“Renting a car feels like going into battle”

By | March 30th, 2016

Picking up a rental car should be the least stressful part of your vacation. And for some elite-level customers, it is. The shuttle drops you off; you grab the keys and drive off into the sunset.

But not for everyone. For example, if you don’t belong to Hertz’s “club” you’ll have to stand in a long line and face an even longer upsell pitch.

“Starting a vacation by renting a car feels like going into battle,” says Kate Brewer. “Alas, this was confirmed with my last trip.”

Now, military terminology — using words like “battle” and “war” to describe a difficult situation — is a cop-out in the journalism world. It’s a convenient way to describe a struggle, but it’s a cliché. Unless a car rental agent is returning fire with live ammunition, I would tell any writer to avoid the militaristic metaphors.

Except, maybe, in this case.

I’ve spoken with insiders about the changes at Hertz, and I know that agents are under greater pressure to sell add-ons than perhaps ever before. Maybe they’re not throwing knives or wielding swords, but based on what I’ve heard from some customers, it often feels that way.

Brewer reserved a Hertz vehicle at the West Palm Beach airport recently. When she arrived with a friend, an agent informed both of them that if they wanted to share the driving duties, it would cost an extra $13.50.

Not in total. Per day.

In car rental lingo, it’s referred to as an “additional driver” surcharge and it appears to be a junk fee. There’s no additional cost to the car rental company (at least none that was explained to Brewer), and it can significantly increase the cost of the vehicle. With three people in the party, “this would have raised the rental fee for the week from about $220 to over $400.”

Related story:   Is this the worst week for air travelers since 9/11?

Here’s the interesting part: Car rental companies often waive additional driver fees for married couples. Some states allow the fees, others don’t. They make about as much sense as charging extra if you have kids or if you prefer driving on country roads instead of interstate highways.

Pure. Money. Grab.

“The first agent was not polite, nor willing to waive or discuss this misleading fee,” remembers Brewer. “The supervisor was polite, said this was standard in the industry, and would also not waive the fee.”

Just because it’s standard doesn’t mean it’s right.

Reluctantly, they paid up, only to discover later that as AAA members, they were exempt from the fee. Why are AAA drivers exempt? Who knows? If Hertz is suggesting that somehow AAA members are safer drivers, I’d love to see the statistics on that.

After returning from Florida, Brewer asked Hertz to refund the $250 extra she had to spend on the additional driver fees. Hertz has given her the silent treatment.

I reached out to Hertz for help and it agreed to reduce her bill by $100. But the refund isn’t the important thing. I’m more concerned about the struggle.

Experienced travelers know that they face fees, surcharges and upsells when they get to the counter. But the average traveler, who rents a car maybe once a year, has no inkling of what’s about to happen. They don’t know the difference between “Plus” and “Preferred” when it comes to car rental loyalty programs. Nor should they.

Point is, you shouldn’t have to be an expert or a consumer advocate to successfully rent a car. You shouldn’t have to wage war with an agent to get the price you were quoted. And the skirmish shouldn’t continue long after you’ve returned the keys.

Related story:   Are companies baiting deadbeat customers into new purchases?

Or, put differently, there has to be a better way of earning an honest living from renting cars than by adding preposterous surcharges and fees to the cost of your car.

Should "additional driver" fees be legal?

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