Sounds like a scam: Budget Ireland bills me for a new clutch, but I only drove a few clicks

Renting a car in Europe can take some getting used to for the average American visitor. The vehicles are smaller. Gas is more expensive. And most of the cars have manual transmissions.

And Americans, who are accustomed to driving automatic-transmission vehicles, are notorious for burning out clutches. It’s gotten to the point where any transmission problems are blamed on operator error — whether it’s true or not.

But when Ashley Pallotta contacted me back in 2009 with her burned-out transmission story from Ireland, it sounded like a possible scam.
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Can this trip be saved? Budget wants $8,381 for a four-day rental

I‘ve seen high car rental bills, but the one Fareeda Elqatto just got from Budget is in a class by itself.

She rented a Chevy Cobalt for four days in Akron, Ohio, and when the car broke down because of an engine problem caused by a filter leak, the car rental company asked her to buy a new engine. Elqatto hadn’t purchased car rental insurance from Budget, so in the company’s view, either she — or her car insurance company — was on the hook.

But is that fair? Elqatto says Budget is to blame for giving her a car with a mechanical defect.

“They are trying to say the filter leak was my fault, which is completely false,” she says. “I drove that car with much care and trusted that it was given to me in good condition.”

I know next to nothing about cars, which is one reason I’m asking for your help with this case. The driver had the car for only a few days before it stopped working. Can a negligent driver cause a filter leak, and should Elqatto be held responsible for what happened? Or was this a “pre-existing” condition, which Budget should cover?

The other reason I’m writing about this problem is to warn you: Car rental companies are pursuing their customers for every ding, dent, scratch — and blown-up engine. You are guilty until proven innocent. Although this may be an extreme example, you need to protect yourself when you rent a car by carrying reliable primary insurance, otherwise you could be sent a bill for eight grande.
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Attention, bargain-hunters! “Opaque” doesn’t necessarily mean “cheapest”

One of the most frequently-repeated pieces of advice for bargain-hunters is that you’ll always find a deal on one of the so-called “opaque” travel websites, like Hotwire or Priceline.

The companies routinely offer discounts of up to 50 percent off the published fare or rate, but there’s a tradeoff: You don’t find out the name of the airline, car rental company or hotel until after the purchase. And the transaction is completely non-refundable.

So when Raymond Rios went looking for a rental car on Hotwire, he was surprised when the price fell far short of his expectations.

Rios started his search on Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, to get an idea of what a rental would cost in West Palm Beach. Then he went to Hotwire and found what he believed to be the best price — $87 through Budget. He paid for it.
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“The pictures clearly show ashes. We will not be able to remove the charge.”

Two weeks after Mary Garrow rented a car from Budget Rent a Car in Tulsa, she got an unpleasant surprise: A $250 cleaning charge for her vehicle. Budget claimed someone had been smoking in the car.

Garrow doesn’t smoke. She’d been in Tulsa for a funeral, which explains the presence of the ashes on the seat, and she believes the charges are unfair.

Budget sent her photos of the car (see above) but Garrow isn’t buying it. I’d like your opinion on this case, because frankly, I don’t know what to think.
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My car rental rate doubled — should I split the difference with Hotwire?

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?
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Bogus car rental damage claim? Cancel your credit card, change your email address

Here’s a novel idea for eluding a bogus car rental damage claim while you’re overseas: cancel your credit card and change your email address. That advice comes to us by way of reader William Muto, who used the strategy to fend off a fraudulent claim in Frankfurt recently.

Car rental companies and other merchants can retroactively bill your credit card, and often do. The best example of that is late charges that hotels add to your bill weeks, and sometimes months after your stay. Of course, car rental companies do it, too.
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Billed an extra day by Budget

Question: I rented a car recently from Budget in Lansing, Mich., and came across something that looks like a scam.

Here’s how it works: An employee tells you to just return the keys and paperwork in the off-hours return box. Then, when they get around to processing it, they say you returned it at a later time, and charge you extra.

Pretty elegant way to earn another day on a rental, no?

It happened to me, and to add insult to injury, I still haven’t gotten the receipt they were supposed to mail to my home address.

I wrote the time I returned the car — just before 4 p.m. — on the paperwork. I turned it in with the keys and now they don’t seem to be able to check what I wrote in the paperwork. Or maybe they lost it. Or maybe they don’t believe me.

I have my gas receipts with time stamp and an email with time stamp that I wrote to my wife after passing through security at Lansing airport to try to stand by on an earlier flight.

