher than my reservation if I pick my car up a few hours early… but as long as I return the car a few hours early, it jumps back down to my reserved rate. Some rental agencies, strangely, have discount codes that do not get reflected in the total until you return the car. A pick-up and return even a few hours off the reserved time could kick it into weekend rates or qualify for a promotion that was attached to your reservation or frequent renter account but hadn’t been valid based on your reserved times.

    That being said… I usually glance at my receipt after dropping off the car and make sure the total is roughly what I expect. If it is off by a little, I chalk that up to the vagaries of taxes and fees…

    If much higher, I try to figure out why and take it up to counter. I have seen pickup times in the contract being mistakenly entered 12 or 24 hours earlier, I have seen the wrong car class, and missing promised discounts.

    If much lower, I also try to understand… usually is the discount field… honestly, even at the 25% discount the OP had… I would have figured some code kicked in… the discount matching the mileage, the smoking gun here… would have probably missed my attention. So likely I would have appreciated that they gave me a lower price than expected… and gone home like the OP.

    However, if they contacted me afterwards, explained the error, it made sense, and I was not going to pay more than the rate I had originally agreed to… I would have no problem paying them back.

    I hope the OP’s intransigence in this case is based on the way they did it, with no explanation of the error (the mileage as discount only came to light here where the franchise owner contacted Chris), and charging the card as opposed to billing the customer and asking for payment. I can understand how a lack of information and control can upset someone.