Fighting companies that fudge the numbers

By | September 6th, 2009

How long is a day?

It’s however long your car rental company wants it to be.

That’s what Peter DeForest, a risk management consultant from San Francisco, discovered when he picked up a car from Hertz in Austin recently. A flight delay had made him three hours late to the rental counter. He asked if the agency could adjust his rate.

“They said the charges couldn’t be refunded for any reason,” he says. “So Hertz has a 21-hour day.”

Sorta. A look at its rental terms, which DeForest agreed to when he booked the car, confirms it: There are no refunds for unused days, or for that matter, hours, on prepaid vehicles. A Hertz spokeswoman told me as a matter of policy, cars are rented by the day. DeForest could have brought the car back after only an hour, but he still would have paid for a day.

Hertz is hardly alone. Across the travel industry, companies are adopting clever definitions of everything from “day” to “year” — all with the apparent intent of keeping your money, or just bringing in a little more. No surprise that they’re doing it now, when travel spending is circling the drain. But it’s a little unsettling to their customers that they’re doing it with practically no disclosure.

Take what happened to Ronald Di Costanzo, a retired college professor from Santa Monica, Calif. When he canceled a United Airlines flight a few months ago, a representative told him he had “one year” to rebook the ticket and use the credit. But when he phoned the airline a few months later to reuse his credit, an employee told him his credit had expired.

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“I am sure I didn’t talk with the entire Indian subcontinent, but I came close,” he told me. “First, I asked for a supervisor; next, I was asked if I wanted a supervisor; third, I was passed off automatically to another supervisor. All said the same thing, although in increasingly dogmatic terms.”

United offered him a $25 coupon for the trouble, but kept the $392 credit.

Want me to go on? I could tell you the story of Larry Thompson, who lost his ticket credit on American Airlines after one year was abbreviated to nine months. But I’ll spare you.

How do you stay safe from these time bandits?

No guessing games
It used to be a given that a hotel’s check-out time was at noon and that you had a year from the time you canceled your flight to rebook your ticket. And even when it wasn’t, you could usually talk your hotel or airline into letting it slide. Not anymore. Hotels are moving their mandatory checkout times to 11 a.m. (and even earlier) while airlines are strictly enforcing the one-year-from-the-date-of-the-booking rule, when it comes to credit. My point is, you can’t guess what the rules are based on past experiences. In fact, you can check into a hotel at 6 p.m., but if you stay past noon the next day, you could face a late checkout charge or, in extreme cases, have to pay for another day. Ditto for airlines. You have one year from the day you bought the ticket, not the day you were supposed to fly.

  • Tom_Blackwell

    It would be interesting to see the records of lawsuits in small claims courts about the kind of disputes discussed here. I have no doubt there is misleading conduct by those who have accepted compensation