What should I do? — Eric Johnson, Boise, ID

Answer: Budget shouldn’t have charged you for an extra day. But is this a scam? I’m not sure I’d go that far.
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Budget blows damage claim, sends bill to collection agency

Car rental companies are known to unleash collection agencies on their customers, often for no good reason. Don’t believe me? Just pick up a car rental trade magazine to see the full-page ads by companies that handle damage claims, which are just a step removed from a collection agency. Or visit my office, and I’ll share the “collection agency” case file with you. Or read this.

Don’t get me wrong: I think these companies have a place in this world. But not in Dorothy Rice-Lara’s world. She rented a car from Budget recently, and says she was hit by a false damage claim, followed shortly thereafter by an unfriendly note from a collection agency. No amount of begging and pleading with Budget would get it to budge.
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Broadsided by Budget’s $422 car repair bill — what’s next?


Terry Boyle rented a car from Budget in Edinburgh, and when he got home, he found an unpleasant surprise from his car rental company: a $422 repair bill.

Did Boyle scratch up the Passat he’d driven around Scotland? He denies it, insisting a Budget representative had done a pre-rental check, found the scratches, and noted them. (The photo above is not his car.)

On March 6, 2008, we returned the undamaged (by us) vehicle to the airport terminal at 7 a.m. The slot the vehicle was to be left in was occupied. The rental was left in the next parking slot.

No one from Budget was at the kiosk. We went to the Budget counter. The agent was occupied on the telephone. After waiting for some time, we had to leave to catch our flight back to the United States.

While still on the telephone, the agent indicated we did not need anything else and waived us on. We have not receive a final bill explaining the charges.

In retrospect, Boyle probably should have waited for a sign-off and a final bill from Budget. The best time to resolve any problem is while you’re still at the car rental location — not after you’re home.

I asked Budget to review the case. Here’s what it had to say:

During a full post-rental inspection at the location, it became apparent that Mr. Boyle had returned his vehicle with scratches to the drivers side front and rear doors that were not evident during the pre-rental inspection. As per his signed customer rental agreement, Mr. Boyle was therefore liable for the cost of the repair.

The total charge of US $1,374 to Mr. Boyle’s credit card included the cost of the actual rental as well as the necessary repairs (GBP £274.47 – approx. US $422.)

We have thoroughly examined Mr. Boyle’s case but found our decision to charge him to be entirely correct.

On return of any rental vehicle, we highly recommended that all customers allow enough time to be present for a post-rental vehicle inspection by a Budget representative. This ensures that any issues can be immediately highlighted whilst the customer is present.

So Budget is not budging. What are Boyle’s options?

1. Pay up. He can pay the credit card bill and Budget wins.

2. File an insurance claim. Boyle can file a claim with his auto insurance or credit card, but chances are, he’ll still have to pay $422. These claims are typically just under the deductible to avoid getting an insurance company involved.

3. Initiate a credit card dispute. If Budget’s documentation is inadequate, his credit card company might side with him and reverse the charges. But it’s a long shot, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the rental happened in Europe. Banks often frown on long-distance disputes.

My opinion? I don’t like any of these choices. A car rental repair bill that comes just shy of the typical insurance deductible is highly suspect, and if I had the resources, I would hire an attorney in the U.K. and get to the bottom of this. But it would almost certainly cost more than the bill.

“She saved our vacation”

Here are two recent stories of car rental employees going the extra mile for their customers. I’m sharing them with you for two reasons: First, because car rental employees rarely get any recognition for a job well done; and second, because I just filed a column that’s critical of certain car rental franchises. Maybe I’m feeling a little guilty.

Jim Lockard recently rented a car from Hertz in Pittsburgh through Hotwire.

When I got to the car, the fuel gauge was somewhat below full, but I didn’t give it a lot of thought. Some gauges don’t move up as well as they should, some don’t move up quickly. In short, I didn’t say anything.

When I came to fill the tank before returning the car, the amount of fuel required showed that a Pontiac G6 got less than 10 miles per gallon. That seemed totally impossible, so I concluded the fuel tank truly was well below full. I mentioned this to the lady who checked the car back in and she said to take my fuel receipt to the counter and explain the issue. There wasn’t time, so I just let it go again.

Under most circumstances, Lockard would have been charged for the full tank. Not this time.

