Is that a light at the end of the tunnel?

lightGood news, fellow travelers: The worst of the travel downturn may be over.

If nothing else, there’s some evidence that the dark days of customer service are history.

Our friends over at AAA released their end-of-year forecast yesterday. It predicted 87.7 million Americans will be traveling 50 miles or more away from home during the year-end holidays — up 3.8 percent from a year ago. That’s the largest projected increase for any major holiday this year.
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“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.