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.
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Oh no, Budget had second thoughts about my discount

Maria Scaldina/Shutterstock
Maria Scaldina/Shutterstock
Question: I’d like to share my recent Budget Car Rental experience with you that has me committed to never doing business with them again.

A couple weeks ago I received a voicemail saying the Budget at the Kansas City airport would be charging me an extra $104 because an “internal audit” found they gave me too much of a discount. My receipt shows the $85 discount, which seemed right since there was an advertised discount.

So, they billed my credit card without my authorization, and then added in all the additional taxes and fees to bring the amount up to $104. I called Budget corporate and the franchise, but nobody would help fix the issue, even though I had a receipt to prove we “agreed” on the lesser amount.
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Could the Canadian car rental scandal spread?

broadSomething about the $667 repair bill that Enterprise Rent-a-Car recently sent Jerry Bitting looked suspicious to him.

For starters, the car didn’t appear to be the one that Bitting, an account executive for a federal agency in Washington, had rented. The dates when the damage occured didn’t match the dates on which he’d driven the Mazda 3. The pictures were taken weeks after he’d returned the car. And questions to Enterprise’s damage recovery unit, asking for an explanation of the inconsistencies, were met with silence.

“I told them that the damages were not there when I picked up the car or dropped it off,” Bitting says.
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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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