A few days after returning home, I received a customer satisfaction survey in my email about this transaction. In the comments, I indicated that I was disappointed that Hertz gave me a car with less than a full tank of gas. I assumed that was it. However, within about 10 days, Hertz sent me a check that may or may not have really covered the “missing” gas, but regardless, it was a gesture that I will not forget when I next need a rental car. I might even go to them directly, rather than using Hotwire. They handled the situation exactly right in my view and deserve recognition.

His experience is a sharp contrast to other Hertz customers who have complained loudly about some of its fees. But I’ll get to those in a future story. For now, though, let me just say: Good job, Hertz.

It’s not alone. Consider what happened to Shoaib Junaid when he rented a car in Salt Lake City.

I had booked an SUV from Budget. We had four adults and a 14-month-old in our travel group. I called the local rental office and they assured me that all their SUVs are Explorers and Highlanders and that made me very comfortable since I own a Honda Pilot and they are very comparable in size.

When we landed at SLC and checked in with Budget, we were offered some sort of a Ford Taurus station wagon with 2 -2 seating configuration. There was no way four adults and a child seat along with three ski bags and other luggage were going to fit into that vehicle, upon my request they changed it to a Dodge Nitro and that wasn’t enough either.

Budget told him to come back the next day to see if they had any larger vehicles. So he decided to take his chances with another car rental company, Avis. (Both are owned by the same company.)

[A representative] listened to my situation carefully and then found a Nissan Armada for me. This was a huge upgrade from Dodge Nitro and I was expecting to pay a premium price for the SUV.

Sympathetic to our situation, she gave me a great rate on the SUV. You cannot imagine the joy and relief that this act of kindness brought to me and my friends. We were extremely worried about the situation and I was thinking about the vacation getting off to a bad start. We loved our Nissan Armada and had a great time skiing throughout the week. This was our first of hopefully many trips to SLC and it was made memorable by one of your valued employees. It has been almost a month since our vacation ended and we still talk about that day and how she saved our vacation.

I’m sure the next time I have to book a rental car for personal trip, I will definitely be considering Avis.

I’m encouraged by both of these stories. Despite the severe downturn being experienced by the car rental industry, it’s nice to know customer service isn’t dead.

Point taken: how hotels deny your hard-earned awards

Poof! There go your hard-earned points. Employees at budget hotels are using a variety of strategies to deny travelers their rewards, including typing the wrong name in a guest’s reservation or failing to include important frequent-stayer information.

Robert Duval has experienced the point-taken scam twice in the last month.

Both times, the desk clerks checking me in have entered my middle name on the hotel bill without entering my first name. In both cases the desk clerks were taking the information from my driver’s license, which clearly states my full name. In both cases, the desk personnel also failed to enter frequent stayer information into the record.

Interestingly, these incidents happened at hotels owned by different chains.

The first case was at a Travelodge in Amarillo, Tex. Although there was a brochure right next to the counter that said you could sign up for Trip Rewards at the front desk, the desk clerk insisted that you could not — even after being shown the brochure.

The bill was issued without my first name, and Trip Rewards has given me the runaround ever since, to the point that I told them to close the account I had created, and that I would avoid their properties in the future.

When they were informed of this interesting pattern of front desk personnel using middle names to avoid issuing stay points, the customer service supervisor I spoke with got defensive, told me that I could not claim it was pervasive as the other instance was at another chain, and that each property was individually owned and that the owner was responsible for training desk personnel.

The second case took place at an Econolodge property in Bay City, Mich.

Exactly the same situation, except that I am a long-time Choice Rewards member and also gave him my Choice Rewards card at check-in. Again, middle name on the bill and no credit for the stay. I have not yet contacted Choice Rewards, but expect them to be much more interested in sorting this out than Trip Rewards was.

Duval doesn’t think these slip-ups are a coincidence, and wonders who else has had a middle name problem.

Why would a hotel deny guests their reward points? There are several possible explanations. Franchises may shoulder some of the costs of the points, and by making the rewards difficult to get, they may be saving money. Historically, travel companies have too many unredeemed award points and are constantly trying to reduce their liability by offering customers many ways to redeem their awards.

Either way, there’s no good reason for playing name games with guests.

Update (5/2): A Choice Rewards representative contacted me after reading this post. “We have researched this and found that we received the stay without the member number in the stay record and added the points into the account on 4/30,” the representative told me. “We have also contacted the hotel to coach them on proper procedure.”

Half the car, twice the price

Question: My wife and I were overcharged for our rental car when we vacationed in Italy last summer, and we need your help getting a refund.

I had reserved an Opel Astra online through Budget Rent A Car, for a guaranteed rate of $361 a week. But when we arrived in Naples, the staff at the car rental counter told us they had been informed about the reservation, but not the firm price quote. They had also run out of Astras and offered me a Lancia Musa, which is a smaller car.

Their attitude was, “We don’t care about that fixed price confirmation you are showing us. We charge what we charge. Now sign here if you want to get a car.”

Having little real choice, I signed the agreement they put in front of me. But at the first opportunity, I sent Budget an e-mail requesting that they sort out the apparent miscommunication with the Naples office.

Budget acknowledged this e-mail a few days later and promised to get a response from its location in Naples. None ever came.

When we returned to the states, we found that our Visa account had been billed for almost twice the quoted amount – $686. A few weeks later, Budget credited my card for $146, which I assumed was an adjustment for my involuntary downgrade. I’ve written two more letters to Budget over the last six months, with no luck. Is there anything you can do?

Douglas Hawkins, Minneapolis

Answer: Budget should have honored the first price you were offered. And if for some reason the Naples location couldn’t give you the rate to which you had originally agreed, the company should have fixed the misunderstanding by issuing a quick refund. I don’t consider six months of foot-dragging an acceptable response.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated problem. A few weeks ago in this column, I wrote about another European rental in which a motorist had been billed more than 2-1/2 times the original rate after his car rental location ran out of the vehicles he’d reserved (coincidentally, an Opel Astra) and offered him an “upgrade.”

If I were to give Budget the benefit of the doubt, I might note that you made your reservation through Budget, but actually rented at an Avis location. (Budget and Avis are owned by the same parent company, Avis Budget Group.) I might speculate that the Italian location had become confused about currencies – believing, maybe, that it quoted your rate in euros, not dollars.

But I’m not inclined to be so generous. I’ve heard more than enough stories about car rental companies in Europe figuratively – and sometimes literally – tearing up the American contract, doubling the price, and telling travelers they can “take it or leave it.”

If that ever happens to you again, politely ask to speak with a manager. If that fails to clear up the misunderstanding, call the company’s reservations number and explain the situation. If you’ve made the reservation through a travel agent, phone your adviser and ask for help. A good agent will make sure the mix-up is taken care of before you return the vehicle.

If none of those strategies work, you should consider walking away from the car rental counter. You might do better elsewhere.

E-mailing Budget wasn’t a bad idea, but a car rental problem of this nature is best cleared up sooner rather than later, and e-mails can sit in the queue for days or weeks before you’re sent a form response.

I contacted Budget on your behalf. It turns out the extra charges were for insurance, an extra driver, and a quarter tank of gas, according to a representative who contacted you. But no one had bothered to explain those fees or to give you the option of not paying them. Budget refunded you another $239.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day — here’s your cleaning bill!

Here’s a story with more disappointments than the college basketball invitational. Shortly after Mary Van Veen returned her Budget rental in Ireland, she discovered a surprise $174 charge on her credit card. She contacted the car rental agency, which told her “the car was extremely dirty and they had to pay a valet to clean it.”

Did Van Veen trash her vehicle? She says she didn’t.

The car was in normal condition when returned. Not spotless, but certainly not excessively dirty. We emptied all trash prior to returning it. There was no mention of any abnormal conditions when the car was returned.

Van Veen asked for evidence that the mess was her fault. Budget sent her a receipt for a valet cleaning service that was dated several days after she had returned her car. She forwarded a copy of the handwritten invoice to me. It says:

Found interior of car to be very dirty. Both seats and carpets. Wash both seats and carpets. Clean interior.

Van Veen said she didn’t do it, and Budget agreed to cut her bill in half. Which struck me as a strange thing to do. Either she trashed the car, or she didn’t.

I also found the timing of the invoice to be a little odd. Did Budget wait several days to clean the car, and if so, can it be certain that Van Veen was the responsible party?

Van Veen thinks it’s a scam. “In my view, this is a fraudulent practice by Budget designed to take advantage of consumers who are obviously not resident in UK and who do not have the time and resources to fight back,” she told me, adding, “Any advice would be appreciated.”

My view? It’s not a scam. I think Budget probably doesn’t know exactly who messed up the vehicle, only that it needed to be cleaned. It probably made a guess. Why else would it reduce the bill?

I would dispute the full charge on the credit card bill. The invoice is insufficient proof that Van Veen was a messy motorist.